Mike Joyce is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Literary Orphans Journal, a digital writing and art rag with a punk rock aesthetic. The journal has published over 400 contributors within 2 hard and fast years. The writers featured in the binary pages come from pedigrees like The New Yorker and The Paris Review, to writers that have never had an audience besides their mothers. Mike keeps the journal’s mission to examine the liminal space between analog and digital close to his heart in his own writing, which has been featured in JMWW, Connotation Press, DOGZPLOT, Right Hand Pointing, Menacing Hedge, and many other places.
Scott Waldyn is the Managing Editor and right hand man of Literary Orphans Journal, a digital writing and art rag with a punk rock aesthetic. He’s been with the journal since the very beginning, having worked to help its inception and continued growth. Scott also manages Literary Orphans’ news/nonfiction site – Tavern Lantern. Aside from the editorial front, Scott has had numerous fiction and nonfiction pieces accepted at a variety of print and e-magazines. With a background in journalism, he’s written pieces on the banal to the weird, even freelancing with a UFO/paranormal journal at one point. Some of Scott’s current fiction work can be seen at Carnage Conservatory, Drunk Monkeys, and Literary Orphans, among other corners of the web.
Literary Orphans’s most recent issue “Issue 13: Blondie” went live on May 20, 2014. It marks LO’s two-year anniversary.
Melissa Huedem: Mike, what were the stages of getting Literary Orphans started? Also, could you address how the name Literary Orphans came about?
Mike Joyce: A group of friends from college wanted to start a writing group. Scott was in that group and our fiction editor Leanne was in the group. Essentially we wanted to start it because we wanted to continue workshopping after college.
We chose the name Literary Orphans because we were very familiar with the Chicago manual style. In the Chicago manual style a widow or an orphan is a word that appears at the end of a paragraph or at the beginning of a new page of white space. We liked what it signified.
As I started to get published in other literary journals, I felt like I could do something with my own unique take on it. Scott, my sister–who is the art director of the magazine—and I have always been very visual people. We’ve known a lot of photographers and such. We decided to create a magazine that would have visual interest, but also keep people invested in the writing appearing on the screen. We wanted to make people excited to go from page to page.
A setback that occurred was learning the technology. At the time that we created the magazine, other literary magazines were very simple. They were just black and white texts and blog listings. It’s bizarre that magazines were so prestigious and at the same time were on a blog. While I respected and admired that we wanted to create something with a bit more oomph to it. That was a major setback: learning all the technology required like Photoshop and coding to get the website up and running.
MH: Scott, how did you get on board and start your work with Literary Orphans? What was your background before working on this magazine?
Scott Waldyn: I’m a jack-of-all trades with media. I was an English major. Mike and I go way back to community college before shipping off to our four-year universities. Back at the community college I was the editor-in-chief of the student paper. I also did some work with broadcasting like doing spots for student news channel at Western when I went there. As far as jumping on to Literary Orphans, I was basically there at its foundation. Mike and I were in a writing group together before. He started talking to me about the things he noticed in the community, like the fact that, although there are great literary magazines out there, there is a need for a visual aesthetic. We bounced ideas back and forth and when the magazine was founded I was there helping to get the word out, editing for content, and reading selections.
MH: What are the steps for creating a new issue? From selecting stories to the final issue, and everything else in between. Please explain the specific editorial process and how you work with the rest of the staff.
MJ: After someone goes online and submits to Submittable we go through the selections. That wasn’t always the case, but since we’ve started it’s been easier for us. It delegates duties for us. The pieces are automatically assigned to the readers who read that genre. Those people comment on the stories like a forum. They make suggestions and comments as to why they like the piece. They give it a positive, negative or neutral vote. We don’t really have a set number, but we aim for ten poetry pieces and twenty fiction pieces. The poetry is climbing now since we are becoming known as a poetry magazine. Before we were exclusively fiction. We do have to limit.
We get a lot of submissions, hundreds of submissions. Boiling it down to 40 pieces, 30 pieces is extremely difficult. It comes down a lot to nit picking. After we have chosen the pieces the art director recruits photographers. She’ll look at portfolios and websites. We do not have a submission process for that, although we used to. We found that by soliciting, photographers work more fluidly. We usually use two or three photographers per issue.
Then it comes down to the art director and I pairing the photographs with the different stories. Once everything is put together it’s really just nuts and bolts: coding, putting things onto the website, publishing links, making these as accessible as possible.
