Off the Page, with Charles Yao & Little Brother Magazine

Charles Yao (Photo by Paul Terefenko)
Charles Yao (Photo by Paul Terefenko)

Off the Page is a regular interview series produced by the National Magazine Awards Foundation. Today we catch up with Charles Yao, publisher and art director of Little Brother, a literary magazine which won its first NMA this past spring.

NMAF: Little Brother only recently burst onto the Canadian lit-mag scene, with your first issue released in 2012 (and already sold out, I see). What is your perspective on the value of literary magazines to Canadian readers and culture, and how did this influence what was no doubt a bold decision to launch LB?

Charles: Literary magazines are valuable, for sure. They’re like this living system—new writing, lovingly packaged, parceled out every few months—that keeps the culture moving, keeps it evolving. That’s the best-case scenario anyway.

When we started Little Brother, we wanted to be a part of that, but also do our own thing. If it’s not new, why bother? So we junked what we didn’t like, and made a magazine that we personally would want to read. LB has always been very DIY. No grants, no open submissions, no army of slush readers, no affiliations with universities. Just two people pushing out their literary and aesthetic sensibilities onto the world! We’ve run 10,000-word essays on hot dogs, professional wrestling, illness and laughter, women in print media, the influence of America on Canadian writers. We’ve commissioned photo essays on pop bottles and “boring” apartment buildings. It speaks to the breadth of Canadian literary culture that there’s room—even a relatively sizeable audience—for what we’re doing.

As far as the “bold” decision to launch our own mag. Back then, [founding publisher] Emily M. Keeler was thinking a lot about Canadian literature: whether there was anything new under the sun—that kind of thing. Little Brother is like this candy-coloured mag that, twice a year, says, “Yes. Yes there are new things coming out of Canada that will more than repay your commitment.”

NMAF: Emily has said that she decided to pursue LB as a print publication (as opposed to digital) in part because the magazine wanted to create space for long pieces and experiments, for “prose that isn’t forced to hurriedly unfurl itself.” And she spoke of the rhythm of reading a printed magazine over digital. Is this sense of writer-reader engagement on a kind of special sensory plane a motivating force for you as a publisher, and why is this important in a media landscape with so much content?

Charles: A beautifully designed, thoughtfully paced magazine is simply the best medium for reading a certain kind of literary writing. If you want to read work that requires and rewards sustained attention, then a quality print mag, like McSweeney’s, like The Paris Review, like Little Brother, is still where it’s at.

And part of that, for sure, has to do with the sensory appeal—with, as you say, the rhythm of turning pages. You get that “space” that Emily mentions. You get the literal white space of the margins surrounding nice typography, which is its own kind of minor luxury these days. But you also get the mental space of uninterrupted reading. And you just don’t get that, at least not right now, with the junky impermanence of most web sites. (Just to be clear, though, the web is great for 95% of all reading. Most of my reading—most of everyone’s, I imagine—takes place on the web.)

I’ve also mentioned this elsewhere that an important aspect of publishing is excitement. Does the reader get excited when something is released? I think people still do get genuinely excited when a new issue of a print magazine comes out. They’re probably less excited when a web site gets refreshed. And, let’s be honest, they’re hovering in the bottom rungs of excitement when an eBook is released.

Finally, as producers, making a print, as opposed to a digital, magazine is a necessary motivator. We could have made a Tumblr. That would have been easy, but a little struggle is good. The fact that a print magazine costs money to produce, takes time to design and distribute, requires a wide skill set, forces you to learn new things—these are all pluses. Having stakes is important.

Jess Taylor at the 2014 NMA Gala
Jess Taylor accepting the award for Fiction at the 2014 NMA Gala

NMAF: A wonderful emerging writer named Jess Taylor won last year’s National Magazine Award for Fiction, for a short story called “Paul” in LB No. 3. Describe your experience of the nomination and the award, and what were you thinking when Jess walked up on stage?

Charles: Well, funny story. We first heard Jess read an early version of “Paul” at a live reading series, and we immediately wanted it for the mag. Wanted it quite badly. The problem was that she had already submitted it to this other journal, which, incredibly, couldn’t decide if they wanted to run it! I still remember the day that Jess sent us an email to say that we could have the story and start the editing process. That was a good day.

Still, I didn’t think Jess would win. It’s not because “Paul” isn’t great. And it’s not because Jess isn’t amazingly talented. It’s because, you know, she’s a relative newcomer. At that point, she hadn’t published very many stories and Little Brother wasn’t even finished its second year! So: you have a 24-year-old writer with an offbeat but beautiful story about three guys named “Paul,” and it’s published in a small-run magazine that’s only on its third issue—and it’s up against Michael Winter and Pasha Malla [and 3 other nominated writers]. Yet, somehow, she won! Actually, that’s some false modesty, I know: Jess’s story is a stone-cold classic!

