August 2004

Matthew Lesh


An Interview with the Creators of Barrelhouse

Barrelhouse is a new literary journal whose stated purpose is to bridge the gap between high and low culture. Founded this year in Washington, D.C. by Mike Ingram, Joe Killiany, Dave Housley and Aaron Pease, Barrelhouse features short fiction nestled comfortably alongside material like an essay comparing Beverly Hills 90210 and The OC. The online version of Barrelhouse, debuted in late May and the first issue of the print version is expected in November. Although Ingram does most of the talking in the interview below, he wants to make it clear that the four founding editors are equal partners in the magazine. Ingram, Killiany, Housley and Pease come from varied backgrounds and fields, but share a passion for good writing and the apparent desire to bring F. Scott Fitzgerald and Seth Cohen just a little closer together.

Sometimes, it seems that a gap between high and low culture no longer exists… do you feel that literary journals & magazines, until now, have been an exception from the trend that finds high and low culture constantly merging?

MIKE INGRAM: Well, first of all I think you’re right in saying that the worlds of high and low culture are constantly merging. But there’s also a certain “I don’t own a TV and therefore I’m better than you” attitude that’s out there, and it’s always irritated the hell out of me. It’s certainly not exclusive to the literary world, but I think Barrelhouse is in some ways trying to answer that. This attitude that says TV or comic books or movies without subtitles are just a big waste of time, and we should all be having Serious Thoughts about Serious Issues, reading only Serious Books and admiring only Serious Art.

We’re a generation that has been raised on a steady diet of pop culture, and so we’re choosing to embrace that, rather than be embarrassed by it or make apologies for it. I think it’s telling that the first time the four of us got together, we started out talking about fiction and poetry and pretty soon we were discussing Snoop Dogg and The OC. There’s no reason those things can’t exist side by side, and we think some interesting things can happen when writers and artists start talking about their pop culture obsessions.

Which isn’t to say that the fiction we like is light in tone or subject matter. But we think there is a class of people out there like us, people who like complex, character-driven fiction, but who also aren’t afraid to admit that when Duran Duran’s "Rio" comes on the car stereo, they don’t change the channel. Or who sometimes blow their entire Saturday afternoon on a Real World marathon. It works both ways, I think -- the supposedly low-brow is sometimes smarter and more interesting than it’s given credit for, and the supposedly high-brow can be fun and entertaining. Unfortunately, people often start with a misconception that whatever is good in art will by necessity not appeal to a broad audience. So that you’ll hear a comment like, “Oh, that book is very subtle and nuanced, and it will win prestigious awards, but no one is going to buy it.” Which, unfortunately, turns out to be true more often than not. But I wonder how much of that is just a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you package something as turnip greens, and market it as turnip greens, you can’t really complain when people take one look, turn up their noses and say “Yuck. I hate turnip greens.”

JOE KILLIANY: I half agree and half disagree with Mike. I honestly don’t think high and low culture merge that much in most of America, especially in the fairly rural areas like where I was raised. In fact, I would say the gap is wider now than it's ever been. When you look at artists and writers from the twenties, thirties, and forties, even up to the sixties -- I'm thinking here of people like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Miller (Arthur), Pollack, or Warhol -- their level of celebrity was equal to today's movie stars. I'm not saying we should judge a writer, artist or musician by the level of his or her success, but the high level of notoriety these people attained implies that people in those eras were perhaps more engaged with the literary and artistic world, that they read more fiction, saw more plays, went to more galleries, etc. Now, for an author to get acknowledged by the majority of the mainstream press he has to diss Oprah in a fairly public way.

One of the two reasons I hesitated with Barrelhouse in the beginning -- the other being fear of a train wreck -- was that I worried literary journals, or at least a lot of them, helped widen that gulf between high and low culture. A lot of journals seem to be written and designed for people who have that "I don't own a TV" mentality. Or, I’m not sure the people behind the journals design them that way on purpose, but that’s a common perception about literary journals. I was petrified of helping to send modern fiction to the same place that modern art has gone, which is out of the awareness of most people. The fact that the guys working on Barrelhouse have such diverse interests keeps that from happening. I view the magazine and the web site as venues to illustrate that fiction, and the arts in general, are fun and accessible. And not only that, I hope it illustrates to people who generally read "high-brow stuff" that the stuff they tend to avoid -- pop music, reality TV, etc. -- is fun and interesting and can spark some worthwhile discussions.

DAVE HOUSLEY: I’d like to note that the “high and low culture” thing was my second choice for a tagline. My first choice was “Barrelhouse: for smart people who don’t have a stick up their ass.” That was a little too harsh, apparently.

