Giant–and I do mean GIANT–Interview with Ronnie Scott, editor of The Lifted Brow

Posted by @ 11:35 am on January 22nd, 2010

So as part of “Night of the Week of the Lifted Brow” Week here, I asked Lifted Brow editor Ronnie Scott a handful of questions about editing his magazine, about the Australian publishing scene, and about his own work as a writer. What he returned to me, less than a day later, is such an embarrassment of riches that I hardly know what to do–other than publish it, obviously.  Also, in case you missed them, earlier this week we ran excerpts from TLB 6– “Little Cayman” by Christine Schutt, and “Nicaragua” by Deb Olin Unferth and Clancy Martin.

Tell me about how The Lifted Brow got started. What was your inspiration? And related, I guess, what are your goals?

Sure! The Brow started in Brisbane, which is a different place from Melbourne, which is the publishing centre of Australia and also where I live now. A bunch of my friends and I were undergrads in writing and we already did this sort of fun publishy stuff. The teachers at our school were great at making writing fun and “interactive”; one night this one teacher would be holding back my hair while I vomited under my house; the next day I would show up for a class she was meant to teach and she wouldn’t. So, uncomfortable and irresponsible and involving and fun. There was nothing else in Brisbane at the time, so we did well very quickly. Because Brisbane is kind of small, the writing scenes from different schools, the comics scene, the art scenes, the zine scene, the noise kids – all of it is actually the one set of people, so we were able to put on shows that had live art, bands, and maybe a bunch of readings thrown in, and everybody knew what was going on, and they liked it. We were publishing our friends almost totally. Tao Lin was our first international, with a short story that was eventually published as a long poem in Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy.

What’s the Australian literary scene and/or market like? I know your magazine, and I know the house Falcon Vs. Monkey Falcon Wins, plus that magazine they do, Torpedo. But I’m sure there must be more out there, so I’d love to hear about it. Is there a prevailing aesthetic or trend in contemporary Australian fiction? Is there an independent publishing infrastructure, in print or on the web?

This is going to feel like I’m pissing on what is a healthy independent literary scene, but actually I’m trying to contextualise my goals for you, and these are hard ideas to explain – I’m worried they will come across more negatively than I mean them. But a lot of the Australian headspace has to do with this “Fair go, mate!” idea: a prevailing sense of blanket fairness that is actually nuanced and uneven. And the situation with a lot of magazines seems to be informed by this nuanced and uneven idea.

