by Pawl Schwartz
Eli Horowitz is an editor at McSweeney’s, as well as a designer of their uniquely packaged Quarterly Concern, their books, and a published author in his own right. His tastes and style strike a unique and not-oft travelled path between the highbrow literary and the wonky far reaches of what the written word can do, and how it can affect the physical world. He will be appearing at Columbia’s Story Week to discuss publication and its place in the world today.
UR Chicago: At Columbia Story Week, the talk you’re going to be a part of is called “Beyond the Dream, What It Takes to Get Published.” I was wondering, what do you personally think it takes to get published?
Eli Horowitz: I have a little bit of time left to figure that out, right? I don’t really know. The important thing, which is sort of encouraging and sort of discouraging, is that there is no secret to it. There is no secret thing that anyone is missing. Discouraging in that there is no one fact you can learn that will make everything fall into place, and encouraging in that no one else is holding back some special knowledge from you.
UR: Do you think it’s gotten harder to get published in print now in the Internet age?
EH: Harder to get punished — I mean published [laughter]. Oh, let me start over. I would say yes in a strict mathematical sense, but I’m not even sure if that’s true. There are a lot of other ways to have your voice heard without being ‘published’ on the Internet. But see, that’s the main reason that I don’t have a good answer to this, because I don’t see being published vs. not published as some sort of magical state the way it used to be. It’s not some mystical river you come to where everything changes. It’s more about whether other people are experiencing your work, plain and simple. The kind of stamp of approval of publication really shouldn’t matter with all these other avenues. I suppose the thing is to just keep in mind that whoever is handing out that stamp of approval is no more or less of a doofus than you or me.
UR: Speaking of publication, do you ever deal with the slush pile at McSweeney’s?
EH: We’ve actually made a big effort to not think of it like a slush pile or treat it like one. For the Quarterly in particular, it relies on stories, and about half of what we publish comes out of there for every issue. Because we put all the stories in there, whether they were best sellers or first time writers. It was more of the rack where we kept the submissions, so that none was held above the other. With our books it’s a little less common to do that, just because those are usually people we’ve already had a relationship with. Like right now, I’m finishing up editing this book for John Grant who came to us initially unsolicited, just out of nowhere. That is what I love about our submission process — it is easy to be surprised by a new author. Things get boring when you are only picking and choosing the books you can imagine.
UR: So, is that the big thing McSweeney’s looks for? Something surprising?
EH: Sure. I mean, if I can hand out some practical advice here, it pays to think about the person on the other end who is reading tons of submissions every day. Just being different, just grabbing me, and I don’t mean by having a purple envelope — something with words, hopefully. Standing out in the text itself. We got a lot of — it wasn’t that the stories were bad, they were almost all competent, but they would come off as if a certain standard of competence was the ultimate goal. Rather than being driven by a certain... strong voice or narrative. Trying to write the story that only you could write is probably the main thing that grabs us.
UR: Do you find it difficult to re-invent the cover and design for every new issue?
EH: Being a quarterly, it’s not as demanding as, say, a monthly magazine would be. For all of us, the best issues happen when the content of the writing is somehow what inspires the overall design. Ideally, each issue calls for its own design.
UR: Do you see McSweeney’s as almost playing with the idea of the graphic novel in that way?
EH: I don’t see it as anything new; I think it’s actually a very old idea. Something that books have gotten away from. When you think of the olden days, like even in the 1800’s, a novel would have its, you know, 13 illustrations at the front, and that was the mark of a real serious book. Then you compare that to the modern evolution of the book, which would be like the Kindle, which says "books are nothing but their text."
UR: So, you’re trying to bring people back to an appreciation for the actual physical form?
EH: If it is going to have a physical form, let’s make it earn that physical form.
UR: Speaking of, in your book Clock Without a Face, the mysteries in the book contain clues to real jeweled clock-face numbers strewn around the country. Have all of these numbers been found yet?
EH: There were twelve emerald-studded numbers, and eleven of them have been dug up. Number twelve is still out there, and that one has as many jewels as all the other numbers combined.
UR: Where did you get the idea for that book?
EH: A lot of places. My co-author on it, Matt Barnett — we both really liked this book that was published in the late seventies. The story in it was kind of this Renaissance fair romp, but the main point was that the author, who was also something of a jeweler, made his own golden hair that he buried somewhere in England. From what I can tell, every child that was born in England between 1965 and 1973 thought that they were going to get this golden hair. Kids were digging all over England. That idea attached itself to our imaginations pretty hard.
UR: Are you working on any projects currently?
EH: Well, I’ve published another book that came out last year called Everything You Know Is Pong, an illustrated cultural history of ping pong. Right now I am collaborating on a long novel that will also have a weird digital format. I can’t discuss too much of it because it is so complicated, but it’s the reverse of what I was saying about a physical book earning its format. This is our attempt to figure out — if you’re going to read a book on your phone or iPad, what can that do that paper can’t? Have it tell its story and really earn the screen it’s on. That should be out around the summertime.
UR: Excited to come to Chicago?
EH: Of course! I’ve been a few times. I’m looking forward to seeing Adam Levin. He’s sort of one of our star McSweeney’s authors, and he’s Chicago born and bred.
UR: Any writing rituals?
EH: No. I’m not a real writer. I just write when an idea sort of strikes me. Try and get it done.
UR: Do you find yourself inspired by facts?
EH: Just doing something out of pure imagination is confusing and almost a little scary to me. Having something to hang it on, that’s something I like. I also enjoy the space between the facts or getting the facts a little bit wrong. The ping pong book, for example, implies that ping pong inspired the Cuban Revolution. There are facts to support that, but there’s also a fair bit of speculation involved. I love dancing between the two.
UR: What advice would you give to a literary journal trying to stay afloat?
EH: First of all, if it is a journal on paper, you should think about why you are on paper and what you can do on paper that you couldn’t do in other formats. You can’t just be on paper because your grandma will be more impressed or something. That’s fine, but then you’re making a journal for your grandmother, and that’s a pretty small audience. Being excited is also important. At McSweeney’s, before I was ever there, there was always this sort of general excitement about the work we were publishing, and we try to share that excitement with the reader in how we approached everything. We felt like a lot of journals published things with an "eat your vegetables" approach, you know, these are stories and you should read them because of that. No one can get excited about that kind of approach, and it will permeate the work.
UR: Where do you see McSweeney’s in the future?
EH: It’s hard to say. Our main goal is just to stay around so that there can be more issues after this one. Other than that, there’s never been a big... ideology. Release good books. Adam Levin has a collection coming out soon I’m very excited about. I want him to be our McSweeney’s poster child. I won’t be satisfied until people in Chicago have plush toys of Adam and little Adam Levin bobbleheads on their dashboards.
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