The Last Ten Years Were the First Ten Years: An interview with Carissa Halston and Randolph Pfaff

We’re ten. We made it. Double digits.

To celebrate the occasion, founding editors Carissa Halston and Randolph Pfaff sat next to each other and had a conversation via Google Hangout.

 

Carissa Halston

I want to start with a question I get asked every time I do an interview about apt:

Why did you start this magazine? (Implied: This is all your fault.)

 

Randolph Pfaff

So, way back in 2004, I had it in my head that it would be cool to start a magazine. Mind you, I knew nothing about running a publication other than having been editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper for two years. Does that even count? I’m not sure. Anyway, I think what I had in mind was a “cultural” magazine—arts, current events, maybe. You liked the idea of starting a magazine but told me that the only kind of publication you had any real knowledge of was the literary magazine. apt became our middle ground. We had an idea, we had a name, but we still had very little idea what we were doing.

Does that mesh with your recollection of events?

 

CH

It does.

The funniest part of it, now, is forcing myself to admit how different we were then. You didn’t write much at all, and I wrote plays and fiction (and poems that weren’t poems but lineated stories). I was a high school graduate with five years experience selling books, and you had studied psychology and business in college.

 

RP

That’s true. And I was doing graphic design work, so I ended up putting the first issue together in Quark.

 

CH

When put this way, it really was the perfect way to start because we had no idea that we had no idea what we were doing. Who the hell would design a website in Quark?

 

RP

It’s true! I think if we had known more, it would’ve felt daunting. Instead, it was exciting.

 

CH

Lucky for us, it’s still exciting. But let’s go back for a second.

Timeline: 2004, you start thinking about starting a magazine.

By March of 2005, you had apt‘s ISSN in hand.

 

RP

I did. As you mentioned, I was always on top of the business side of things. It’s surprising how simple all of the business stuff is if you’re willing to do the research and paperwork.

Then, as now, the only thing that ever holds us back is time and money. No one has ever said “no” when we’ve wanted to try something new.

 

CH

So, somewhere between those two points, you’d asked me about the magazine, and I’d already said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Magazine—or journal?”

 

RP

And I said, “Whoa, whoa…what’s the difference?”

 

CH

I feel like no one says “I run a cultural journal.” You can say “magazine” and mean “lit mag,” but most of the time, when I hear “journal,” I think “lit journal.”

 

RP

The idea that how we label a publication corresponds to its place in the market.

 

CH

Let’s not bore everyone.

 

RP

Yes, let’s just bore some people.

 

CH

Actually, that lets me double back for a second. The business stuff—specifically, your awareness of how to go about getting certain things: internet hosting, public domain images, and (much later) non-profit status—allowed us to grow. But at first, all we knew was that we had no money, yet we wanted to get this thing made.

I remember very early in the process thinking that we were going to eventually be bigger, but I didn’t know what that meant for us.

 

RP

And, initially, we wanted it to be in print. I even did a mockup of the cover. I don’t remember exactly when we realized that wasn’t feasible and that we had to start online.

 

CH

I think it was the day we sat down, in the summer of 2005, and I showed you what I thought of when I thought of lit mags. We went to the Borders where I used to work and I showed you McSweeney’s and a few other journals, none of which I remember now.

 

RP

Borders!

 

CH

I know.

I remember saying, “This is print. We can’t afford this.”

 

RP

McSweeney’s has always looked so cool. That’s intimidating both from a monetary and design perspective. Like, “We can’t do this. Also, we can’t do this.”

 

CH

I think the best thing about McSweeney’s, from a design perspective, is that they’ve always been consistent. I’ve never looked at it and thought, “The interior doesn’t gel with the cover,” or, “Whoever designed this didn’t want anyone to read it.” But then you have to remember that Eggers started with Might Magazine, which was a glossy publication (think Harpers meets Mad Magazine), and I don’t think McSweeney’s would’ve looked the way it did had Might not come first.

 

RP

Your knowledge and ability to show me what was out there was so helpful.

 

CH

Well, my knowledge only came from my day jobs. It was actually my experience (so very little at the time) with online lit mags that helped get us on our feet.

 

RP

There were so few online lit mags at the time. 2005 seems like a different epoch with regard to how content works online and how many publications exist solely online. There are so few publications that look great right out of the gate. I think most people need that period of iteration to figure out what they want and what is feasible. Whether it’s with a different publication or different versions of the same one. The apt site has gone through a few progressions.

