O Canada! Good (and Playful) Writing From a Digital Canadian Mag
Jeremy Hanson-Finger is the publisher of Dragnet Magazine. He grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, and then moved to Ottawa, Ontario, where he attended Carleton University and wrote his MA thesis on dirty bits in postmodern American novels. He now lives in Toronto, Ontario, where he works as an editor during the day and writes by night. He currently has two book-length works in progress: a collection of short fiction called Nice People Who Care About Each Other Having a Good Time, which is coming out with 8th House Publishing in Spring/Summer 2013, and a satirical detective novel tentatively titled Slumlord of Blood Planet. Apartment 9 Press published his chapbook The Delicious Fields, and his stories and poems have appeared in Untoward, Little Fiction, Sugarmule, Soliloquies, Feathertale, Burner, Monkeybicycle, and In/Words. You can visit his website at hansonfinger.tumblr.com.
Interview by Lisa Mecham
You co-founded Dragnet with your high school friend, Andrew. Tell me how you guys came to be in the literary magazine business.
We'd always had very similar taste in terms of literature and I wanted to work on something in my spare time that was a team project. What we were thinking was that not many literary magazines in Canada were willing to publish literature that involves humor. A big stereotype of Canadian fiction is that it's about tragedy in remote rural areas on the east coast and that it can't be funny in any way. But actually there is a rich tradition of satire in Canadian writing from Margaret Atwood to Stephen Leacock and the like. We wanted to create a magazine that publishes fiction that might be about serious topics but doesn't take itself too seriously. That was where the main idea came from.
And the other thing, in terms of the design—we found that a lot of online literary magazines in both Canada and the United States were very difficult to read. They're often just a wall of text. So rather than going the blog route, we wanted to go the fully laid-out magazine route and then we eventually adapted that to a tablet and computer screen format.
What are the roles behind the scenes of the magazine? Besides curating the editorial content, you obviously have other staff members who do the pen-and-ink artwork and the web design.
I am the publisher and Andrew [Battershill] is one of the co-editors. There is also another co-editor [Jena Karmali], an art director/web designer [Illya Klymkiw] and a publicist [Lauren Mitchell].
And all of you work on the magazine as your secondary jobs?
Yes. I work for Wiley, which is the company that does the "For Dummies" books. Andrew is getting his MA in Creative Writing at the University of Toronto. Jena works for Harlequin as a proofreader, Lauren works for the University of Toronto Press, and Illya works on various freelance film assignments in addition to his own projects.
The more traditional print literary magazines often have a secondary presence online but Dragnet started online and is only available digitally. You can read it as a website, a flipbook or an e-book, and you also have an active Tumblr and cinematic trailers to announce the release of new issues. Has it been difficult to find an audience with this non-traditional approach to publishing?
I think that we tap into a slightly different demographic than some of the print magazines because we try to appeal to people who like good writing regardless of whether they see themselves as really "into" literature or not. Like the people who enjoy smart writing in television shows or movies and plays but who might not go to the bookstore and pick up a copy of a university's literary magazine. And the fact that Dragnet is shareable over the Internet people can easily say, "Hey, I really liked this story, I think you should read it."
People read differently in the digital age on their devices and you are catering to that with the aesthetic style of your magazine but I imagine you have to factor that in when considering submissions as well?
Yes, there is so much to compete with on the Internet that we can't justify putting out a magazine of all 8,000-word stories. So we'll have one story that is 3,000-words and the rest will generally be under 1,000.
And all fiction at this point, right?
We've also started featuring one poem per issue as long as the poetry is narrative enough and doesn’t depend on form, which is purely a technical consideration because in the ePub format we can't predict how the poem will display across different devices.
You launched in February 2011 and you are now seeking submissions for your seventh issue. What have learned along the way? How has the magazine or your process evolved?
We started off in our original manifesto thinking about avant-gardism and experimental writing and while we're still big fans of that we realized that what we're picking is geared towards more traditional storytelling. In some ways, that's influenced by platform considerations. When you're looking at a computer screen, something captures you if there is a narrative. If something is aesthetically challenging then you don't necessarily have the willpower to stay in and keep reading. In terms of subject matter and the way people are dealing with the traditional narrative form we are still fairly edgy but we're not going for the specifically experimental formalism that we envisioned at the start.
I noticed looking at your past issues that there is a provocative playfulness to the pieces and I’m wondering if it is difficult to find submissions that reflect that?
We work really hard at soliciting submissions. We read other literary magazines, we go to events and we approach people that we like and ask them to submit. Toronto is the literary capital of Canada; all of the major publishing houses are here as are lots of writers. It's not that big of a scene, though, and everyone seems to know everyone else. Because we have such a specific style that we're looking for, seeking submissions has worked fairly well for us. We do have our listing on Duotrope and Poets & Writers and we receive lots of unsolicited submissions too, and it's always a delight when you get someone who is a complete stranger from the University of Arizona who sends you something that just knocks your socks off.
