Flashback Monday I: My Interview With McSweeney’s or The Great Cataclysm of 2043

by Salvatore Pane

My entire novel is about digital narcissism, about what it means to an exist in an age where anybody can voice their opinion to an audience of billions instantaneously through Twitter and Facebook. I have a love/hate relationship with these outlets. On one hand, I see the danger, how isolated we’re becoming, how what it means to be human is being altered on a very fundamental level. But on the other hand, I really like tweeting about old Nerf Herder songs and linking to the sexual tension that is Comicvine’s video review show on Facebook. I often wonder how deceased writers would interact with these sites. Chekhov. Dostoevsky. They’re lucky in that most of the stupid apprentice writing they did will never see the light of day unlike David Foster Wallace whose undergraduate thesis is seeing publication later this year.

I don’t intend on bucking the trend. In fact, I’m going to embrace it. I’ve been cleaning out my external hard drive recently and found a back-up of my laptop from right before I finished college. Buried there is every file I ever wrote, including the incomplete 253 page single spaced fantasy novel I wrote at age fifteen (final line: “Immediately after her demise, the picture vanished, and the Memory Cube returned to its standard hue of blue, leaving the three Chosen Ones in complete and total disarray…”). So I’ve decided that every once in awhile I’ll post something from my more formative years that may be of interest to people other than myself. I won’t do this with any regularity so don’t worry.

The first item of inquiry is an interview I did with Eli Horowitz, the managing editor of McSweeney‘s, for a paper I wrote in an editing and publishing class with the poet Karen Holmberg. The questions aren’t super interesting, but the answers are kind of funny. And I really can’t believe how nice Eli was to do this, and how much of a pompous douche I was for even asking. Also, I titled the paper “The Future Is Robots” which is pretty neat.

1. What was the genesis of McSweeney’s? Did it come out of the end of Dave Eggers’ Might Magazine or did the creators think that they could fill a niche not catered to by the rest of the literary journal market?

Initially, if was made largely of work rejected by other magazines.  And something for Dave to do while he procrastinated on his book.

2. An obvious pillar of the McSweeney’s philosophy is to publish and nurture young writers. What guided you in this direction? Many other literary magazines don’t follow your principle about unpublished authors and I find it slightly alarming.

I don’t know — it just makes sense, right?  Why others don’t, I’m not sure, except I guess it’s kind of slow to sort through all those submissions.

3. How do you go about choosing which submissions to run? Do the section editors have meetings with reading boards? And if so, do they look over everything or is there a slush pile? If so, who goes through all the entries and decides what to go into the slush pile?

There isn’t really a slush pile; almost all the stories go through the same system.  Basically, there are a bunch of readers, and if any of them like a story it becomes a contender, and then Dave and I pick from that group. Everything definitely gets read, generally by three different people.

4. What do you usually have your interns do when they are on site? What about interns who are helping away from a farther location? On your website, you say you sometimes have both.

All sorts of things — reading submissions, fact-checking articles, going to the post office.  Those distant ones are generally readers — I’m not yet sure whether that actually makes sense.

5. Every issue of McSweeney’s seems very fresh and different from the last, but do you have any overarching message or theme that you hope each book contains?

Not really.  Well, a sense of excitement and possibility, and a respect for the stories themselves.  But there’s no conscious mission, I don’t think.

6. How did you personally go about getting your position at McSweeney’s?

I started as a volunteer carpenter for 826 Valencia, our tutoring center. One thing led to another, in a series of flukes.

7. Unlike most literary journals, you do a lot of public events such as They Might Be Giants vs McSweeney’s. What do you think these events add to the magazine, and what type of events would you like to see happen in the future?

Maybe a sense of community?  Once I say a woman on a giant unicycle flip five bowls from her foot to her head — I’d like to include her in a future event.

8. As a publishing house, McSweeney’s published the inherently political The Future Dictionary of America last year. Do you think McSweeney’s will constantly dabble in politics or was that a one shot type of thing?

Hard to say.  I think there will always be some element of that, but probably rarely anything so straightforward; that seemed like a particularly urgent need.

9. The designs of McSweeney’s magazines, even your books like How We Are Hungry, are known for their interesting and unorthodox designs. When creating the magazine, which is more important, the design or the contents within?

The contents.  Well, both, but the design can never interfere with the contents.  Our goal is to create a design that honors the writing inside.

10. Finally, what is the future for McSweeney’s? Whose hands would you like to see the magazine fall into eventually, and what vision do you want to see it taken in?

The future is robots, and an underground clan of freedom fighters. McSweeney’s will be destroyed in the Great Cataclysm of 2043.