"We Like Pieces that Force Readers to Think a Bit About What’s Serious and What’s Not."
The Stoneslide Corrective is a print and e-magazine launched in 2012 that publishes content weekly online with the first annual print version planned for release in March 2015. They are, as the tagline says, “a bad habit for good readers” (more on that below). They really love fiction, but, as they say, they’ll look at any genre. “We like serious, comic, lighthearted, dark, emotional, and acerbic. The important factor for us is that the work use story, characters, emotions, and other fundamental elements of storytelling to think, to ask questions, to move the mind forward.” And, by the way, the funnier and darker, the better.
Jonathan Weisberg and Christopher Wachlin talk to The Review Review about “the spectrum of awesome” that is the work published in The Stoneslide Corrective.
Interview by Linda Taylor
Of course everyone wants to know how a literary magazine began. Christopher mentions on the website that you two met in a writers critique group in the Northeast. Tell us more about that group, that initial meeting, and how you began your partnership.
Jonathan: I often think about just that—the moment when our collaboration began—because it’s been so important in my life since. It was the summer of 1998. We had both ended up in the Upper Valley of Vermont–New Hampshire (the story behind that is for another time) and were working hard at our writing. Chris suggested that we exchange writing. Even though we were each working on very different kinds of work, we understood each other and understood how much the other cared about writing. We could speak standing on the same plane, if you will.
I don’t think I’ve told him, but since then I have been trying to copy Chris. I so admired, and still admire, the clarity and concision of his writing. As I got to know him better, I was impressed with the hard work and deliberate thought he puts into the craft of writing.
Christopher: What a nice thing to say. Thanks.
Jonathan: There’s a first for everything.
Christopher: Soon after Jonathan and I began exchanging work, it turned into a group of four people meeting weekly. After a few years we all left the Upper Valley. Jonathan and I kept in touch, however, and we kept exchanging work, although with less frequency and in much larger chunks. Then in the late winter/early spring of 2011, Jonathan called to tell me that he had an idea, but that it was probably really bad. I said as long as it’s a really bad idea, I’d like to hear it.
Obviously the Internet is flush with literary magazines of all types. What vision did you both catch that got you excited to start your own? What niche did you seek to fill?
Jonathan: Sometimes it feels like we opened one more star in the Milky Way. There are so many others out there. From a business-minded point of view, it probably was a bad idea—isn’t that what they call a highly competitive marketplace, and one with a limited audience, and low margins, and . . . But I also like participating in this effort with so many other people to make our world, which can otherwise be unintelligible and harsh, a little bit more meaningful.
And, yeah, we thought we had something distinctive to add. I’m not sure we’ve always articulated it well, but it has to do with the power of thinking and feeling when wielded together, and the way careful, passionate fiction can accomplish that dual trick. We read submissions blind, and we both read everything that comes in. That’s our way of ensuring that we’re really judging the work, not the author, and that the work we finally publish reflects our shared vision of what Stoneslide is. I’ve been amazed at how often we both independently pick out the same stories as ones we want to accept.
Christopher: As we read submissions, much of it comes down to authenticity. When the craft is there, when the aesthetics align, when the narrative movement is strong and the intensity palpable, there must still be authentic expression, a thing that had to be said.
We see this in stories as disparate as Jennifer Villamere’s “Houseplants” and Lynn Stegner’s “Mona’s Coming.” Also very different are “Stripped,” by Mark Wisniewski, “Virgin in the Den of Whores,” by Tadhg Muller, and “Warning Light,” by James Esch. All the pieces we publish—from the most humorous to the bleakest to any beguiling combination—feel like they had to be written.
You’re both on different coasts now—Christopher on the Pacific near San Francisco, Jonathan over by the Atlantic in Connecticut. How do you maintain your long-distance relationship, so to speak, and how do you share the workload?
Christopher: Content-wise we do it together, editorially and creatively. It’s not that we don’t also work independently, but we always come together—to agree, to disagree, to find the best expression for each piece. We use the cloud, email, the phone, and good old Word documents. With our contributing editors Tia Creighton, Samuel Holloway, Erica Gingerich, and Mark Boutin, collectively we generate ideas, approaches, hunches, and impossibly deep thoughts, and then get down to work.
Then, of course, there are all the technical and business matters that have to be dealt with. The business side we split evenly. When it comes to technical matters I make suggestions, I ask questions—and occasionally I unwittingly exhibit understanding—but the demanding work itself is done almost exclusively by Jonathan. On a weekly basis, I am in awe of what he can do, especially when all these abilities are coupled with his dazzling writing talent.