 

CH

Five. We did seven issues with the Quark site. Seventeen issues on the Dreamweaver site. Then we went a year—or so—when we had no online content. That was our first year with WordPress and we had nothing online.

 

RP

Nothing new, that is.

 

CH

Because during that first year, we were trying to figure out how to make a print mag and publish things online.

 

RP

Which are two very different challenges.

 

CH

But during that 17-month period when we didn’t publish any new work online, we put together our first print annual, accepted all the work for our second print annual, and we’d moved to the third iteration of the site, which we’d redesign the following season.

 

RP

Suddenly: ambition! Or, I should say, bigger ambitions.

 

CH

Well, it was easier to make a site sleeker in 2011 than it was in 2005.

 

RP

And I remember that moving to print was a nice way to make things feel new again. It was a challenge and the outcome (a thing you could hold!) was so different.

 

CH

I know. That was the exciting part. That was one of our original goals—and it only took us five years to get to print. That, at least for me, felt legitimate in a way that online publication didn’t. I think publishing online now, at the rate we do it, yields a different kind of legitimacy.

 

RP

Plus the turnaround time for doing an online issue every two months was very difficult. There was never a break—we were reading for the next issue while we were still editing and coding the current one.

 

CH

I think the online publication schedule was another reason we stopped doing online issues. That and we didn’t love how they looked.

Which brings me to my next question: your role has shifted over the years—as has mine—you were our first in-house designer. Then we designed things together. And, because this whole enterprise was your fault to begin with, you were “Editor” and I was “Contributing Editor” for years. Let’s talk about titles.

 

RP

Yes! Our roles have shifted quite a bit. It didn’t take me long to feel bad about having different titles. Particularly as you branched out more with your own work and started to find success as a fiction writer, it felt wrong to have us as anything other than co-editors. You were also doing so much of the actual editing.  I suppose this is all to say that it took us some time to recognize our own and each other’s strengths and to allow those to be integral to the work we do.

 

CH

Absolutely, but I also think we were both sort of hurt by the titles. And when we realized they were dumb (but necessary), we both became Editors, but for a short while, we got really punchy about the whole thing. We were on the masthead for at least five months as Editor-Monster, with both our names hyphenated as one long name, which was only funny to us (and funnier as the cover letters came in addressed to either of us as Editor-Monster or as Ms. or Mr. Halston-Pfaff).

 

RP

Hah! Those were the (monstrous) days.

 

CH

Said as if they were so long ago. I think Editor-Monster happened in 2013.

 

RP

Side note: I really enjoy editing with you now. It’s very rewarding to go back and forth between the two of us, and then with an author, until the work in question is as strong as possible.

 

CH

I enjoy it too. It’s a far cry from what we used to do—proofread and call it a day. But part of that had to do with not knowing how to ask a writer to change something.

 

RP

Learning how to ask was important. Learning how to trust writers and to have them trust us in a collaborative effort was an important step.

 

CH

I remember thinking we had to be so clear in our submission guidelines because I didn’t want to deal with writers who didn’t want to be edited. But then I still didn’t feel comfortable saying, “We’re cutting this last line” or “first paragraph” or sometimes, “first page.”

 

RP

Well, part of that was certainly a different set of expectations for online, non-university affiliated publications.

 

CH

Yeah, but I knew nothing about that when we wrote those guidelines.

 

RP

It’s difficult to say, “Hey, we haven’t been doing this long and we’re not this well-known journal, but trust us to work with you on your writing.” I think we’ve both learned a lot about particular approaches to and strategies for editing.

 

CH

Funny that I don’t think either of us would’ve thought of that as a goal when we started.

What were your goals?

 

RP

$$$$$$$

 

CH

So, heartbreak?

 

RP

This might sound platitudinous, but I wanted to do something with you that we could be proud of.

Something that was ours. I hadn’t ever been in a relationship (professional or romantic) that fostered creativity and collaboration. You’ve never made me feel like we were competing with each other. You need that sort of trust and freedom to do something new and ambitious.

What were your goals?

 

CH

Well, one goal was to not compete. We’d both been in relationships before where we were unintentionally competing with the people we were dating just by dint of our being ourselves, which is weird and unfair. And I remember struggling so hard not to compete with you that I was putting your name on all correspondence that we sent to contributors.

But then it felt like I was your secretary or something, so we talked about that and figured it out.

