The Rumpus Interview with Rumpus Managing Editor Isaac Fitzgerald

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One of the first times I had a real conversation with Isaac Fitzgerald was a couple of years ago at Mission Creek Café on Valencia Street in San Francisco. It was a Rumpus volunteer meeting—the site had no employees at that point—and he was trying to convince me to edit a massive transcript he was supposed to be sculpting into a zippy little interview for editor-in-chief Stephen Elliott. I tried to help, but he was distracted so we ended up talking about books and squirrels and fog, drinking lots of coffee, and getting very little done.

Next thing I knew though, Isaac was a full-blown badass, managing the whole site, emceeing the Monthly Rumpus gigs at the Make-Out Room, hosting book club discussions, and editing long interviews and essays with the care one rarely finds on the internet. This last February, I pulled out the recorder, told him to sit still, and peppered him with questions.

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The Rumpus: So, you got laid every hour or so at this year’s Associated Writing Programs conference, in D.C.?

Isaac Fitzgerald: Ha. That was a lie.

Rumpus: Really? That’s the rumor that inspired this interview.

Fitzgerald: I’m sorry to disappoint. I got zero action at AWP.

Rumpus: I was expecting sordid tales of Bukowski-like living in the throbbing core of careerist writer-dom. But really, we’re here to set the record straight. You read Steve’s daily emails? He wrote that you got picked up more than anyone else there.

Fitzgerald: I read the Daily Rumpus. And it was a beautiful thing for him to write. I won’t lie, that one hit me really hard. I have it saved somewhere.

Rumpus: I print them out sometimes. He’s mastered the art of the email.

Fitzgerald: I agree. That one meant a lot to me, even though it wasn’t true. It’s just that I worked really hard at AWP, and people took notice. That’s what he was getting at.

Rumpus: The Rumpus got a lot of attention?

Fitzgerald: We sold out of everything we brought to AWP. Books. Mugs. I don’t think anybody else did that. Of course, I didn’t get to go to any of the things.

Rumpus: What things?

Fitzgerald: The panels, the readings—I was busy selling. But I did see a lot of friends. Like this beautiful girl I moved out to San Francisco for, who’s getting her MFA now, she was there—

Rumpus: —I thought you said you didn’t get any!

Fitzgerald: I didn’t! I’m just saying I heard from friends like her that The Rumpus kept coming up in conversation, in panel discussions—people kept saying that we’re doing good work, that we’re kind of ahead of the curve. Writers and folks who I would never even think knew about The Rumpus were saying nice things about it in public. And—I should say now—none of this would have happened without our legion of wonderful volunteer editors, writers, and artists. Seriously. All of The Rumpus’s success is because of everyone who works so hard on the site. I love The Rumpus family.

Rumpus: Speaking of family, can you give me the history of yours in five lines or less?

Fitzgerald: Immigrants. Like everybody else.

Rumpus: From?

Fitzgerald: Ireland. Some Scotland. My grandparents on my dad’s side were mill-workers. My mom’s were farmers.

Rumpus: That’s six lines. How’d you get to San Francisco?

Fitzgerald: Born and raised in Boston. Then north-central Massachusetts. Both my parents were teachers, and we were poor, but they were very big into education, and things like the Catholic Worker. After getting into some trouble as a kid I got a full scholarship to boarding school, and later a full scholarship to college where I studied philosophy and political science and worked at a bar. After college I got a job in Philadelphia working for a politician, realized a little too late that I hated politics, dropped the job, and followed the aforementioned beautiful girl to San Francisco.

Rumpus: How did you meet Stephen Elliott?

Fitzgerald: I moved here five years ago for the city, which is gorgeous, and the girl, but other than that I had nothing else going for me out west. I got a job at Buca di Beppo, which is like the Olive Garden but worse. There are service industry jobs, which can rock, and then there are corporate service industry jobs, which are always horrible. I hated it. But the money was decent and I had extra time on my hands so I started volunteering at 826 Valencia. I had heard that there was a storytelling workshop, and I didn’t realize it was for kids at all—I didn’t know what McSweeney’s was at the time, I didn’t know about any of that. But I love books and writing, and kids can be fun, so once I figured it all out I really liked it. Somebody at 826 knew I’d worked in politics back east and was like, “There’s this guy, Stephen Elliott, he runs a monthly event called the Progressive Reading Series where all the money goes to progressive candidates. He’s looking for volunteers. I think you’d really like him.” And so I walked up to him, all eager beaver, and was like, “Hey! I’d like to help with the Progressive Reading Series.” And that’s how it started.

Rumpus: When did you first visit www.therumpus.net?

Fitzgerald: It was in those early days right after Steve was like, “I want to start a website,” and I was like, “Don’t,” but he did anyway. It was just a WordPress blog at that point. “Rumpus Beta.” December 2008, maybe?

