Literary Fiction With Elements of the Magical and Surreal
Matt Williamson lives in Austin, Texas, where he is Executive Editor of Unstuck, an independent print and e-book annual emphasizing “new literature of the fantastic, the futuristic, the surreal, and the strange.” His own fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Cimarron Review, Barrelhouse, Bat City Review, Portland Review, and the anthologies Brave New Worlds (Night Shade) and Fakes (W.W. Norton). He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Interview by Justine Tal Goldberg
Let's start at the very beginning. How was Unstuck born?
About a year and a half ago, some writer friends and I were complaining to one another about how there weren't enough places – definitely not enough paying print markets with national distribution – to send our stories. That seems impossible, I know, given how many literary journals are out there, but somehow, the magazines we needed didn't exist.
Most of us were writing fiction with elements of the magical or surreal (which is maybe a fancy way of saying: our stories had witches and robots in them). Editors at genre magazines often told us that our work wasn't appropriate for them – and our stories stood out as odd (though hopefully in a fun way) when they appeared in university-affiliated literary journals. (Anjali Sachdeva, for instance, had recently published a story about a mermaid in Alaska Quarterly Review, and a kind of mad-scientist story in Gulf Coast. I'd had a story about cyborgs appear in Cimarron Review.)
Our fantasies about this journal became more specific. We wanted a magazine that would get our work in front of science fiction and fantasy readers, but which would be designed more like a literary journal, and would be packaged and promoted in such a way that it would attract people who didn't consider themselves SF/F fans. The journal wouldn't feel scholarly or highbrow; it would be designed and edited to appeal not only to the MFA crowd, but also to people who weren't writers, students, or teachers. On the other hand, this journal wouldn't feel commercial; it would be receptive to difficult, even divisive, work. And after talking this way for a while, we stopped thinking like submitters and started thinking like readers; we realized that if we discovered this journal at Book People or Prairie Lights, we wouldn't just submit to it, but would also subscribe to it. And then we started thinking like editors, and realized that we should just make this magazine ourselves.
I should be clear, though, that there were/are some excellent journals out there publishing weird and fantastic literary fiction, like Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and Conjunctions, and some wonderful anthology series, like Paraspheres, Polyphony, and Interfictions. And a number of brilliant and innovative periodicals have been appearing in the world of genre publishing over the last few years – like Strange Horizons, Apex, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and the Ann-VanderMeer-edited incarnation of Weird Tales. (Plus a ton of great SF/F podcasts, like Pseudopod, Escape Pod, and The Drabblecast.) But none of these magazines or series was quite like the thing we wanted to make. And in terms, again, of nationally distributed print magazines and journals, there was nothing like what we had in mind. (Since starting Unstuck, we've become fans of Phantom Drift, Fairy Tale Review, A Cappella Zoo, Mixer, Specter, and The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, among other new-ish and speculative-fiction-friendly journals. But even within that set, there are striking differences; each of those magazines is carving out its own turf; each has a distinct design philosophy and editorial vision.)
Although most of us had editing experience, I don't think any of us had thought seriously about starting a literary journal until we founded Unstuck. But very soon after we came up with the idea, it felt inevitable: this was something that we were definitely going to do. And it's been a team effort all the way through.
We figured out how much money would be required to set the journal up the right way – to make the magazine a paying market from day one, put it out in print and in several e-reader editions, and to support it with a simple website. Then each of us kicked in a bit of cash (not much: I write course materials for a test prep company, and most of the other editors are adjunct college lecturers or freelance editors) and we started contacting our favorite writers.
We couldn't entice anyone with big fees, or with the prestige of the journal, but we had the idea that if we could paint a clear picture of the magazine we were hoping to build, authors might want to take a chance on us and support us by sharing their work. And that's pretty much what happened. Nobody on the journal had any connection to Aimee Bender, J. Robert Lennon, or Amelia Gray, for instance; we just sent them letters introducing ourselves and describing the project – and in response, they gave us these wonderful stories. In a sense, these writers gave us our start-up capital, since our first issue wouldn't have gotten much attention – and would have had a lot of trouble finding its way into bookstores – without those names. And if the stories they'd given us weren't so cool, we wouldn't have been able to get readers excited about the project.