When they announced Jess as the Gold winner, we pretty much lost our shit! She ran up on stage, and gave this really endearing speech. Her speech, and the one from an editor at Torontoist, were the best of the night. They were both deeply appreciative and a little shocked and very happy. I remember talking to Emily about whether we should even go to the ceremony; the price of the tickets was not inconsequential—that’s money we could put to good use elsewhere. But it turned out all right in the end. Also: there were two chocolate fountains at the post-awards gala, so I really can’t complain.

NMAF: What are your publishing goals for Little Brother, and where do you see recognition, such as that of the National Magazine Awards helping, to fulfill those goals?

Charles: Our goal is to keep growing, to get in front of as many potential readers as possible. Little Brother No. 5, the meta issue, is the first where we have proper national distribution. It’s important that LB be in stores across the country, in a lot of cities. It’s cool to see a spreadsheet of all the places selling it. My hope is that someone who’s never heard of LB stumbles on it, finds it intriguing enough to pick up, and brings it home. That kind of serendipity was how I found a lot of magazines—like early McSweeneys and Speak—that were important to me.

We’ve also launched a speaker series, called What We Talk About, which was originally started by the late Alicia Louise Merchant and Peter Merriman. Both of them, coincidentally, wrote essays for LB2. One reason we started LB was to build this community of like-minded writers, artists, and readers. So the lecture series is an extension of Little Brother! The first–about Witchy Women!–was held on November 19 at the Drake Hotel.

With Emily now the Books Editor at The National Post, we’ve grown the administrative side to compensate: Lydia Ogwang from Worn Fashion Journal is now our publishing associate, and Evangeline Holtz, who talked us into letting her be our publishing assistant (really!), will be helping us as she finishes her PhD. Jess Taylor, speak of the devil, will become our first fiction editor, which is very exciting. She’s as dedicated as anyone we know to nurturing, finding, and publishing new fiction writers, and she has a sensibility all her own—though it fits well within the context of LB. Emily will still work on the big essays, and I’m still the art director, but now also the publisher.

As for the National Magazine Award, I think it’s given us a certain legitimacy in the eyes of people who might have otherwise written us off as this upstart publication that just does what it likes. That’s true, but getting a Gold NMA is proof that there are other people who like what we’re doing, too.

Find out more about Little Brother at littlebrothermagazine.com and on Twitter @yourLB. Read Jess Taylor’s National Magazine Award-winning story “Paul” at the NMA archive

Read more Off the Page interviews with NMA winners.

The Call for Entries for this year’s National Magazine Awards will commence on December 1. Small and literary magazines, find out about our Small Magazine Rebate for 1 free entry to the NMAs.

Off the Page, with Arno Kopecky

Arno Kopckey (Photo by Jay Devery)
Arno Kopecky (Photo by Jay Devery)

Off the Page is back. In the latest installment of our popular interview series, we chat with National Magazine Award finalist and freelance writer Arno Kopecky, author of The Oilman and the Sea, shortlisted for this year’s Governor General’s Literary Awards.

NMAF: You’re an intrepid magazine journalist. We’ve read your reporting from Iceland and Columbia and others in The Walrus, from Beaver Lake in Alberta Views, and recently from the British Columbia coast in the Reader’s Digest story “The $273 Billion Question,” for which you were a finalist for a National Magazine Award this past spring. How did you get started on this journey to a freelance magazine writing career, and what do you find personally or professionally rewarding about it?

Arno: Intrepid? Thanks, but groping in the dark is usually how it feels. I studied creative writing at the University of Victoria, and when I graduated in 2002 I realized I had no idea how the world worked, let alone how to write about it; so, on Bertrand Russell’s advice, I travelled. Moved to Spain and got a job teaching English, and after two years I’d learned (barely) enough Spanish to land a reporting internship in Oaxaca, Mexico. A string of magazine and newspaper internships followed: New York, Toronto, Nairobi. I was basically a professional intern for a few years. Somewhere along the way I started selling the odd story to various publications, and before long I was too old to be an intern, but the writing and travelling continued.

The thing I love about my “job” is what I think many journalists love, whether they travel or not: Writing gives us an excuse to meet interesting people doing interesting things. We get to join the conversation.

NMAF: The RD feature story appears to have led to an even larger project, your latest book The Oilman and the Sea (Douglas & McIntyre), which won the 2014 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction and is shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award. Was there momentum from your fascinating voyage up the BC coastline to the magazine article to the book, and how did your writing journey proceed?

Arno: Actually it was the other way round: the book contract came first. I pitched the idea to my then-editor at Douglas & McIntyre about two days after my friend Ilja Herb (whose photographs are in the magazine story and book) bought a 41-foot sailboat. We wanted to see the oil tanker routes proposed by Northern Gateway for ourselves, and it was clear from the beginning that the trip would generate tens of thousands of words, if only we could find a home for them. Douglas & McIntyre signed on early and gave us the reason we needed to pursue the expedition.