Australian “independent” publishing is actually a grant culture. A lot of Americans would love to live in a country where the government pumps money into literature. But in fact it’s damaging, because magazines have less of an incentive to sell copies to readers, which to my mind involves publishing electrifying writing of one type or another – whether that’s writing that’s challenging, or writing that’s popular. In our grant culture, a lot of boring magazines are able float around in a half-life – no actual readers – for decades. And once these things get started, most are edited by committee, so you get this blanding-out of content; competent stories get through, and nobody has any incentive to write idiosyncratic work, because it doesn’t appeal to everybody and it probably won’t get published.
So first idea, you have this grant culture where the problem is even embedded in the text of the applications: they want to see that you’re providing a space for young Australian voices. So it’s about young writers, not young readers – which is what you’d think the writers might want anyway. And then second idea, these editorial committees are made up of groups of writers, who automatically have other writers, rather than readers, in mind. Or if they think of the reader, they think of the reader as some kind of LCD person. Lowest-common-denominator person, not James Murphy person-of-excellence. So in general, a generous and ostensibly great space is made within which writers can be published, and not a whole lot of space is dedicated to readers. So lots of these things don’t sell to anyone.
Like I said, though, we have a healthy independent publishing scene, and even a healthy “independent” publishing scene beyond that, and there are tonnes of exceptions, which I’ll talk about shortly. But as to how it informs my goals: In my experience, the great magazines have an aesthetic, which is usually directed by one or two people: my favourite of the examples I can think of is Torpedo, but I know Chris too well/like Chris too much to be able to say objectively what his aesthetic is, or actually to figure out if it’s as apparent to people who don’t know him. My goal is to make my magazine’s aesthetic a lot more focused than it is.
We’ve just produced these lavish $25 issues, and whatever, they are great, but they also take us further and further from our original aesthetic, where we’d put on a fun party and give a copy of the magazine to everybody who came through the door. $25 automatically chops out all these rad people who like to read but who would NEVER pick up a lit journal. But we have just done a ridiculously broad callout to pretty much every writing teacher in Australia, specifically trying to convey that we are looking for weird, smart, fun, hilarious, distressing work – and this is tough to convey without sounding like you want some Bret Easton Ellis rip-job, but it has somehow worked. So we’re going to do our first deliberately all-Australian issue this year, and it will be called The Lifted Brow Poor People Magazine, because it’ll be cheap enough that we can give it out to lots of, for instance, writing teachers, with the idea that hopefully their students will see what is possible to get published and paid-for in Australia. Making it cheaper to produce also means that we can pay these writers better than we usually do.
I am sort of nutting out this plan by writing it, so something of this might potentially change before April. But actually, weirdly, I would love to see this issue reviewed by, first, The Age – which is the newspaper in Australia that has a good books section – and second, by something like HTML Giant, because the reactions from the two venues would be entirely different. My suspicion is that HTML Giant would be a bit like, “Huh. Solid issue, but whatever, The Lifted Brow.” Because you guys come from a culture that can produce a book like Userlands, which would genuinely excite eighteen-year-olds about reading but which would never, never happen here. And who knows what The Age would think.
That said, though: prevailing aesthetics and trends. I am starting to see fewer submissions with copious footnotes and sentences that start “And so but like”, which is what I wrote when I was an undergrad, and more submissions with lots of scarequotes and loose usage of the adverb “existentially”. It’s so, so, so cool and weird and fun to get a short story set in Brisbane that is  obviously based in fact/experience – that’s about drinking in the same car parks as I drank in when I was younger – but looking like it could’ve been basically written by Tao Lin. And wtf, he doesn’t even have a publisher out here.

Anyway, I was right: I feel like I just pissed on people, even though I don’t have any one magazine specifically in mind. I’m pretty much “live and let live” about all this. But I’m just excited that we’re about to publish these virtuoso kids who are all, like, 20 and whom I know other editors will barely look twice at, but whom I know will excite a lot of readers and, yup, writers also. And I’m looking forward to pushing this issue on lots of people really hard.

There are heaps of editors doing good things here. Since we left Brisbane, this poster-format magazine called Small Room has sprung up there and is on my friends’ bedroom walls in Melbourne. TEXT is the book-publisher that is doing consistently great things, things which seemed unimaginable from big publishing when they first started out. They’ve just bought or published first books from Brow contributors like Krissy Kneen and Christopher Currie, and I know an editor there who is totally ravenous for manuscripts by new writers all the time; she is constantly doing these back-door callouts through friends of friends of friends. Meanwhile, they publish Kate Grenville, the Australian who wins all the Bookers, and as well they are the Australian publisher for Barack Obama. This editor has also tried at different times to work out viable ways to do Joe Meno and Tao Lin out here. And they’ve just bought a mostly essay-based literary journal, the Griffith Review, which pays well and seems to be the only big journal in Australia that is taking – not risks, but making informed decisions that correctly, optimistically, estimate the adaptabilities and general capacities of mainstreamish Australian readers. Nobody seems to get this, but people like to read.

Do you have a favorite piece from this issue?

Yes! It’s one that I liked when I was sent it, and liked when I was editing it, but which I now am tempted to put a Post-It note on so that everybody knows to read it first. It’s “The Visa Application Process” by Sean Casey, which is his story for Armenia. I often get in trouble when I try to say why I like or dislike a story because I never do it right, when that is just a pretty basic quality that an editor should have. But it’s this ridiculous story played with the straightest face ever; cold; and somehow beneath this there is this heartfelt storm just going on. It’s funny. It demonstrates what I’d like people to send us more of. I ended up proofreading those pages, and I tripped over a couple of parts because in my head, I was still reading them as though bits that I’d cut out were still in there. So I snuck those couple sentences back in because my edits had been wrong.

