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The Rumpus Interview with Halimah Marcus and Benjamin Samuel

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Each week, a piece of fiction is published online. Sometimes a short story, sometimes a novel excerpt, the fictional work is handpicked—the decision weighed by an editor, an indie press, a literary magazine, an upstanding writer. Like the staff shelf in a bookstore, it is always a selection you can trust. And it is free, even when archived, even when available in Kindle and ePub formats. The only cost to the reader, really, is time, consideration, and a little emotional investment.

This is the simple yet elegant concept behind Recommended Reading, a new kind of publication launched by Electric Literature in May 2012. After thirty-four weeks of careful, intelligent, and innovative curation, it remains a strong example of why literature continues to thrive in the digital age.

I met with Halimah Marcus and Benjamin Samuel, the co-editors of Recommended Reading, on a tepid evening late last September. We situated ourselves in the back garden of the Crown Inn, one of Brooklyn’s myriad drinking spots, and over tall glasses of handsome beer, spent an hour-and-a-half discussing the ins and outs of editing an ambitious literary project, and also what it means to be an editor and writer nowadays in a creative culture that is constantly changing due to rapid shifts in technology. Marcus and Samuel had just been named “Indie Lit Impresarios” by Brooklyn Magazine, titles they were flattered by, but did not make their roles any more or less crucial than if they’d remained obscure names. And they’d just finished a stint at the Brooklyn Book Festival, where they peddled branded flasks, engaged with a large portion of the New York literary scene and book-loving public, and helped co-host the festival’s opening night party, alongside Tumblr, The New Inquiry, and The L.A. Review of Books.

It should come as no surprise that Marcus and Samuel both grew up voracious readers, with Marcus ingesting Roald Dahl and C.S. Lewis as a kid, and Samuel combing through the quarter bins at consignment shops looking for his next paperback fix. Both were also destined for the writing life, and they each began their foray into fiction at a young age. Samuel even attempted to pen his own novel in the fifth grade.[1] The two met while working at Electric Literature, and then solidified their relationship at Brooklyn College, where they both received Fiction MFAs.

Perhaps the most interesting instance of foreshadowing? In 2007, long before Recommended Reading was even a thought, Marcus used a site called FutureMe.org to write herself a series of letters. She recently received them. “One of them,” Marcus noted, “said that if I was ever going to work in publishing I should just start my own literary magazine. I don’t even remember thinking that, let alone writing it.”

The following is an edited version of the conversation we had back in September. Since then, things have continued to grow for Recommended Reading, and the publication has partnered with even more key players on the magazine and publishing front—Tin House and Armchair/Shotgun, Melville House and Grove/Atlantic, to name a few—and esteemed writers like Mary Gaitskill and Etgar Keret, all in an effort to cull together the best literary pieces out there.

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The Rumpus: Tell me about the genesis of Recommended Reading, and where that conversation started. You were both with Electric Literature prior.

Halimah Marcus: I was the managing editor, and Ben was the online editor, and there was a natural juncture to think about the structure of the magazine and decide if we wanted to change anything. Our founding editors, Andy and Scott, were becoming more and more involved in their other business, launching an app called Spun, and were no longer able to be as involved with Electric Literature. So we took the opportunity to reevaluate the structure of the magazine, and see if it was still fulfilling our mission to use digital publishing innovatively, and be on the cutting edge, to the full extent that it could. Because, you know, especially with technology, things change very quickly. And so, the publishing landscape in late 2011 was already very different than it was in early 2009, in that the model that we had championed—publishing to every platform, cutting costs by integrating digital distribution with print distribution—had actually become the standard of the publishing industry, more or less.

Benjamin Samuel: We wanted to stay innovative and responsive to trends, which has always been central to the initial mission of Electric Literature. Back in 2009 everyone said, “iPhones are going to kill publishing, and no one’s ever going to read because they’re just distracted by these devices they’re holding in their hands all the time, and by social media, and all these things buzzing around them.” But we proved through Electric Literature’s quarterly anthology that if you deliver fiction to where people are naturally congregating to consume media, that they’ll pick it up. And Recommended Reading—because we distribute directly through Tumblr—actually fulfills that in a much more natural way.

Marcus: And publishing one story a week—for free—is actually a much more organic way to reach our readers, rather than a quarterly magazine that comes out with months in between each issue. We can keep in touch with them [the readers], maintain that regular clip of reading by being on Tumblr. People can follow us, or people can click directly through to the stories from Twitter and Facebook.

Rumpus: And then, of course, your Tumblr followers can re-blog.

Samuel: Right, it increases the exposure. And publishing just one story a week also allows people to sit with a piece of fiction for a while and not feel that pressure of, There are a million other things that are coming out! So we’re not really contributing to the buzz; we’re refining things, making it easier for people to spend quality time with fiction.

