McSweeney’s Considers Itself

By
Photography Thea Goldberg

Published December 20, 2013

ABOVE: JORDAN BASS. PHOTO BY THEA GOLDBERG

The literary journal is the sincerest document in the history of publishing. Those who create and continue them do so under the profound conviction that great fiction is still being written and there is a readership hungry for those stories. It’s a miraculous leap of faith; every generation is told that fiction is dying, that writers are moving on to screenplays or directing or YouTube or newer, more excitable forms of communication.

But fiction is not dying, and it never was: it persists with a healthy heartbeat, largely thanks to those editors who call up a writer across the country to see if she has anything she’s working on or the interns slitting open the submission envelopes, looking for a glimpse of gold. For my generation, that journal of boisterous choice has been Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, a magazine so fresh and willful, so experimental and fast and unwilling to sit quietly in its binding, each edition arrives like a literary ornament threatening to tip the tree over with its ambition. Writer Dave Eggers started the publication in 1998 in his kitchen, and in its 15 years it has published magnificent, hilarious thrills by David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Zadie Smith, Wells Tower, Philipp Meyer, Steven Millhauser, Andrew Sean Greer, Sheila Heti, and Lydia Davis and proved a launching pad for several dozen unknown writers who got a chance to march in the parade.

This month, McSweeney’s—by now a San Francisco empire that includes magazines, a radio show, a DVD of films, and multiple imprints—is releasing The Best of McSweeney’s, a compilation of memorable pieces (comics, reader letters, pantoums, 20-minute stories, essays, a dictionary) that feels like a feeding frenzy at a super-elegant buffet. Eggers worked on the collection with Jordan Bass, the 30-year-old editor of Quarterly Concern, who started as an intern and began full-time in 2005. I had lunch with him while he was in New York this month to find out how McSweeney’s continues to tick some 45 issues into the experiment. I can’t remember what either of us wore, but I had a coffee and a tomato juice and Jordan ordered a beer.

CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN: I have chronic insomnia, and I’m usually awake at three in the morning reading odd news stories on my phone. Last night I read an article about the recent string of young men who have gone missing in San Francisco.

JORDAN BASS: That happens every so often in San Francisco. People occasionally have schizophrenic breakdowns. Were they locals or tourists?

BOLLEN: They were mostly tourists. Jordan, what happened to them? Why does San Francisco do this to people?

BASS: I don’t know. Maybe it’s that you’ve hit the ocean, you’ve gone as far as you can and there’s nowhere else to go but inside your own mind somewhere.

BOLLEN: The reporter was trying to push the possibility of a serial killer. She said that most of the men disappeared within a six-mile radius of each other. But one of the commentators pointed out that all of San Francisco fits in a seven-mile radius, so anyone who disappears is going to likely be in that range. How long have you been in San Francisco?

BASS: I was born in the East Bay, pretty close to San Francisco. Then I went east for college and came back in 2005. I started working at McSweeney’s right out of school. I had an internship there the summer before and really liked it—there were so many different things happening. I wanted to go back there no matter what, and then I got lucky because they were looking for someone at that moment.

BOLLEN: Thanks partly to McSweeney’s, San Francisco has developed such a literary scene all its own.

BASS: I think it’s in a pretty good place right now. I mean it’s much, much smaller than New York. And our McSweeney’s community has been writers from all over the place. We were emailing writers in New York and Montana, wherever. But over the years a good gang of writers has come to San Francisco—and a lot of younger writers who host event and reading series. You’ve got Zoetrope and Mother Jones and The Rumpus folks.

BOLLEN: Do you think McSweeney’s is the center of the San Francisco writing universe? Is it like the sun? Or its own planet?

BASS: Hmm, what’s the best celestial metaphor for us, I wonder. I don’t know. We’re like an asteroid belt—with people passing through and sort of colliding.

BOLLEN: So many writers have done time in a McSweeney’s issue. That’s what I like about the Best of. There are writers whom I know so much about but have actually never read their novels—you just miss them even though you try. And the Best of is an opportunity to catch them again. I love Wells Tower’s two short stories, each one told from the perspective of a different brother. It’s brilliant that you gave him the room to do that.