Do you think there’s a level of elitism unique to the world of literary journals? Do you think you’ll face any stigma trying to combine pop culture with “literature”?

MIKE: There’s elitism all over; it’s not restricted to literary journals. What you sometimes get in the writing world, and I’m sure this happens in the other arts as well, is this constant credential sniffing. We’ve already been exposed to that a little bit. We’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from people, but one comment that’s surfaced a few times is: "Who are you guys?" Now, maybe we could put a staff box on the web site and that would end the discussion entirely. But I think what people are after when they ask that question is not just, literally, who we are, but: "Where have you published?" "Where did you go to school?" "What makes you an appropriate arbiter of quality?"

And while those are all legitimate questions, one of the things we wanted to do with Barrelhouse was avoid that kind of mentality, the kind of self-referential and self-contained thing that the writing world sometimes is. So to people who ask that question, all we can really say is that we’re avid readers, we love stories, and here is some writing that we think you’ll enjoy.

DAVE: I also think there’s less of that literary snobbishness online. There’s a lot of smart, entertaining writing -- fiction and nonfiction, high and low culture, whatever you want to call it -- on the web right now, and there seems to be plenty of room for web sites like Television Without Pity, Nerve, the Onion, Oyster Boy Review, The Morning News, and a million others. Although we’re not strictly a web journal, that’s an important part of what we’re doing. Unfortunately, there’s still a divide among writers between those who have gotten on-board with the online thing, and those who still think the web is just a receptacle for porn and Live Journal diaries of 15-year-old girls. But there are some online publications that I’d stack up against anything in print. And I’d also note that there are web sites with much bigger audiences than even the most widely read print journals.

So, where did you guys go to sch…um, OK, forget that one. What are some of the difficulties you’re running into starting a new magazine?

MIKE: You know, this will come off as completely corny, but I have to say it. When I was younger, my dad always said that when you found a job you loved, it wouldn’t feel like work. And I always thought that was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. Work was work; it was just something you had to do. But this thing has been so much fun. Don’t get me wrong -- it’s a ton of work, and none of us are making any money from it. But I’ve loved every minute of it, and I think the other three guys have too. We all enjoy spending time together, and we all love writing. So it feels like a privilege to be able to sit around and talk shop, to read the submissions we get, to talk with writers, to essentially start with nothing and bring something that’s hopefully unique and interesting into the world.

There are all kinds of problems and issues and challenges, though. One of the challenges for me, personally, has been self-promotion. I’m not a natural marketer, and I tend to make self-deprecating comments when people ask me what I’m up to. But you have to put that aside, and go out and tell the world about what you’re doing if you want it to succeed.

Are there any writers in your upcoming first issue you’re particularly excited about showcasing?

MIKE: There are, but I’m not sure we’re ready to throw out names just yet, only because we don’t want to count our chickens before they hatch. There are some writers we really like who have agreed to submit a story, or else write an essay about pop culture. And we recently got the thumbs up for an interview with a musician we really admire. But until those things are firmly in hand, I feel like I might jinx myself by mentioning them in public. I should also say that we’ve gotten some unsolicited submissions that have just completely blown our doors off. Which tells me there is indeed room for another journal in the world, and that there’s a lot of great writing being done right now and only a limited number of places to put it.

DAVE: We’ve also had great luck getting talented people to contribute shorter pieces to the website. Claire Zulkey and Carrie Hill Wilner have pieces on right now, and those were people we actually sought out and said, “Hey, we really like your work, would you think about contributing?” And so we were really excited when they agreed. Darby Larson also has a piece up there right now that’s fantastic. And, of course, Mike worked out some of his private demons regarding Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows.

Are there any magazines or journals currently out there that you really admire, or consider a major influence on Barrelhouse?

MIKE: There are too many to name, I’m sure, but I’ll try to list a few. Zoetrope is one of my favorite journals, just great all around. In terms of fiction and poetry, The Gettysburg Review and Ploughshares are both consistently good. I’ve also admired the fiction in The Missouri Review over the years. McSweeney’s deserves a mention if only because they’re sort of the elephant in the room when you talk about starting a new journal. The success they’ve had, particularly in how they’ve reached a broader audience and what they’ve done with the web site, is really impressive. I was also a big fan of Story magazine, before it folded. That was the first journal I ever subscribed to. And Tin House is beautifully designed.

JOE: I like Granta a lot, the fact that while it’s based in the UK, it publishes work from all over the world. I don't think enough American journals do that on a regular basis. It's good to see what other countries are doing in the world of fiction. To me it feels like the rest of the world's writing, especially the British, is a bit more raw than American writing, more instinctual and less workshopped. I kind of like that; it leaves more room for innovation and risk taking.