Rumpus: Why is The Rumpus in San Francisco and not New York?

Fitzgerald: In New York—hell, anywhere on the eastern seaboard—my job would be a hundred times easier. I wake up around six or seven out here, and my laptop—this is terribly sad—my laptop’s usually in my bed.

Rumpus: You sleep with your laptop.

Fitzgerald: I do. And that’s because when I wake up at six or seven, it’s nine or ten on the east coast. People are already at work. They’re already getting their thing going. So I try to schedule posts that will go up early, but you never know what’s happening. So would my job be easier out there? For sure.

Rumpus: The Rumpus would be better off in New York?

Fitzgerald: Absolutely not. What I’m trying to say is that San Francisco is integral to The Rumpus, even though most of this country’s literary centers are on the other coast. Even though my job would be easier in New York. The Rumpus was started by Stephen Elliott. And Stephen Elliott, in my humble and horribly biased opinion, has truly helped build the contemporary literary scene in this city. Of course San Francisco has a literary past that goes way back, but in this generation he’s helped make it happen. A big part of that is the spectacular events he hosts. They’re very special to us. They’re these beautiful moments once a month when all these people get together. It’s not just a reading, it’s a movement, it’s a good time. For a while, we only made money by way of the events. That’s all I got paid. Whatever we took at the door, that’s what I would make for the month.

Rumpus: Was it enough to live on? Did you live in the park?

Fitzgerald: I had incredibly cheap rent because I lived in a rattrap of a building where dudes would shit on my stoop, and we didn’t have heat.

Rumpus: But what about The Rumpus’ aesthetic—is it particular to San Francisco?

Fitzgerald: Well, we’re very sex-friendly. I’m friends with people who work at Kink.com. Steve is friends with everybody in the kink community. There are a lot of people involved with The Rumpus who are sex workers. I’m not sure New York would be as embracing of a website like ours. Don’t get me wrong, there are more than enough sex-friendly people in New York, and The Rumpus has a very good relationship with that town, but San Francisco fits us best. I personally love this city. Rumpus aside, I just think there’s something really amazing happening in San Francisco, particularly in the Mission. It’s just starting to be recognized by outsiders. The New York Times article that came out a few months ago

Rumpus: About bookstores and readings here?

Fitzgerald: Yeah, that was great, but this scene has been building for years. Literary-minded people are attracted to this city. People are drawn here by the history, by the combination of openness and discipline, by McSweeney’s, by City Lights. You have this great group of talented individuals who aren’t concerned with what’s happening in New York. A group doing their own thing. To get out now would be stupid. I don’t mean to knock New York. It’s the best city in the world. They’ll have a reading and of course hundreds of people will come out and it’s awesome, but there’s a particular flavor to the fervor out here. I like it.

Rumpus: Literary fervor.

Fitzgerald: Yes. And also New York’s just bigger. There’s so much going on. The literary scene is one of thousands and thousands of scenes. San Francisco has a lot going on, too, but it’s easier to make an impact as an individual. I don’t think my story would have happened in New York. To have been washing dishes in a bar, then write one article for a guy who runs a media website who likes it so much he hires me, then a year later have an author friend who I met at random ask me to work on his new website project with him—that kind of thing happens in New York, I’m sure. But it’s harder. There are a million people with grad degrees, family connections, this and that and the other thing. In New York, your chances of jumping from washing dishes to what I do now would be much slimmer.

Rumpus: The Rumpus is run by two dudes, but it seems like a place where writers of all genders feel really comfortable.

Fitzgerald: A lot of credit there goes to volunteer editors like Julie Greicius and Elissa Bassist. Many of our most popular contributors are women—Sugar and Antonia Crane, to name only a couple on a long list. The openness at the Rumpus helps it to be a very welcoming place for all sorts of writers, or at least I hope it does. It’s important in publishing, I think, to always be striving to represent more voices. More stories. More backgrounds. Sexuality. Gender. Race. I mean, we’re always working to be better in terms of that, but I’m proud of what we’ve managed to do thus far.

Rumpus: Is the Rumpus getting in bed with AOL anytime soon?

Fitzgerald: Not likely. But I guess if AOL wants to offer us enough money, sure. Then I could start paying my volunteers.

Rumpus: How often do you check email?

Fitzgerald: Constantly. It’s making me anxious that I’m not checking it right now. Steve encourages me to take time off email, which is awesome, but I rarely do.

Rumpus: Does he take time away from email?

