Interview with The Cupboard
To celebrate their first year of publishing, I sent some questions to Adam Peterson and Dave Madden, the masterminds behind The Cupboard (a quarterly pamphlet of creative prose), and they were game to retort.
[interview after the jump]
HTMLGIANT: Maybe let’s start with inception. How did you come up with the idea for The Cupboard?
Dave: I’d started a web-based magazine in Pittsburgh called The New Yinzer, and then realized soon after that I was leaving Pittsburgh for Lincoln. I knew I wanted to try something out in Nebraska, and was interested in the idea of, rather than soliciting readers to come to writing, forcing writing on them. So: a pamphlet. Something handed out on street corners with a kind of urgency, if even a phony one.
Adam: It was a particularly awful idea which I think is why I liked it so much. Oh, an anonymous literary pamphlet handed out like restaurant menus or Chick tracts? Of course! Honestly, short of manufacturing water clocks, I can’t think of a less profitable modern endeavor.
Dave: I don’t remember where the name came from. I use “cabinet,” for the record. Like: “In which cabinet do you keep the demi-tasses?”
Adam: Oh, we forgot the best part of the story. So Dave had this idea, but it would never have gone anywhere if we hadn’t co-written this story. We told ourselves that if we won the one contest we sent it to that we would use the prize money to start The Cupboard. Through some sort of clerical error, we actually won. I remember getting the email and thinking, “Oh, fuck, now I have to actually do Dave’s stupid pamphlet.” And I’d had my eye on a new set of demi-tasses.
HTMLGIANT: The early incarnation of The Cupboard was very different than The Cupboard we have today. In the beginning it was a free, anonymous, pdf pamphlet that you encouraged readers to print off and freely distribute in their communities. Could you talk about that initial model and what factors prompted you to change?
Adam: For as “good” as Dave’s initially idea was, it just didn’t work. Among many problems: writers don’t want to publish anonymously, it took an engineering degree to print your own, and once a month was just too quick a pace. I desperately want to end this answer with the word demi-tasses but I suppose I’ll break the streak.
Dave: But it was the failure of the anonymity thing that was both the biggest no-brainer and the biggest disappointment, I think. Of course writers want credit for the work they do. Of course no one wants to anonymously contribute to an unread, unheard-of publication. But that was the hope, that TCPBRD would become this clandestinely appearing collective pamphlet people would just excitedly want to be a part of. Instead, it became a scramble every month to email the friends of ours we hadn’t already published the previous month. After a year and a half of this I called it quits.
Adam: I’m still not convinced Dave didn’t just start The Cupboard then leave me with it as revenge for something horrible I must have done to him. It was good though because after a month of not doing anything, we more or less began The Cupboard as it exists today (among many other issues, Dave’s not a very good quitter, either). The quarterly chapbook-like pamphlets was a model I’d been pushing for awhile. I think we were so burned by anonymity—which I’m perfectly willing to admit might have been the result of our own failure to articulate a rationale and a vision as editors—that we wanted to go in exactly the opposite direction and really feature one author at a time.
HTMLGIANT: How do you approach the role of Editor(s)? Is it merely a matter of selecting great material, or do you actively engage in editing the work prior to publication?
Dave: Usually it’s just a case of ensuring a piece or a collection of pieces best fits into our admittedly peculiar format—a 4,000-to-8,000-word book. Is this right? I’m not sure I know what active engagement in editing is. We don’t suggest more astute metaphors, for instance. We’ve trimmed stuff, but again more in the service of the format.
Adam: So far I feel like we’ve been very active on some publications (including some forthcoming) and less active on others. Our most active engagement has been with the volumes that have been one long piece of prose. We get short stories we like all the time but just can’t see why they should stand alone as a pamphlet. But so far we’ve gotten a few things that we really want and so work with the authors in shaping them as books. I guess a shorter answer would be that I think there’s a reason why there aren’t a lot of prose chapbooks (or at least prose chapbooks that are all one story or essay). We’d like to chip away at that, of course, but the work still has to justify itself as an individual object, at least for us. One Story has nailed the vaguely disposable aesthetic and quick schedule for a journal that publishes individual pieces. And since god knows we don’t want to compete with them—they’re great and would destroy us—we’ve thus far really been working with the stand-alone pieces to ensure they do something unique.