Rumpus: I wanted to ask about your Single Sentence Animations, and whether those were initially part of your package, and whether you had talked about them during your initial conversations about Recommended Reading.

Samuel: The animation series started with Electric Literature‘s quarterly journal as a way to bring fiction to a new medium and a new audience. It was never conceived to be like a book trailer, which actually does not seem to be a good way to market books.

Rumpus: Why’s that, do you feel?

Samuel: Most book trailers are sort of inspired as movie trailers. And books and movies (and the way you market them) are not the same thing. Single Sentence Animations are stand-alone works of art.

Marcus: Book trailers certainly can be effective, but the temptation to just depict the story often gets in the way, and they can turn out cheesy. So that’s why we have a Single Sentence Animation model, where we choose a sentence, and then the animation is inspired by the sentence, and influenced by the story, but not trying to depict the story.

Samuel: The actual idea came from Scott Lindenbaum, who’s one of the founding editors, and those weird animations of the MTV logo in the 1980s. We’ve been doing them since 2009, and now we’re actually going to be featuring Single Sentence Animations on this new MTV animation show.

Rumpus: Oh, wow.

Marcus: Or they’re featuring our animations. Edwin Rostron animated the Steve Edwards story from Electric Literature, and then the Ben Marcus story for Recommended Reading. And he actually said that he was inspired by the old “liquid television” MTV animations, and then they [MTV] came back and licensed his animation, so that was a neat little circle. Now we do the Single Sentence Animations for the original fiction that we [Marcus and Samuel] choose for Recommended Reading, so that’s one a month. And we did them for almost all of our Electric Literature stories, which means we have over thirty-five animations now.

Rumpus: What’s your process on collaborating with animators and artists, and getting them to do these Single Sentence Animations?

Samuel: It’s sort of fifty/fifty. Sometimes we’ll find an animator whose work we really admire, and we’ll approach them. Other times, though, animators will get in touch with us and say, “How can I get involved in this series?” A.M. Homes actually had an animator in mind that she wanted to work with for “Hello Everybody.” That animation has gotten thousands of views, and has been shared quite a bit.

Rumpus: How did you come to choose Ben Marcus’s “Watching Mysteries With My Mother” as your first story? Because that was an editorial pick, on your part.

Samuel: We wanted to have a story that, right out of the gate, was phenomenal. We both read it independently, came into the office the next day, and were both speechless about how good the story was.

Marcus: And it was a little tricky, because we got it on submission, I think, for Electric Literature. So we had to go back to them [Ben Marcus and his agent] and pitch the idea of Recommended Reading. And fortunately both Ben’s agent and Ben were really into the idea—very supportive of the free fiction aspect, and also the aspect of supporting other presses. So that was really fantastic.

Rumpus: Piggybacking on that, what has been your favorite story that you’ve published so far?

Marcus: I think, for me, it probably would be a toss-up between two that I wrote introductions for. I mean, there might be a time when we both feel equally passionate about a story—we have to fight to the death over who gets to write the introduction. But the Helen DeWitt story, “Recovery,” and the A.M. Homes story, “Hello Everybody.” Both really great stories. The Helen DeWitt story, I think, is—well you could say this almost about both of them—but so unusual and wonderful. I just feel like she circles and spirals in on something really true and devastating and great, so I love that story.

Samuel: For me, the Seth Fried story. I really was thrilled to be able to publish that, because I’d read his collection, and it really sort of changed the way I thought about my own writing. And shifted what I thought I could do with fiction. He’s really great at writing things that are of the genre fiction bent, but are stories that anyone can appreciate, regardless of where they think their taste lies.

That, and the new translation of Clarice Lispector that we ran in our first week. You and I read her in Ernesto’s [Mestre-Reed’s] class in college.[2] The translation came out with New Directions. If you’re familiar with literary fiction, and work-in-translation, then you know their brand, and you know that you can trust the stuff that they publish. But, especially in the States, people don’t read literature-in-translation enough; it’s just not on our radar.

Rumpus: I was at the Brooklyn Book Festival yesterday, and I went to the PEN translation panel, and people were just lamenting that fact. They said something like only three percent of international literature is translated into English. Which is unbelievable.

Samuel: Publishing under-represented writing is important to us, which is part of why we’re distributing on a channel that’s pop culture; we’re using social media so we can deliver directly into the mainstream. And so we’ve published Clarice Lispector, and Samanta Schweblin (through PEN America). We also have seven very short stories by this great Israeli writer named Alex Epstein, featuring illustrations by David Polonksy of Waltz with Bashir.

Marcus: And Peter Stamm. In late October, Kevin Brockmeier will be the guest editor, and we’re going to be reprinting a story by an Italian writer, Dino Buzzati. It’s been out of print since 1987, and it’s been translated into English, but it’s just a long out-of-print collection. And apparently a lot of his work is untranslated.