Are the majority of your contributors Canadian?
Yes. When we submitted our grant application to The Canada Council for the Arts we had to do the math and we figured out that our writers were 77% Canadian.
I'd read somewhere that initially the contributors were all 40 years old and under. Is that still true? Was that intentional?
No, it wasn’t intentional; it just happened that way. But yes, the majority are still under 40. It seems that people who write the type of stuff we are looking for just turn out to be younger.
Walk me thru what happens once a piece is submitted to your magazine.
We use Submittable like a lot of other literary magazines. Andrew and Jena read all the stories and comment on them and then they'll meet in person to talk it over. I get the chance to veto if there is anything I really don't think we should publish but I've never had to do that. We're all on the same page.
We first send out our batch rejections and contact the writers whose stories we want for the issue. Next, we send encouraging emails to people whose work we feel has promise and who we’d like to see different stories from in the future. There might also be a few submissions that we think could be publishable with a bit more effort or divergent thinking, and in those cases we send a detailed letter to the submitter asking for a rewrite. We can't guarantee publication of the rewrite, of course, but we're happy to reach out when we can.
If you were to receive the perfect submission tomorrow, what would it look like?
We don't need a cover letter, just a bio. We'd like the bio to be to the point, the sort of thing a professional writer would actually want to see in the magazine that shows where they live, where they have been published, and where to find out more about them.
We would like the piece as a word file or PDF in 12-pt Times New Roman or Courier and under 1000 words, unless we have specifically solicited a longer piece from the writer. We would like the word count on the submission.
As for content, we want it to grab the reader with the first line. People have short attention spans on the Internet, and, like it or not, we have to play by some of the same rules as people who write online news articles, in order to get people interested enough in our stories to continue reading and not just automatically enact the boredom response (hit ctrl+T and then F to open a new tab and check their Facebook). A good example of masterful first lines that grab the reader right away would be Joyce's stories in Dubliners. Similarly we are really big on craft. Some people trash Matthew Arnold's idea of "touchstones," of holding up lines that are just objectively great, lines that give you the "click," as David Foster Wallace put it, against any work you are evaluating, but we think it's kind of true. Despite all the time we have collectively spent in university we don't often talk about theory or politics but just about lines and stories that are "the real thing," that both fit our stylistic concerns (must explore serious topics with an element of humor) and show an attention to language and craft that allows individual lines to stand on their own and make you go "whoa."
How much of a piece do you read before you decide to reject it?
There are always some that are just plain bad because the submitter didn’t read our magazine or our guidelines—they're simply blanket submitting from Duotrope—but most pieces we read all the way through.
Do you see differences in the submissions from Canadian vs. American writers?
That’s a good question. I don't know if I can speak to that in terms of Dragnet since our work is all over the place but I would say that in general, American writers seem to take more risks. Canadians are more likely to work within established forms and themes. There is no Canadian David Foster Wallace, or, rather, nobody taking those kinds of risks who has the same level of critical, commercial, and cult success.
What is the Canadian literary magazine community like?
It's pretty small, compared to the overwhelming quantity of magazines that seem to exist in the States. There are a bunch of established journals associated with the universities but it's very difficult to get published there as they might take one unsolicited piece per issue and are generally very conservative and traditional. A few of the younger university magazines like Soliloquies, which is associated with Concordia University, and In/Words, associated with Carleton University, actively seek work by unknown writers. There are also a few non-university-related magazines like Matrix, and The Puritan.
As an emerging writer yourself, what other journals do you admire or would you aspire to have your own work published in?
At Dragnet we have a great relationship with Untoward Magazine in Chicago. Both Andrew and I have had stories published there and we published something by their editor in Dragnet. I also admire Joyland, Pank, Fence, Tin House, Bartleby Snopes and a new magazine here in Canada called Little Brother. I also really admire Little Fiction for publishing individual free e-books of long short stories, and for their adherence to a particular aesthetic.
What are your future goals for Dragnet?
We do want to put out a print anthology at some point. We have a decent profile and a lot of really great material so if we can partner with a small publishing house then we might be able to do something like that. We don't have a lot of expenses so we're able to pay a small honorarium to our contributors through the money we make from our launch parties. It would be very difficult to take on any large-scale projects without secure funding and we don't want to put up a pay-wall because it will cut down on our audience. We applied for government funding this year from the Canada Council for the Arts but we did not end up getting anything. Maybe next year.
A midwesterner at heart, Lisa Mecham lives in Los Angeles with her two daughters and the dog that they suckered her into. She is pursuing a Creative Writing Certificate in Fiction from the the UCLA Extension Writers' Program and her poems have appeared inWordPlaySound and Emerge Literary Journal. Lisa is working on her first novel.