Why did you start BIG FICTION?
Honestly, I started Big Fiction when I was pregnant with my son, because I knew I wouldn’t be writing for a while, and I wanted some way to stay connected with literature. Looking back, I have no idea why starting a literary journal seemed easier to combine with motherhood than writing, but it did. I wanted to connect with other writers, and to be able to offer them something that I thought was missing in the journal landscape—a place for long fiction. There are a handful of publications that do that, but not many. I’ve always loved the “long short” forms, especially the novelette. When I first started thinking about a journal for long forms, and what that would look like, I was inspired by Lauren Groff’s writing. Her story collection, Delicate Edible Birds, had just come out, and I saw her read in Louisville, where I was living at the time. When I first read her collection, I knew I wanted to create more space for that kind of writing in the world. It is just devastating in its beauty and perfection, to me. And I think much of that beauty comes from the fact that it isn’t restricted by a typical short-story length.
What did you do before you started BF? What experience had you had in publishing?
Before I started Big Fiction, I worked as an intern at Sarabande Books. I was very lucky to work with such a well-regarded small press, and to be involved in so many aspects of the publishing process. At the same time, I became interested letterpress, a very physical process of printing and book-making. I worked with Gray Zeitz at Larkspur Press, also in Kentucky, mostly putting away individual lead type in the type case. I took a bookmaking class with him as well. It was a lot of fun, and an antidote to the nervousness I sensed in publishing that everything was suddenly going digital (and here we are, going digital!).
Where did the BF logo come from?
Because of my love of the DIY, crafty side of bookmaking, I wanted to do letterpress covers for Big Fiction. I didn’t want it to look like any other journal. I was also impressed with what Jennifer Woods did with The Lumberyard, and I wanted to bring some of that sensibility to Big Fiction. By the time I was working on the nuts and bolts of the journal, I was back in Seattle and calling local letterpress printers to see if we could work together, and most of them just didn’t understand the project. Then I spoke to Lynda Sherman, of Bremelo Press, and she immediately grasped what I was trying to do. We met and started talking about a logo right away. She pulled out her old wood type drawer and we grabbed letters, mixed and matched, and moved things around until it felt right. It was a physical process. Then we wanted to add the image of the boy with the “long shorts” and the violin—that’s my grandfather, by the way—so that was done by creating a plate that could be run through the letterpress. But the logo came directly from the physical type and the process of manipulating those letters.
Take me through the formation of the first issue. What was the learning curve like? What do you remember most about the process?
The learning curve for the creation of the physical book was huge. I didn’t have the slightest idea how to create a letterpress cover and then merge that with a commercially printed “guts” (the inside pages of the book). Lynda was a huge help with that. I still don’t understand some of the math she did. I just trusted her. As far as putting together the fiction that made up the issue, there were definitely lessons I learned—about editing, how far I could go, how to communicate with authors, how to write a contract—but I always knew what I wanted the fiction to be like, what kinds of things I would select. Luckily, they came to me. I’m delighted with everything I’ve published.
Who have you partnered with over the years? What's your take on the collaborative process of making a journal?
The most obvious partnership is with the writers who make up each issue. I feel like I’ve collaborated with everyone I published in Big Fiction. Maybe I’m just a ferocious editor, but there wasn’t a single piece, I don’t think, that didn’t go back and forth with the editing a few times. I felt like I got to know the authors through that process, and it was enormously rewarding for me. I hope it was for them too. I am not taking credit for their work, but rather thanking them for putting up with me.
Creating the physical journal was also a collaboration, mainly with Lynda Sherman, who printed all the covers. People often say how beautiful the journal is, and that is thanks to the artists who created the images for each unique cover: Lynda, Leslie Wall, Jon Jacobs, Eroyn Franklin, Sarah Rosenblatt, Tory Franklin, and Dan’l Linehan. Also, DoubleMRanch Design did a lovely interior typesetting design that we’ve used throughout all the issues.
Did the journal ever feel like a solitary process?