 

RP

I’m sorry. Still.

 

CH

You don’t have to be sorry. You didn’t tell me to do that. I did it on my own.

 

RP

I know, but I don’t ever want you to feel as if we’re not equals.

 

CH

I know. And things changed for the better, so it’s no problem.

 

RP

You’re also way better than me at so many things. Just for the record.

 

CH

But there’s another goal: I wanted professional respect. I’d worked retail for so long, where next to no one respects you. And I hadn’t gone to college—I hadn’t dropped out; I just hadn’t gone—so I had people looking down on me for that. I just wanted to prove that I could do something regardless of my training or education. And I wanted to work with someone I respected. So, you were the best candidate all around.

Re: my being “better than you.” Thanks for saying that, but I think we’ve both done things for the journal and the press that the other couldn’t (or wouldn’t) have done. You got us non-profit status. I got us national distribution. You designed everything for us in the beginning. I picked up where you left off. And now we’re doing it together again. I think flexibility is important.

My goal for the journal? I wanted to make something memorable. As nebulous as that sounds. I wanted to make something bigger than myself.

 

RP

I think we all struggle for respect in our own ways. I wasn’t writing much (and certainly not publishing) when we started, so I worried that people would see me as a fraud. I realize now that as long as you’re doing the things you love and constantly improving, that’s all that really matters.

 

CH

Dude, I was writing and I still felt like a fraud. That’s why I pushed myself to be “contributing editor.”

 

RP

I remember.

 

CH

So I would force myself to write and revise something every two months. I was so sick of my own voice. I just wanted to break past the work I’d been writing, which all seemed like different iterations of the same fucking story.

 

RP

Who is it that said the only people who don’t experience impostor syndrome are impostors?

 

CH

I don’t know. I hadn’t heard that before.

 

RP

I also appreciate that we’ve never been at the forefront of what we’ve published. It’s not about us, it’s about the work and the writers.

 

CH

Which goes back to the idea of competition. I want to support the work of the writers we publish. I have no interest in competing. That’s why we’re doing this instead of writing an essay.

 

RP

Wait, really?

 

CH

No. (Yes.) Either way, it gives me an opportunity to say if you’re reading this, don’t forget to read all the essays from past contributors reflecting on their past ten years.

 

RP

Yes! Please read the thoughtful, funny, touching, and honest writing that our past contributors have sent along for our anniversary.  

And on that note, since we’ve been focused on the past…let’s switch gears. What are your goals for the next ten years?

 

CH

Well, there’s the exciting announcement that we’ve been sitting on for the past month or so.

Do you want to say it or should I?

(Ha, we’re forcing people to read through all this to reach the exciting news.)

 

RP

You tell them!

(We’re such jerks. Some things never change.)

 

CH

Well, ever since issue four, the idea of a cohesive issue has become more and more important to me. I think part of that has to do with the books we’ve released via AP.

 

RP

Of course. I can’t see how that wouldn’t impact what we do with apt.

 

CH

Exactly. My obsession about collections as cohesive narratives, and specifically, journals as books, comes from working with Gillian [Devereux] on her first chap.

The reason she emailed me the manuscript to begin with wasn’t as a submission, but because she wanted help ordering the collection. She was so concerned that the work be presented in the right order, so I started looking at the manuscript and thinking about the orbits it made, and once we’d agreed we wanted to publish it, which poems were most important to get us started. Her commitment to making her manuscript into a carefully arranged book changed the way I’ve approached every manuscript I’ve seen since.

So when all the work we’d accepted for our fourth print annual wound up being about surveillance—about how we watch ourselves and watch each other and how the government teaches us to do it, teaches us without even asking outright, there was no way to present it as anything other than a themed issue.

 

RP

You’re very good at stepping back and asking why a particular piece should or should not be included. Your ability to see the fine points but also the macro level in editing never ceases to impress me.

 

CH

This is why it’s still exciting to work with you. Because if you didn’t see those nuances, I’d have to fight for them. And I don’t want to have to read and revise and fight. There’s only so much a writer/editor/reader can take!

 

RP

You know, if we’d set out to have a surveillance issue, I don’t think we would have gotten many of those pieces. It was that much better for having come together organically.

 

CH

I know! It was amazing. The personal stories of surveillance were what set that apart. The personal response to having a neighbor judge you. The personal response to judging yourself, as a person from a specific region (I’m thinking of April Ranger’s poem about being from New England and Sam Cha’s essay about taking stock of his life by writing to his mother). Those pieces might not have been sent, but placing them in the context of a theme lends them deeper meaning.