We also sent out flyers to the Clarion and Odyssey fiction workshops, to MFA programs, and to English departments and writers' listservs – and about half of the material in our first issue came to us that way. People sent their stories to us as email attachments before we had a web site – before there was much reason to be confident that Unstuck was going to exist. Someone – not anyone at Unstuck – started a Duotrope page for the journal, and after that we started getting offbeat and intriguing work from all over the place.
Our original plan for the first issue – since we assumed we'd have trouble finding high-quality work (and we were determined not to publish anything we didn't love) – was to run a mix of solicited stories and reprints. Instead, we ended up getting so much amazing unsolicited stuff that our decisions about what to accept were agonizing. So we realized quickly that we wouldn't need to run any reprints.
You sound like a proud father telling the story of the day his child came into the world. Clearly, you're extremely passionate about and proud of Unstuck, your baby. What's been the critical response? What do your readers have to say?
The response has been really exciting! One person (hi, Shaleiah!) liked the first issue so much that she bought four subscriptions and is apparently going to make an annual thing of giving away copies as Christmas gifts. I strongly encourage this practice, by the way.
One of the things I've enjoyed most since #1 came out is hearing people who are strictly genre readers rave about the stories by Matthew Derby, Amelia Gray, Matthew Vollmer, and Arthur Bradford – and hearing that some of my MFA-world friends have particularly liked the stories by Rachel Swirsky, Leslie What, Karin Tidbeck, and Meghan McCarron. A friend of mine who's deep inside the MFA bubble told me recently that she'd scoured the web for every Rachel Swirsky story she could find . . . which means that Unstuck is sending at least a few "literary" readers to places like Clarkesworld and Strange Horizons. And once you've peeked into Clarkesworld -- unless you're totally incurious, or terrified of the unfamiliar – you'll find that there's all kinds of worthwhile, stylish, and original stuff being published there.
One of the big ideas of our journal is that if a person loves Aimee Bender or Amelia Gray, that person will also love Rachel Swirsky or Meghan McCarron, and vice versa. The fact that these authors are stocked in different sections of the bookstore – or that some of them are publishing in Apex and others in Hobart – really doesn't have anything to do with the work. Any fan of smart speculative fiction will be drawn into Matthew Derby's “literary” book Super Flat Times, or Ryan Harty's "literary" story "Why the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down." With Unstuck, we don't just want to publish an unusual mix of writers; it's really important to us to reach a diverse group of readers.
Oddly enough, the one thing that seems to have divided readers is the size of the journal. Unstuck's definitely not a journal that you can finish in a weekend, or on a couple of plane trips, and you won't be able to slip it into your pocket. But I think the size has something to do with our preference for longer stories.
All of the editors feel that there aren't enough great new markets for stories of 8,000, 10,000, 12,000 words. When you think of the journals that emphasize longer work, you tend to think – I do, anyway – of the journals that are sort of beige and stodgy. Many of the web and print magazines that feel most innovative, that publish work that responds to the present moment, that aren't connected to universities, that make thoughtful and interesting design choices, also focus heavily, if not exclusively, on poetry and very short fiction. I would never want to dis flash fiction, because a lot of writers are doing thrilling and inspiring stuff with the form right now – it's the form of the moment, for sure – and there are flash-focused journals like Wigleaf and Smokelong and NANO Fiction whose stories are consistently original and essential and often very moving. And our first two issues include some strong, affecting short-shorts. In our first issue, we have an arresting story by Sharona Muir (a great example of a “literary” fiction writer – and memoirist – whose work is spiced with scientific ideas, and whose books would blend in well in the catalog of an adventurous SF/F-oriented press like Small Beer). We’ve had the chance to feature writers like Gray, Lindsay Hunter and, in our next issue, A.D. Jameson, all of whose “slim fictions,” as Lindsay Hunter calls them, burst with more ideas than some full-length novels contain.
On the other hand: three-page stories aren’t what I fell in love with as a teenager; they're not what made me want to become a writer. When I dig through one of my favorite anthologies, like Young and Holloman's Magical Realist Fiction, or the Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, or even an ENG 101 standby like Literature: A Portable Anthology, I don't see a lot of 500-word stories. And while I admire and enjoy a lot of flash, it's still true that the new stories I discover that mean the most to me tend to be longer. There are certain things that only a short-short can accomplish. But there are also a whole bunch of things – including many of my favorite things – that no short-short can do. Compression is obviously important in literary art, but it's not the only value. And some of the best long stories and novels also demonstrate compression! We have a novella in the second issue of Unstuck that doesn't have an ounce of flab on it; every page is doing something important and distinct.