Rumpus: Something that I love about Recommended Reading is the power you have to consistently present all this new or undiscovered work to a vast audience of young readers. I often think, in addition to only three percent of the work being translated, how much of that is actually being read by young people? People who are not even in college yet, or people who are in college but maybe won’t take a literature class that’s Latin American literature, French literature, whatever.

Marcus: Literature-in-translation’s not even taught very much in most colleges.

Rumpus: Right. That’s so true.

Marcus: Unless you specialize.

Samuel: Since we’re publishing one story a week, we can really highlight our writers. People are much more likely to give a writer they’ve never heard of a chance when they don’t have the impression that they’re taking a risk.

Marcus: We really want people to be able to discover authors through Recommended Reading. I’ve heard people say, “Oh I’d never heard of Clarice Lispector, and then I went out and I got her book. I’m reading all her stuff now.” Or, “I found Office Girl. I’d never read Joe Meno before.” Another friend of mine was really turned on to Peter Stamm, and got that collection. So that’s the ideal situation for us when we’re partnering with these presses.

Rumpus: I have to say, as a writer myself, and as somebody who took a slew of literature courses in college, there are some writers who I didn’t even know when I was going through your stories. And it was such a pleasure to be introduced to such wonderful voices.

Marcus: We’re discovering new writers ourselves. There are so many people out there, there’s no way you could know it all. So it’s fun for us, too.

Rumpus: Who’s been your favorite discovery?

Marcus: I might go with Clarice Lispector. Because I didn’t know her work, really. I’d heard of her before, but I hadn’t read her. What she was doing and when she was doing it was particularly remarkable. Especially as a woman. There are male counterparts that have gotten more attention, historically.

Samuel: I think the Samanta Schweblin story, as well, was a wonderful discovery for us, in that she was not a writer that I’d heard of before. A lot of Spanish and Latin American literature is drowned out by these larger voices, like Javier Marías and Bolaño and Márquez. And I think that’s what people always conceive of.

Marcus: Borges.

Samuel: Borges, yeah. So, it’s good to find those voices that are waiting to be heard.

Rumpus: The model for Recommended Reading seems to be so community-based, where you invite writers, editors, and individuals who work with or run indie presses and magazines to assist with the curatorial process. How has it been to collaborate with so many people who care as much about the survival of literature as you do?

Samuel: We’re not alone in our love of fiction. As readers, we’re part of a large community. As independent publishers, we’re also part of a large community. And for us, it’s important to be able to say, “Here’s a great magazine that we admire—that people should be reading.” With Recommended Reading, we’re able to co-brand, expose magazines and their editorial vision to new readers, and help others share our appreciation for literature. It’s important because that’s how literature gets discovered: through these small presses, or these magazines. And they should have a larger audience.

Marcus: And on a personal level, it’s been rewarding to get to work with people like Bridget Hughes and Hannah Tinti—you know, these publishers and editors who I admire tremendously—and get to know them a little bit through working with them. And then, also, it’s been equally rewarding to work with some of the writers who I haven’t actually gotten to meet—we’ve just corresponded on e-mail. For example, Aimee Bender’s recommendation of Steven Millhauser: that was such a cool view into her inspiration. I really felt like I learned something from her picking that story.

Samuel: It’s great also to see these literary giants looking eye-to-eye, on some level.

Marcus: Or just to know that Steven Millhauser said, when [Bender] picked his story, that he didn’t even know that she’d read a syllable of his work. That’s so cool to have a window into that—he got to learn that she loved him.

Rumpus: On top of connecting readers with writers, you’re connecting writers with writers. So you’re acting as this very nice mothering figure in the community. And also, it’s great, because this shows that the sense of community extends beyond New York. I think that in the States, especially, it’s really easy—and maybe I’m making a generalization—but those commenting from outside the community might say, “Oh, literature in America is New York. That’s where publishing is.” And here, you get an L.A. writer like Aimee Bender, or Samanta Schweblin—all these writers who are in-translation. That’s really wonderful.

So, switching gears a little, I wanted to talk about your editor’s note for “Recovery,” actually.

Marcus: Okay.

Rumpus: You said much of that time was spent “trying to understand the feeling the story gives me, that some central mystery of discontentment and ennui—something I didn’t even know was a mystery to begin with—has been explained.” I was wondering if you guys, individually, could encapsulate your experience of reading really great fiction—

Marcus: Oh, that’s a hard question.

Samuel: You’ll run out of battery…

Rumpus: Because as a writer, I feel like when I read fiction—when I read a sentence, and it hits me in a certain way, I have this indescribable moment of…the world just kind of stops. And maybe that’s a really terrible way to put it—a cliché. But, what are those moments that make you jump out of your skin, where you’ve read something so incredible, you just want to run out of your office, down the street, and tell the first stranger you meet? (Which you effectively do every week.)