Scott will go through and proofread. He will give it a third eye and makes sure that the photography matches the story so as not to upset anyone. He also handles the things you don’t think about like the newsletter and social media. Because we are a digital magazine, social media is our form of distribution.
MH: Do you ever work with writers after accepting their work? In terms of rewriting and editing their work.
SW: We don’t like to dictate a certain form that people have to follow because there are so many styles of writing. People also have different ideas of what makes a good story. We don’t like to step in there and try to assume control.
MH: What intrigued me about your magazine was the face or icon that accompanied every issue. From Marilyn Monroe to Eleanor Roosevelt, how do you decide on the icon for every issue? Do you choose the figure first then choose stories around them or vice versa?
MJ: It can go either way. In the past we used to announce them, but then people were getting the idea that it was some sort of theme. If anything is ever submitted in that regard we almost always reject it and offer our condolences and ask them to resubmit something else. We have found that people respond better to organized thought. Also we just personally like the idea. All the celebrities chosen are orphaned in some way. We want to draw the link to, “Hey these people are famous and have done something, and we ourselves are orphans in some way.” We are casting ourselves orphans in some light.
The process of choosing the icon is myself, Scott and maybe another editor will think about it. After getting a certain amount of submissions accepted we will essentially choose who we want to represent the magazine. The last issue (number 11), the stories had a musical, jaunty tone to it. It was either going to be Ray Charles or John Lennon. We put up a vote to have our audience choose the icon, and this may or may not be something we will continue in the future. We definitely want to link the stories in some sort of tone or style, but we definitely do not want to dictate what is submitted to us. That is why we choose an orphan to give a face to our writing.
MH: One thing I noticed, starting with issue five was the reading times. How did that start? Why did you think that was necessary? How do you measure that?
SW: That was Mike’s find!
MJ: This was something I was debating about for a long time. Other editors of the magazine didn’t like that idea because we didn’t want to make someone not read a story because it was too long. However when you give power to your readership it will almost always work to your benefit. I have not noticed a decline in any way from the number of hits or visits a story gets because of its length. In fact I noticed a higher completion rate and that someone will spend a longer time on a page.
I think the reason for this is say you’re commuting or on a lunch break and you think, “I only have twenty minutes and I do not want to get into a piece.” The second you get into one you look how long it is by scrolling the scrollbar so you’re going to exit anyway. To give control and power [to the readers] also works to our benefit. We have only noticed an increased amount of traffic because of it.
The way we figure it is the average reading speed is 200-250 words per minute. We simply divide the word count by that to get the reading time. We put that in the titles as well as in the bottom right hand corner when you are scrolling down the page.
MH: Mike, in your Penny Dreadful interview you said, “One of the benefits of online presence is immersion. You absorb the aesthetic of the magazine and each piece feels like you’re on another planet.” Going along with this same idea, what type of “planet” has Literary Orphans created or did you hope you would achieve?
MJ: What we have noticed is that there has been a particular type of mood with the imagery of the magazine that doesn’t necessarily reflect all the pieces in it. What we would like to do is to have more stark contrasts with our art. In our Bettie Page issue we had a pin-up photographer. So some of the things we do are fun. Some of it is political. Basically I want every issue to be a different planet of its own. If Literary Orphans is to have its own particular aesthetic it’s mainly linked to an outsider philosophy of alternative literature and getting out there and doing it yourself.
SW: There’s kind of a “grungey attitude” we’re associated with. It’s about, not necessarily always finding marginalized writers, but to find people who are kind of out there in the wind who have a style and voice and want the opportunity to be heard. Our About Me page sums it up pretty well.
MJ: Going off of that, if a piece speaks to us in some manner or if we remember a piece a week after reading it, even if it doesn’t fit into the magazine—sometimes they’re funny, sometimes they’re very dramatic, and sometimes they’re romance—we want it. That is most important to us.
MH: Can either of you tell me what are specific strengths it takes to successfully run a literary magazine?
SW: Time, coffee, and…Well both Mike and I have day jobs. We have on seasons and off seasons where traffic slows down and that helps too.
MJ: Scott nailed it. Time is a big one and that was big misnomer for me going into it. The perfection that goes into it is accredited to we want to make sure it looks good as possible. Someone is trusting you with their work. You want to make sure—especially since we do not have the money to pay them—they’re happy with it and the magazine looks good as possible. It has to be something that they’re proud to give to a family member or friend.