Dave: This might come up later, but we get a lot of great submissions that we have to turn down because the pieces are not right for TCPBRD. I mean everyone says this, usually as a complaint that submittors don’t read the journals/magazines they submit to. But what I mean is that it takes a certain kind of single, longish piece that can stand on its own as a book. That can work as a distinct designed/laid-out object. (What characterizes such a piece I don’t quite know; Adam’s all kinds of articulate this morning so I’ll leave it to him to explain, or not.) So another job of ours is to try to maintain relationships with submittors who give us great work we can’t use, hoping to find later submissions we can.
HTMLGIANT: How does the division of labor work between the two of you?
Adam: Editorially, I’d say it’s pretty evenly split. Both of us read any submission that’s even remotely a possibility, decide what to publish, and communicate with writers. Mechanically, it’s all about to change because I’m moving to a different city. In the past, I tracked subscriptions, mailed everything, etc. But because our printer is staying behind with Dave, he’s taking over that role. I’m not sure what Dave did before. I look forward to finding out.
Dave: We have this whole Web site that Adam likes to forget about, and because his HTML knowledge ends, I imagine, at the name of this here blog you now write for, Higgs, the sparse amounts of site-updating and -upkeep fall on my shoulders. I guess Adam writes the emails we send out. Or: “writes”. But seriously (folks), it’s mostly a matter of having someone else to check in with. Our tastes in writing and ideas about publishing are almost remarkably in line with each other, but it’s always great to go to Adam and say “I think that I like this, but I don’t quite know why” and for him to go “Well I don’t know but I like it, too.” No decisions get made without the other’s okay, so if anything such shared responsibilities help whatever aesthetic we have to be a little less narrow.
HTMLGIANT: How would you describe the aesthetic of The Cupboard?
Adam: Well, I’m sure the next question will do a better job of answering this, but let me just say that we do really take the ‘Pamphlet’ part of our name seriously. We want to produce volumes that have that spirit, however hard it may be to define. This informs our visual aesthetic too. We started based on pamphlet designs from the French Revolution though this might change soon. We actually have an intern now, the awesome Heather Wilson, who has been working on some new designs that take us in the direction of art done during the French student protests in 1968 (apparently we don’t care what our stuff looks like as long as it’s French). The volumes themselves we work with a couple of different designers and try to go in the direction of the work rather than force our aesthetic on them. I hope we do a good job. Part of featuring one writer is that we can let their work infuse the object which hopefully makes it something they’re proud of and a different publishing experience from, say, placing their work in a typical journal.
Dave: What Adam said. Also Adam’s comment above re: One Story’s “disposable” aesthetic is another good inspiration. From the beginning we’ve tried to make sure the visual package was both alluring and in line with what the piece contained was trying to do.
Adam: One Story just does what they do so well that we have to do something different. To me, they’re more like a story collection that comes every three weeks until eternity, but unless I really connect with the work, I don’t necessarily want to keep it forever. I think that’s the point. I just hope people see our volumes as unique objects and want to keep them around. So, to sum up my position, One Story’s aesthetic: good and well thought out. The Cupboard’s aesthetic: whatever and French.
HTMLGIANT: What interests you when you pick up a manuscript – what turns you off?
Dave: I’m always interested in something I haven’t seen before, whether it be a certain kind of character, a certain setting, a certain approach to language. I tend to be turned off by shocking or daring manuscripts. Manuscripts that would describe themselves has having “big balls” or something. Cojones. Despite all evidence to the contrary I’m turned off by cojones.
Adam: I have never once heard Dave use the word ‘cojones’ before. The world is now a darker place. I think he and I do feel remarkably similarly about writing in the end but that we get there in different ways. So while neither of us is particularly impressed by something that only intends to jar, I think if forced to give a reason we might give different ones. For me, that means only one, not particularly interesting dimension and I want something with complexity, with—for lack of a better word—a soul. I don’t want to speak for Dave, but I imagine he finds that stuff more immediately offensive as a writer while I just find it boring. I don’t think either of us would claim to feel this way all the time as readers, but as guys who only get to publish four things a year and those four things need to stand alone, well, it’s tricky. None of this is to say that we aren’t equally if not more bored/offended by less in-your-face work, too.
Dave: If I get offended by manuscripts that aim solely to shock or disrupt it’s more in terms of my sensibilities than any kind of ethical-political offense. Like that stuff gives me the vapours. And it tends rarely to be genuinely shocking or disruptive.
Adam: I think we gravitate to work that has obviously been given a lot of care by its author. Whether it’s language focused (which we love) or character focused (ditto), I just want something that has been edited and changed and tested until it is as good as it can be. So however experimental, however “daring,” as Dave said, I just want to know that it held the author’s interest because it’s going to have to hold ours for months, you know?