Marcus: I have a very physical reaction when I’m reading something accomplished, which is particular to when I’m reading submissions. Because we read a lot to find work to publish, and it becomes discouraging when the next pub date is bearing down on you, and you haven’t found something; there’s that aspect. So when I start to read a story that I suspect is great, even in the first line, and then I start to learn is great, and I start to know even before I’ve finished it that we’ve found something, my heart races. And I’ll sweat. Like, I really get physically excited.

Rumpus: Have you ever cried?

Marcus: Have I ever cried… I’m sure, yes, but I have to think about when. That’s a good question. We try not to tell each other what our reaction to a story is before the other person has read it, which is challenging when you’re really excited.

Rumpus: Do you have this moment where you pick up a story and you’re like, “Ben. Okay. I want you to read this by the end of the day!”

Marcus: I want to say, “Read this! Just read it right away!”

Samuel: When Michael Cunningham guest-edits, we’re publishing what he calls an “invisible classic from Canon B.” It’s an excerpt from Glenway Wescott’s The Pilgrim Hawk. And we both came into the office after having read it, and we were both quoting different passages from memory.

Marcus: Actually, we were quoting the exact same sentences.

Samuel: Yeah. And for me, I normally get tortured by that, because you read a great sentence, and you want to remember it, and you want to take out your pen and highlight it, or write down that passage somewhere. But it’s a conflict, because it takes you out of the story to do that. But then otherwise it’s gone. You let the pages pass by and…when it’s good I want to be able to find it again. We both had similar reactions, too, to the Ben Marcus story.

Marcus: Yeah.

Samuel: I read that Ben Marcus on the train. Reading in public can be very distracting, but I was so immersed in this story, and when I finished it, I wanted to turn to this person sitting next to me, this complete stranger, and say, “You have to read this.” And one of our friends and readers, Matthew Doyle, read it on his iPhone while he was also on the train, and when he got off the train someone shouted, and he was so startled—he was so in the world of the story, the fact that there was this world outside of it took him by such surprise—that he dropped his phone and shattered it. And it was as if the impact of that story was expressed through his shattered iPhone.

Rumpus: Wow. So did you guys foot the bill for the new iPhone?

Marcus: No.

Samuel: We’re an indie publisher.

Marcus: Yeah, no way.

I’m still thinking about your crying question, because I know there was one story that did make me cry, and I’m trying to remember what it was. It might’ve been “Three,” by Marc Basch, from Electric Literature. I’m made to cry pretty easily by film and reading, so it’s not that notable.

Rumpus: It just happens all the time… Speaking of having those visceral reactions, something that really propels me when I’m reading is voice, and Recommended Reading is no exception to this. I specifically remember when I was going through these stories again—which was actually done in a period of three days, by the way.

Marcus: This is interesting. We should interview you about that.

Rumpus: I read your stories as though I was reading a collection, and so it was interesting to see the curatorial process at work through that. Anyway, voice: “Cattle Haul” comes to mind, specifically, and “North Of.” And then the Katie Bellas story, “Glissando.” The stories just punch you in the face with their nuanced, affective narrators. I feel like reading voice—to me, it’s similar to when I’m watching a film, and an actor I love is onscreen, and their performance style is so haunting, I feel like I could watch them eat a sandwich and still be satisfied.

Marcus: Unless it’s David Hasslehoff.

Rumpus: I don’t feel like I’ve ever looked at David Hasslehoff and been tempted to watch him eat a sandwich.

Marcus: Well there was a video of him eating a sandwich. Bad reference! Scratch that from the record!

Samuel: Old meme!

Marcus: Old meme.

Rumpus: I feel this way when I read fiction: when the voice is so mind-numbingly good, it almost doesn’t matter if anything happens. If there’s a plot or story, per se, because I’m just so sated by that internalized monologue, or at least language that cuts to the bone of who that character is. What elements of fiction propel you along, as editors but also as writers?

Samuel: Certainly voice plays a large part in it, especially because that’s often the first thing that you’re exposed to. I’m a little less concerned about having this interesting plot drive the story. Both Ben Marcus’s story and Seth Fried’s story are instances where not a lot happens. Seth Fried: a man is literally floating through space. And Ben Marcus’s story is a man alone in a room, typing. And so voice is incredibly important in those instances, because if the voice is boring—if the voice doesn’t give you reason to pay attention—the story loses its authority.

Marcus: But if it’s done well, you don’t notice if there’s not much of a plot.

Samuel: Exactly.

Marcus: You feel as if there is a plot. Because I would never say that plot is not important—it’s essential. But I don’t think plot is enough to make a story interesting. Plot is necessary to hold a story together, and make it comprehensible, often, but it definitely does not guarantee that the story is interesting.

Samuel: There are also the ideas that a story addresses, too. And the elements of life that it’s trying to capture.

