Wayne: Why did you feel the need to bring out Night Train as a print magazine? What are the advantages and drawbacks (besides costs) to having a print magazine?
Rusty Barnes: We weighed the online option pretty carefully, and decided against it because we thought we might not attract the caliber of writers we wanted if we published solely online. It was a matter of hedging our bets and hoping we could do it well. There was still a cachet to the bound journal that online journals didn’t have. That’s changing now, if not changed entirely.
One advantage of print is that you get taken more seriously by investors and potential donors if you produce something they can hold in their hands. A disadvantage is that you can’t feature fresher content as a print journal. Once the journal is out there, it’s an artifact. A lovely one, but an artifact nonetheless. The new incarnation of the NT website—in development now—will very likely feature monthly content changes among many other tweaks. I’m hoping, anyway.
Wayne: Since you’re familiar with the submission process from both the vantage point of a writer and editor, can you talk about the most common weaknesses you see in slush pile submissions? What advice can you give to writers who want to see their stories in Night Train?
This is such a loaded question, and I feel so badly for the way I’m about to answer it. Many of the stories that come in are very good, and they have few weaknesses, but don’t seem different enough or interesting enough, don’t show me anything new, just generally seem as if they could come from anywhere. There are amateur mistakes that will doom your story of course, and they’re all over the internet in various advice columns, but the single biggest problem is sameness. This is not to argue for MFA sameness, as I don’t believe that. I do believe, however, that there’s a general failure of imagination in a lot of fiction I see, not enough sense that a given story is a product of a singular mind at work quibbling with itself about the answers to whatever questions the story poses. I know I struggle with this in my own work. I have this stubborn realist streak. I love people doing things and suffering consequences. Night Train’s first subheading was: People, Action, Consequence. I still love what mimetic fiction at its best can do, but I find myself now, four years into a lot of reading, trying to write something a little different, looking for something, anything else that can satisfy that realist instinct I have while showing some original—whatever that is—situation, some skill and verve in the language, something that doesn’t plod away into another domestic drama fraught with agony. Give me people going at it in high volume, give me paragraph-long sentences, give me darkness and funniness or raunchy sex or anything, really. But then I find myself drawing back from that because of the risk that someone will send me something so self-indulgent I want to puke and then challenge me in a returned-rejection email because “you said you wanted weirdness and stuff.”
The truth of it is what Night Train publishes depends on the staff’s reading whims on any given day, and how persuasive we all are at forcing each other out of our reading comfort zones. For me personally, if you followed me around and knew what I read and what I liked and what was pissing me off on any given day, or what I was currently obsessed with, you could more accurately gauge what might get into the journal, Failing that, the best way is to read what we’ve published already and imagine what might be next.
Wayne: Besides Night Train, what are your favorite literary magazines, and why do you read the particular ones that you do?
Rusty: I wish I had room to mention them all, but in the interests of mere name-checking, these are the journals I’ve most recently purchased, or which are on the desk next to me because I’m thinking of submitting. I subscribe to a number somewhere in the double digits, because I have few obvious vices, and lit journals and books are the biggest one of those I admit to in public. I actively seek out new journals. I almost always buy one issue if I see something new¬—they need support and they’re probably more receptive to relatively unfamiliar writers like me—and often rotate subscriptions and buy single copies.
Fantasy and Science Fiction
American Poetry Review
Saint Ann’s Review
Bat City Review
I read anything that strikes my fancy, and if I find a story in a journal I like, I figure it’s been worth the investment and more.
If we add electronic journals in, my list becomes really unwieldy. I read many electronic journals as well. Online journals can take more chances and publish more than traditional journals, and there’s no road to reader visibility—other than publishing a book—better than having your stories available via a search engine. I still get occasional emails about stories I published online years ago, in places like Conversely, Dead Mule, In Posse Review and Thunder Sandwich, to name just a few. On the other hand, though, some agents, judging from what I know from author communication, consider online availability a mark against the possibility of publishing in book form. It’s logical, to an extent, as no one’s going to pay for a story they can get for nothing. In time I think it will work to the writer’s detriment though. Online visibility is key, and I think the readers of online fiction, if they like what they read online, will certainly seek out the author’s work in book form. I know I do. If I read a story I like in a journal, I move to the bio note, then to Google, and then often to an online bookstore.
Wayne: Can you talk about how associate editors are recruited at Night Train? What do you think are your particular strengths as a staff?
Rusty: Night Train’s AEs are chosen from people I know already, or by recommendation from people I trust. Occasionally, I have put out calls for AEs on writing website discussion groups, places where I can trace the trajectory of the way a person responds to work and decide if they have the stamina to respond helpfully to a minimum of seven stories a week during our submission periods. The job is high-burnout; we have turned over AEs completely nearly every year since the beginning.
I think we do well at almost everything manuscript-wise. We have and have always had conscientious editors, careful and kind and quick responders. We also have a wide range of editorial experience, and every one of us is a working, that is to say publishing writer, and knows full well how much the process can frustrate writers. I can’t imagine a better staff for the way we operate.