Five Things I Learned from Starting a Literary Magazine: Charlotte Wood

Novelist Charlotte Wood started her own subscription-only digital literary magazine, The Writer’s Room Interviews, last year. She reflects on what she’s learned - and what she’s gained - from the experience.

The first year of The Writer’s Room Interviews, a bimonthly digital magazine about literary creativity I started – pretty much on a whim – has just ended. I created the mag because I wanted to hear from writers in a way we mostly don’t: long, discursive conversations about the creative process rather than the snapshot spruiking the latest book. As a writer myself I find that kind of interview wearying to do over and over again. I wanted an alternative: a slow, reflective conversation about the hows and whys of a writer’s work, not just the subject matter. Here are five discoveries I made in my first year of publication.

1. It’s a labour of love – and worth it

If I were doing this only to make money, it would be an utter failure. Nudging just 300 subscribers at the end of the year, I’ve been warned that maintaining subscriber numbers is a major challenge for small magazines. With the first issue of 2014 not out till February, I’ve no idea yet how next year’s subs will pan out.

I’m a word person, not a numbers gal, so I like to ignore the fact that my partner did the sums and discovered my current rate of pay for editing The Writer’s Room Interviews is around $7.50 per hour. But at the start, I decided I would do this for as long as I enjoy it, and as long as I find stimulation in it for my own writing practice. So far, so fulfilling; I’m happy for it to remain a niche affair. There are so many other more widely-targeted sites and publications out there, I’m happy to stay small but (she says modestly) perfectly formed.

2. Formats are tricky business

I took an early decision to use the accessible, printable PDF format. This has some huge advantages – even people who aren’t tech-savvy find it easy to use (in my experience, many writers my age and older – much of my target readership - are not technologically confident, with many being outright phobic), and they value being able to print the interviews to read over coffee or on the bus. Yet for technophiles, it still looks beautiful on an iPad or computer screen.

There is, however, one major and obvious drawback – I can’t stop subscribers sharing it with non-paying readers if they choose. For now, that’s a risk I’m prepared to take. As a pretty tech-savvy person myself, I’ve often had frustrating problems accessing digital publications in other formats and I don’t want to risk alienating subscribers of my fledgling publication with tricksy formats. For now, I’ll continue to rely on the ethics and goodwill of my subscribers, many of whom – bless them – have bought second and third subs as gifts for friends.

I’ve done no paid promotion, relying only on Facebook, Twitter and word of mouth. I was lucky enough to get mentions in the literary pages of the major newspapers – and on sites like this one – which I think made a big difference early on. I hope at some stage to secure funding or to make enough money from subscriptions to do some targeted advertising, but until that day comes I’ll be hoping the grapevine continues to do my promotion for me.

3. Writers – totally – rock

I’m always fascinated by some people’s perception of the literary community as a bitchy, competitive scene – because in more than 15 years of writing I have found it the complete opposite. The writers I interviewed this year were incredibly generous with their time, insights and thoughtful energy. I think I have a pretty good radar for knowing who might be generous with their knowledge, but still I’ve been completely bowled over by their openness and willingness to reveal all kinds of things about what is essentially a very private matter – what happens in one’s own imagination, day after day, alone at the desk.

From the start I knew I’d adopt the Paris Review model, where the writer has a chance to review and edit the original transcript as much as they want. Having been interviewed about my own work so many times and then been embarrassed by my words in print, I wanted ‘my’ writers to know they would have complete and final control over anything that appears in the magazine. And guess what: they changed nothing. Or, more accurately, they sometimes made small but important clarifications, or expanded on an area they had been oblique about, or made their opinion on something more definite. But not one has backed away from a provocative statement or gotten cold feet about anything they’ve said. As well, I have a hunch that knowing they have a chance to retract or change things later actually makes them more expansive at the time of the interview. More open, less defended, more generous. And because they are word people, their care with language is a joy: we work together to make their words as precise, as shimmeringly perfect as possible.

But writerly generosity has not just come from the interviewees; I’ve had astounding support from my fellow writers as they subscribe, buy gift subscriptions for their friends, spread the word about the mag and send me insightful responses to each interview. The respected and sought-after editor and writer, Ali Lavau, insisted on professionally proofreading every single issue, unpaid.

As I said: writers rock.

4. Transcription is tedious – but not the enemy

I transcribe all interviews myself. At two hours of conversation per interview, this makes for a laborious process. I use ExpressScribe and a foot pedal to help ease the transcribing pain and speed the process, but it still takes an enormous amount of time. Every so often I investigate the cost of having a professional do it for me, then go back to the keyboard. And every two months I send up a prayer of thanks to my mum who forced me to have touch typing lessons at 15. But transcribing also has benefits: I get to know the interview inside out, developing a very strong feel for where the energy in the conversation peaks and lags. Often, it’s not until the last third that we really get to the heart of what the writer is passionate about, and you can feel the intensity rising. Coming away with transcripts of up to 18,000 words to be edited down to at least half that, I find the editing process more effective for knowing the ebb and flow of the conversation so thoroughly.

5. An artist always finds her own way

Every interview, I’ve been struck by how idiosyncratic is each writer’s way of working. The art historian Janine Burke, featured in the October issue, says ‘creative people are very good at working out what they need, however eccentric or bizarre it might seem to the outside world’, and I think that’s right. Every person I spoke to admitted to struggling, often quite painfully, with their work. But they always find their own way through. Writers’ routines and solutions are so personal: like Amanda Lohrey’s ‘internal switch’ only coming on at 11am, or Kim Scott needing to exercise before working to ‘trim off the nervous energy’, from Margo Lanagan’s beautiful opulent scrapbooks of visual images, and Craig Sherborne’s writing notes on his kitchen calendar, to Janine’s chucking in her whole life and running off to Tuscany, or David Roach’s dry-stone walling as a metaphor for writing. I have found these things absolutely fascinating, and often very moving.

The absolute uniqueness of each artist’s process is what so endlessly intrigues me. It’s this fascination that will take me through many more years of these conversations, if they’ll have me. Of all the things I’ve done in my career, I see this as quite possibly the most important and satisfying work of all.