Twelve Days of Giving Reason Eleven: Kirby Johnson
Sophie Rosenblum: You started NANO Fiction in 2006 while you were an undergraduate at the University of Houston. Most undergraduates are just trying to get through their classes, what inspired you to start a flash fiction publication?
Kirby Johnson: I think it was the same thing that inspires most people who have started a journal or press: I happened to be surrounded by (in a class with) a bunch of people writing amazing things who had no outlet to publish in, and with some help, I created that outlet. It just happened to be at a time when a lot of young writers were also in need of a place to send their short stories, so we had work coming in from people like Kim Chinquee, Blake Butler, Miah Arnold, and Kevin Brown, and the magazine grew.
SR: What’s the most challenging thing about running a literary journal?
KJ: The most challenging part is knowing if I’m making the right decisions–not editorially–but administratively. I frequently go to my staff and ask, “Should we spend this money?” “Is this the right choice?” We all want to do right by the journal and run it in a way so that we can continue publishing for years to come, but we aren’t business people! We’re a group of people who love writing and reading, we love words on a page. So for me, the most challenging part has been crafting myself as a business person, then setting aside all of the doubt that comes with the role.
SR: What advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own literary journal?
KJ: A few years ago when I was just starting NANO Fiction’s non-profit application, I went to a workshop led by Jody Blazek–THE woman in non-profit accounting and tax law–and she asked us all something that really stuck with me. To paraphrase: “Is what you want to do currently being done by someone else? If so, why aren’t you volunteering there? And why do you feel the need to do this?” She was direct. She was looking us all in the eyes and using her index finger to point pretty hard repeatedly in our directions. Everyone in the workshop had just finished describing what our non-profit’s goals were, and at this question half the people there stopped taking notes. They were all in reflection and I was in awe, as I often am in the presence of competent, bad ass women. She had rendered most of the hopeful people in the class impotent, and it became obvious that many of the people around us shouldn’t follow through with this whole non-profit thing. It wasn’t that everyone’s ideas weren’t great, or even that everyone’s services wouldn’t be appreciated by the public, but she was showing us how narcissistic it was to run our own organizations when we could be contributing to our fields by volunteering at an org whose infrastructure was already in place, and most likely needed help.
So, my advice to someone who wants to start their own journal is for them to ask themselves those questions. Why do you want to run your own publication? Is there another magazine already doing that? Then I would go further to ask: do you have the time to run the publication in a way that honors your contributors and the work that you’re publishing? For NANO Fiction, I could say that no one else was doing what we were doing at the time, at least not in print, but I cannot say that I have always had the time needed to further the status of the magazine and our programing in such a way that honors and raises the profiles of our writers (which is something I often feel very guilty for).
After those questions are answered, then I still recommend volunteering at another publication–not by reading submissions, that is the fun part–but by volunteering administrative services. Those services might be accounting, editing, stuffing envelopes, doing a direct mailing, or another kind of campaign. Not all orgs will need this kind of help, but it will be the way you will get to learn the most about how to run your own journal. Before starting NANO Fiction, I volunteered for two years at Gulf Coast. I learned how the submission manager was run, how to enter subscriptions, what was involved with a bulk mailing, how to organize a reading series, the list goes on. Without that experience, NANO wouldn’t have had a chance.
SR: What’s the best thing about running NANO Fiction?
KJ: Reading submissions. I love to see the work that comes in on a weekly basis. Not all pieces are the right fit for NANO, but there is something good in every piece of flash that we see. Reading submissions also allows me to not be so hard on myself as a writer because I can see that this isn’t a solitary craft and that I’m not always going perfect it the first time. I know that as long as I continue sending my own work out, there will always be someone at the other end of my stories or essays reading those words, and if I am lucky, there will always be an editor that can see something good in those words and who is inspired by them as well. It’s that interaction–the act of being that editor and seeing all of the wonderful, crazy, gross, or beautiful things that other people come up with–that is truly the best thing to me, and it is the thing that drives my personal work, too.
SR: Tell us a little bit about your cats. What role do they play in NANO Fiction?
KJ: My cats are very literary. In fact, Roy is a literary stud. This is him posing for last year’s Black Warrior Review calendar. Both of my cats are very involved in the journal. They show up to our web meetings and sleep on books. They are very well read.
SR: You’re also the editor of Black Warrior Review. What’s the difference between running a journal dedicated to flash fiction and running a journal that publishes a wider range of work?
KJ: I am actually just finishing up my work on BWR. We have closed production on the spring issue and I turn in my keys to the office next week. Looking back on my year as editor there, it feels amazing to have worked on a publication with such a rich history as BWR. 41 years is a long haul for any publication and I’m honored to have been a part of that.
Regarding differences, there have been many. Working with longer pieces and pieces that are more active in their form on the page is one that sticks out to me the most. We get so many pieces–prose especially–through BWR where how the piece is presented on the page is crucial to its performance. As an editor you want to honor that but you’re confined to your pre-set margins. Working with authors through that constraint has been the biggest difference between my tenure at BWR and NANO, but in a good way.
SR: How have you seen NANO Fiction change over the last eight years?
KJ: We have changed a lot. NANO is no longer just a magazine, we are an important resource for writers and educators interested in the flash form.
SR: What other journals do you read?
KJ: I always love the work that The Cupboard puts out. Other favorites are PANK, SmokeLong, Wigleaf…
SR: Why is it important to publish a journal that is dedicated to flash fiction?
KJ: I believe flash is accessible to everyone–that’s why our State of Flash (in the Classroom) series does so well, and that’s why educators request so many copies of NANO for their classes. I used to say that NANO Fiction is for the reader on the go, and that is still true–the time factor is still important–but I really think publishing flash is important because it exists in this middle space, a space that anyone can get into.
SR: Why should people subscribe to NANO Fiction?
KJ: They should subscribe because it’s an easy pleasure. Flash is so giving. I have never loved something (inanimate) that gave back as much as flash fiction does. Reading a short story or prose poem is like throwing back a shot of your favorite whiskey or shoving a whole macarron in your mouth. A reader doesn’t have to give much (of their time) to reap the pleasure that a piece of good flash fiction can provide, they just have to take the piece in. A good short story can unfold in meaning ten times it’s length in words and still resonate with a reader hours later. A good story can knock you on your ass or leave you with one of those petulant literary smerks. People should subscribe for all that, and more.