So, given that we want to create an appealing forum for long stories, it makes sense for the journal itself to be longer than most. We don't want to take just two or three long pieces, or apply a tougher standard to work above a certain word count; we want a big, lively mix of long stories. But I'm saying this partly as a warning, because our second issue is going to be gigantic. Not as big as the current Mississippi Review, but: big.
Interesting. Do you feel that the length of the issues will have an effect on the nature and/or number of your readership? In other words, how likely is it that a potential reader would bow out when faced with stories that can't—and perhaps shouldn't—be ingested in one sitting?
I always imagine that other people will read Unstuck the way I read literary journals: I start at the beginning, read straight forward until I get bored, and then start to skip around. Often, the skipping starts on page 2—but there are other times (for instance, that Electric Literature with Kevin Brockmeier and Carson Mell . . . or the issue of NANO Fiction with the hipster zombie on the cover . . . or almost any issue of American Short Fiction or Poetry or Apex) when I read a journal cover to cover in sequence. So when I'm sequencing stories for the journal, my goal is to delay boredom as long as possible – and ideally, to select and mix stories so that the moment of boredom never arrives. That's one reason why we don't include Editor's Notes and that sort of thing in Unstuck: we're trying to deny boredom those little opportunities to creep in.
On the other hand, every piece isn't going to be to every reader's taste. In our second issue, we're publishing a new translation of a fifty-year-old novelette by the French surrealist Marcel Béalu. The prose is really lush, and the story is filled with druggy scenes of a man's guilty sexual obsession with an insect. Some people are going to bail on that one, and that's fine. One effect of the "big trunk" approach to the annual issue is that almost anyone will be able to find at least a few pieces to fall in love with.
These questions about the size of the journal – whether its length is a good thing or a bad thing, what effect it has on the reader – are linked to questions about design, of course. There's definitely something pleasurable about holding a well-made chapbook – but there's also a pleasure specific to the giant paperback book.
When we were making our initial design choices about the print magazine, all of the editors read a few poems or stories from a wide range of journals. And one of our main questions was: when do we find ourselves getting lost in the work – focused not on the experience that the editor has created, but instead on the experience that the author has created? And on the other hand: which journals make us aware, all the way through, of the fact that we're reading a particular literary journal? Zoetrope, Black Clock, and Ninth Letter are three examples of gorgeous, smart magazines that definitely impress their personalities on the reading experience. When I'm reading Zoetrope, I can never forget that I'm reading Zoetrope – and the visual art and the interesting layouts always affect the way I read and remember the stories. And these magazines aren't just literary journals; they really are art objects, and showcases for visual art and design.
And then there are the magazines like American Short Fiction or Poetry (or Beecher's, to name a newer one I think we all like) which are emphatically just literary journals, where the only fireworks are the ones the language sets off; an image and a sexy logo might show up to shake your hand and welcome you to the issue, but then the visuals get out of the way and let the stories and poems speak. One of our first decisions was: would we rather our readers feel, moment to moment, that they're reading Unstuck, or would we rather they feel like they're reading Helen Phillips, Matthew Vollmer, etc? We decided we would go with the less obtrusive, just-a-literary-journal sort of style – but that choice was influenced by our preference for longer work. The kind of marginal bric-a-brac that can enliven and add meaning to a collection of poems is less welcome, I think, when the pieces are trying to hold the reader's interest for an hour at a time. Our stories are selected – and the journal is designed – for long afternoons on the couch, or late-night reading in bed. With some journals, you sort of feel like you should wash your hands before you pick them up, and others where you fold back the spine right away, and dog-ear like crazy, and Unstuck is more the broken-spine and dog-ears sort of thing.
What's your advice to writers submitting to the journal? Any words of wisdom to writers in general, especially those whose work blurs the line between literary and genre fiction?