Fitzgerald: I don’t know. Probably not so much anymore. He gets up really early. I think he takes care of it very early so he can have a constructive day. Email is part of the job. I’m constantly putting out a hundred little fires. There will be days, or I’ll go on a trip, when I’ll say to myself, “I’m not going to check my email,” and I become so anxious that it’s a huge relief when I do check. It’s terrible. But to finally check just makes everything in my world so much better. I’m addicted.

Blood In, Blood Out. The Rumpus Tattoo

Rumpus: You have a Rumpus tattoo now, right?

Fitzgerald: Yeah. By Ian Huebert, who also designed all of The Rumpus logos—past, present, and future. People think the tattoo is the near-equivalent of getting a girlfriend’s name done, but I tell them when I get fired I’ll just put “fuck” above it. Steve has the same tattoo. Contrary to popular belief we’re not afraid of commitment.

Rumpus: Did you do a lot of internet work before the Rumpus?

Fitzgerald: I wouldn’t say “a lot.” I worked as the blog editor at a progressive media website for a year. It was a burnout job.

Rumpus: How so?

Fitzgerald: I was constantly working. There was no backup. Steve is very good at arranging volunteers, making sure somebody is looking at The Rumpus on Saturday or Sunday, so even though I am kind of always working, at least I have some assistance. But the media site, at the time, didn’t have a “Breaking News” section—so it fell to the blog to cover news as it happened. I had to constantly be on top of the news. Nights. Weekends. Holidays. All the time. I always felt like I was behind. But “breaking news” for The Rumpus? Don’t get me wrong, there are times when we’re like, “Shit, we need to get something up right away,” but for the most part, it’s more relaxed. That being said, I learned a lot about online publishing at the media site. There’s no way I would have been ready to manage The Rumpus without that experience.

Rumpus: What takes up most of your time on the job now?

Fitzgerald: Well, it’s an always-growing thing. It’s a living, breathing thing. Always evolving, but always demanding attention, too. Like a baby. At first it was just learning the tone. One of the things I love is that we’re not sensationalists. Like, this interview will be called “The Rumpus Interview with Rumpus Managing Editor Isaac Fitzgerald.” It will not be called, like, “Drunk Boy Makes Good” or “Sheep Farmer’s Grandchild Does Right.”

Rumpus: “Right” with an R?

Fitzgerald: With a W. Parenthesis: “Barely.” Anyway, at the beginning it was learning what not to do. How not to be sensationalist. It was editing pieces: I was coming from a blog-editor’s perspective—very short pieces, very easy. I wasn’t used to reading these longer narratives and personal essays that The Rumpus was doing. It was learning what Steve was looking for. In our little “About Us,” it says “We won’t do anything cutesy with Legos.” That’s because I kept trying to put up Lego videos.

Rumpus: Why?

Fitzgerald: It’s probably a childhood thing. My half-brother who didn’t live with us gave me his Lego collection. I loved those things. Who doesn’t want to watch a fun Indiana Jones Legos video?

Rumpus: What does Steve do when things don’t go well?

Fitzgerald: Steve’s never raised his voice to me. He’s probably the only person in my life who’s never raised his voice to me. And that’s not to say he does a creepy quiet angry thing either. He’s a very good boss. Don’t tell him I said that.

Rumpus: Not a word. When was the last time you wrecked on your skateboard?

Fitzgerald: Last night! Did someone tell you to ask that? I don’t know if you can see this, but if this makes the cut for the interview, you can link to a picture of this mess. This morning I woke up and was trying to get some writing done and I immediately thought I had carpal tunnel. My wrist killed. I’ve been a waiter, a bouncer, a barback, a bartender—what I hadn’t had to do in my life until recently was spend massive amounts of time at a computer. June will be two years at The Rumpus. Plus a year at the media site before that. Three years of being a laptop jockey. So I woke up this morning and was like, “Oh crap! I finally got the carpal tunnel!” And then I remembered that I’d just bailed on my skateboard. It wasn’t carpal tunnel, just stupidity.

Rumpus: Do you have a favorite Shakespeare?

Fitzgerald: Got to temper that skateboard talk with some dorkiness, huh? I’m going to be totally cliché, but it’s because I acted in it—

Rumpus: There’s no wrong answer.

Fitzgerald: Right, right, there is no wrong answer. I’m just thinking about how I’m letting go of the secret that is my acting career…

Rumpus: It’ll be fun to try to capture this in the transcript.

Fitzgerald: The silence? The face-touching? The redness?

Rumpus: Lots of emdashes.

Fitzgerald: Right—okay, well, I’ve always liked the crazy people. Richard III, I think, is fantastic: “Now is the winter of my discontent.” The hunchback ready to fuck shit up. But, well, this is terrible, but my favorite is really Romeo and Juliet. I played Mercutio.

Rumpus: “We waste our lights in vain, like lamps by day.” Do you read actual books?