Also, we had only done one big, ambitious, overseas-y issue before this new one, so having repeat business in the Atlas from Caren Beilin, Rick Moody, Hannah Marcus, Ben Greenman, No Kids, Fewn, Michael Hearst, BigStrongBrute, Clancy Martin and Deb Olin Unferth, Matt LeMay, Krissy Kneen, Manuel Gonzales, Adam Golaski, Luise Toma, Tom Guerney, Josie Rowe, Jez Burrows, Chris Somerville, Ganache, Ben Law, Mandy Ord, Chris Eaton, n a bourke, Leesa Wockner, Chris Currie, Brian Evenson, and, again, Sean Casey – that kind of breaks my heart. Because it’s really nice that these punching-above-my-weight people have liked working with us, have done so twice, and that I didn’t just somehow trick them the first time.

Who are a few Australian authors that it’s a crying shame Americans have never heard of?

Everybody should be reading Christos Tsiolkas (Dead Europe – novel), Robert Drewe (The Bodysurfers – stories), and Chloe Hooper (The Tall Man – reporting). The youngest writer who doesn’t have a book out who kills me is Bryce Wolfgang Joiner. He is pretty much this storm of talent that has spent the last few years just slowly zeroing in on how best to convey itself, and every story I read by him, I just think, “Ugh. You can do that too? Whatever Bryce.” I hope I get to publish him forever. The Big Issue, which is one of Australia’s higher-profile magazines, published an issue last year which was devoted entirely to an essay by Anna Krien about the Tasmanian logging industry. It’s not really-really the same, but imagine if Harper’s let one writer take up every page of an issue because the article was that important. She’s currently killing herself to get her book out this year, which I think will just be a zillion times more important again.

You publish music and art as well as fiction and nonfiction. How do you see these various mediums interacting with one another, or relating to the larger project of TLB?

Well, we’re launching our Atlas in Melbourne tonight, and to my mind, that issue takes the form right now of a $6,000 hole in my credit card. So as an “editor” in the most responsible sense of the word, the issues that have music in them sell twice as many as those that don’t. They’re also a perpetual publicity machine in a way that writing can’t be. But most of the time, we do art and music because I love art and music just as much as I love writing. Our readers do too a lot of the time. This one editor I know is convinced that indie publishing can learn a lot about branding from indie music. But who the hell knows, really.

I think a lot of people are amazed (and they should be) by the quality of TLB. You’re a relatively young, indie journal, yet you’re attracting all these major writers– Bissell, Coupland, Larsen; folks that an average indie editor might have trouble getting a hold of, or else might assume was out of their league. A lot of our readers work now or have worked in the past on literary magazines at some point, or else they are aspiring toward this kind of work, so maybe you could speak a bit, with them in mind, about how you put your issues together–approaching writers, or entities such as the DFW estate, editing “Name writers,” etc. Shop talk, basically.

The key is probably just “assume was out of their league”. In every case, it’s just involved writing someone or other a nice letter. Of course the people I publish are totally out of my league. But the worst thing that can possibly happen is Harlan Ellison calls your mobile phone out of the blue one afternoon to tell you that you can’t afford him. I was shaking for an hour, but I haven’t washed my ear since that happened.

I mean, we do have a couple of things going for us that at first seem stupid and basic but that are actually concretely advantageous. The first issue we did that attracted bigger writers and bands was the Fake Bookshelf. I have a Fake Bookshelf that the writer Michaela McGuire found – long story, but there are 103 titles on it, hokey shit like Marsh Blood, Portrait of Maud, The Man Who Tamed Mallory. A lot of the writers just liked the look of that huge list of titles that they could base a story on. Somebody like Heidi Julavits opens my letter because she thinks some jerkhole is writing The Believer to ask her if she’s had a facelift (the subject line is “Heidi Julavits/The Lifted Brow”). But she stays for the theme, which she says to me explicitly, and that this comes from somebody who is sick of crappy themes. Good themes help.