MH: Both of you are writers. Mike, your work has appeared in various magazines and issues of Literary Orphans. Scott, you wrote a book. How does being editors of Literary Orphans affect your writing and reading as a writer?
SW: You learn a lot. It’s a [learning] experience for the different styles out there. There are different formats or ways to play with characters for telling a story. You get to see a smorgasbord of everything in terms of what makes a story good and from what angle you can take. It’s a great mind-expander.
MJ: It’s a matter of perspective as well. You get to see how much great work is out there. Yeah, you do get pieces that aren’t so good and they lack the heart, but you see consistently fifty or so pieces that are submitted that do have heart and everything in them. You do have to decline half of those. It makes you realize the role of an editor. The stories we reject could be perfect somewhere else. We can’t publish 100 stories an issue. It gives you that perspective, but it also helps you focus on important things. In the first sentence, title, and paragraph you have to bring all you have. As a writer you may feel like, “I just need to get it out of here,” and submit it. But take a step back to really re-work it so that you have something you really want to submit.
Editing takes up so much of our time. So when I’m writing I feel like I should be editing. It used to be that I felt like when I was editing I should be writing, but that has changed in a year or so. My pieces that were published in Literary Orphans were reprints that I had published elsewhere before I started the magazine. I do have five or six pieces coming up in the couple months. It feels good to get back into the swing of things.
MH: Do either of you have advice for writers and artists submitting to your magazine or to your news blog The Tavern Lantern?
SW: While Tavern Lantern is sort of our “newsier” section we also like to think of it as our Creative Non-Fiction section. We publish travel pieces or surreal pieces that blur the line between fact and fiction. That is our playful one that separates itself from the straight fiction in Literary Orphans. As far as the other half…
MJ: My advice would be to submit something you are proud of. I think as writers we’re all guilty of that, where we’re thinking, “This is my C-list piece of work. I’m just going to submit it here.” But one thing I’ve learned as both a writer and editor is never submit something you’re not ready to. I’ve had ideas for pieces that are three years old that I’ve submitted when they weren’t ready. They had gotten published, but I wish that could go back and edit them so they could become something different.
I would just advise people to submit and not to be afraid to submit. We’re the people to judge whether or not it’s a good fit for Literary Orphans. It might be a better fit for another magazine. Please, just submit if you’re proud of what you’ve done. We don’t edit for content. We don’t like that idea of an invisible hand writing the piece for you.
However we do fix typos. I don’t think we have ever rejected a piece based on typos and grammar errors. Although that makes my job harder—please edit your pieces—if the piece has heart and if it speaks, and if you feel it speaks that’s what matters. Don’t submit a piece that you wrote just to get an amount of writing done for a class. Submit something you wrote because you had to write it.
SW: Don’t fear either. Some of the pieces we do get are on topics that are a little strange or offbeat. So even if it’s about something that scares the crap out of you, don’t be afraid and just submit.
MH: Scott, can you talk about the work that goes behind the Tavern Lantern and how you run it?
SW: It started as a sister website where we could post any news updates we had. We were also starting to do more interviews with other writers. We were also noticing that we were getting a lot of queries about non-fiction. The Tavern Lantern became all those things. We get a number of submissions for Tavern Lantern, and our team for it is much smaller. We have a number of readers that go through the same process: they read the stories and write why they like something and what their recommendations are. We also brought on a couple new people who will hopefully provide regular, creative Literary Orphans content. The Tavern Lantern operates very much like Literary Orphans, just on a smaller scale. We’re planning on building it up.
MH: How did the Rookery get started? What was the inspiration behind that?
MJ: The inspiration for that came from one or two magazines which I noticed were going under. As an editor there is a tremendous amount of sympathy for that. As a writer, when a digital fiction magazine dies there is nothing left. I was getting sick of clicking on links to stories and not seeing them there. I really respected the work that was being done so we wanted to create some sort of graveyard for the stories and also, in a way, a type of nursery.
One magazine we’re working with is The Fiddleback. Jeff Simpson [editor of the Fiddleback] has run out of time and money. We are working with him to get his stories back up [on The Rookery]. The second magazine we’re working with is The Newport Review run by Catherine Culpa. With her magazine in particular, there is talk about doing a print anthology once a year. It started as a magazine in the 80s in Providence, Rhode Island, and later on was published in digital form. The magazine was a big non-profit. Catherine was getting grants to run it. I was impressed with what she had done. I want her to be able to continue to work on a smaller scale.