Fitzgerald: Of course. Some of my most cherished time is when I get to close the laptop and just pick up words printed on paper. I love books. And I’m not against ebooks. I’m not against the iPad. Good for them: anything that gets people to read. That’s how I feel about Harry Potter, that’s how I feel about Dan Brown, Stieg Larsson. Because I think that’s how it all starts. I think if you start reading anywhere, eventually you do stumble across something like The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake or The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and all of a sudden you’re like, “Oh my God, I have a boner for good writing.”

Rumpus: Tell me about your own writing.

Fitzgerald: I’m just like any young writer who doesn’t have it together yet. I’ve written a bunch of personal essays. That’s what I’ve been paid to write. The dream is to write eight short stories. And I have about two and a half. I go over them with friends, and it means the world to me. There’s so much reliance on friends, on the talents of others, the insight of others. Being able to take what’s good and what’s bad from what’s thrown at you. Steve taught me that. The short stories are about childhood or young adulthood in rural areas. I’m working on one about the time I spent smuggling medical supplies into Burma (a tale which I won’t get into here). Mainly I write stories out of a desire to show my personal life, but with a veil. I love what Steve does, I love memoirs, but I don’t think I have it in me. I don’t think I have the courage.

Rumpus: You’re drawn to fiction.

Fitzgerald: I’m Irish-American. I write like I tell stories: with a lot of bullshit. That’s what my father raised me on. Even before he was giving me books he used to tell me all kinds of stories.

Photo by Bonnie Chan, Flavorpill SF

Rumpus: What books did he give you?

Fitzgerald: He gave me On the Road when I was eleven. He gave me Bukowski. Kesey—you know, the classics for making sure your kid turns into an upstanding citizen. I just started looking up to whoever he looked up to. He introduced me to Shakespeare. One way we knew each other was through books.

Rumpus: Are you a hard guy to get to know?

Fitzgerald: Not at all. I mean, I was as emo as the next teenager. I put the shell on. Tried out the tough guy act. But one day I woke up, some time in college, and I was like, “You know, somebody asks about me, I’m just going to tell them. I’m not going to play hard to get.” Though I do spend a lot of time alone.

Rumpus: Do you think most people are basically good?

Fitzgerald: I do. I have a huge amount of faith in humanity. Many people I know don’t. I think it’s why people play mysterious or hard to get, especially editors and writers and artists. That’s familiar to me, for sure. It’s the feeling of, “What are you going to do with that information? How are you going to hurt me?” My approach is, I’ll put it out there for you. For the most part, I do not think there are many people out there who want to hurt me, as ridiculous as that sounds. Because I know the world’s a shitty place. I was a news editor for a fucking year! All I did was read shitty headlines that made me depressed. But at the same time I think, “You know, I’m going to be open.” This way, if somebody likes me and wants to be a pal, that’s awesome. I love friends. And if somebody doesn’t like what they see, that’s fine and they get to move on. I watch Steve. He doesn’t hide much. I admire that.

Rumpus: Are you a simple man?

Fitzgerald: Yes. I love books. I love kissing. I love beer. That would be my list.

Rumpus: That sounds pretty good.

Fitzgerald: Well I think I have it pretty good. I’m poor, but it’s fine. You have to understand, when Steve asked me if I wanted this position, he was asking if I wanted to leave a job that had health benefits and good pay. It was the first time in my life that I had had a job that didn’t make my parents feel like they’d screwed up. I was twenty-five. I actually told Steve, “No, thanks” at first. But I woke up the next morning and I had the worst feeling in my gut. I called him and I was like, “Hey, is that offer still on the table?” And he was like, “Yeah, of course.”

Rumpus: Was he relieved you took the job?

Fitzgerald: Actually, it would be months later that Steve would tell me that he went to bed the night I said no and he slept like a baby, because he was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, I was going to be responsible for Isaac? Bringing him onto this? That’s insane!” And the next morning, when I called, is when he got the bad feeling in the gut, but he felt like he couldn’t take the offer off the table. At that point, The Rumpus had been around for six months. I was leaving this place that had existed for thirteen years to go to work on my friend’s literary blog. When Steve asked if I wanted the job he said, “If you want to come do this, it could be great, but it could also not exist in three months.” And that’s how Steve does everything. That was one of our original slogans: “What could possibly go wrong?” That’s how he lives. What could possibly go wrong? Try it. You fuck up. You fail all the time. But when you succeed a little, it’s great.

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Special thanks to Ben Shattuck for transcribing this interview.


Jesse Nathan is an editor at McSweeney’s and the managing editor of the Best American Nonrequired Reading. His poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in jubilat, the American Poetry Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Nation. He was born in Berkeley, grew up in Kansas, and lives now in San Francisco. More from this author →