Literature Out Loud: A New Lit Mag for Your Ears
Henriette Lazaridis Power is the author of the novel Clean Monday (Ballantine Books, 2013). She writes occasionally for The Millions and for the blogs Beyond the Margins and The Museum Game. She is also the founding editor of The Drum, a literary magazine for your ears, publishing fiction and essays in audio form. When she’s not writing, she trains as a competitive rower on the Charles River.
Interview by Becky Tuch
Henriette, in the past two years, you have found an agent, sold your first novel, published short stories, started two blogs, written articles for Beyond the Margins and The Millions, and started your own literary magazine, The Drum. How much coffee do you drink?
I'm afraid that's classified. But really, I've decided that coffee is just another form of hydration, and therefore allowable in large quantities.
Was it over a cup of coffee one morning that you came up with the idea for The Drum? Can you talk about that early process of planning?
Probably a cup of coffee while driving in my car and listening to an audiobook!
About two years ago, I started thinking about how much I love to hear a good voice performance of a good book (I listen to certain stretches of audiobooks or radio plays over and over, the same way I listen to songs). And I began to wonder if there was a short-form counterpart to an audiobook out there, or a literary magazine equivalent. I started looking around the internet and found that, while some magazines were publishing small amounts of their content in audio form, and while there were one or two lit mags that did publish all audio (Bound Off is one of them), nobody was doing all audio, all of it read aloud by the author. So there was a niche for us! For me, The Drum was a perfect way to do something with what I strongly feel are the performative aspects of writing.
In terms of the planning process, it was a question of figuring out what we were going to need for the functionality of our website, for our sound recording, for legal documents, incorporation, and getting the first contributors to the magazine. I had the first meetings--actually with a couple of radio producers to learn about sound and things--in December of 2009 and we launched in May 2010, once we had all those different pieces in place. The process isn't done, though. There's always more to do, more to develop and improve. We're working now on some new ways to expand. And it goes on. . .
Can you walk us through your submissions process? Do you receive a lot of unsolicited submissions? What kinds of writing are you looking for?
Our submissions process is pretty straightforward--for the most part. We take submissions through Submishmash's online manager in a variety of lengths. We do require a Word document first as we find that's the best way to see if a piece has what we're looking for (more about that in a bit). If we like a piece, we may go back to the author for some revisions, and once everybody's happy with the document, we start arranging how to make the audio recording. I've produced almost all of our recordings myself, driving around within reasonable distances to meet authors in their homes or, quite often, to meet them at Boston's Grub Street Writers who kindly let us use the classroom space for that purpose. Grub is a good central location--as well as an organization that's done a lot to help The Drum get off the ground. There have been a few occasions when we've had to have the author record the audio him or herself, but that's easy to do these days. There are loads of simple ways to get good-quality audio and to send the file to The Drum for audio editing.
We have a new category of submissions that skips the Word document phase. We call them Phone Shorts, and you can call our Google Voice phone number (646-470-DRUM) and call in a two-minute story as a voice message. It's a fairly literal Call For Submissions.
And finally, because audio makes all sorts of things possible, we have our Dispatches category, which involves the writer recording an essay essentially on location, complete with background noises from the place she or he is writing about. For Dispatches, we want people to use the capabilities of their phones (or their mp3 recorders, if they have them). Simple voice memo apps can turn a phone into a portable recording studio. And once you've got the audio, it's easy to submit the mp3 online.
As to what kinds of writing we're looking for, we do feel that what comes first is good prose. We're looking for pieces that are literary stories first, though we want them to have a palpable narrative drive. Language that really comes to life when it's read aloud is key. But not necessarily sound effects--if at all. Stories with "zing" or "boom" in the text will sound surprisingly silly when read aloud, and that's not the feel we're going for.
We don't have a tremendously high volume of unsolicited submissions at the moment. We do contact writers whose work we admire, so there is some work that's solicited. But we do feel that there are lots of stories out there, and we're eager to hear what people have to say. It might be useful for writers to know that, while we do request some sort of cover letter with a submission, we tend not to read that information until after we've read the submission at least once, so as not to be biased by a long publications list.
What do you do if you find a writer who has a wonderful story, but is not a very good or confident reader?
You have to maintain a balance. Most writers are writers first, performers second. So you can't give them too much directing or they might start to feel as though they're losing the story or essay they wrote. But I start out explaining that it's best to think of the recording as though they're reading aloud to a small child. They do need to mindful that there's an audience, and that they can use their voice as an instrument--the way the singing voice is an instrument. We've had a few situations where the piece was short enough that we could do essentially a second take, and that's generally worked well to help the nervous writers feel more at ease. I remember one writer who was very nervous at first but then, after some coaching before a Take Two, ended up really getting into it and really enjoying the experience.
What is your publishing schedule?
We currently publish one piece each week. But we are likely to add more content more frequently as we include our new features (Stories on the Street, Phone Shorts, and Dispatches), and as we add more readers for submissions.
What is 'Stories on the Street'?
Stories on the Street is a project to bring public-domain texts to life with everyday people reading them aloud. The idea is that you pick a public-domain text you think would go well with a particular venue, head out there with a Drum release form (which you can print from our site), and get people to read aloud. It doesn't matter if they haven't rehearsed or if they're not English majors or voiceover hobbyists. We think everyone has a little James Earl Jones in them! As for creating the actual recordings, you can use an iPhone's voice memo app, or any other recording app (many of them are free), or a simple mp3 recorder. You can use our submissions manager to submit a Stories on the Street mp3. We're working on getting an intern who'll be responsible for supervising the project, and we'd love to have Drum listeners join us in creating recordings for the project.
I am so impressed by all that you are doing with The Drum. Are you having fun? What's your favorite part?
At the risk of sounding indiscriminate, I love the fact that working on The Drum requires me to wear lots of different hats. I get to work with writers to shape their pieces (if necessary), I get to help people record a good audio performance--which appeals to my closet thespian--and I get to explore what's new in technology as I think about how The Drum can offer its listeners a better experience. I love to write, but I do love all the non-writing-related things I get to do as part of The Drum. Oh, and one more thing: I sometimes drive to a writer's house to record--and I love to drive.
Anything else you'd like to say to the writers out there reading about your journal? Things you think they should know? Things you think they shouldn't know, but want to tell them anyway?
Well, I think we're doing something really cool here with The Drum (if I do say so myself). Audio has so much potential as a vehicle for literature, and at The Drum, we really want to get writers and readers involved in what we think is a great project.
Becky Tuch is the founding editor of The Review Review.