DAVE: I was in Portland last year, doing the pilgrimage to Powells, and came across all these great lit mags I hadn’t seen before. Some of those -- west coast independent journals like Little Engines, Monkeybicycle, and Kitchen Sink — kind of provided a spark for Barrelhouse in that they really made me think: “Shit, why aren’t there any of these cool, smart, funky little lit mags in DC?”

Conversely, are there any journals you would cringe if compared to?

MIKE: Oh, God yes. But I feel sort of mean-spirited to name them. That would be like posting the worst submission we get each week on our web site, wouldn’t it?

We definitely did not want to be considered a “’zine,” which is why we’ve invested time and effort into the production side of things -- to give our journal a professional feel, even if the four of us are basically well-trained monkeys surviving on a steady diet of booze and cocktail wieners. We also didn’t want our aesthetic to be “weird for the sake of being weird,” which is, unfortunately, a rather popular aesthetic at the moment. I do think some experimental fiction works really, really well, and I don’t mean to come off as curmudgeonly. But some stories feel organically weird, if that makes sense -- the structure and language exist in a way that fits -- and then some just seem too cute or too clever, like they’re trying too hard to be original. Like you’ll read a submission and think: You know, you’ve got an interesting story to tell, but I’m not sure why you told it backwards, or through the eyes of the family dog.

DAVE: And we won’t be running baby pictures of our contributors in the journal.

Your site mentions several times that you are simply looking for great writing, as opposed to a particular aesthetic. Are there any exceptions to this? Anything you won’t publish?

MIKE: Well, we probably won’t be publishing any stories about anal probing space mutants, or time travel. Then again, as soon as I say that, someone will submit a story about anal probing space mutants and time travel that is just spectacular and that somehow renders those subjects in a way that is human and complicated and interesting, and I’ll have to recant. I can’t imagine what that story would look like, but it seems that as soon as you make a hard-and-fast rule, someone comes along and breaks it. I was in a writing group once and the teacher was saying how it’s nearly impossible to write a short story from the perspective of a young child that doesn’t come off as precious and cloying. And so of course one of the writers in the group wrote a story told from the perspective of a young child, and it was wonderful.

What I think we’re trying to do in saying that we’re looking only for quality writing is to leave the door open to possibility. Sure there are some things we like better than others. I, for one, initially advocated a statement saying we were not interested in genre work, or erotica. But then the other editors, who thankfully are less snotty than I am, piped up and said “Well, what if someone writes a detective story that breaks the conventions of that genre, or a story about sex that’s not clichéd and overwrought?” And I had to admit they were right.

I should also note that we’re publishing poetry, but we have a separate poetry editor, Gwydion Suilebhan (one of the few people in the world who can say he had John Popper open for one of his poetry readings). I really like poetry, but I’m one of those people who takes a poetry workshop and never knows what to say except “Yes” or “Oh God, no.” And Dave, Aaron and Joe are basically the same way. So we thought we should find someone a little better suited to judge those submissions. I can say, though, that the idea of accessibility is also important to us in the poetry we’ll publish.

DAVE: I have trouble understanding poetry that doesn’t begin “She was a fast machine…”

What is your primary reason for starting this journal? Is it to showcase writers? Make a statement? Just fun?

MIKE: The idea for the journal actually came from a night of drinking. To back up a bit and start from the beginning, the four of us were all in a writing workshop here in D.C. After the class ended, we kept getting together informally every couple weeks. The idea was that we’d read each others’ stories and provide some feedback -- which we did, sort of, but we also spent a lot of time talking about books and music and movies and horrible reality TV shows. One night, after way too many Brooklyn Browns, Dave asked if any of us would be interested in starting a journal. We talked about it a bit that night, but I for one didn’t hold out much hope that it would become an actual project. People talk about all kinds of things when they’re drinking -- starting a band, breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, quitting their jobs and moving to Borneo. But the next time we met, Dave was still on this whole journal kick, so I thought: well, let’s hear him out. And once we started tossing ideas around, we realized this was something we really wanted to do, and a plan started to take shape.