Dave: A perfect example of all this is our current volume. When that story came in it was shocking to me, in that it seemed to have been written specifically for us. Even though of course it hadn’t been. Even though of course it came from this place of love in a person we’d never even heard of before. But it fit so well, and it was getting away with so many things I didn’t think writers could get away with.
HTMLGIANT: Could you say a little bit about what appealed to you about each of the four titles you’ve published this year?
Adam: When we decided to do this new format, we thought about writers we might ask for the first one. I had just read/loved Samedi the Deafness and Dave had read “The Early Deaths of…” in the Paris Review and we just knew he was the guy. And because he’s so gracious and awesome, he said yes to two guys who emailed him out of the blue and in a matter of days had sent us this wonderful collection. He was the first and only person we asked.
Dave: When it came time to follow Ball’s excellent collection, we were at a loss on how to go about it. How much to follow that lead or how much to stray from it? A New Map of America didn’t seem to be the answer at first, but then I started thinking of it less as a manuscript and more as a book. Brubaker’s narrative and textual layers were the trick, I think. There’s this map, and then the mapmaker’s notes on the map, and then the editor’s notes on the mapmaker’s notes. On one level it’s plain-old classic metafiction—a cartographic Pale Fire. But we (or I, at least) were excited about the book-object that came out of it. And, of course, in the story that was buried in all the notes.
Adam: Mathias Svalina was an early and vocal supporter of The Cupboard and we couldn’t help but publish Play when he sent it along. It’s just so good—political and funny and heartbreaking. The only conversation Dave and I had about it was whether or not we wanted to publish someone we knew. In the end, we couldn’t pass it up. So, yes, Mathias is the one person we’ve published who we have met personally. I don’t care. What Mathias and Zach do with Octopus is what made us want to have a press in the first place (and because they did it so well it’s why we never wanted to touch poetry).
Dave: Like I said earlier, Acts of Kindness… wowed us by how closely it seems to veer toward dangerous (i.e. trite or contrived) territory but never, ever does. It has a lot of twee/quirky elements in it. The narrator wears a superhero costume all the time. He sings in a bar called The Unicorn. Jeff Buckley is not only referenced but quoted reverently. But right at the moments in the text where things seem like they’re about to get too precious, Hagel tosses in some absurdity or prosaic detail that saves it. Every time. And the story keeps doing this. And it’s both hilarious and heartbreaking. And so the simple experience of reading it, particularly if you’ve read hundreds and hundreds of short stories, is just such a delight. I still don’t know how she’s done it.
HTMLGIANT: If it were possible to get a manuscript from any living writer, who would you most like to work with/publish?
Dave: I’d have to say Haruki Murakami.
Adam: Dave’s just saying that to be a jerk because he knows that’s who I was going to say. I’ll limit myself to writers who aren’t just alive but also in or near their prime (sorry Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Dave Madden) and say Colson Whitehead, David Mitchell, Kelly Link, Lydia Davis, and, story writing fave and generally the nicest guy on the planet, Kevin Wilson.
Dave: I also knew he was going to say K. Wilson, on whom he’s got a total man-crush right now. But then again, who wouldn’t?. My other asshole-y approach to answering this question is to say Some Writer I’ve Never Heard of Yet But Whom I Will Probably Love. I know it’s a cop-out answer, but it ties in to our single-author goal for TCPBRD. There are always new writers out there, and it’s easier to get exposed to their work when it appears in between other known writers in journals. Buying a work from a writer you’ve never heard of is a risk—albeit a small one compared to, say, Xtreme sports. And that’s why we’re just $5. We try to make it easy to take that risk.
Adam: It’s true, I’m a little bit in love with Kevin Wilson. If you haven’t read his Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, well, I don’t know what to tell you. Do it.
HTMLGIANT: I know you’re both involved in academia (as grad students, teachers, researchers, etc.). In what ways do you feel like being part of academia influences, affects, or informs The Cupboard?
Adam: Well, I really haven’t been in school one day since we started The Cupboard, so I’ll let Dave handle this one.
Dave: I’m about to start my fifth year as a PhD student, my sixth year as a graduate teaching assistant, my seventh year as a reader for an age-old literary journal. I don’t know what those have to do with TCPBRD, exactly, though working for so long on a college-based journal and reading other college- and non-college-based journals for these past few years have I guess given me (us, really, Adam read for it, too) an idea of what’s already out there. What we’d need to do to bring some new service to the world of small-magazine publishing. But in terms of the environment of academia? I’m really happy here, but I think I can speak for both of us when I say that TCPBRD responds more to or engages more in that tradition of home-grown, independent journals than, say, university publishing.