Marcus: That’s something that I really responded to in “Recovery”: the ideas that the story was addressing. In “North Of,” too. It has a big “wow” factor in the beginning—that Bob Dylan is coming to Thanksgiving dinner—and certainly events at dinner happen during the story, but it’s over the course of a day, and it’s more concerned with capturing a moment in that character’s life.

Rumpus: For me, the best moment in that story actually has nothing to do with Bob Dylan—he’s not even in it—and that’s the scene in the diner, between the sister and the brother. When he comes and picks her up, and she’s run away from home…

Samuel: And they have this moment.

Marcus: Bob Dylan doesn’t matter in that story as Bob Dylan. He serves to contextualize the story within American pop culture. Which I’m finding is a quality I’m drawn to in stories—contextualization within society. They all do it in so many different ways. “North Of” uses Bob Dylan; “Glissando” uses the market crash of 2008. “Space Traveler” extrapolates what the working-class society will look like in the future, but the main device in that story is a movie star. In “Hello Everybody,” you have this L.A. plastic surgery culture…or “plastic culture,” as you could call it. I love that relevancy, which is one of the things that makes it new, makes it different. It’s saying something that no one’s really said before, about now.

Samuel: They’re like the thoughts you didn’t really know you had.

Rumpus: How does being an editor—especially one who reads others’ work so closely, because you have this one-story-a-week publishing schedule; and you guys are only picking one per month, a story that’s just coming from you—how does that help with your own writing? Being such a close reader?

Marcus: My literary heroes are changing. And the way I want my fiction to be is changing. I’m just trying to wait that out, because I’m a little bit impressionable right now. I don’t mean in my youth, but I mean, this month. I don’t want to copy anybody, because that’s always going to make you fail. You just end up doing an imitation of someone else poorly, rather than your own thing well. It’s helpful to identify mistakes and clichés and things that you see all the time, and just get more workman-like and practical about your own writing: cutting out things that are lackluster. I’m hyper-aware of needing to write something that’s attention-grabbing and unusual. And so, in some ways, that’s making me slow down a little bit.

Rumpus: Are you concerned with things like first sentences? Last sentences? I’ve been to a bunch of short story panels where writers have said that the first sentence in a story is so important. And the language in a short story is so important, because it is, by nature, brief, and everything needs to be exact and perfect for that particular story.

Marcus: I’m more concerned with first sentences, but that’s something you worry about last. If you’re worried about writing a good first sentence first, you’re an idiot. You’ll never write a story.

Samuel: Sort of jumping back a little bit: when we were still doing the quarterly anthology, we had these teams of readers, and we would send them five stories a week, and the idea would be, You pick the story you think is great, the story that you think is publishable. And there was one reader who I was working with, and just for months, he didn’t find anything that spoke to him. And I sent him an e-mail and was like, “I’m sorry you haven’t found something yet.” And he was also a writer, and said, “It’s actually great, because these stories that aren’t speaking to me are ones that I can see improving my own writing.” He could see a reflection of himself in them, and the mistakes that he makes, and where he stumbles. The other side of that, though, is, on the editorial side: you spend so much time reading, worrying about the magazine, that your own writing often falls to the wayside. But when I find myself reading a story that I love, the first thing I start thinking is, I’ve gotta start writing again! That passion of writing, that feeling of accomplishing something, you can experience through another story.

Rumpus: Our managing editor, Isaac Fitzgerald, is always saying, “Don’t be precious with your words.” And I was wondering, when did you get over that voice in your head that says, “No one wants to read your work,” and does being an editor help with that? Are you less afraid of the community now that you’re a fairly substantial part of it?

Marcus: I have to phrase my answer to this carefully because I worry I’ll change my mind after I say something. There are certainly still people who would intimidate me with their talent and with their reputation. Absolutely. But then also feeling comfortable approaching someone, to ask them for a story, or even to write an introduction for their story, is very different than feeling confident about people reading your own work. They aren’t even in the same ballpark. But there is also a thing—if someone read a story that you published, and they thought it was crappy, then they might think, What gives them the authority to choose fiction? But, you know, hopefully people aren’t jerks about that. Because those are different skills.

Samuel: Submitting your work is a brave act. Right? I mean, you’re exposing a very private part of yourself, because everyone writes in isolation. And sending that out to an agent, an editor, to a magazine—whoever it is, it’s pretty frightening. But at the end of the day, we’re very fortunate that we get to talk to a lot of these editors who are at the top of the game, and they’re all people. They have normal lives, more or less. And it’s not just this anonymous thing, where you send your manuscript—where you hit “send” on your e-mail—and then it just goes to some faceless giant who’s in charge of your literary future. It’s people who just genuinely care about literature. And that’s a great thing about being on this side of publishing: where you get to see those editors, and know that they’re all good people.

Rumpus: I feel like no one ever talks about winding down. Again, Isaac once admitted in an interview we published that, at the time, he slept with his computer in his bed, and he would wake up in the middle of the night just to check his e-mails, and also to make sure things were publishing on time. So how do you divorce yourself from this thing you love, and have a life outside of it? And also work on your own writing?