But Reader’s Digest signed on very quickly as well, and was hugely supportive from the outset. My editor there fought to get me real estate for one of the longest stories that magazine has published in recent history.

Two weeks after I got home from the sailing trip, D&M went bankrupt. Suddenly that Reader’s Digest feature was the only thing I had going for me. Thankfully, Harbour Publishing swept in to the rescue and resuscitated D&M, so that by the time my RD feature was on the stands I had a book contract once again. All I had to do was… write a book.

oilman-sea

NMAF: Your approach as a writer to the complex debate about the Northern Gateway pipeline could be characterized by journalistic curiosity, a sense of adventure (to say the least) and perhaps a sense of responsibility, at least with respect to seeking out grassroots perspectives in places such as Bella Bella, Kitimat and others. Was there a particular place or event in the evolving process that made you think, This is the heart of the story, this will grab the reader’s (and editor’s) attention?

Arno: The Great Bear Rainforest–as the north and central coast of British Columbia is known– was itself the thing that captivated me from the outset. In some ways it’s the story’s central character. Here’s this Switzerland-sized labyrinth of whale-jammed fjords and evergreen islands on BC’s north and central coast, the biggest chunk of temperate coastal rainforest left on earth, that also happens to be one of the oldest continually inhabited regions on the planet–Heiltsuk, Haisla, Haida, Gitga’at and many other coastal First Nations have called this place home since the last ice age. I’m not sure how many Canadians are aware of its existence. The fact that oil tankers are now poised to navigate through those waters for the first time was, in some ways, just an excuse to talk about this teeming, volatile, amphibious zone, the likes of which happen not to exist anywhere else on the planet.

NMAF: What is the significance to you of being nominated for or winning awards for your work, whether National Magazine Awards or others? Is there (or do you foresee) a measurable impact on your career?

Arno: I heard a debate on CBC a while back as to whether there weren’t too many awards in Canada’s literary scene these days; that may well be true, but it doesn’t feel so when you get a nomination yourself. It’s become a cliché, how hard it is to make a living at writing, and anyone who wants to give writers a few bucks and some attention-grabbing praise has my everlasting gratitude.

That said, it’s hard to measure what the impact is on your career. Doors crack open, but you still have to push through; money comes, and then it goes. I guess for me personally, insecure hack that I am, the psychological boost that comes with an award is its most lasting aspect. Recognition helps put the self-doubting demons to rest, and it can be called on to subdue them when they inevitably reappear.

Arno Kopecky is the author of The Oilman and the Sea, which is nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award (to be announced next Tuesday, November 18) and won the 2014 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction. He is also the author of The Devil’s Curve: A Journey into Power and Profit at the Amazon’s EdgeFollow him on Twitter @arno_kopecky.

See also:
NMA winners headline shortlists for GGs, Writer’s Trust, Giller Prize
New book by Arno Kopecky investigates anti-mining activism
More Off the Page interviews with NMA winners

From the National Magazine Awards archive:
The $273 Billion Question, by Arno Kopecky
Reader’s Digest, Honourable Mention, Science, Technology & Environment, 2013

The Only Risk is Wanting to Stay, by Arno Kopecky
The Walrus, Honourable Mention, Investigative Reporting, 2011

Off the Page, with Canada’s History editor Mark Reid

Off the Page appears regularly on the Magazine Awards blog. Today we catch up with Mark Reid, editor of Canada’s History, winner of the 2012 National Magazine Award for Words & Pictures.

NMAF: Canada’s History (formerly known as The Beaver) is one of this country’s oldest publications, six years away from its centennial. What do you consider the mandate of the magazine to be, and has this changed much in the past 94 years?

Mark Reid (Photo: Marianne Helm)
Mark Reid (Photo: Marianne Helm)

Mark: The mandate is to turn as many Canadians as possible on to their history, and to convince them that our stories are as interesting, entertaining and engaging as any other nation’s. This mandate has changed immensely over the years. In 1920, the magazine began as an in-house newsletter for the Hudson’s Bay Company. As years passed and the fur trade died, the magazine became more of a nostalgia magazine for the “days of yore” on the trap lines, telling stories of the Far North. By the in the 1980s, it had changed focus again, becoming increasingly a “history magazine.” And in 2010, we changed the name to reflect our current focus, going from “The Beaver” to “Canada’s History.” Continue reading

Off the Page, avec Isabelle Arsenault

La série Off the Page paraîtra périodiquement dans notre blogue. Cette semaine, nous découvrons quoi de neuf avec l’illustratrice Isabelle Arsenault, lauréate de 2 Prix du magazine canadien et de 2 Prix littéraires du Gouverneur général.

