Reviving the Vignette
The Vine Leaves Literary Journal’s Jessica Bell has been exposing the vignette to the world since 2011. Her journal, where she is the co-publishing editor alongside Dawn Ius, has taken the genre, long regarded as not publishable in traditional literary magazines and given it its own descriptively concise, impressionistic voice. Named after the literal translation of “vignette,” the Vine Leaves co-anchors telecommunicatively manage the magazine. Bell, an Australian contemporary fiction author, poet and singer/songwriter, from her current home in Athens, Greece and Ius from Alberta, Canada where she is a young adult fiction author and co-owner of Bridge Social Media. The two take this opportunity to explain their eclectic literary backgrounds and short story inspirations in the molding of their quarterly publication’s artistic freedom. A liberty that the two have bonded over in their mutual love of nonconformist literature, desire to help like-minded writers locate a respected home for their prose, and effort to expose the forgotten vignette; a literary form that absorbs readers in a setting, a mood, a character and allows the atmosphere to ripen through textual exploration.
Interview by Hadley Catalano
What are your backgrounds and when was your love and inspiration for the written word first fostered?
Jessica Bell: Being the daughter of a semi-famous rock ‘n’ roll duo from Melbourne, I grew up surrounded by song. For a while it seemed logical to travel the musician’s path, especially when my first band, spAnk, hit it off in the Melbourne indie music scene back in the late 90s. Although I spent my years writing and recording dozens of songs I realized I also had a love for the written word, and began to pursue a career as a writer. I started as a poet, drawing from my musical background and etching my thoughts and feelings into verse. Those stanzas soon turned into sentences and paragraphs, and eventually into published books.
Dawn Ius: Though my Dad was a drummer and I’ve dated a rock star, you’ll never catch me singing in the shower. But reading in the bath? Absolutely. The bath, in line at the coffee shop, under the covers with a flashlight, yeah, I was that girl. Reading sparked a love of words. I crafted my first story at the age of eight when I realized writing about monsters was much less scary than looking for them under my bed. Today I write thriller and romance fiction for adults, paranormal for young adults, adventure books for elementary kids, and feature film and TV scripts. Diversity has never been a problem for me.
How and when was Vine Leaves established, and how did the vignette become the focal point?
JB: Actually the journal exists because of the vignette. "Vignette" originally meant "something that may be written on a vine leaf." Hence the name of the journal. In late 2011, we founded the journal to offer this forgotten literary form the exposure and credit it deserves. I often found that when I tried to write stories, they ended up as vignettes instead. And to my great disappointment, there weren't many places to submit such things. So I figured it would be a great idea to dedicate a journal to this form of writing for all those writers out there like me. It turns out there are a lot of you!
DI: Jessica introduced me to the vignette – but I’ve since realized I used to write quite a few of them. I love how Vine Leaves has opened the door for so many talented people whose stories may not have been heard because they don’t conform to a certain style.
When you were seeking submissions for the first Vine Leaves, did you receive questions or inquires about vignettes? Was there a devote group of vignette-ees just waiting for your journal to surface?
JB: Surprisingly very few asked. Probably because we have a page on the website which explains what the form is and how to write one. But most were already very familiar with the form and very eager to submit.
DI: Often times the comment was, “Oh, so that’s what I write.”
Who decided the vignette was ‘not a proper story’ worthy of publication in a literary magazine and how do you feel your journal has debunked that claim?
JB: Well, it hasn't debunked that claim at all because a vignette isn't a proper story. It will never be a proper story. It’s a snapshot in words; differs from a short story in that its aim doesn’t lie within the traditional realms of structure or plot. Instead, it focuses on one element, mood, character, setting or object. It's descriptive, excellent for character or theme exploration and wordplay. Through a vignette, you create an atmosphere. As for "who" decided that they were not worthy of publication in a literary magazine, well, it's not something anyone decided, it's just something that seems to have evolved over time. I can't count how many rejections I have had over the years claiming that my submission is not a story, that they don't know what to call it, and perhaps it's more like a very long prose poem. I think it's just a matter of most editors having become accustomed to perceiving traditionally structured work as publishable.
How did you market Vine Leaves and establish such an international masthead?
JB: Dawn and I were friends already. We met through our personal blogs. Shared the same passion for the written word, and so it was inevitable really, that we became partners on such an endeavor. Amie is a recent addition. (Amie McCracken, who currently lives in Belgium, is the assistant editor.) I also met her through her blog. The journal has grown a lot over the past year and therefore the workload too much for just the two of us to handle, so we had to recruit. Marketing the journal wasn't difficult, as Dawn and I already had established writer platforms. We just spread the word through our social networks and voila.
What was one of the most memorable vignettes you received? Why was it so compelling?
JB: It's called “Flashback,” by Patricia Ranzoni; in Issue #01
the softness from dialing the phone
is like lifting the lid to my music box
I can absolutely feel myself in the moment. Silence surrounding me, either really early in the morning or late at night. Alone. That soft click and then purr when I lift the receiver off the hook, and then the dancing notes as I dial. I can see the flashback—a blurry image of a pastel pink ballerina spinning, the tune twinkling, and the box vibrating in my hands. I can hear a child laughing in my head. It’s me when I was a kid. The first time I ever saw a ballerina in a box. Magic.