I feel like responses to this question often end up becoming lists of Andy-Rooney-ish gripes and "don'ts" – or vague requests for work that induces rapture. It's easy to get specific about what authors and stories do wrong – but when it's time to talk about what's right, editors say things like "we're looking for work that's emotionally significant, and adds breadth or depth to life," or "we are looking for exceptional, risk-taking, intellectual work – no science fiction." I'm not sure that I can do any better, but I can talk about a few of the stories we've accepted recently.
I went back today and looked at the stuff we accepted for the second issue, and it seems that a lot of it falls into two categories.
First: we take a number of stories that are surprising, captivating oddities. We've got a story in #2 that imagines a world in which all dogs have vanished – and another in which a dog stumbles through a wormhole. We've got three fairy tales about wind. We have a story that offers an unlikely historical explanation of the naming of Nigeria. We didn't have a theme when we started on this issue – we don't want to do official theme issues – but we did find ourselves accepting quite a few stories set on the border between the animal world and the human world: stories and poems, some in the tradition of Ovid, about people and animals coupling or transforming, or about communication (or the impossibility of communication) between animals and humans. We have a story about a cult-like farm community that's in thrall to a certain goose. We have a story about a mechanical cow. We've even got a nonfiction piece about talking chimpanzees. At no point did we hint to submitters that we were pursuing some sort of zoological theme for the second issue; the universe just sent us all of these crazy animals! After a while, we sort of surrendered to this trend, and then we started noticing stories in the slush pile that seemed like they'd fit perfectly – or that offered exciting new perspectives on ideas that other of our stories were exploring. (For Unstuck #3, on the other hand, a story about animals will have an uphill climb, in the same way that ghost stories did this time around. We had a lot of ghost stories in #1, and didn't want to repeat ourselves. Also: plenty of the stories in Unstuck #2 have nothing to do with animals.) We’ve accepted some stories that are, unapologetically, exercises in style; they charmed us enough that we said yes. If a story fascinates or delights most of the editorial staff, it has a strong chance of making it into the magazine.
And then, in the other category, there are these hugely ambitious, dangerous, complicated, humane, committed stories that just knocked the wind out of us. We have a story in #2 about, among other things, a magician, a hovercraft, and a hotel that uses trained ducks for waiters: it's rude and darkly comic, and has a bit of that John Kennedy Toole-style southern grotesqueness – and somehow by the end of it you're just shaking, you're so moved; it pulls a complete sneak attack on the reader – and it does all of these things that shouldn't be able to happen within a single story. We have a novella set in post-WWII Frankfurt about a maimed ex-soldier and his Lovecraft-obsessed landlady that each of us devoured in a single sitting, in spite of its length: its use of language is unconventional, but so assured; the characters are so rich and real; and while the story captures much of the rottenness and horror of life, and the special ugliness of a particular time and place, it's defined by its compassion and respect for – and its deep interest in – the people who inhabit its broken world. There's a kettle and a pair of shoes in that piece that matter more to me than the human protagonists of a lot of the stories I read. David J. Schwartz, whose work some Review Review readers may know, sent us an amazing story that begins as a satirical response to the global financial crisis – but then expands in so many different directions; it just gets bigger and bigger. Seven or eight of the stories in our next issue, I'd put in this category; you finish them and you're like, "what just happened?"
We inevitably reject a lot of excellent stories – including stories that have passionate advocates on the staff. And we probably also end up rejecting some stories that we should have accepted. It isn't a scientific process, but we do our best. I have to say, also, that the Assistant Editors, who do much of the front-line reading (that’s Ben, Justin, Allie, Janalyn, Molly, Alex, Josh, and Jeff), are some of the most generous, attentive readers a submitter could wish for. As a group, we're pretty low on snark and high on nerdy enthusiasm. We enjoy and respect the work that we can’t find a place for, and we can usually find something to admire in a story that’s not working well on the whole. On the other hand, I think we get cooler and crazier slush than a lot of other journals do.
Justine Tal Goldberg is an award-winning writer and editor of both fiction and nonfiction. Her journalistic work has appeared in the Texas Observer and Publishing Perspectives, among other publications. Her short stories have appeared in Anomalous Press, Whiskey Island, Fringe Magazine, and others. She owns and operates WriteByNight, a writers’ service headquartered in Austin, Texas.