BASS: I think that’s exactly the right way to approach it. When we were talking about how to do this book, we didn’t necessarily want it to be just 60 amazing short stories in a row. Because that’s not a real reflection of the magazine. We wanted to include the special projects.

BOLLEN: Like your 20-minute short stories. Which is probably 20 minutes to write it and two hours of revising.

BASS: Some of those people may have cheated, but they just have to live with that in their lifetime. But I think that was when it started to make sense to me. We had already done an anthology of issues one to 10. What got exciting for me was when we could bring this book to life by incorporating those special projects—the comics or the newspaper issue. That’s so much the point of the magazine alongside publishing fiction. It would be crazy to exclude our experiments.

BOLLEN: You guys have single-handedly saved the pantoum from extinction.

BASS: Yes, it’s like the Siberian tiger of poetry.

BOLLEN: Did you and Dave work by collecting your favorites and then cutting it down to the maximum that could fit inside a book? Because it’s a huge book.

BASS: It was a funny process of up and down. We had a really big list. Then of course there’s like 1200 pages, and we say “Okay, we’re going to scale that down to 400 pages.” Then you start to think, “Oh, maybe it has to be 500 pages.” It ended up being 624 pages, so there was a little bit of an upward creep in there.

BOLLEN: How long was this in the making?

BASS: It was over the course of the year. We were pulling all the pieces together and trying to figure out how much we could squeeze in. Really, the last 60 pages we added to it were kind of like, “Oh, one more thing, one more 20-minute story, one more Lydia Davis story…” Just to get the whole shape of it feeling right to us.

BOLLEN: I also really loved Jess Walter‘s list of 51 Spokane, Washington experiences—a rather unruly and effective form for a short story to take. Or is that fiction?

BASS: It’s very much from his life. He’s lived in Spokane his whole life, like that narrator. It adheres pretty closely to reality. I don’t know if this actually is the world capital of grown men on BMX bicycles, like he says, but…

BOLLEN: In the intro to the book, Dave claims there is no house style at McSweeney’s. But I think whether it was intentional or not, there is some kind of sensibility or style or wit that seems very McSweeney’s. A sort of boyish humor or cleverness. What is your reaction to that?

BASS: It’s tricky. I don’t think there’s an explicit one, but when the magazine started it was a product of Dave’s sensibility. It was him sitting at his kitchen table, building the entire magazine out of things he was picking up and the people he was reaching out to. So if you’re following your gut that way, it will shape it a bit. And really, that’s how we put it together. We find the pieces we feel excited about bringing into the world, just as he talks about in the introduction. But I don’t think there’s ever a moment when we’re looking at a piece and we’re asking, Does this fit with the McSweeney’s aesthetic? It’s more a question of, Is this a piece we really love? I think when Dave started the magazine, he was very interested in experimental fiction, and he was looking at more playful writing. He had a day job at Esquire, so this offered a space to be stranger or weirder or do something a bit more absurd in a way. It pulled from this experimental tradition, but it pulled from this kind of goofy, playful tradition at the same time.

BOLLEN: How does the submission process work? Who is reading and selecting?

BASS: Whoever is reading at the time will pull out the pieces that seem exciting to us, and usually it’s once we have a shortlist for the issue we’ll bring that pile to Dave and check them at that point. He’s not usually looking at things one at a time.

BOLLEN: Does anyone mail in stories anymore? I guess they’re all emailed now.

BASS: Yeah, more and more it’s digital. But we still take the manila envelopes. They still come in. We’re publishing way more unsolicited stuff than a lot of other places.

BOLLEN: Obviously as McSweeney’s advances, there are going to be more and more big names who want to be published there. How do you make certain that it isn’t overrun with the usual suspects and that there’s room for the discovery?

BASS: We definitely try to keep room for that in there, for sure. It always feels great to have two or three people we’ve never worked with before. Take Clancy Martin, whose story “How to Sell” is in the book. He had been sending stuff to us for a couple of years when we picked that one up.