FNPMC: Nous vous félicitons de gagner récemment votre deuxième Prix littéraire du Gouverneur général (illustrations, jeunesse, français). Votre livre, Jane, le renard et moi, écrit par Fanny Britt, raconte l’histoire d’Hélène, une jeune fille qui fait l’objet d’intimidation par ses condisciples, se sent inférieure et dont le seul plaisir est de lire Jane Eyre. En quoi cette histoire a-t-elle une résonance chez vous, et comment avez-vous créé l’image d’Hélène?

Isabelle : Le personnage d’Hélène est une jeune fille discrète qui se retrouve sans amies à un âge où l’appartenance à un groupe prend de l’importance.  Sans avoir été moi-même victime d’intimidation, je me suis inspirée de souvenirs de ma propre jeunesse, de scènes dont j’ai été témoin et d’impressions que ces souvenirs m’ont laissé.

J’ai décidé de représenter Hélène comme étant une fille sans style particulier, plutôt neutre et effacée à laquelle le lecteur puisse facilement s’identifier.

FNPMC : Plus tôt l’année 2013, vous avez remporté un Prix du magazine canadien, votre deuxième, pour une série d’illustrations dans Québec Science, dans le cadre d’un article intitulé « Organes recherchés ». Quel processus créatif utilisez-vous lorsque vous illustrez un article de magazine? Puisez-vous votre inspiration exclusivement du texte, ou d’autres sources?  Continue reading

Off the Page, with The Feathertale Review editor Brett Popplewell

 

Off the Page is an interview series that appears regularly on the Magazine Awards blog. Today we catch up with Brett Popplewell, editor of The Feathertale Review, winner of the 2012 National Magazine Award for Best Single Issue.

NMAF: The Feathertale Review has been dubbed the “illegitimate love child of Mad Magazine and The New Yorker.” We just saw your latest issue, no. 11, double in size to 128 pages. Is this a signal to readers that the child is growing up? And if so, where is it headed?

Brett Popplewell: It’s definitely a sign that the child is growing up. Where it’s heading, I have no idea.

Truth is our entire team has grown up since our launch in 2006. We were just kids back then who felt there was an absence of high- and low-brow humour magazines in the Canadian market and thought we could be the cork to plug that hole. Lee Wilson, Feathertale’s co-founder and art director, and I wanted to create something that would feel fresh and cutting edge but that would hark back to an age when magazines leaned entirely on illustration to bring their words to life. We’re the ones who started calling our creation the “illegitimate love child of Mad Magazine and The New Yorker” because it felt like the best way to describe it.  Continue reading

Off the Page, with J.B. MacKinnon

Off the Page appears regularly on the Magazine Awards blog. Today we catch up with writer J.B. MacKinnon, winner of 11 National Magazine Awards and author of The Once and Future World (Random House Canada).

NMAF: In an essay titled “A 10 Percent World” (The Walrus, September 2010), you argued that humanity’s vision of an idyllic past is myopic; that in seeking to temper the impact that we have on our environment, our purpose “is not to demand some return to a pre-human Eden, but rather to expand our options”; that “our sense of what is possible sets limits on our dreams.” What did you mean by expanding our options beyond the limits?

J.B.: “A 10 Percent World” looks at the natural world of the historical past—a much richer and more abundant state of nature than we know today. We’ve largely forgotten this more plentiful world, and that limits our sense of the possible.

Yes, it’s depressing to find out that grizzly bears used to live on the Canadian Prairies and they don’t any more, or that Vancouver waters were home to a year-round population of humpback whales that were all slaughtered by 1908. But if we aren’t aware of these facts, then the absence of the bears and the whales seems normal. When we do become aware of them, we’re able to set a higher bar for our vision of what nature can be.  Continue reading

Off the Page, with journalist and blogger Julia Belluz

Off the Page appears regularly on the Magazine Awards blog. Today we catch up with Julia Belluz, whose blog–Science-ish–published by Maclean’s, won gold in the inaugural National Magazine Award for Best Blog earlier this year.

NMAF: Tell us a bit about Science-ish, what you consider its publishing niche to be, and who your readers are.

Julia Belluz (Photo: Jessica Darmanin)

Julia: Coffee is good for your health! Coffee is bad for your health! Vitamin D will save your life! Vitamin D will kill you quicker! I created Science-ish in response to bewildering and contradictory claims like these that float around in the popular discourse.

This confusion doesn’t end with individual health choices. Politicians frequently make assertions about health that aren’t necessarily informed by evidence, as do journalists, celebrities, and anyone who thinks they can get away with it.

So the blog is a sane place where readers can learn about the actual science behind the headlines. My readers tend to be doctors, nurses, students, policy wonks, researchers, and anyone who is concerned about health and science.  Continue reading