Jonathan: I rely on the kindness of strangers. I have a rudimentary understanding of HTML, CSS, and various creative applications, and when I hit the terminal point of my own knowledge, I start Googling. I then memorize a few big words to make Chris think I know what I’m doing.
Your magazine tagline is, “A bad habit for good readers.” Describe the “good reader” of your magazine and describe the “bad habit” that ensues from constant consumption.
Jonathan: Regular consumption of Stoneslide does tend to make one disrespectful of rigid pieties and conventional assumptions. Some people find this freeing, like suddenly learning the universe is larger than you knew. Others feel orphaned and want to crawl back into a comforting lap. Among the first group, though, the experience induces a craving for deep feeling and incisive thought that can only reliably be filled by more Stoneslide.
As to the “good reader” part of the question, I’d say the readers who really connect with our stuff are disillusioned but not jaded. They’ve probably gone through the experience of gaining and losing things they once thought they needed, and they’ve learned how uphill life’s journey can be, but they continue to try to make a meaningful life. They haven’t receded into pleasing illusions or taken the balm of renunciation. They believe that literature and art can in some way be restorative. And they have a high tolerance for sarcasm. Chris?
Christopher: It’s a given that everyone makes aesthetic judgments all the time. Whether in a grocery store or on a bus without a phone or bound pages, merely looking at this and away from that is an aesthetic judgment, however unconscious. It can show us what we find engaging, intriguing, or beautiful, especially if at some point we pay attention and it jolts us out of waking sleep. When you want to be in those moments—repeatedly, with introspection and simultaneously without—that might be a sign that you’re a good reader.
Good readers enter a story or non-fiction piece searching for the unknown and/or for the familiar seen anew. When they get a payoff for their effort, they start to want more of that. Meeting the multiple desires implicit in their searches is something we try to do every week.
Stoneslide Media LLC also publishes books. Your first collection of “superlative” stories from the last two years of the e-magazine will be published in March 2015. Which came first in your vision for your company—the magazine or the books? And why take the leap into book publishing (many would say that’s risky)?
Christopher: The books and the magazine were almost simultaneous. Our view was that publishing both creates a beautiful intersection. Readers of a Stoneslide Books offering might want what comes out on Mondays. Magazine readers might want a book published by the same people who publish content they respond to weekly. That struck us as a strong connection.
Equally appealing was the fact that authors could tap into the intersection, too. This nexus would provide them with a broader readership. We wanted to be able to offer that.
It’s true that publishing books is risky. We all remember magazines and favorite pieces in them. Yet it’s clear that we often remember books longer, that they stay with us longer. To bring people something they can remember and be moved by years later, I think that’s worth the risk.
Right now you’re working on your first print edition of The Stoneslide Corrective. Can you give us a preview of what we can expect in its pages?
Jonathan: In some ways, I think the print collection will be the perfect expression of Stoneslide. We’re going through everything we’ve published in two and a half years and picking material that not only feels exciting but also has resonance with a few central ideas. We’ll have new fiction and humor, including the winning story from our first annual story contest. We’re also working with an amazing visual artist who’s creating new work tied to the theme of collection. On top of that we’re lucky enough to be working with a terrific design team to help pull it all together.
I sometimes think of Stoneslide as being like a window onto an alternate world. It’s a world that’s sometimes subtly different from ours, sometimes indistinguishable. The print edition will be like an artifact from that world, a little chunk of weirdness, beauty, photographic reproduction, and sly questioning.
I can say this unabashedly because the collection will really be just that, a collection of work from dozens of people, and the real beauty of it comes from all the care and thought they’ve devoted to it. It will also include images of a number of funnels. Perhaps more funnels than have ever been included in one magazine before.
Christopher: Funnels are crucial in many things we encounter or do in life—book spines, crankcases, and beverage reapportionment being just a few examples.
Talk to us about writing critique groups since these are obviously important to you both. What advice and encouragement would you give to writers about finding, joining, and contributing to a writers critique group?
Christopher: In my opinion the key qualities for members of a critique group are frankness and decency. There also have to be matched levels of seriousness and ambition. If you form a group with people who have these qualities, you’ll be all set.
Finding a few like-minded people when in college can be pretty easy. Outside such a forced concentration of writer-ish folks, it can get tougher. Searching Meetup might be a good start. Seeing if there are electronic or physical bulletin boards at a library or bookstore might also help. Maybe someone you work with writes seriously, or has other friends who do, too. Be open to randomness. Someone in line at a bodega or a box office might be a kindred spirit. Taking a night course in writing can be another useful step toward forming a group. You also might start by finding a larger writers’ collective. My current critique group came about that way. I’m a member of a great organization called the California Writers Club. It was founded in 1909 by Jack London and a few of his friends, and there are branches up and down the state. After attending monthly meetings of the branch local to me (San Francisco & Peninsula) I found awesome people for a critique group.
