Thursday, December 3, 2009
Fail Better: Barbara Esstman Interview's Failbetter.com's Thom Didato
Today, workshop leader Barbara Esstman interviews Thom Didato of Failbetter.com. Thom once took workshops here at The Writer's Center.
I didn't know the Beckett quote until I read the back of your card ("Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."), but it reminded me of a great Lucille Clifton poem about writing that ends with "Though I fail and fail, this giving of names is my job." Failure as a constant is part of writing that often comes as a shock to novices. How did you choose Failbetter for the name of your on-line lit mag (and what were the runner-up choices?) How does Failbetter reflect on your ideas of writing and what you like to publish?
We’re often asked about the origin of our name which I always think is a good thing because a good name does go a long way of distinguishing a literary publication from the sea of ”reviews” or ”journals” out there.
As to why we chose it…Well, our mag initially evolved out of a popular New York reading series called “failbetter presents” that was curated by one of our founding editors, David McClendon. David was kinda a disciple of the Gordon Lish school and the series had many great readers. I initially approached David about the idea of starting a mag and ten years later failbetter is still going strong. Thus, in a way we didn’t choose the name, it chose us.
The meaning behind the Beckett quote is much debated, and in my opinion, misinterpreted. A lot of folks see it as some sort of self help / perseverance proverb. I don’t think of it that way (nor do I fathom did Beckett). And while I’m hesitant to provide our official interpretation of the quote (I’m sure even my colleagues and I might not agree) I believe the mere act of failing is the point, and said act may result in something truly original. Wow, that sounds pretty pretentious, eh? Well, let’s just allow the mystery behind Beckett’s words remain an enigma, much like the man himself.
What would you like our readers, members and the world to know about Failbetter.com? And since you'll inevitably be getting submissions -- at least one or two -- from our writers, what are you looking for in a story?
Again, I think you would get a different answer from each of my fb colleagues, whether it be from Andy Day the co-publisher of the mag, or from our section editors. I used to say we were looking for character-driven fiction where something actually happens – but with a decade under our belt, and the changing of section editors, I think the one constant editorial slant is that we seek that which is at once original and personal -- something that could only come from you.
As an old person still struggling with basic computer functions, I'm terribly impressed that you had the foresight to start an on-line mag before on-line mags began taking over the world. What was your thinking 10 years ago? What have you changed or adjusted over this decade? How has this contributed to your survival during a time when other lit mags have been vanishing at an alarming rate?
I laugh at the assertion that we had any foresight at all. We had foresight -- only in hindsight. As I have admitted in the past, when we started failbetter, finances were a definite factor, not because we didn’t have the money (though we didn’t), but rather because we had seen several of our fellow editors start up print magazines, only to go belly up after an issue or two. That seemed like such a waste, not only in terms of money, but also for the poor writers they had published whose work was soon relegated to the used-bookstore bins (or worse yet, the trash). For us, it wasn’t merely a question of money, but of longevity and impact.
In general, the technological change over the past decade has been insane. Yes, first we were a bunch of luddites, cutting and pasting and using html-made-easy programs like Front Page and the Dreamweaver. And the mag itself has gone through several face lifts in design. Somewhere along the line we changed from html to php, started to integrate better data base usage and an online submissions system. Eventually even our publishing schedule was effected by the way folks used the web, transforming us from singularly published quarterly to releasing each work on an almost weekly basis until it culminates in an issue. We’re still by no means on the cutting edge of online technology and one must always walk the fine line between becoming too fascinated with the method over the sake of the substance. We’re constantly asking ourselves about some new technology and whether or not it will be truly useful (“Should we have a ‘share this’ button? What about a Facebook and Twiter presence? Perhaps change the “from the editors” section to a blog… All of which, might I add, we’ve done.) Now the big thing is to get our publication out/away from the computer – with e-book and iphone editions, and a soon to be 10th anniversary Kindle edition.
How do you put out Failbetter.com with a staff in cyberspace? Is there a 'real' office or only a virtual one? Do you get together in person occasionally or is this completely a net operation? If so, do you know what the other staff members look like?
We’re all very, very close facebook friends… Seriously, in most cases we have personal or professional connections. Initially, we all lived in New York City which was great as far as editorial meetings – though sometimes produced a rather costly bar tab. Nowadays my colleagues live on the east coast, west coast and points in between. The office is indeed a virtual one, with an online submissions system where we can weigh in on the slush, and an onslaught of emails and conference calls to get all the work done.
Failbetter.com is running a 10th anniversary novella contest. How great is that? Publishing-wise, novellas are usually too long for magazines and too short for book publishers. No one's even quite sure how long a novella is, or what it is exactly. What can you say to would-be submitters? What should they know about novellas before they submit their manuscript to the contest? Maybe even before they start writing their manuscript?
