Actively Seeking Kickass
Interview by David Duhr
Black Heart Magazine is an online journal based in Austin, but it didn't begin that way. Can you tell us a bit about the magazine's colorful inception?
The magazine's original incarnation was as a smutty lit-zine, based in Montreal. I was writing a lot of erotic fiction at the time (which was about 2004), and Nerve.com was becoming really popular, and it seemed like a good idea to create a zine. I put together the website with a few contributions from friends (mainly under pseudonyms), and started telling people about it. Someone informed me that I ought to put together a print version of the mag, and with the help of a friend who was also interested in starting a magazine, we produced three issues together.
The first print version of Black Heart came out in the spring of 2005, while I was in the creative writing program at Concordia University, and I got several of my classmates to contribute work, including Gillian Sze, who's become a relatively well-known Canadian poet these days.
Eventually, the magazine landed me a job writing a sex column for Montreal's alternative paper, Hour, so things began to go a bit more into the confessional/non-fictional side of sexy stories, but we've always published fiction on Fridays, so when I finally left Montreal for Austin at the end of 2009 I decided to shut down the site for a bit to think about where I wanted things to go. While I still love well-written, even "cerebral" erotica (if that can be said to exist), I wanted to bring the content back to a place that wasn't quite so one-track-minded. I decided to open submissions up to writing from all genres, and currently we accept poetry, flash fiction and short fiction of up to 2,500 words.
Your manifesto is “Reading. Writing. Rebellion,” and the publication of “fiction that breaks the rules.” Can you expound on this a bit? What kinds of rebellion and rule-breaking is Black Heart after?
What I think of when I think of "rebellious" writing is the type of writing that sets your mind on fire. If you either think to yourself "Oh my god, this is something I've never seen before, it's amazing" or "Dammit, why didn't *I* write that?!", then you know it's something awesome. I want to publish work like that.
I think a lot of people identify with Charles Bukowski's writing, and he's one of the writers I would classify as breaking the rules or being rebellious. It's kind of an odd form of rebellion, though, because what he really did was get up every day and sit his ass in a chair and write. Aren't all writers supposed to do that? Isn't that, in fact, the very definition of being a good writer?
And yet he also knew that many of his peers didn't do the work. They spent more time preening and stroking their egos and giving readings and whatever else they could do to avoid sitting in the chair and writing, and he railed against that. He was really upset by that mindframe, and the praise being lavished on lazy writers. So he is kind of my figurehead that I keep in mind. Not so much that I want people to write like Bukowski (although I enjoy his style), but that I want them to do the work.
Sometimes I really want to send out a "What Would Bukowski Say?" type of rejection letter, but feel like it'd just be needlessly harsh. Then again, we might be able to print our hate mail if I did...
I'm also interested in breaking rules in terms of the types of things writing books try to tell you about how to improve your writing. I really think that if you have something that you're on fire about, you will convey that to your reader. Equally, if you're bored with your writing, that will come across. A lot of the times, the stuff I reject is not stuff that is badly written. It can be very technically correct, but if it has nothing to say, then I'm not interested.
I think all good fiction breaks the rules. I took an experimental fiction class at Concordia where the professor told us she viewed all writing as experimentation, in a scientific sense. You set up your little laboratory and play with the contents, looking for a certain outcome. You add, you subject. You try to see what works and what doesn't. But you have to have an objective in mind so that you can measure the results.
So try writing a piece with no "E"s in it and see what happens. Maybe you'll have a failed experiment on your hands, or maybe you'll find something really interesting, like Christian Bök's Eunoia.
For writers looking to submit to Black Heart, can you provide us a link to a piece in each of your genres that best represents what you’re looking for?
Let's see, in terms of poetry, I seem to have a lot of men dominating this category, so I'd like to see more women contributing to even things out. I recently got two really interesting poems from a woman named Gracie Vaughn who told me she'd never been published before, and this is exactly what I'm looking for, something really unique and unafraid to mix images and messages.
In terms of prose, anything goes (almost). Flash fiction has to be really quick, sharp, to the point, a little supernova of a story. Something like Fan Li's "Son of Superman" or David Erlewine's "When To Submit."
For longer fiction, I want to see interesting characters developed, great dialogue, unusual scenes, jangly language. I like quirky stories within stories, objects that can't entirely be explained, mystery. Even a little crime and punishment. I recently really enjoyed Suzanne Sutherland's "Handmade Skin":
and Richard Kriheli's "Mutiny."
I think I tend to prefer urban settings to suburban/rural ones, but honestly, if it's a really exciting story, they could be in the middle of the desert and still fascinate me.
How about a few established writers whose work you read for personal enjoyment?
Let's see... I tend to look for female writers, as I feel like I am kind of bombarded with male writing. Not "chick lit," though, because I'm looking for substance, so I really enjoy Jeanette Winterson whenever she's got a new book out. I recently read Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, mostly because of all the hype; I wanted to see if it lived up to it. I thought it was a great book, but not worth all the insane hubbub.
I tend to gravitate toward French and British writers, most often, though I do enjoy a good David Sedaris volume when I need an American fix. I'm currently reading Stephen Elliot's Adderall Diaries, which is pretty fascinating. And I would've said I liked James Frey until about a week ago, when I read a piece describing his writing sweatshop, which makes me think that he's just been playing the sad victim all along so that he could spring this evil upon society. JT LeRoy's got more integrity than that guy. I love a good scandal, but anyone who's going to take advantage of inexperienced writers? Should go fuck
You recently put out a call for more book reviews. Are you hoping to continue to expand your book coverage? If so, what types of titles should writers approach you with?
I'm open to almost anything, particularly if it's published by a little known/unknown writer or small press. I'm also looking to start including a type of review that I started during my days as the Literary Arts editor at my school's student newspaper, which is book-to-movie reviews. Lots of times people say the book is better than the movie, and lots of times it's probably true, but I like to see a comparison between the two, especially when they're written by fanatical readers, or by movie buffs who can argue about why the film version greatly improves on the book.
We did a comparison between The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which has rabid fans on both sides of the equation, and I would like to do more of that sort of thing at Black Heart, so anything playing into that idea is greatly desired!
Tell us about your writing contest.
We recently held our first ever writing contest, which we named the KICK-ASS Writing Contest, in search of truly kick-ass literary efforts. For our first try at the thing, we had a great turn-out, and I would love to run more contests at Black Heart in the future, possibly on a quarterly basis. Next time I'd definitely like to bump up the prize money and partner up with local bookstores and presses to give out even more excellent prizes, and get a lot more Austin writers interested.
Hey, if the Chronicle can hold a writing contest where they offer $1,500 divided somehow amongst 5 winners (is that $300 each? or does everyone get some random share?), then surely there are enough writers--and readers--in this city to make a real go of it.
That being said, we love ALL of the people who submitted stories, from across the U.S., UK and Canada, and we hope to keep on bringing a bit of levity to the all-too-staid world of writing contests. Ours will always be cheeky, and feature options like low-cost critiques from editors of publications that want you kick ass, rather than succumb to some hoity-toity style.