Rusty Barnes is the editor and co-founder of the literary journal Night Train Magazine, which has been featured in the Boston Globe, The New York Times and on National Public Radio. His writing has appeared in Cadenza, pif, Red Rock Review and other publications. An excerpt from the novel on which he is working can be found at Smokelong Quarterly.
Wayne: Can you talk about how you and Rod Siino came to found Night Train? Besides the intrusion of everyday life, why did it take seven years to gestate?
Rusty: We founded it in large part because we had little else to do, both of us being unemployed at the time. Being between jobs makes you reconsider what you really love and want to do. While we both knew we’d be working again, NT gave us a shared focus on something in the meanwhile, which is not to say it was merely something to do, rather that everything came together while we had the time to devote to beginning something completely new. It seemed perfectly illogical, yet right.
It took that long to gestate because we were both in different parts of the country. Even though most of what we do business-wise is on the Internet, to start something you need (or we needed, at least) the initial buzz of being able to meet and plan and set forth a vision of some kind in person. In our case it gestated at various cafes in Davis Square Somerville, [Massachusetts].
Wayne: Why did you see the need to start another literary journal? How does the magazine differ from other notable literary journals?
Rusty: We started the journal because we thought we could do something different and fun, serve writers better by getting back to them more quickly and being more informative and responsive than we were accustomed to seeing literary journals be. We have tried to define ourselves by being both more responsive and quicker than most literary journals, though I will confess that the sheer grind of reading—as you well know—bears down on me day after day now, four years into the journal. I don’t read and respond to as much fiction as I’d like to.
With teaching occasionally and homeschooling my children and handling the business and promo aspects of NT, like finding money, I’ve put my trust and a large portion of the magazine’s reputation in the hands of a staff—past and present—who constantly strive as I did to be helpful and quick to respond. Even with a stellar staff, and perhaps because of it, we occasionally have to turn to the generic rejection as a way to unbury ourselves. We’re more than happy to read stories—it’s what we do—but the sheer volume has become difficult to handle at our present staff size. In May, when we close submissions for the summer, I hope to take some time to redesign the website and rethink our editorial and staff policies. Which is a long way of getting around to answering your question about how we differ: it’s about how much we care about a helpful and/or timely response. Everything we do is built around that. And the result is I’m now the slowest reader on staff.
Wayne: You list a compilation of Night Train “favorite authors” on the magazine’s site. Can you pick out the ones who have been most influential on you? How have they, in turn, influenced the aesthetic of the magazine?
Rusty: We chose those favorites to give our potential submitters a way to know something about what we liked in a story before we had a track record of stories published. Writers (and editors) are made of what they read, so it’s difficult to pin down who has been most influential. I’d say in my case Andre Dubus and Larry Brown have been most influential, though I’d be hard-pressed to say exactly how, except in the sense that their focus is realist/mimetic in nature. And having said that, I’d like to see something other than traditional realism these days, but our aesthetic is so firmly in place we don’t see much other than that. Blessing and curse, I guess.
Wayne: How is actually editing a magazine different from what you expected?
Rusty: It’s so much more work than I expected. I knew I could choose stories, I knew I could handle the business aspects, I had no idea I would have such difficulty with fund-raising. We’ve been fortunate, even with significant delays before issues II and VI (available now) to be able to put out the journal at all. Along the way I’ve learned rudimentary web design, a bit about business, non-profits, PR, and have had the opportunity to work—from the beginning until now—with stellar editors and idea-people who want the same things I do. I had no idea a community of sorts would build among staffers past and present and writers well-known and not, but that’s been the most rewarding part, knowing we’re all in it for a common goal, getting the good writing, as we see it, out to readers who we hope will enjoy it as much as we have.
Wayne: Night Train is unusual in how it is funded. Can you explain how the idea for having train towns sponsor the magazine arose? How successful has the idea been? Has this freed the magazine from the limitations of other traditional ways of financing a literary magazine?
Rusty: Tom Jackson, marketing manager, and Sue Henderson, then managing editor, came up with the idea in 2003, and we have been successful in that every issue since III has had the support of a town behind it. We owe our continued existence to the program. It has not freed us from traditional funding, though, really. We couldn’t operate without donations from individuals either. The Rail Stop program is the way we get the journal out, but financial need always outstrips money available. It’s a constant struggle, and my single biggest concern day-to-day. Everything else will take care of itself. Except money.