Barrelhouse is an independent non-profit literary organization that bridges the gap between serious art and pop culture. It is a biannual print journal featuring fiction, poetry, interviews, and essays about music, art, and the detritus of popular culture, and also a web site that regularly posts new short fiction, nonfiction, interviews, and random stuff. Stories originally published in Barrelhouse have been featured in the Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the Million Writer’s Award. Barrelhouse Presents is a monthly reading series in DC showcasing the work of other literary magazines and small presses. Barrelhouse offers 8-week online workshops where writers get the straight dope on their work. Barrelhouse has been recognized for its awesomeness by the mainstream media, including but not limited to such outlets as the Washington Post, DCist.com, The Urbanite, NewPages.com, and Washington City Paper.
Interview conducted by Danielle Boyd (Susquehanna ’16) and Aubrey Johnson (Susquehanna ’16)
How does your submission process work? What is taken into consideration when looking at each
We take submissions online. We don’t have any set reading periods. When we’re open is somewhat random, depending on how quickly we’re moving through the submission and the quality of the writing we receive. I’m the exclusive reader for poetry and Tom McAllister is the exclusive reader for nonfiction. For fiction, we have a cadre of assistant editors who do a first read and three fiction editors (Dave Housley, Mike Ingram, and Joe Killiany) who make the final decision. We just brought on Susan Muaddi Darraj to head up our online issues.
I think I can speak for everyone when I say the only considerations are the quality of the writing and the fit for Barrelhouse’s aesthetic. That second part is important. Sometimes we pass on really well executed pieces because they’re just not right for us.
Roughly, how competitive is your selection of submissions?
It’s very competitive. Across all genres, we accept somewhere around 3% or less of the work submitted.
How did you become interested in editing? And, as an editor at Barrelhouse, what are your duties?
I’ve written poetry since high school and in college I started a student organization for creative writing on campus. I loved being involved in the writing community and wanted to see if there was a way to continue that involvement after graduation so I went to grad school for nonprofits arts management. During grad school, I went to Kramerbooks in DC and saw the first issue of Barrelhouse sitting on the rack. I took it home and read it cover to cover. I love it. Looking at the masthead, I saw that they didn’t have anyone working on the business side of the magazine so I emailed the editors to ask if they wanted help with marketing, fundraising, etc. So I first came on to Barrelhouse as the business manager. Around the same time, I was getting out of grad school and took a job as the editor of American Poet, the journal of the Academy of American Poets. That’s where I first took on an editorial role, rather than a programmatic or administrative one. After awhile, my position at Barrelhouse evolved into editing poetry as well.
If any of the editors or assistant editors has a great idea and they’re willing to shoulder the work, we’re happy to have it under the Barrelhouse umbrella and will work to be the support. So in addition to basic editorial responsibilities like reading submissions, Mike and Tom run our podcast called “Book Fight,” Dave runs our website and online workshops, Joe runs a reading series in DC called “Stories on Stage,” and I work on our social media and some community building efforts here in DC. We also run a pretty amazing conference for emerging writers called Conversations and Connections. Dave and Susan head up the DCversion and Mike and Tom run the Philly one. Generally speaking, I still do the business manager functions like publicity, fundraising, taxes, and other boring stuff. Joe handles fulfillment. It’s an entirely volunteer effort so we try to give people the leeway to be involved in ways that appeal to them.
How much success have the online fiction workshops been in the past? Have participants published and gained noteworthy success after taking part in the workshop?
They’ve been very successful. We’ve done probably half a dozen fiction workshops and two poetry workshops so far and with one exception they’ve all sold out (12 students/class). We try to keep things affordable and practical for everyone involved. We’ve had a great response from the participants. I think people really value advice directly from magazine editors who can be honest about what works and what might keep it from being published. We also have had a great group of participants who offer their own quality feedback, many of whom are publishing writers with MFAs. We just started the workshops a little over a year ago, so I can’t say any of our alums have won the Pulitzer quite yet, but they are seeing their work published widely. Sarah Blake and Wendy Wimmer are two writers to look out for. One participant just told us last week that a story he workshopped with us will be coming out with Per Contra.
Barrelhouse recently helped Dark Sky Magazine with its final publication. How did this process work? Other than posting DSM #17 on your website, how else did you help with the publication?
We’ve admired Dark Sky for a long time. When we heard they were shutting down and that there was this stranded last issue out there, we immediately knew we wanted to do something to help get that work out to readers. Gabe Durham, the editor of Dark Sky Magazine, had been emailing with Dave when all this was happening and they worked together to make Barrelhouse the home for the final issue.
Really other than publishing the issue on our site and doing some publicity work, Gabe and the other DSM editors had already done everything. We trusted their vision and wanted to present what they had created with as little interruption as possible from us.
How has Barrelhouse evolved over the past few years?
Barrelhouse started out as a couple of guys in a bar who would read each other’s stories and talk about indie publishing. One night, things got out of hand and somebody suggested that they start a journal. From that inauspicious beginning, we’ve become a pretty respected literary magazine. We’re nationally distributed to bookstores big and small. We’re a 501(c)3 and have received support from generous donors and funders. Writing from Barrelhouse has been included in several of the Best American anthologies and we’ve been featured in the Washington Post a few times.
What we’re most proud of has to be the work we’ve published. Our literary heroes are our contributors, and not because we’re soliciting big name people (we’re not), but because we’ve been able to provide a venue for writers whose work we deeply believe in. It’s been awesome to see so many writers we published early on in their careers go on to such great success.
I think what has stayed the same over the years is our approach to the writing community. We’ll do anything we can to support writers, presses, and magazines we believe in. If we hadn’t had the help of people like Richard Peabody of Gargoyle magazine or Reb Livingston of No Tell Books when we were first starting out, we never would have made it. We’ve very conscious about staying open to readers and writers and keeping this whole indie lit world transparent and welcoming for those who want in.
Where do you see Barrelhouse Magazine in the future? What innovations do you and your colleagues
have in mind to utilize today’s expanding technology?
Barrelhouse will continue to thrive, publishing great work by poets and authors who are really breaking through. In the next year or so, we’ll be refocusing on circulation and subscriptions so we can bring that writing to even more readers.In terms of technology, we’ve partnered with Dzanc Books to distribute electronic copies of Barrelhouse for all e-reading devices. As I mentioned, Mike and Tom have put together a great podcast—actually two podcasts, “Book Fight” and “Writers Ask.” I think there’s lots of room to expand. If you’ve got ideas, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you have any helpful tips for the members of FUSE who intend to pursue a career in editing?
In terms of a career? If you want a career, as in making money by literary editing, you’re probably best served by moving to New York (or maybe Minneapolis or the Pacific Northwest for poetry), taking a low level job in publishing and working your way up. More generally, there are lots of positions (not to say jobs) in publishing that are not editorial, like publicity and design, which can be equally fulfilling. Either way, cultivate a broad skill set and get your foot in the door.
If you mean career as in a life in letters, then I’d say read widely, voraciously, find what you love and tell everyone you know about it. Learn to be an advocate for good writing. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people, especially people you admire. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to create your own opportunities. Most of all, if you believe in what you’re doing, stick with it. There are going to innumerable obstacles (financial, personal, and otherwise), times when you want to give up and throw away your literary life. Don’t do it. We’ve all been there. Does it get better? I can’t say. Rejection is a big part of writing and editing. It’s not necessarily easier on one side or the other. It always hurts. But if you know you’ve got something special, keep going and share it with everyone who’s willing to listen.