Marcus: I don’t know…call me in six months.

Samuel: I personally haven’t worked that out yet. I’m trying to establish a schedule that’s more conducive to it: waking up earlier, so that I’m not checking my e-mail the first thing—because EL and that mindset is the first and last thing that I consider every day. I want to be able to write, but I haven’t written since we graduated from our MFA program. I’ve tinkered, but nothing substantial. And actually, at our commencement ceremony, that was the same—was that the day before we launched our first issue, or the day of?

Marcus: The day we graduated.

Samuel: So we were standing in line, waiting to get our diplomas, and our very first issue was out there without us being able to—

Rumpus: All this stuff was happening live—people were responding to it—and you couldn’t even watch it happen.

Marcus: It was a long ceremony. We have iPhones…we checked them.

Rumpus: Who are some editors that you look up to?

Samuel: Dave Eggers has been a hero of mine since I was a teenager. I still look up to everything that he’s done as a writer, and as an editor, and as someone that’s in charge of this whole literary empire that people respect and love. I’m pretty much a fan of pretty much everything they [McSweeney’s] do.

Marcus: Hannah Tinti, who writes, as well as edits. And I had her as a thesis tutor, and so she was really supportive of my writing, as well, and I was able to get some advice about balancing writing and editing. Also, Roxane Gay, who seems to do everything, and she writes essays about really important topics that often are not getting attention, or the right attention.

Rumpus: She’s a powerhouse. Talk about editors…yeah, people are people, but then it’s always cool to meet your heroes. I met Sheila Heti recently, who’s a personal hero of mine, both because she’s the interviews editor of The Believer, but also because she’s immensely talented and smart and isn’t afraid to experiment and take risks. She started Trampoline Hall, which is an excellent project. Anyway, when I met her, I made such a fool of myself! I went up to her and basically told her how great she was for five minutes. And this was before I’d even read How Should A Person Be?

Samuel: It’s always surreal. And when we were first starting Recommended Reading and approaching some writers that we admired to help us get this off the ground, Jim Shepard was one of the first people that we contacted. And the idea of sending an e-mail to someone that you hold in such high regard…I kept asking myself: Are my commas in the right place?

Marcus: But then you find out he’s the nicest man alive.

Samuel: He is the nicest man alive. But I changed the way that I use my commas in salutations in an e-mail, because his were better.

Rumpus: How does he use his commas?

Samuel: Well, I wrote, “Hi Jim,” which was enough…for me it was crazy just to write to him at all.  Like, “Hi Jim Shepard!” Like, holy shit. But he wrote back, “Hi, Ben.”

Marcus: Kevin Brockmeier also wrote, “Hi, Halimah.” But I don’t know. That’s one of those things where when the incorrect usage is in the language for a long time, it becomes accepted.

Samuel: Sure. But I think Jim Shepard noticed.

Marcus: You think he noticed?

Samuel: And I regret neglecting that comma. But I’m sure he’ll forgive me.

Rumpus: So not putting the comma is actually incorrect. We’ve all just been writing e-mails incorrectly.

Marcus: I don’t know—we’d have to look this up. I’m not prepared to go on the record about this.

Rumpus: Halimah, before you came for this interview, Ben and I were talking about Brooklyn, and I guess fairly recently, it’s become this thing that it’s a “literary hotbed,” and we were talking about how that’s kind of funny, considering it’s been a literary city for a while. But I wanted to know: how important is the geographical specification of Brooklyn to who you both are as writers and editors? And also, do you think Brooklyn is correctly being pegged as an epicenter for all things “cool” and “exciting” that are happening in literature nowadays?

Marcus: It’s hard for me to imagine ever writing a story that’s set in Brooklyn. Or I certainly wouldn’t now write a story that’s set in Brooklyn. I’ve only lived here for two years. I don’t feel an attachment to this place in that kind of profound way. But it is a really exciting and great place to live. And on a certain level, all the speculation—is it the epicenter of literature?—it’s just about who lives here and who publishes here. And rent is too expensive in Manhattan—

Samuel: Yup.

Marcus: —and it’s a densely-populated city, and so people live in Brooklyn. It’s not maybe the magical phenomenon that everybody makes it out to be. But, you know, New York [and] L.A. have long since been the cultural epicenters of the two coasts. San Francisco, too, I guess. And that’s because they’re the most densely-populated cities. So yeah, it’s trickling into Brooklyn because no one can live in Manhattan, or rent office space in Manhattan. Maybe in a few years it’ll be Queens. In fifteen years, Queens, and then we can cultivate Staten Island.

Samuel: You’re absolutely right: it’s that the rent is cheaper. There are a lot of people here, and it’s a very creative environment, and you’re close enough to this publishing hub. There are great bookstores. There are a ton of writers around. But it’s also—it’s kind of okay to be broke in Brooklyn.

