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. The 2014 National Magazine Awards are now open for submissions.
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.
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.
Read more Off the Page interviews with NMA winners.