Life After Lit Mag: Interview with former Bartleby Snopes Editor Nathaniel Tower

new headshotWhat is the best indie lit mag? If you said Bartleby Snopes for the past 6 years, few would object. From its humble beginnings in 2010, editor Nathaniel Tower built a new kind of journal that responded quickly, interacted personally, and gave voice to a new breed of writing outside of the literary mainstream. But last year, Tower retired from the journal that made him famous. AHHR editor Jason Peck caught up with him to discuss his views on editing, and his goals moving forward.

AHHR: You’ve gone almost nine months now without being editor of a literary magazine. How does that feel?

NT: It definitely feels different. I kind of expected at this point I’d have all this extra time where I’d be writing, I’d have 25 best sellers by now, millions of stories I’d be submitting every day, but what I found is that the extra time I’d been spending with Bartleby Snopes has seemed to gravitate toward other things.

One great thing is reading more. Obviously, with Bartleby Snopes I was reading a lot. But it was submissions, as opposed to now, I can sit down and read this book that I’ve been looking forward to and haven’t touched. Watching TV shows….maybe things that aren’t as productive. Not that TV isn’t productive, but I’m trying to figure out how to find that extra time to write that I’ve been searching for.

Do I miss editing Bartleby Snopes? If I’m being completely honest, I haven’t missed it at all in nine months. I would expect people would want me to say I miss it, it was the greatest thing in the universe…but in all honesty – I’m glad I’m done with it, and I’m looking forward to other pursuits. I have all these ideas in my head, but they’re usually staying in my head right now.

AHHR: When you first started editing Bartleby Snopes, you said at the time you were an author struggling to be published, and then you decided to create a literary magazine. Could you maybe expend a little on your background going into starting this thing?

NT: My background at the time— I was a high school English teacher. I’d been writing fiction on my own for maybe five or six years. And about a year and a half prior to starting Bartleby Snopes, I’d just started submitting my fiction. And I was looking through that big, huge manual of the literary magazines and submitting to everyplace I could find that seemed interesting. I was waiting nine months to hear back from these magazines and they’d shoot me a little form letter that said they weren’t interested. It was a very frustrating experience, and I said, there’s gotta be a better way to do this.

I certainly don’t want to suggest that Bartleby Snopes was the first lit mag to respond in a week, or respond with feedback because I know there were others doing that. But that standard at the time seemed to be, make ‘em wait and don’t tell them anything worthwhile.

AHHR: Is that why you think it became popular? Were you surprised when it started to catch on?

NT: I was definitely surprised by how many submissions we got, and how quickly those submissions were coming in. I think part of it is, we really put a lot of time and effort into getting the magazine listed on as many websites and getting the word out there. And we published talented authors without making them wait….I think people were taken aback by how quickly we responded. We’d send an acceptance out within a week, and we could have the story on the site by the end of that week.

AHHR: So what about your own writing then? I’ve always heard that editing takes time from writing, but looking over your list of publications….you actually published a staggering amount of work when you edited Bartleby Snopes. What did editing really teach you about writing?

NT: Certainly a lot of effects there. One, it always inspired me to write more, especially at the beginning. I’m getting so many submissions coming in, and there’s a lot of great writing there. There’s a lot of great story ideas there. It just made me think about all the story potential in my own head, and it just came out. It was so different from what I’d written before, which was very novel-driven, and no so much about these voices.

And I think the most important thing I learned is what I was doing wrong. Self-editing is hard. You either decide everything you do is terrible, or you look through it with your rose-colored goggles and everything is great. And when I’m typing up these rejection letters and saying, this is why I don’t take your story – you know what? Most of my stories are doing the same thing. It really opened my eyes to all the things I need to fix.

AHHR: Looking over all the things you’ve written, it’s kind of hard to identify what is a Nathaniel Tower story. You write surreal, you write literary, you write genre – it’s all over the place. Moving forward, what is your ideal writing style?

NT: I’d say the surreal is where I’m most comfortable. Maybe it’s because the ideas I have are so ridiculous sometimes, maybe it’s because I’m not a literary writer with these amazing, prosaic descriptions….maybe that’s why I feel more comfortable in the surrealist realm. Maybe that’s what I have the most fun with. But all the writing I’ve done this year has been in the absurdist/surrealist genre, if we want to call it that.

And why has my writing been all over the place? Maybe it’s all the different stuff I’ve read, all the variety. I can’t really explain the diversity, but definitely I’m more surrealist.

AHHR: In your blog, you gave a variety of reasons for shutting down Bartleby Snopes. You just didn’t have the time anymore, you didn’t quite have the passion you once did….it seems like a lot of things that accrue over time. But was there any one moment where you realized it was time?

NT: I can’t think of any revelation. It was really just something that had been brewing for a while. Maybe when our second daughter was born I thought that I wasn’t putting my energy in the place it was best suited. But there was no single moment. It was more this culmination of things.

AHHR: When you made the announcement, it kind of seemed like you downplayed the significance. Kind of like, people would be sad, but another lit mag would come around and people would move on. But now that it’s been nine months, do you feel like you’ve left a legacy behind?

NT: You know if it’s missed, I’m missing the conversations about it. After the announcement, I had a handful of people saying they were sorry, but there was no outpouring of writerly tears, where an era was over. There have been tons of publications that have shut down. And for most of them there is this initial burst of sadness, and then no one is talking about it anymore.

And I think this speaks to how much great stuff there is out there right now. There’s thousands of literary magazines out there, and, when one goes away, I don’t think it creates a huge hole in the literary community, no matter how big.

AHHR: Is there any scenario where you could see yourself editing again?

NT: In my current job, I’m writing website content and helping companies strengthen their brand voices. So really, I’m in a writing type atmosphere from 8:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. every day. And the thought of being an editor in that spare time doesn’t appeal to me at this point. If offered a great opportunity, I couldn’t say if I would or I wouldn’t. It would depend on what the opportunity was. I’m very content with where I’m at right now, and I just don’t see it in the near future.

AHHR: As far as your own writing goes, is there anything we can expect to see from you?

NT: There’s a novel I’ve been working on called The Funeral Attendee for the past six years, maybe seven years. I have a draft that’s finished now in the sense that it carries you from beginning to end, but it’s not the end product I want it to be. If I had to give one goal, it’s to get that thing finished. Not to get an agent or anything, just to finish it.

AHHR: One last question….you actually held a world juggling record?

NT: I did. It was the record for juggling backwards for a mile while running.

AHHR: That’s an impressive resume there. Literary magazine pioneer, juggling champion….

NT: I haven’t found a huge market for juggling writers yet. If there is a market, I think I can make something of it. For Drunk Monkeys once, I read a story while juggling. Probably more entertaining than watching a guy running backwards.

AHHR: Anything else you’d like to say?

NT: I’m going to finish this novel. It’ll do all the talking.

 

Need more Nate? Check his personal blog at https://nathanieltower.com/

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