Steve Erickson is the editor of Black Clock, one of America’s leading literary journals. He has written for Esquire, Rolling Stone, Spin, Details, Elle, San Francisco, Bookforum, Frieze, Conjunctions, Tin House, Salon, the L.A. Weekly, the Los Angeles Reader, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, and the New York Times Magazine, as well as several other literary journals and magazines, and his work has been widely anthologized. He is the author of eight novels: Days Between Stations (1985), Rubicon Beach(1986), Tours of the Black Clock (1989), Arc d’X (1993), Amnesiascope(1996), The Sea Came in at Midnight (1999), Our Ecstatic Days (2005) and Zeroville (2007). He has also written two books about American politics and popular culture, Leap Year (1989) and American Nomad(1997). He’s received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 2007 was awarded a fellowship by the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. He’s a teacher at CalArts and the film critic for Los Angeles, and he lives with his wife, artist and director Lori Precious, and their children.
Daniel Duffy: In a great interview with Angela Stubs of Bookslut back in 2007, you said “I do believe publishing is in transition, the center is collapsing, you have a vibrant and increasingly literate cyberspace, and the inmates are taking over the ground floor of the asylum, with the asylum bosses trapped upstairs.” How is life on the ground floor treating you nowadays? It’s getting a little crowded, I’m sure, but everyone seems to be getting along well enough, right? Are the bosses still upstairs? Is there still running water? Has anyone been shanked?
Steve Erickson: The water seems to be rationed out, and I think the bosses are hiding—I don’t hear much through the vents. It doesn’t matter anyway. The trend pretty much is irrevocable—it’s generational. Cyberpublishing is what the next wave of writers and editors understands, in a way I can’t pretend to. The larger question is whether this is just a new delivery system for the same old literature or whether it opens up as well the creative possibilities that mainstream publishing has squelched over the last quarter century as it’s become more like the movie business, with a taste (if that’s the word) for blockbusters and an incomprehension of anything else.
DD: Your editorial statement says that Black Clock “revels in the kind of constructive anarchy that follows from allowing writers the chance to publish free of editorial impositions.” What does that mean, exactly? What is the editorial process at Black Clock, and what impositions do you, as the editor of the magazine, strive to avoid?
SE: I realize my “statement” runs the risk of sounding grandiose. Actually, for six years I’ve tried to avoid “mission [or] editorial statements,” to the despair of both my staff and those who put up the money for the magazine and place stock in such things. Black Clock‘s editorial process is either serendipitous or ad hoc, depending on what pejorative you want to use, except for the fact that from the beginning the plan has been to build the magazine around writers.
DD: You consistently publish work from some really heavy hitters—in the past you’ve featured work from Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers, Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody, Samuel Delany, Joanna Scott, Miranda July, Aimee Bender, Brian Evenson, Michael Ventura…the list goes on and on. How many authors do you solicit per issue? Is there a certain criteria involved with you soliciting an author, or is it just a matter of personal taste?
SE: I approach about fifteen writers per issue, maybe more, allowing for a few who will decline for one reason or another. It kind of astonishes me how many say yes, given that we pay virtually nothing and the circulation isn’t huge—that speaks to some regard for the magazine, I think, as well as just the natural generosity of so many of these people. In Issue 11, for instance, there’s Richard Powers, who I assume has opportunities to publish elsewhere. I operate on the assumption that I don’t know everything and that I don’t even necessarily have to love everything the magazine publishes (we might not publish much if I did), and that sometimes it’s enough if I’m convinced there are smart readers with interesting taste who will love it. If there’s a piece that the rest of the staff loves that I don’t, I’m open to the possibility I might just not be getting it and should publish it anyway. On the other hand, if there’s something I love that the rest of the staff doesn’t, I’m still going to publish it.
DD: Black Clock publishes a lot of experimental fiction—your editorial statement describes the work featured as “audacious rather than safe, visceral rather than academic, intellectually engaging rather than antiseptically cerebral, and not above fun.” A lot of editors say that they can tell they are going to publish a story from simply reading the first line, but that’s got to be a lot harder with more experimental work. Still, I just flipped through several issues of Black Clock, reading only first lines, and they were all pretty solid. Are you a first line guy? Have you ever had any specific instances where you’ve accepted or rejected a story after reading the first line?
