Interview with Tom Dooley editor at Eclectica
Interview with Tom Dooley editor at Eclectica
I’d like to welcome Tom Dooley, editor at Eclectica
For twenty years, Eclectica has presented some of the best writing on the web. To celebrate this, they are publishing four “best of” volumes (fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and speculative) anthologies. To join in the kickstarter campaign, just click here: http://kck.st/1mF6VyK
Morning, Tom. Great to have you here today.
Eclectica is one of the forefathers of online lit mags. Why do you think it’s stuck around so long – for twenty years! – while so many others have disappeared?
I would point first to the strong vision and design provided by Eclectica’s real creator, Chris Lott (whose latest brainchildren, Concis and Katexic, are also awesome), along with the generosity and talent of the thousands of authors and editors who have contributed over the years. Then there’s the fact that I’m just a stubborn person who doesn’t like to let go. It took my high school girlfriend over a decade to break up with me. I’ve got stuff in my garage that should have been thrown out years ago. Mainly though, unlike boxes of junk or relationships that have run their course, Eclectica Magazine is a healthy thing to keep around. It’s a much better use of my free time than watching football, to which I figure the average American male my age devotes a similar chunk of his life.
Aside from your meeting your wife, Julie, what’s the greatest joy running Eclectica has brought you?
Joy is a powerful word, and if I’m being honest, I don’t think I can say I’ve gotten wife-level joy from Eclectica. But I’ve definitely loved the work and the sense of accomplishment and discovery involved.
Here’s where I’ll indulge in some name dropping, because the best thing about editing this publication has been sharing a creative enterprise with so many amazing people. It’s been gratifying to see many of our authors go on to bigger and better things: Charlie Yu being named one of the National Book Foundation’s Five Under Thirty-Five, Caroline Kepnes becoming a bona fide best-selling author with YOU. Sefi Atta, Ron Curry Jr, and Laird Barron, to name a few, whose books I’ve had the pleasure of ordering from Amazon.
It’s been rewarding to get to know some of these remarkable people through corresponding and their writing, like Thomas Hubschman, editor of Gowanus and longtime contributor, who has made so many contributions to the Salon and the fiction section I feel like I know him personally; or Ray Norsworthy, author of the incredible “All the Way to Grangeville,” which was runner up for the best short story on the Internet one year, and who I know from his emails and Facebook posts is a total madman (in a good way!); or Jascha and Julia Braun Kessler, a powerhouse duo who together put an indelible stamp on the magazine as a whole, and whose presence continues with the irrepressible Jascha after Julia’s passing in 2012.
It’s an even bigger kick to be able to have actual, in-person encounters. Paul Sampson joined me on a panel at a Southwest Popular Culture/American Culture Association conference. The late CE Chaffin (founder of Melic) and his talented wife Kathleen shared a night of whiskey, conversation, and guitar playing with me in Marina Del Rey the winter I spent crashing on a boat and uploading issues of Eclectica with pirated Wi-Fi (this was before people started using passwords). I watched Stanley Jenkins deliver a sermon at the First Presbyterian Church in Queens and saw Christopher Watkins, AKA Preacher Boy, play his unique blend of blues at Buddy Guy’s in Chicago. William Reese Hamilton has ventured up from his coastal Venezuelan hideaway to break bread with us several times here in New Mexico. Just the other day, I enjoyed lunch at my favorite local Albuquerque restaurant with Benson Daitz. It turns out his granddaughter is in middle school with my son. He’s an amazing person living just a few miles away who, but for this magazine, I never would have met, and so I owe Eclectica for enriching my life many times over by bringing all these amazing people into my sphere of existence, whether they be down the street or inhabiting other continents.
As an editor myself, I always get a little fizz of excitement when I open a new submission – even if that fizz is extinguished within the first few sentences! Are you still excited when you open a new submission? What are you looking for in it?
It’s good you brought that “fizz” up, because I could or should have mentioned another of the rewards this endeavor has given me. I’ll admit, it’s sometimes daunting to read a pile of submissions—I don’t feel the fizz so much beforehand—but there’s nothing quite like getting to a story that is really, really good. The closest analogy is probably fishing, in that there’s a nibble of recognition you might have something, then you know you’ve got something, and then there’s a lot of excitement until it’s in the boat. I don’t know why, but in 20 years, four issues a year, there has always been that one submission that started things off, usually followed by a whole bunch more. But you never know, looking at a batch of submissions, if there will be anything exceptional, so when it’s affirmed there is indeed a keeper, it is, in the words of Miley Cyrus, pretty cool.
As for what I’m looking for, there’s what I refer to as zing, an amorphous quality that sets a story apart from its peers. Zing is a tricky thing. It can’t be manufactured or staged. It needs to be organic, and it can’t be precious or precocious. Like Potter Stewart said about pornography, I know it when I see it, but there’s no specific way to describe zing, especially since by definition zing can’t really be replicated.
I’ve also talked about wanting to be hooked (apparently, the fishing metaphor works in both directions), kept on the line, and then at the end, given an emotional payoff, the best of which literally invoke some kind of sharp inhale or exhale.
I’m also looking for some mystery. I don’t mean mystery in the genre sense. I mean, I like it if I’m not entirely sure what to make of a story, if there’s something more to get from a second or even third reading. I don’t mean I want to be befuddled, nor do
I want a story to be obtuse for the sake of being obtuse. What I think I mean is this: a while back, many Americans expressed they were electing a president in large part because he wasn’t all that smart and therefore not intimidating to them. People wanted to have a beer with the guy. For me, if a presidential candidate is not clearly, significantly smarter than I am, I don’t want him or her running the country.