Let me quote our own blog for this answer: “The novella is an unduly neglected form. Death in Venice, Heart of Darkness, Miss Lonelyhearts—would any of these find its way into print today, if it came from any but a well-known author? For traditional publishers, the fixed costs of making a book are too great an obstacle—to justify this outlay, a book has to sell for a price higher than most buyers are willing to pay, for a text that may come in at “only,” say, fifty pages. So what of the new Billy Budd or Seize the Day? Will it sit forever, unread but by one, on its author’s hard drive, or in his Moleskine? No! We’ve opined before about epublishing’s unique ability to give new life—bring new readers, in loads—to fiction in all its forms. Now we’d like to do our bit to revivify this great, if lately unloved form. How can we afford to publish a novella, when our print peers can’t? Because for us, the economics are different. It costs little more to code up a 15,000-word work than a 500-worder, and the storage and distribution costs are identical. As to your, the reader’s, cost—how much time you’ll need to spend, to read a novella online… If it’s good enough, that’ll be time well-spent. And if we’re right that the lack of outlets has kept too many good novellas from being published, and others from being written, we shouldn’t have much problem turning one up.”
So dear writer, send us what you’ve got!
You once took workshops at TWC—my workshop, in fact—so can you tell us a little bit about your experiences at The Writer’s Center? How about the writing group that was a spin-off from the workshop? Of course, we're hoping TWC engendered multiple epiphanies and revolutionized your life; but if not, just some practical observations will do on how a place like this can be useful to new writers.
That may have been the first workshop I ever took and it was a great one. Indeed, I’m indebted to TWC for saving me from a listless life as a government bureaucrat (though I have to admit there are plenty of such professional souls who have far more creativity than those who claim to be an ARTIST!) That class not only got me to start putting words to paper but how said words should or could appear. And yes, for a number of years after that class, about 4 or 5 of us would meet and share our various stories and excerpts...Of course, the writing pursuit lead me to more classes and more writing groups. TWC is great not only because it provides a resource for like-minded literary souls, but serves as a catalyst for being creative. Now, I’m not sure it engendered multiple epiphanies, but perhaps did lead me to the universally-known-but-little-followed maxim – “Do what you love and love what you do.” Of course, it took me about 20 more years for that to finally sink into my thick head, but I can thank TWC for planting the seed.
What have you done since (besides Failbetter.com)? -- like that wasn't enough. Are you still writing? Does your editing get in the way of your writing? How disruptive is a four year old?
You know, I should mention that the same rule that applies to writers also applies to literary publishers, and that is: don’t quite your day job. After leaving DC I moved up to Brooklyn, first worked in a bookstore (and got a lot of writing done) but then thought I should get a more professional looking job title and went into publishing. In many ways, that was disaster (both to my writing and to my psyche). I spent a couple of years editing cat murder mysteries (where the cat was witness to, or the perpetrator of, murder!) and Christian romances (usually involving a Canadian Mountie who lost his way by taking a wee bit too much of the drink). Then I went to work for one of the larger houses (which was hauntingly reminiscent of my days in government). Thankfully, I ended up at a little literary non-profit called the Council of Literary Magazines and Press (which kinda serves as a defacto union for hundreds of literary magazines and presses). I continued to write and got about a dozen short stories published in small mags, wrote a novel, got an agent, fired an agent, abandoned another novel and started a third…and then came the kid and the relatively recent relocation to good olde Richmond, VA.
Truth be told, in the past years I’ve spent most/all of my creative energy on failbetter and have taken a break from my writing. That used to make me feel guilty but I am quite content to consider myself an editor/publisher for now (though undoubtedly I will return to writing). Meanwhile, my wife continues to humor my failbetter ways (both emotionally and financially). I was lucky enough to land an academic job at Virginia Commonwealth University where I coordinate the graduate programs in English and teach a couple of undergraduate courses a year (including one on literary publishing). I’m somewhat satisfied (never really satisfied with anything) with my literary life and perhaps most importantly have managed to prevent my four year old son from becoming a huge NASCAR fan in a town that has no professional sports teams.
It’s good times all around.
Thom Didato is the publisher of failbetter an award-winning online literary magazine. He lives in Richmond, Virginia where he currently teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and administers their graduate programs in English.
Barbara Esstman is a National Endowment for the Arts, VCCA and Virginia Commission for the Arts fellow and a Redbook fiction award winner, among other distinctions. Her two novels, The Other Anna and Night Ride Home, were published by Harcourt Brace and HarperCollins and are in numerous foreign editions. Both books were adapted for television by Hallmark Productions. She co-edited an anthology, A More Perfect Union, published by St. Martin's Press, and has taught extensively in universities. Her next workshop at The Writer's Center is Advanced Novel and Memoir.