SE: You know, I hear the word “experimental”—which has been used about my own work now and then—and I reach for my revolver. To me, experimental work is about the experiment—it’s by definition about the form—and that’s not interesting to me. I’m enough of a traditionalist to believe that the form, however radical it may be, still must serve the old verities (as that old experimentalist, Faulkner, called them) of character and story. So I hope that’s what I was saying, or trying to, in my dreaded Editorial Statement. I don’t know that I’ve ever known a story was going to work from the first sentence, but if I’m reading a new writer, it’s usually true that from, say, the first paragraph, I can tell whether someone has a voice or a vision.
DD: I imagine that emerging writers submitting to Black Clock have usually done their research, and that you don’t get many lackluster, first-person narratives about “my stupid ex-boyfriend” or “my parent’s divorce” or “my life is so horrible because I’m eighteen and I’m living in a dorm room.” Still, as an editor of a literary magazine, I’m sure you have some story themes that instantly turn you off. What are some examples of stories that you never want to see again?
SE: Well, the plight of living in a dorm room does sound like a non-starter. But I would like to think I’m still open to a really brilliant stupid-ex-boyfriend story. I mean, Wuthering Heights and The Great Gatsby are basically stupid-ex-girlfriend stories, right?
DD: You are a prolific novelist, essayist, and critic, as well as a columnist and a teacher at the CalArts. Black Clock is obviously very important to you, as you have so much more going on, and yet you still find the time for it. How do you balance the workload of the magazine, a project that doesn’t draw income, with the rest of your life? What is an average day in the life of Steve Erickson like? Do you still find time to write a little every day, even when school is in session?
SE: It’s hard and not getting easier, and you haven’t even mentioned parenthood, which sucks the oxygen out of the schedule like nothing else. Thirty minutes out of bed, I’m literally behind in my day, and the disheartening thing is that it’s the writing—or the writing I care most about, anyway—that gets pushed aside, because it isn’t something I can just squeeze in a half hour here and a half hour there.
DD: A recurring theme in several of your books is the underestimated artist striving for recognition. Was this a prime motivation in your getting involved with Black Clock? Do you revel in the opportunity that you have as an editor to find some underestimated emerging writer and give him his first chance to see his work printed in a national publication?
SE: Oh sure. If we’re not discovering new writers, then the magazine is a failure as far as I’m concerned. Purely tactically, we started with lots of famous “star” writers and are generally evolving to more and more newly-discovered voices. Now we seem to publish every issue at least one or two things that come to us unsolicited—I think about a third of the writers in the new issue haven’t published anywhere else to speak of. I suppose I’ve become sensitive to charges that we’re some sort of elitist cabal dismissive of outsiders. In the beginning, when there literally were four of us putting out the magazine, it was strictly a manpower/workload issue.
DD: In an interview with the Los Angeles Times regarding Black Clock back in 2004, you said: “As the publishing business gets more like Hollywood, I want more good writers to have a place to go.” In today’s recessionary Hollywood, studio executives are becoming increasingly hesitant to cast actors who will demand upward of $15 million and a hefty portion of the film’s revenue to appear in a movie. Instead, they’re favoring big concepts with low-paid actors. Does that translate in some way to the publishing business? In other words, do you foresee a time in the future when some of the emerging writers whose work you’ve featured in Black Clock will be offered deals from the big publishing houses who simply can’t afford the J.K. Rowling and the Dan Browns of the world anymore? Is the recession going to make publishing houses take more chances on emerging writers?
SE: Well, the interesting thing about Hollywood is that at some point it began to view a $25 million movie as more of a risk than an $250 million movie, and that’s what’s happened with publishing. A $25,000 advance is considered riskier than a book getting a $250,000 advance, because publishers feel they know how to market the second and have no idea how to market the first. The result is that, unlike a couple of decades ago when my first novels were being published, not even the best and savviest and most powerful editors have the autonomy to buy a book. The paperback department has to sign off on it, the marketing department has to sign off on it, the publicity department. The system now is constructed to give itself as many chances as possible to say no, because no is always safer than yes. I don’t know whether any of the new writers we’ve published will command such advances or not. I should add that, while I’m not a big fan of the Harry Potter books—my kid wound up a bit bored by them—I don’t begrudge Rowling her advances. Her books earn them in sales and she got a whole new generation to read, so more power to her.