Similarly, I want to feel like the author of the story I’m reading knows stuff I don’t know. I’m not interested in reading something I could maybe write myself, or that I can pretty much predict how it’s going to go. I want to read something that makes me wonder, where the heck did that come from? How did she do that?
What would make you quickly reject a piece?
I’ve mentioned in previous interviews the concept of masturbatory writing, which I take to be writing that is more about the author than the story itself. The worst offender in this category is often writing about writing, where the main character is a writer. I get really queasy, really quickly, if I smell anything that reeks of meta. I don’t want to read a poem about writing a poem or a story about writing a story. I also get turned off right away by crassness. Not vulgarity, per se, which can be smart, biting, hilarious. Stories involving young people getting drunk, having sex, and cursing a lot, which turn out to be ABOUT young people getting drunk, having sex, and cursing a lot, as if that’s something inherently valuable from a literary standpoint… those are definitely not my thing. Didacticism. I don’t like that in a story, either. I don’t mind preaching, but if you’re going to preach, you should actually preach like my friend Stanley Jenkins does. Don’t write a story with ulterior motives.
Have your tastes as editor changed over the years?
I don’t think so. I’m probably quicker to recognize some of the things I’ve talked about above, though—both good and bad. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve gotten too sure of what I like, and if left to my own devices, I would only accept different versions of the same story. That wouldn’t be good for a publication with the word eclectic in its name. So I try to challenge myself to take a second look at stories I know are decently written but that I don’t really groove to, or to take a second look at stories I do like, to see if I’m not just responding to my usual groove. It’s helped to have had some great co-editors, who naturally have made me look at the work from different perspectives. Here I’d like to give a shout out to Anne Leigh Parrish, who served as our fiction editor for the past three and a half years, and who will be sorely missed in that capacity.
Do you see Eclectica still going in twenty more years? And if so, how do you think it will be?
Lord willing and the creeks don’t rise, if I’m still alive in 20 years, I’ll likely still be plugging away. I’ll do what I can as time goes by to drive improvement, but honestly, I think one of the charms of a publication like this is that it doesn’t need to change that much. Harvey Pekar probably wasn’t shooting for some kind of grand evolution. He wasn’t saying, five years from now I’ll have Charles Schulz illustrating my stuff. He was doing his thing, and his thing was the thing. This is a small, shoe-string online publication. Whether we publish one piece in an issue and it’s read by one person, or we present hundreds of pages of award-winning content read by thousands of people from around the world, the mission is the same. We’re finding what we think is great writing and giving it an audience it might not otherwise have had. We were doing that 20 years ago, and I’m hopeful we’ll still be doing it 20 years from now.
That’s the online magazine. I would like to someday be able to pay all our contributors. A few years ago, we were able to start paying out a $50 prize to each issue’s Spotlight Author, and $25 each to two runners up. I’d like to get to the point where we’re paying something comparable to everyone, and ten times that to the Spotlight honorees. It will likely be a while before we have the means. One reason we’re still around after 20 years is there isn’t much of a budget. I’ve covered most of our expenses out of pocket for two decades. When the expenses are small, I can continue to do so without my wife performing an intervention.
I say that’s the online magazine, because going forward, there will also be an Eclectica Publishing company devoted to printing best of anthologies every now and then. We previously published a Best Fiction anthology back in 2004 to celebrate our first seven years, and it was, in my estimation, an impressive collection of short stories. Now we’re putting together four anthologies celebrating our 20th anniversary: fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and speculative literature. They’re going to be spectacular, providing we can raise the funds to get them done right. We have a Kickstarter campaign going the entire month of January, in case your readers are interested and read this in time, the link is
If Eclectica Publishing can make some headway, it should naturally have a positive effect on the website as well.
Opening that question out, where do you see online literature in the future? In a world of virtual and augmented reality, do you see a place for the humble written word?
I think there is unquestionably a place for online literature, and it’s getting bigger and more legit than ever. How people will make money from it is an interesting question, and it’s one I don’t pretend to have an answer for, but money is important to a lot of authors, rightly so. Money is how we assign value in our society. It’s also how people pay for mundane things like food and shelter. I think books will eventually occupy the same space vinyl records do in the music industry, and it’s possible there will be iTunes and Spotify and Pandora-like platforms catering to mass-market producers and artists as well as those of us who aren’t a major label or an artist signed to one. But the written word will always have a place, both in print and electronic forms, and Eclectica, maybe a little like Newt in Aliens, will find a way to survive.
Thanks for your time today, Tom. One more question – what’s the last great book you read, and why?
The last great book I read was War and Peace, which I read 24 years ago for an Introduction to Humanities course at the University of Chicago. Like joy, great is a pretty serious word. It implies a level of perfection, or at least life-altering substance, only rarely achieved. For me, finishing that book in the wee hours of a Monday morning after pulling an all-nighter to get through the last several hundred pages was nearly a religious experience. The sun was just coming up, and as I closed what was literally a tome with a thud only a book of that size can make, I had a sense of being present and alive and conscious in a way I don’t think I’ve felt before or since.
Thank you for your time, Dan. It’s a humbling thing to be interviewed, really, and I appreciate your interest in Eclectica. As a contributor whose fine story, “Stillborn,” will appear in our Speculative anthology, I’m also grateful for your being one of the people I mentioned who has helped make all of this possible.
My pleasure Tom. Eclectica has always been one of my favourite ezines. Long may it continue!
Once again, the link to the kickstarter campaign is: http://kck.st/1mF6VyK