Marcus: It’s really helpful, though, to be able to meet people face-to-face as a writer, as an editor, as a publisher. You can’t always convey the same sorts of things over e-mail or even over the phone that you can convey when you meet face-to-face. That’s definitely a benefit that I cannot deny.

Samuel: And having readings and stuff. Knowing there are a ton of writers nearby. But that’s not to say there’s something magical about Brooklyn, that great literature is happening here because of something that’s in the water.

Marcus: It’s funny, I lived in Philadelphia before I moved here, and I was interviewed for an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer about the literary scene in Philadelphia, and I was defending it, and saying it was great, and how I wasn’t going to move. But anyway, I moved to Brooklyn, and now when I look back, there was nothing going on in Philadelphia. So who knows? You’re just into where you are, that’s my point.

Rumpus: Because this also comes up in a lot of conversations about writing, do you feel like where you each individually come from has had a lot of impact on what you’ve written, and how you’ve written it?

Marcus: It has to.

Samuel: There’s no way around it.

Rumpus: Tricky question: in what direction do you see literature heading?

Marcus: Death! No, just kidding. They asked a similar question for “Brooklyn Lit” [the issue of Brooklyn Magazine featuring "Indie Lit Impresarios"], and it was specific to Brooklyn, but I kind of have the same answer, which is that I think the digital versus print conversation is getting tired. I’m already tired of it. We go to panels, and people ask the same exact questions. I really see an organic relationship between digital publishing and print publishing. And so I’m hoping that that will catch on; this kind of dichotomy won’t be so rabble-rousing. But that’s more the future of publishing, rather than the future of literature. So if you want me to say something about the future of literature, you can come back to me.

Samuel: I probably don’t have a very intelligent answer to that. I’m not a literary critic or anything. I just like good fiction. But it’s promising that people are reading more than ever before. And a lot of that is to the credit of digital publishing, and the availability of it. Everyone can now pretty much carry around an entire library with them wherever they go. I guess you could look at trends, and the popularity of certain books. But I don’t think that really works. Fifty Shades of Grey sold millions and millions of copies, but I don’t think that’s the future of literature.

Marcus: I don’t know if you could predict one style becoming the norm.

Samuel: But you can predict that people are going to rip it off for years to come.

Marcus: That’s true.

Rumpus: I guess where my question is coming from…and this was a conversation that was being held when I graduated from college in 2009, and then I actually left the country, so perhaps this is moot. But I think there was a lot of concern, at least at the time, with our generation’s DIY mentality, and how there are emerging writers who seem to want to break the rules without really knowing them first. And then they’re writing all these very self-conscious and confessional books, and publishing them. I did notice a boom in that kind of writing. To me, what people were talking about, at the time, was young writers were receiving accolades for implementing some very Dadaist techniques: they were, in a way, destroying literature and acting like they were building something new from its ashes. But then other people were giving them flack for giving emerging writers a bad name because this was happening. So voices were getting lost.

Marcus: I sort of take objection to attributing anything like that to the term DIY, because I think the over-confessional, unedited aesthetic that you’re talking about is more a “LiveJournal” thing. And DIY is what makes indie publishing possible a lot of the time. The DIY values and principles are what enable us to publish something like Recommended Reading. Do it yourself. Don’t fucking hire someone for every single thing—do it all yourself. So I just want to separate that off the bat. I also don’t think it’s possible to give emerging writers a bad reputation. Because they’re all different.

Samuel: Right, there’s always that movement of people who are trying to shake things up and do something new. And when that movement catches on, there’s a new movement that’s trying to upset what had gone before it. But in terms of what you’re talking about—this very self-conscious stuff that’s very “me”-centric—

Marcus: Isn’t that essential to literature?

Samuel: It is essential to literature. But something—I forget who pointed this out—but they were looking at author bios, and it used to be, “So-and-so was a forest ranger, and then they worked on a cattle ranch, and did all sorts of crazy things.” It was sort of like, writers went out and lived life. And now if you look at author bios, they’re often similar in that, “They did their MFA at this school, and now they live in this city.” And so there isn’t that diversity. And this person—this isn’t my opinion—but this person also extrapolated that to say, “If you look at a lot of novels, work is not mentioned a lot. It’s this character doing things, and work is never brought into question.” I don’t know if that’s a movement. I don’t think that’s also the future of literature, but that might just be the effect of the rise of MFAs.

Marcus: I also don’t lament the loss of fetishizing odd jobs. No one cares that you worked at a hot dog stand. There was recently this letter published that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his niece or something, that said, and I’m paraphrasing (probably very inaccurately), “You have to just lay your soul on the table, or else you’re not going to write anything worth a damn.” And I think that that’s true. So if something is unsuccessful, it’s not definitely because it’s over-confessional.