 

RP

I tend to think theme issues that are set in stone from the start have the negative impact of 1. keeping people from submitting their work, and 2. writing new things or editing existing work to suit that theme.

 

CH

So, from the Surveillance issue, it seemed only right to move toward our first planned theme issue. And since I’d started focusing entirely on longer stories with my own writing, I wanted to have a venue for writers with similar designs. Out of that came our Long Fiction issue, and from there, our forthcoming Long Poetry issue (the latter of which is due out in just a few months, and which is going to gorgeous).

 

RP

The long fiction issue was so good and the long poetry issue is going to blow people away.

 

CH

And now, it’s been so rewarding to have that platform I don’t want to give it up. So here’s our announcement: starting with issue seven, our print annuals will be devoted completely to long work.

 

RP

It feels good to provide a home for longform work. There aren’t that many places that publish long work and there are many stories (and poems) that need the room to breathe and become something that doesn’t fit into the constraints of a one-page poem or 5,000 word story.

 

CH

So, there’s our next goal.

 

RP

Yes! We’ll be moving solely into having long work in the print issues and continuing to publish shorter work online. It also provides a more compelling reason for keeping both formats.

And another goal! This isn’t necessarily an apt-related thing, but we’re working to put together a new reading series in the Boston area.

 

CH

Trying to, at least. Friends: help us find a venue! We want to have a series that’s part-reading, part-party.

 

RP

A reading series focused on bringing people together to have a good time. I know with Literary Firsts, you always wanted something more performative, right?

 

CH

I did! Originally, with LF, I wanted it to be theatrical. I wanted writers to read each other’s work, but I couldn’t figure out how to do that without opening myself up for potential disaster. (Like what if someone was a terrible reader of someone else’s work?) But with this new series, I want to do something that’ll foster community. There will definitely still be featured readers, and no open mic, but I want to give Boston writers a place get together and talk. Maybe about writing, maybe not, or maybe we’d all just play games—e.g., I think it would be sort of awesome to play that game where you wear a Post-It note on your forehead and people have to help you figure out the name of the person written on the note, except instead of playing it with 6 people, you played it with 60. Or maybe that would be insane. Either way, I miss having a reading series, and I think I could do a lot with a new venture, so someone should give us a space.

I also keep going back to the idea of having it be like a Q&A, where we’d get to interview the writers after they’d read.

 

RP

I like the idea of something with few expectations other than that everyone will have fun and some of those people will also read or perform.

I like the interview idea. It humanizes everyone. It lets people know that there’s more to a writer and their work than what they’ve just presented in ten nervous, excited minutes. It reminds people that they’re seeing the fruits of weeks or months or years of work.

 

CH

Right? I think someone should bankroll this. Or, if not bankroll it, then donate it. I have amazingly affordable hourly rates.

 

RP

I’d be fine bankrolling it if we could find a suitable place to host it.

 

CH

You don’t get to bankroll it. That’d make us broke.

 

RP

Because I’m not a bank?

 

CH

For one thing.

 

RP

And because I don’t know how to roll?

 

CH

This interview is over.

 

RP

No. We can’t end it without telling everyone our terrible joke about being on the “ten-year track.” We have to include that so everyone knows we’re terrible.

 

CH

Oh no. I think we started saying it last year for our ten-year anniversary. Then we trotted it out again for AP.

 

RP

And it’s funny to us because we’re not professors. If we were, it would be too serious to be funny. And we’re rarely too serious to be funny.

 

CH

So this is the joke: all the years we spent up till now, we were on the “ten-year track.”

And now that we’re on the other side of ten years, we’ve officially got ten-year.

 

RP

Hah.

Precisely!

 

CH

I genuinely love that you still laughed at that.

 

RP

I genuinely love you.

 

CH

You seriously laughed out loud just now.

I genuinely love you right back.

And yes, if either of us were professors, this would be very sad. But since we’re not, we can laugh and laugh and laugh—

 

RP

All the way FROM the bank.

 

 

 

Carissa Halston and Randolph Pfaff founded Aforementioned Productions and apt in 2005. After meeting in PA, they bounced from city to city, starting in Cambridge, moving to Boston, then Brooklyn, then Queens, then back to Boston, then Baltimore, and now they’re (gratefully) in Boston again.



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