SW: It is a way to prevent people’s legacies from disappearing. The writers who have submitted to these magazines are proud of their work. As a writer myself, you don’t want [the magazine] to die or disappear. It is like maintaining someone’s written immortality in a way.
MH: There was a listing in February of this year announcing twenty-two open positions. In this listing it was written that the dream is to own a printing shop/press/writer’s collective/visual arts studio/awesome sauce space. First of all, where is Literary Orphans’ headquarters now? Secondly could you talk about this idea of an “awesome sauce space” and what you envision it to be?
SW: One of the things we always kick back and forth is someday we want a physical office. Right now we do everything from where we can in our own locations. Mike and I are in constant contact everyday using Gmail or whatever we can.
What we envision for the future is to build some sort of micropress to not only publish print issues, but also small books or collections. We’ve had people query us wanting us to become a label that publishes their books. Our goal is to build up a press and a physical location for it too. That is part of the collective space, where people could write with us if they want. It would go back to our roots as a writing group where people could get together, bounce ideas off of each other, and co-create.
MJ: A lot of the staff who helped start the magazine is in Chicago, but not all of our staff is here in the area. Chicago is our city and we want to get a staging ground here. First and foremost, we want to own the means of production. The magazines that are not university-funded or for-profit like Glimmer Train all ship out. If you encounter a smaller press they are probably going to contract their publishing through a print-on-demand service. Our goal is to raise $5,000 through selling books we have, teaching classes, holding events and readings around the city of Chicago. That is our immediate plan, but in the future we want to have a publishing house and the means to print a book.
MH: Mike, in your Penny Dreadful interview you said that a print journal could be in the near future. Other than a print journal, what are your other future goals for the magazine?
MJ: Besides what I’ve covered there are a number of areas we are going to be breaking into very soon. Film is something we’re really looking into. We have an audience of about 7,000 readers, which is fairly high for a digital magazine. They come back two or three times. It’s nice to say, “Hey, this story has been read hundreds and hundreds of times.” We want to use this audience as the base for film endeavors. My sister runs her own production company and is also the art director of the magazine. She is a cinematographer. Scott is working with another cinematographer. Leanne, one of our fiction editors, has written with Second City. So we have a number of ideas for a film or possible web series we are looking into in the future.
MH: Because Literary Orphans publishes more reflective pieces I was wondering what do you both gain from working on the magazine, not only as writers or readers but as human beings?
MJ: For me, what I’ve gained as a human being from Literary Orphans is, well after the Industrial Age and World War I there was a revolution of art with Surrealism and Dadaism. As far as writers there were the modernists like Virginia Wolfe, James Joyce, and Faulkner. Different ideas were incorporated into writing. We really haven’t seen that in response to the digital age. I’m not even sure if it is an age. I do know that we spend an awful amount of time looking at our iPhones, looking at text messages. We don’t spend a lot of time by ourselves thinking. We’re always around other people. We can’t even hear our own thoughts, or at least I feel that way. I think for me [the magazine] offers me that solitude. It reminds me to think deeply; to stop and really reflect on my behavior and the behaviors of others. Although this sounds corny, I think it’s a good, ethical way to live. It helps me take a break and remind myself that I’m not some sort of iPhone cyborg. I’m a human, and remembering that is helpful.
SW: For me it feels good to impact people in way that uplifts them, makes them feel good, and in some cases, inspire them in some way. One instance, one of our submitters a while back in one of our first issues—he’s a Literary Orphans reader now—he was accepted and it was the first time he had ever gotten published in anything. That made his year so much so that he ended up getting a tattoo with LO on it and the date he was published. Seeing how much it meant to him, meant a lot to me. Here’s me connecting with someone I don’t know personally. He lives a few states away, but I’m able to impact him in a way that’s very positive. It made his year and hopefully helped him deal with whatever he was dealing with. It just feels good.
About the interviewer:
Melissa Huedem is an undergraduate creative writing student at Columbia College Chicago. Her work has appeared in Columbia’s newspaper The Columbia Chronicle, Columbia’s First-Year Writing Anthology, and the ChicagoNow Blog, “The Magic of Writing.”