DD: You studied film at U.C.L.A. and have written about film for Los Angeles magazine since 2001. How fun was it for you to devote Issue 10 of Black Clock to the topic of noir? Was that your idea? And do you get to pick the topic of each issue of the magazine, or is it a more democratic process, shared amongst the editorial staff?
SE: When Black Clock started, I vowed to avoid themes, as such, and you still never see one announced on the cover of the magazine, unless the illustration—such as in the case of the issue you’re talking about—somehow conveys it. The new issue barely has a theme at all, and when we do have one, as much as anything it’s just because it provides an organizing principle editorially. The noir issue is a good example of how things sometimes happen with this magazine. Robert Polito had submitted a piece for the previous issue (9) about politics and the election, and it didn’t seem to me to have as much to do with politics as Robert thought it did. And I might well have published it anyway, because it might have been one of those examples of publishing something that was only very tangentially connected to whatever our unstated theme was, except that in his story there was a line about “the birth of noir,” or something like that, and there and then in my head the noir issue was born. Like I said before: serendipitous or ad hoc. Usually the ideas are mine but not always. The underlying theme of issue 8, travel, was editor-at-large Anthony Miller’s idea. The twelfth issue, sports, is the brainstorm of our senior editor, Bruce Bauman, with a lot of help from our other editor-at-large, David Ulin. Sometimes I have to be mindful of how things might look. A couple years ago I wanted to do an issue about movies but I had a novel about the movies coming out around that time and I didn’t want my decisions about the magazine to look self-promotional. So I put off a movie issue. Maybe in another year.
DD: Fifteen works that were first published in Black Clock have gone on to win awards. Probably more by now. Additionally, you yourself have won fifteen awards or so for your own writing, as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship. I don’t really have a question here, I guess I’m just saying congratulations. It’s really refreshing and encouraging to see someone who has always been devoted to a sort of cutting edge experimental freedom in writing getting so much recognition.
SE: You know, here’s the thing about awards: It’s nice to get them and you accept them graciously when you do and make the most of them—but you don’t get too hung up on the “validation” that they offer or don’t. Most of the time, awards go to everyone’s second choice, because the first choices cancel each other out. Except on the rare occasion that someone gives me one, of course. Then it’s a bold gesture of uncommon perception.
DD: The tenth issue of Black Clock was the first one I laid my hands on, and I instantly felt like I was showing up late to a really great party. Did I show up at ten o’clock to a party that’s only going until midnight, or is this thing going to be raging until dawn, and maybe even into the following day? As we approach 2010, what do you foresee in the future for your magazine?
SE: Well, I hope the party goes on all weekend, of course, not just into tomorrow. But I accept, maybe more than anyone else working for the magazine, that this thing is existential and probably will end sometime. For the California Institute of the Arts that publishes Black Clock and, more to the point, invests in it, the payoff is unquantifiable—the magazine certainly isn’t earning its way in terms of hard dollars and cents. But I don’t think there’s too much question that Black Clock has raised the profile of the institute and its writing program, and the publishers must see it that way too, at least so far. I think I’ve been clear from the beginning that at the point they believe the magazine is no longer worth it, that’s their call and I’ll understand and accept it whether I agree with it or not.
DD: Any final thoughts or advice for emerging writers looking to submit not only to Black Clock, but to any other literary journal, magazine, or press out there right now?
SE: I don’t think my advice to any writer interested in Black Clock is different from that to any other aspiring writer, which is that you’ve got to be in it for the long haul. It took me years to get published, and since then it’s taken me years to get to this point—whatever or wherever this point is. Write write write, submit submit submit, get-rejected get-rejected get-rejected. Tenacity will make its own luck. Plan on conquering the world one reader at a time.