HTMLGIANT: I know you’re also both writers. In what ways do you feel like being writers influences, effects, or informs the Cupboard?
Dave: Here’s a story: independently of each other, with a couple years in between, Adam and I sent stories to the same journal, and were lucky enough to get accepted. Both of us got our manuscripts back in the proof stage with dozens and dozens of commas inserted everywhere in our sentences. Who knows whether it was from the same editor. But like everywhere William Strunk Jr. would’ve put a comma in, a comma was put in. And it was a bizarre experience, both times. And so we had to turn around and take all those extra commas out and look like self-important assholes, but, you know, we’ve read usage manuals, too, okay? I think being a writer myself it’s pretty easy to tell when another writer has thought about and settled on certain choices and when she or he has just been accidentally neglectful, the way we all sometimes are.
Adam: Agreed, but it goes beyond that for me. I think the entire genesis of The “New” Cupboard was at least partially due to the fact it was something I wish existed because I would submit to it. I write a lot of short stuff and was producing these prose chapbook manuscripts that really couldn’t find homes unless I arbitrarily called it prose poetry. So The Cupboard, I hope, fills that niche for some writers even if not for the two of us. Unfortunately, someone else could probably have done it better, but now we’ve ruined the idea for all time.
HTMLGIANT: How would you assess the first year of the new version of The Cupboard? What do feel like you did right/what are you most proud of? On the flipside, what mistakes did you make/what do you want to work on next year?
Adam: Oh, god, among many other problems to make right: we need to treat our graphic designers better, we need to more clearly state what we’re after in our submission guidelines, we need to get something else going because our blog is embarrassing, and we need to find a way to keep subscriptions up (and hopefully growing) so that our authors really get their work out there. So there have been issues. But it’s been an okay year, I think. I’m proud of every volume we’ve done. We’ve taken some chances with some of the volumes where we’ve had to say, “Well, we could take this great piece that could get published a lot of places and it will be fine or we could try to make this other, odder piece work because it’s not going to find a home elsewhere.” It’s not always easy to do that, to work.
Dave: Ditto, ditto, ditto. It’s taken us a year (at least) to figure out how to best put these things together that they get released on a regular schedule and don’t cost us more than they need to. As crass as it sounds, I’m glad we took a hiatus from accepting submissions. It’s never a cool thing to do, and I always appreciate places that read year-round. But we can only publish four things a year, which is a very small number of things. Our reading period opens again in September, and I think limiting the times we accept manuscripts will make it easier for us to operate in a editorial mode and then switch to a publishing mode. Trying to both at once has led to each half faltering. This is why, I guess, the real guys split their editorial and publishing departments. Not The Cupboard!
HTMLGIANT: Where do you see The Cupboard in five years?
Dave: At a job interview? Truthfully, I can’t see five years into my own future much less TCPBRD’s. In the future I’d like for us to: increase submissions, pay our writers, find an audience in bookstores, earn someone a Pushcart Prize, establish some kind of enjoyable online presence that gives people things to read/do/hear more than once every quarter. If in five years we’re doing all that stuff I’ll have no regrets.
Adam: I would love to pay our authors and it’s conceivable that we could do so at some point soon. But our initial subscriptions are all coming up, so we’ll see what happens. We’ve got incredible stuff in the next year from Michael Stewart, Joshua Cohen, and Amanda Goldblatt so they should bring people around. Hopefully in five years The Cupboard becomes so irresistible as a venue that Dave is constantly rejecting submissions from one Alan Patterson, presumably because this Alan Patterson, whoever he is, only writes Twilight fan fiction.
HTMLGIANT: Do you have any advice for anyone out there who might be contemplating the idea of starting their own publication?
Adam: Do it. Find what you wish you were reading more of and then publish it.
Dave: That’s pretty much exactly what I was going to say, but given the sort of contrived way we went about handling the answering of these questions over email it turned out that Adam was able to get his answer in first. Clever goose. I imagine he was one of those masters of Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Moe as a kid, knowing every time how to start pointing such that he’d end up, like, getting to be Michelangelo in his friends’ TMNT make-believe activity or something.
[The best way to enjoy The Cupboard Pamphlet is to get each volume delivered to your home every thirteen weeks. Subscriptions cost $15 for one year (4 volumes). International subscriptions are $20.]