Another huge favourite of mine is "You Laughed," by John Biesecker, from Issue #03. I still cry every time I read that piece.
DI: “You Laughed” is definitely one of my faves, too. On the gritty side, I love the work of Allen Taft. And I was mesmerized by Carrie Mumford’s vignette, “The Blemish Collector” from Issue #2. It’s tough to narrow it down to just a few though, because we’re lucky to receive so many brilliant submissions.
In the submission guidelines Vines Leaves seeks vignettes in the genres of literary, mainstream, speculative, and slipstream. For the novice writer, can you elaborate on the difference between these four styles?
JB: Actually I would say they could all blend together. But for the sake of differentiating between them, literary fiction is realistic, character-driven, commonly more poetic in style (but not always), the subject matter usually very raw and serious. Mainstream focuses on more commercial, but still realistic subjects, targeted toward the "easy-reader." Speculative fiction is more cutting-edge, and encompasses a variety of genres such as science fiction, fantasy, horror, supernatural, utopian and dystopian, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic. And slipstream is more like a "literary effect" rather than a genre. It's supposed to make you feel strange, offering not-entirely-real circumstances in realistic settings. Remember the movie Being John Malkovich? I'd class that as slipstream.
DI: Great explanation, Jess. You taught me something, too.
Why is the genre of erotica not even a consideration at your literary magazine, and what genre submissions are most recently filling your inbox?
JB: I think erotica would distract from the delicate beauty of the more serious pieces we publish in the journal. I have nothing against the genre; it's just that it doesn't gel well with the audience we are targeting. We definitely see more literary works in our inbox.
If someone were to take a workshop in vignette writing from you, what advice and tips would you have for aspiring writers?
JB: Forget the rules and just feel.
DI: I’m laughing a little at Jessica’s response because I’m a genre writer with a heavy bias toward thriller and paranormal romance. Genre fiction seems to have a lot of rules. But when I edit for Vine Leaves, I’m okay with bending – or even forgetting – some of those rules. It’s an editing place I never thought I’d get to.
Your contributors are a diverse international group, what is it about Vine Leaves that has inspired them to submit?
JB: The most common comment we get is that submitters have finally found a place to submit pieces of writing they didn't know what to do with. We have found so many gems. And I'm so thrilled to be able to offer these pieces a home.
DI: One of my favorite things about Vine Leaves is the diversity of the submissions – from age and style, to the artist’s geography. It’s another example of how the beauty of words and illustrations transcends time and space.
Do you see any reoccurring vignette or poetry themes?
JB: Ah yes. A lot of writers seem to like gardens, plants, suns, moons, beating hearts, quiet nights, gentle breezes, oceans and love. They are clichéd topics, so if you are going to write about these things, please wow us with a unique voice. For an example of one way to do this, take a look at The History of Dirt, by Allie Marini Batts, from Issue #03.
What kind of future do you see for the vignette? Do you see it developing into a more practiced prose?
JB: I hope so! I hope more established magazines, such as Glimmer Train, Granta, and Tin House start to publish more of this type of literature. These talented writers deserve a lot more exposure than we can offer at the moment. Though, there's no denying the fact that we do hope to become as established as these literary magazines one day.
DI: It’s hard to believe we’ve already published a year’s worth of journals, with an anthology on the way. The magazine has already changed and grown so much. We’ve added staff, formed partnerships, developed relationships with writers, photographers, and readers. It’s exciting to watch this growth and know that the potential is endless.
What other literary styles impress you (for their intricacy or difficulty)?
JB: Definitely poetry forms such as the Villanelle and Pantoum. I've tried my hand at these, and even though I've been successful with them in theory, I very much doubt they evoke the same emotion as my free verse poetry does. Of course, I'm always envious of people like Dawn who can write commercial blockbusters. But I guess my heart has always sided with character development more than plot.
DI: Literary in general impresses and inspires me!
How, in your opinion, can writers who work in different genres produce effective pieces of literature without cross contaminating, so to speak – or is that part of the art form?
JB: I don't think this should even be an issue. If we didn't allow for cross-contamination, then genres like speculative and slipstream fiction wouldn't exist today.
DI: Oh, I couldn’t agree with Jessica more. I think cross-contamination is opening new doors, breaking down publishing barriers. At the end of the day, art is subjective, there are no rules to what readers like, what they don’t. Artists shouldn’t be limited either.
If you were to describe a slice of your life (a vignette) at this moment what would it be?
JB: My computer fan whirs like a lingering achievement amidst the click of keys—letters that print purpose into this moment for you. Can you see me squint as I sip my double cappuccino, swiveling left and right in my blue suede chair, beige woolen blanket over my knees, warming me with a muffled scent of winter? My grin grows as the cursor pushes the final full stop toward the right margin. It doesn't want to leave you, or free me from this commitment. Blink, blink, blinking thoughts, images, answers on a screen ... for you. But I'll stop. I will. Now. Full.
DI: Ha! I’m not even going to compete with that, Jess. A slice of my life, right now? Creatively fulfilled.
Hadley Catalano has been a freelance journalist on the Big Island of Hawai`i for seven years, since her graduation from Emerson College in Boston. Currently she is a regular correspondent for the Big Island Weekly, Ke Ola Magazine, Big Island Traveler and online websites.