Also, I don’t know how exotic you think Australia is, but maybe people just like being invited to write a story for an Australian magazine. Especially somebody like Tom Bissell, who would seem really famous to people who read this website but who doesn’t have a publisher out here. The other thing is that Tom Bissell gave us a 10,000 word chapter from his Rome book, which he’d said was basically unexcerptable. But I can publish whatever I want and just have narrow margins if I need to. So I said “Whatever Tom Bissell, just send us a really long thing, I’m sick of all your fears”. And the best part is, we still pay $1 a word, so Tom Bissell gets $10,000. Not really. I don’t think we’ve even paid Tom Bissell yet, because we’ve only just recalled that issue from the distributors and they haven’t told us the sales figures.

I did an interview with an Australian magazine yesterday, and it feels weird typing the same thing again, so here is the bit about David Foster Wallace. I have a David Foster Wallace story “for one freak reason: His agent, Bonnie Nadell, is just crazily kind. David Foster Wallace is the person who has changed the way I read, write, think, and even feel more than anybody else in the world, aside from human people that I actually know. I said so in a letter, and after not very long, I had this thing just in my inbox, complete with, like, one typo. I came up with a lot of stupid titles for this story because I was shit-nervous and am generally confused, and then Bonnie Nadell, again crazily kind, picked the best one out of those. And that is why it’s called A NEW EXAMINER, and not EVENTUAL PROTOCOLS FOR BUGS.”

Editing name-writers is pretty much the same as editing non-name writers, but sometimes better. The Fake Bookshelf issue was this stupid baptism-by-fire where I had 70 stories to edit, most of them by my heroes, and I had just never edited half that number of manuscripts before in my whole life. I will never be able to think about that issue, for example, without remembering that Brian Evenson had to pick up a misspelling of “fuchsia” in his manuscript after I’d done my pass. Actually, two misspellings. I also butchered this story by Joanna Scott and she actually just pulled it. But obviously, given the chance of learning the cool way, which happens to be hard, or else sort of defaulting, chickening out… I can’t understand going for the latter. And what I’ve found is that the better-known writers are never passive-aggressive about editing. They generally like tinkering invasively with their work as much as I do. The difference is that with a beginning writer, I might be more likely to identify the solution as well as the problem. Whereas with Robert Olen Butler or whoever, the editor’s role is more often just identifying that a problem exists. I’m generalising hugely.

Are you a writer yourself? What are you working on now?

Writing is supposedly the main thing that I do. I’m a third of the way through my PhD at the University of Melbourne, which is 50,000 words of novel and 50,000 words of essay across three whole years. No classes; just fortnightly meetings with my supervisor, who is a pedagogical genius, and who is also plain old rad, like she’s adapting “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” by DFW as a comic in her spare time. I don’t know how MFA programs work in America, exactly, but here it all happens under what seems like a newish idea called “practice-led research”; your essay isn’t meant to be an exegesis on your fiction, exactly, but rather they are both meant to undertake to answer one research question. Your fiction becomes your methodology. So, my thesis is about space and time and how they work in text; specifically, how meaning can in some sense be fixed when it bounces between two instances of itself in linked lengths of text – like between two chapters in a novel. Because I’m figuring this out spatially, I’m using comics to demonstrate how readers comprehend time and space on the page, and then my fiction translates these ideas into text. It’s kind of structural and not really close analysis, and that way, I think you avoid writing fiction that feels too thesis-y. The topic-topic of my fiction has really nothing to do with my essay, and so it still gets to feel intuitive and fun. It’s not about a young postgraduate named Bronnie who has sexy adventures across literary space. It’s basically just Jurassic Park meets LOST.

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