Yes, it sometimes did. Despite all the collaboration, at the end of the day, I was the only one who was responsible for making sure the issue actually went out into the world. That was hard. Especially also being a mom. I often wished for a co-editor—or a whole staff!—but that’s not where I was in the growth of the journal at the time. Many colleagues volunteered as readers and guest editors, and I did have two wonderful interns—Lauren Hohle and Adrienne Athanas—to whom I’m very grateful for their good work and the volunteer hours they put in.
How did you choose cover designers for each issue?
Many of the artists who did the covers were connected to Lynda Sherman. All of the covers were solicited. My husband, Jon, did the cover for Issue 3, of the two Adirondack chairs. Once an artist agreed to do a cover—and they were done with different media, such as wood block, linoleum, or laser-cut wood—I would work with that person to create a vision that fit the issue as well as the artist’s own sensibilities. Most often, Lynda and I would choose the color, but some of the artists collaborated on that as well. Choosing the cover colors was one of my favorite parts of the entire process! I still love them all, especially seeing them in a row, together. For me, the colors create their own narrative, their own evolution, in and of themselves.
How did you approach the last issue? Did you know the seventh issue was going to be your last issue?
I didn’t know the seventh issue would be the last. When I found myself proofreading Issue 7 while visiting my dad in the hospital, I knew I couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t want to put that kind of stress on myself. So I told the authors who were part of that issue that this would be the last before a hiatus, and they were graciously still on board with it. I regret having to leave it like that, but I felt it was the right thing for me. And I’m absolutely thrilled that the journal isn’t going to trail off, but instead it has a new life, with a new editor, a new format, and more space for all the amazing work that doesn’t fit tidily in the space of short story.
What makes a novella distinct from a novel? What makes a novelette its own unique form of fiction?
I’m answering not as a literary scholar, but rather as a writer and reader, and from what I know of the generally accepted lengths of the novelette and novella. At the most basic level, a novelette hovers around 7,500 to 15,000 words. A novella is somewhere between 15,000 and 40,000, but it could be a little longer.
What makes a novella different from a novel, for me, is not just length, but focus. A novella has a kind of unity and singularity to it, and the novel isn’t necessarily restricted by that. For instance, you often see novels that are written from multiple points of view, and while you could do that in a novella, it’s not as common, I don’t think. Or, the way you did with A Summer’s Lynching, multiple points of view can circle around the same event. There tends to be one time frame, one through-line in a novella. Same with the use of one or two central characters. There are always exceptions, of course, but these are some of the characteristics I notice as a reader. As a writer, I know one of the pieces I’m working on now is a novella. Every time I try to let it expand, it resists me. Also, I want to employ more compression of language, a briefer and sparer, more tale-like language. I have another piece I’ve been working on for years that I know is a novel: it ranges all over the place in terms of time, characters, generations, etc. It isn’t just that one is short and one is long.
What is a novelette? Is it a long short story? Is it a short novella? Is it its own thing? I’m not entirely sure. It isn’t simply a “long short story,” although that’s what I’ve implied with the tag line, “Long shorts with style.” In a novelette, as opposed to a short story, there is much more room for development of character, history, setting, or an expansive voice that might philosophize or rage or digress. But these things have to be relevant to the story you’re telling. You can imagine that, as editor of Big Fiction, I saw many pieces that were actually unedited short stories.
One of my favorite novelettes is “The Moslem Wife” by Canadian writer Mavis Gallant. That story covers a massive amount of time, history, and relationships, but it’s always focused on the point-of-view character, Netta, and the hotel in the south of France that she inherits from her father. In the edition of Paris Stories that I have on my shelf, the story occupies 39 dense pages. I also love The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa. The book is marketed as “three novellas,” but are they novellas or novelettes? They each hover around 50, 60 pages. Hunger by Elise Blackwell, another favorite, is “a novel” on the cover, but is only about 20,000 words. Once you start trying to define novelette, novella, and novel, you realize that these distinctions have more to do with marketing than with a literary definition of a form.
As readers, we simply get to enjoy what the author has created for us. A novelette is something I can definitely read in one sitting, absorb all at once, if I’m lucky enough not to be interrupted. A novella is more of a commitment, but would still be possible to read in a day. Maybe we should define these forms by “hours spent in hammock.”