We’re all writers and we’re all readers and we just love short stories. You know, we’re the kinds of people who can (and do) talk for hours about our favorite story collections, or our favorite authors, or something we read last month in Tin House that we really loved or hated. So in some ways its selfish, I guess, because starting a journal to us is really fun and exciting and we get to meet and talk with some of our favorite authors and discover new work and do all these things that, if you’re total writer geeks like we are, is just incredibly cool. But the larger, less selfish goal is to provide another outlet for good writing. I think this is an incredibly rich time for the short story in America and in other parts of the world. People can say what they want about the proliferation of MFA programs and the homogenization of writing styles, but I just don’t buy it. I don’t think there has ever been a bigger group of talented writers working in the short form. Unfortunately, stories still don’t get as much attention as novels, but I’m hoping the tide may be turning ever so slightly. I mean, look at someone like Lorrie Moore, who writes these incredibly funny and heartbreaking short stories, and is doing very well in terms of recognition. And you’ve got Zoetrope coming out and really celebrating the short story and trying to push it on a larger audience, even going so far as to say that stories are the things films should be based on, rather than novels or original screenplays. And Adam Haslett’s first collection was a Today Show book club selection, for God’s sakes.

DAVE: As a married guy, I’d like to add that “starting a journal” is a fantastic and, apparently, perfectly acceptable reason to go to bars on Wednesday nights and stay out way too late talking about AC/DC and George Saunders and 90210 and Aimee Bender and, uh, the journal. Yeah, the journal. Sometimes until last call, with all the drinking and the talking … about the journal. (Honey, if you’re reading this, I’m totally kidding!)

What are your ultimate goals for Barrelhouse?

MIKE: Total world domination. Anything short of that is failure, and we’ll be forced to commit ritual suicide. Obviously, I’m the type of person who deflects questions about my long-term plans and dreams with sarcasm. I do the same thing when asked about my own writing. “Oh yeah, you know, I dabble a bit. Everyone needs a hobby.” When in truth I spend a lot of time writing stories and revising them and trying to get them published. But it’s easier to make a joke than admit you’re trying to make a living at something so few people actually make a living at.

To answer your question, though, we’ve been so focused on each individual task that there hasn’t been a lot of time to dream about the big picture. The first goal was to get the web site up, so we did that and put a check in that box. And then to start procuring some quality work for the site, which we’ve done and continue to do. And then to get writers for the print journal, do a mock-up of what it will look like, check and check. So if we can just get this first issue out to people without any major bumps in the road, I’ll consider that a huge victory.

Of course we want this project to be viable in the long term, and we believe it will be. Another thing my dad used to say (quite the idealist, my father) was that if you do something you’re passionate about, and that you enjoy, the money part will take care of itself. And while I’m not sure that’s absolutely true, I hope it’s at least kind of true. We’ve researched some different funding options, and we’re confident we can secure at least enough money to keep this thing afloat through advertising or grants or a combination of the two. But for now we’re just focused on Issue #1, which we have money for, and then we’ll have a few months to come up with longer-term funding. That seems to be the magic word for any new journal: money.

OK, finally, Mike, can you really even argue that 90210 is in the same league as The OC? Are you on drugs?

MIKE: Well, I’m going to plead the fifth on your second question. As for your first question, yes and no. I mean, can you argue that the Model T is in the same league as a Porsche 911? Probably not, but the Porsche has the benefit of coming further down the line. That’s a horrible analogy, but I think you get my drift.

I think the two shows are an interesting reflection of bigger things going on in the world of pop culture. 90210 was a show that was almost painfully earnest. Whereas The OC is like this postmodern take on the whole teen genre, which is what makes it really interesting. It has all the familiar plot points and moral dilemmas -- Girl With Drinking Problem, Boy From Wrong Side of Tracks, etc. etc. But then it also makes fun of those clichés and twists them around. Perhaps the greatest OC convention is the show-within-a-show, The Valley. Which gives the writers this great mechanism by which to make fun of their own show, and the whole genre of teen shows.

Teenagers seem to be getting gradually smarter -- not necessarily in terms of IQ or book smarts, but smarter at taking apart media and stories and all the messages they’re inundated with. Look at those after-school specials they used to show when we were kids. They seem so campy and corny and of course if you showed one to a 16 year old today, they’d laugh in your face. But until I was 17 or 18, I thought if you did drugs you would literally jump out of a third story window and try to fly. So today’s kids are a little savvier, I think, and a show like 90210 looks cornier in hindsight than it did even in 1990. I was in 9th grade when 90210 first came on, and I remember watching every single episode, even when I was in college. Toward the end, the show was entertaining mostly because of its moments of unintentional comedy, and just how ridiculous it had become. I mean, you have this cheesy nightclub attached to a diner. Huh? And Steve Sanders celebrating his 21st birthday when he’s so obviously in his mid-30s. But in the beginning I think people -- well, at least teen people -- were legitimately interested in the characters and what would happen to them each week.

DAVE: Donna Martin graduates! Donna Martin graduates!