Rumpus: What do you enjoy most about the editorial and curatorial process?

Samuel: Very clearly, it’s being able to champion a work of literature that you truly believe in. Something that we’ve always held very close to our mission as a publisher is discovering new writers. And so being able to find a voice that hasn’t found its audience yet is a wonderful thing for the writer, and it’s a wonderful thing for us.

Marcus: I agree with that, and then: I love my job. I’m so excited—I love going to work.

Rumpus: That’s so amazing to hear. It’s just really incredible, and I don’t hear it often enough.

Marcus: It’s funny, because people always talk about, “Oh, you have to find something you love and do it.” Or some stupid cliché. But, yeah, when you do something that you love, it feels like you’re tricking someone. I feel like I’m getting away with something.

Samuel: We occasionally have these moments when we’re focused on the mechanics of publishing an issue—coding, making sure that everything’s good, marketing, and all that stuff—and then we’ll still have a moment of, Holy shit—our job is awesome!

Marcus: Or sometimes we’ll have a moment of, What the hell did we get ourselves into?

Rumpus: What are you reading now? And what do you turn to when the ideas aren’t moving and when you need to make everything fluid again? Like, when you’re blocked. What are those books you go back to, or authors that make you remember why you love to write?

Marcus: I just finished A.M. Homes’s new novel—which is really long, so it took me a while to read—but that was an exciting read, and a chaotic novel in a really interesting way. I don’t imagine that she’s the type of writer who had everything on a Post-It note—because that would be the most schizo-looking wall. But it all works.

And I always go back to Carson McCullers. She’s probably my favorite writer. I go back to her short stories and her novellas and also her novels.

Samuel: Right now I’m reading Alex Epstein, who we’re publishing next month. He writes these pieces of micro fiction, which are almost like a distillation of what a story is.

Marcus: We only read people we publish these days.

Samuel: Yeah, it’s a lot of “whoever’s on submission is who we’re reading.”

And the book that I go back to often is Moby Dick. I just reread it for the third time this summer. Someone recently described it as an alternative Bible, and I think that’s a great way to look at it, because it’s about life and it’s about death and it’s about so many things. It’s also very funny. I was e-mailing with Matt Kish recently—who did that illustrated Moby Dick—and we were talking about, “If there’s anything that I want to believe in, it’s something that has a sense of humor.” It was only on this third reading that I realized that it’s actually a very funny book.

Marcus: That’s when you know you’re losing your mind: when you’re reading Moby Dick for the third time and you’re laughing.

Samuel: That’s the book that I love; it can address all the elements of life and not be the traditional Bible.

Marcus: I also go back to Bartleby The Scrivener, if we’re on the Melville kick.

Rumpus: Do you guys have any questions you want to ask each other?

Marcus: So my question for Ben is, did his friendship almost break up over e-books? I know the friend that he’s talking about. I smell an exaggeration.

Samuel: It is a hundred percent true. And to be fair, he—my friend Alex—was working on the Obama campaign at the time, and he was moving from city to city, and to carry all these books with him was crazy. The Kindle was recently-available, so he bought it. But…I love books. I loved books at the time. I continue to appreciate that visceral quality of turning pages and having a book that weathers and ages with you. But Alex would get into these heated arguments, because that was also the height of “the Kindle is going to kill literature,” and I totally bought into it. And so I got into fights—like almost screaming matches—with Alex over it. He was betraying something that I believed in.

Marcus: Seriously?

Samuel: Yeah.

Marcus: That’s so hot-headed.

Samuel: And he’s a reader. But we were both on different sides, and liked to argue. It’s great to have a serious debate about something like that. Of all the things you’re going to fight with your friend about, the future of literature is a pretty good thing.

***

[1] In an e-mail exchange after our interview, Samuel confided, “I was reading a lot of science fiction at the time, Bradbury and Michael Crichton (what I considered ‘grown-up books’), so I started writing The Last Crusoe, a book about Robinson Crusoe’s descendant getting marooned on some distant planet. I filled about thirty pages in a composition book before I discovered that they’d already made a movie about that in the ‘60s. I remember feeling defeated when I saw it on TV, but I think I decided that they’d done a pretty good job with it, so conceding didn’t feel so bad and I enjoyed the process anyway.”

[2] Full disclosure: Samuel and I attended undergraduate together at Sarah Lawrence College, and were lucky enough to take a year-long Latin American literature course that almost exclusively featured an exemplary reading selection.

***

This year, Electric Literature will begin publishing novels, and on Valentine’s Day, will release an e-book version of Sam Pink’s Rontel. You can read an excerpt at Recommended Reading.

 


Rebecca Rubenstein is the former interviews editor of The Rumpus and the editor-in-chief of Midnight Breakfast. When not reading books made of paper, she can be found thinking aloud on Twitter. She resides in San Francisco and maintains a healthy relationship with the fog. More from this author →