As long as you’re frank and decent in your responses to people’s work, you’ll be a valued participant. If your group functions workshop-style, listen attentively. If work is turned in beforehand, read closely. But there’s one more part.
For you yourself to get the most out of a group, you have to do an additional thing. You have to quiet yourself. When being criticized, writers occasionally start explaining. Seemingly less obstructive, although not, they might ask questions. Both impulses have to be resisted. Only ask questions after the critique has wound up, or a clearly discrete portion of it has wound up. Don’t explain. If it didn’t happen on the page, it didn’t happen. Write better next time. Revise better next time.
This should go without saying, but unfortunately can’t: if people are toxic, get out. However, if you’re new to being critiqued, don’t mistake honesty for toxicity.
Something not critical to a good critique group, but which usually happens, is that you become friends. You’ll look out for each other beyond the work itself, maybe hang out and talk about anything but writing. You might find yourselves wanting to be helpful to each other when someone has a new publication. For instance, my friend and critique group member James Hanna has a novel coming out soon. When that draws near, you can be sure I’ll be talking about it.
It’s important to remember that a good critique group saves you from yourself. No matter how volcanic your talent and how honed your skill, you will miss things. You will make glaring errors. Find people to lean on, and be there for them, too.
You both love humor and irony—in fact, that seems to be one of the important aspects of the submissions you accept. Humor is difficult to write. Can you put your finger on what makes good humor for your magazine? I know it’s a “gut” thing, but can you help future submitters know if they’re on the right track?
Jonathan: It’s true that humor is a gut thing and hard to pin down. But we’ve collaborated on enough pieces that we’ve been forced to find ways to explain why we think one line works and another doesn’t or why a particular word is funny. As you mentioned, we live 3,000 miles apart, so we don’t have the luxury of fistfights to resolve disagreements.
Here’s how I would describe our approach to humor: It’s always tongue in cheek, except when it’s not. We like pieces that force readers to think a bit about what’s serious and what’s not, what’s real and what’s not. Often this involves taking a realistic situation and exaggerating one element. For instance, we’ve published a number of pieces that touch on wealth and income inequality. One imagines a spa devoted to helping wealthy people regain their sense of self-importance. That would never happen so explicitly in real life, but how often and commonly does it happen in subtler ways?
One thing about humor is that there’s no way everyone will like any piece, no matter how great we think it is. So that means it takes a bit of courage to write it and send it out into the world.
Christopher: None of what you just said is funny. It’s very disappointing.
Jonathan: Remember the brilliant advice earlier about frankness AND decency?
Chris: I’m trying.
Who had the idea for the Rejection Generator? How does it work? And should I try it?
Jonathan: We firmly believe that the Rejection Generator is the greatest improvement in the lives of writers since the invention of easy-open snack food packaging. So, yes, you should try it. The intent is that you build your “rejection immunity” by receiving the most painful rejections imaginable from the Generator. You simply visit the site, choose from the seven options available at any given time, and the rejection arrives in your inbox. Many people sample all seven and then return for new ones when we mix it up. After that, when you get a real rejection from a publication, it barely stings.
I think the idea was originally mine, but like everything we’ve done, it really took shape once we started passing it back and forth. A dozen or so other writers have also contributed rejections, and those have been some of my favorites.
Christopher: It was indeed Jonathan who came up with the Rejection Generator. The world needs more beautifully dark thought like that. When we tested the Generator, users kept requesting more and more rejections, and requesting some of the same rejections over and over—another resonance with “habit.”
Anything else you’d like to tell your future readers and submitters?
Jonathan: We’re incredibly grateful whenever anyone chooses to read Stoneslide or to trust us with their work. The one-to-many (or two-to-many, in our case) mechanics of publishing mean that we can seldom express this feeling in a way that it can really sink in. And the unfortunate reality is that we decline close to 99% of submissions. It’s naturally hard to convince someone you’ve just rejected that you’re actually grateful they sent in their work in the first place. But Stoneslide wouldn’t exist without contributions and energy from so many people, and we are truly grateful to all of them.
Christopher: We couldn’t overemphasize that feeling of gratitude even if we tried. We appreciate everyone who reads, and everyone who submits.
Check out the humor, the irony, and maybe even the Rejection Generator at www.stoneslidecorrective.com.
Linda Taylor is an author, an editor, a writer, a college writing instructor, and a constant learner. She earned her B.A. in English and Writing from Houghton College and her M.A. in English from Ball State University. She currently teaches in the Professional Writing department at Taylor University and continues to do freelance editing and proofreading. She blogs about the joys of editing and grammar at lindaktaylor.wordpress.com.