BOLLEN: That’s nice to hear because as a writer, if you try to send two or three stories some place and they come back as rejections, you tend to think, “Okay, they’re not interested in me.”

BASS: It can definitely happen. Before my time, Sheila Heti sent five of her stories in as a cold submission. And Dave emailed her back on a Sunday and said, “We’ll take all five. They’re great.” And her first short story collection, Middle Stories, came out through McSweeney’s. Anyway, I’ve gotten to work with some many different writers who are in so many different places in their careers. The A.M. Homes story in the book is one of my favorites.

BOLLEN: A.M. Homes can do no wrong. She’s a genius.

BASS: This story is called “Do Not Disturb.” It’s about a surgeon who gets cancer. It’s told by her husband. She becomes more and more superhuman as she gets sick. It’s just a wild, wild story. And I think a lot of the writers in the magazine came about because it was such an exciting time for fiction when Dave started it. He was able to cross paths with David Foster Wallace and George Saunders.

BOLLEN: I hear McSweeney’s is going to start putting out children’s books. Is it important for you guys to remain small—even as you’re rapidly expanding?

BASS: What we try to do is stay very lean. With any project, we’re definitely always trying to do it on the razor’s edge a little bit. But we grow a little bit every year, for sure. Sometimes something will grow up and then kind of split off. We’ve had different projects that balloon us out for a minute, and then maybe we’ll shrink back down and then grow out in a new direction.

BOLLEN: It’s amazing that your offices are accordion-like and can expand and contract.

BASS: It’s one big old Laundromat. We just keep rearranging the desks.

BOLLEN: What have been some of the most memorable issues you’ve worked on?

BASS: I started on issue 18. Then for the next one we decided to do it in a cigar box with all these old letters and photos and pamphlets and weird little pieces of ephemera. That was the second issue of the magazine I was working on, and it was something we were building completely from the ground up. About a year or so later, issue 23, we had this amazing artist, Andrea Dezso, who illustrated the whole thing. She’s a classic McSweeney’s character in that no only did she do incredible paintings but she also did these light-box paper cutouts and she even embroidered an Anne Beattie story. It’s been very cool to see how Dave doubled down on the design and the production of the issues. That’s always been a big part of it too: the covers, the format, making it something that you really want to hold on to, that didn’t feel disposable.

BOLLEN: That’s what’s so smart about it. Nothing has to be in print anymore. Technically it can all go on the Internet. So you figure out a way for print to fascinate and excite. It’s almost because so much can just be on the Internet that print itself has become so much more interesting—it’s learned the value of good design.

BASS: Yes, if you don’t have to put out a print magazine, it becomes a question of why you put out a print magazine. Or how can you make that experience compelling and interesting. And I feel like you can go into a bookstore now and see that validated in so many different ways. For example, I think book covers are way better now than they were 10 or 15 years ago.

BOLLEN: It’s so true. In the late ’90s, book covers reached their nadir. A bad stock photo, slightly blurry, on really rough paper.

BASS: Now there is so much amazing graphic work. I think that once you move into the position where you accept that you’re making a choice, and that every part of the project is a choice, it can be invigorating and liberating. Because you start to think about every piece of it like that: Why are we doing it this way? And that’s what makes it fun.

BOLLEN: It can become an art form. So how do you approach a new issue? Is it the fiction that determines the design or the other way around?

BASS: It goes both ways. It’s whatever pops up first and gives us a core to  build around. Sometimes that might be a story or two, sometimes it might be a section of South Sudanese fiction, or something like that 20-minute stories idea. And sometimes it’s a cigar box with a newspaper. We have the container and then we start thinking about how to fill it.

THE BEST OF MCSWEENEY’S WILL BE AVAILABLE DECEMBER 31.

CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN IS THE EDITOR AT LARGE OF INTERVIEW MAGAZINE. HE IS ALSO A FICTION WRITER. HIS SECOND NOVEL, ORIENT, WILL BE RELEASED BY HARPERCOLLINS IN EARLY 2015.