This week brings us a triumvirate of editors, the men of Knee Jerk Magazine, C. James Bye, Jonathan Fullmer, and Stephen Tartaglione, who talk to us about Chicago, the jerking of the knee, and the remarkable access heroin addicts have to computers.
1. When I was a kid and I went to the doctor, he would hit my knee with a little triangle hammer and my knee would jerk involuntarily. Does that experience have anything to do with the name of your magazine?
Stephen: Maybe the act of hitting people in the knee, sure. I think that’s the ultimate goal, to get people’s attention using any means necessary. We’re not really afraid to flex some muscle if it builds readership.
Casey might be able to explain the whole reactionary aspect of it. He’s drawn diagrams.
Jonathan: No—your doc was actually performing an archaic form of communicating with animals. Your knee jerked because you are probably not an animal.
C. James: I have absolutely no idea what Jon is talking about. But I’d assume he’s right. He’s always right. Except when he’s wrong. Which is often.
2. Who are the editors of Knee Jerk? You can answer literally or figuratively or both?
Jonathan: Figuratively speaking, their names are Steve, Casey, and Jon.
C. James: Literally, a giant collection of space-kittens older than time itself traveling from galaxy to galaxy searching for love. Theirs is a tragic tale.
Stephen: Literally, Jon, Casey, and Steve. Figuratively, a pair of worn sweatpants.
3. How does your editorial staff divide your responsibilities?
Jonathan: Somewhat chaotically at the moment. We all come up with ideas and just sort of share the load according to who needs more to do at the time. Somehow it works.
Stephen: We divide them over beers and hamburgers. Most times we sit down with a piece of scratch paper and say, Okay, what do we need to finish up this month? What about next month? It’s a bit scattershot right now, but we’re working on streamlining the whole process. I just said streamlining. Other than that, Casey is in charge of dancing. Jon’s in charge of beat-boxing. I’m in charge of snacks.
C. James: All three of us are control freaks and perfectionists to one degree or another. So I think we all like to have our say at every level of pulling together an issue. And once I have my say, Jon and Steve gang up on me and subject me to swirlies, sometimes Indian burns, until I agree to do what they want. Then I go do their laundry and cry while they finish up the meeting.
4. Are you also a writer? If so, does your editorial work inform your writing?
Stephen: Yes and yes. There’s nothing more helpful than realizing, “Wow, I’d never do that”Â or “Wow, I need to try that.”Â
C. James: Yup and a big yes. I’m constantly motivated by the experience of reading something, even if it’s just a line or phrase, that’s crafted in a way I would never have thought to write it.
Jonathan: Yes, and yes. Other people generally have better ideas than I do, so I like to steal the best ideas and pretend they are mine.
5. Talk about the Knee Jerk aesthetic, both in terms of site design and the work you select.
Stephen: As for the site design, it’s simple, but not boring. I think we all agreed on that from the beginning. There’s a lot of sites that are simple, but boring. And many sites that might look beautiful, but are impossible to read. We’ll eventually change things up a bit, I’m sure, but for now, the design suits us just fine.
As for the work we select, I think we all read for voice. There’s nothing worse than dry, unimaginative language. No matter how “quirky”Â or “inventive”Â your idea is, if the language is flat, we probably won’t take it. We like people that take risks for the right reasons. It’s really easy to tell who’s just writing something kooky for the sake of writing something kooky. It’s kind of a turn-off.
Jonathan: For the site design, simplicity; for the work, whatever surprises me in some way, as in catches me off guard, as in makes me hate everything I write and then want to do nothing but write for the next few months.
C. James: I just want people to be able to navigate the site easily and enjoy their reading experience. As for the work, I want there to be some sort of payoff even if that payoff is ambiguous. But not something tacked on, not just for a punch-line, not something glib or kooky for kookyness’ sake (like Steve said). I love that moment of awe you experience when a writer just pulls it all off in the end.
6. What type of writing excites you most?
Jonathan: Prose that is successful on the sentence level. If you can make me laugh or cry or feel something special in just a sentence or two, I’d say you’re doing something right. Generally speaking, I like writing that blurs the line between fact and fiction, story and essay, memoir and novel.
Stephen: I love sentences. Really, honestly. The writers who can follow a humorous sentence with a tragic one will always have my heart.
C James: Â I love the idea of form following function. Part of that’s on a sentence level. Part of it’s overall structure. What’s the best mode of telling this particular story? Writers who are really trying to figure that out are usually pretty big risk takers. And you gotta admire that.
7. What are the biggest flaws you find in writing you reject?
Jonathan: The same thing most magazines encounter: that a lot of people clearly don’t bother reading the work we publish, or even our guidelines. Also, a surprising number of writers still have very poor grammar.
Stephen: Some people clearly haven’t read our magazine, or our submission guidelines, or our love letters. Â It’s tough to get excited about a piece when you know from the very first sentence that they’re not familiar with what we publish. I know we’re fairly new, but that’s really no excuse. If anything, it’s easier to get caught up on what we’ve put out so far. We don’t have an extensive archive yet.
C James: The pieces usually don’t have enough unicorns in them for my taste. But mostly what Jon and Steve said.
8. Does Knee Jerk have any print aspirations?
Stephen: Yes, yes. We’re hoping to release our first print issue this spring or summer. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the spring. Late spring? We’re thinking we’ll do it annually and publish new work and a Best Of section from the first half of the year. That’d be fun, right?
Jonathan: Yes. We plan to begin an annual print issue next summer that will have a best-of-the-web section and another section of all-new stuff. If Casey decides to get back into selling heroin, we may be able to save enough money for a regular print issue, which would be awesome. All you heroin addicts, shoot a quick email to Casey.
C. James: Do heroin addicts have computers now? Are they big online literary journal readers?
9. Other than PANK, what magazines are you in to?
Jonathan: McSweeney’s and The Believer, of course. Also, Gulf Coast, Mississippi Review, Diagram, BOMB, Fence, Creative Nonfiction. The Oxford American is one of my faves, and so is Conjunctions, which is always very inspiring. For shear beauty, it’s hard to beat the Virginia Quarterly Review. I also like Mule and Orion, and when I’m feeling lonely I read Tiger Beat.
C. James: Gulf Coast, Monkeybicycle (my girlfriend’s their web editor. She’s fancy), Slice Magazine, ACM, and Eleven Eleven. And I read a lot of comic books. They’re like magazines with word bubbles.
Stephen: I love Gulf Coast, the Mississippi Review, ACM, Mid-American Review, and Hobart. Love them. And Smokelong and Dark Sky.
10. There seem to be a lot of literary magazines and collectives in Chicago. What is it about Chi-town that is so conducive to fostering a literary community? Does anything scandalous go on?
Jonathan: Like everything else in Chicago, the lit scene is run by the mob. As such, everyone is very supportive of each other. You kind of have to be, or else. Plus, places like New York are so cutthroat when it comes to writing and publishing that I think it fosters a stronger sense of community in cities that have a lot of potential. Basically, everyone in the Chicago lit scene just hugs each other and offers free backrubs all the time. I like it.
Stephen: I don’t know if you know this or not, but everyone in the Chicago lit scene breakdances on Tuesday nights. Everyone. So that helps. It’s all about networking, and there’s no better way to do that than to pop-and-lock and down a gin or two.
In reality, Chicago is going to be it, like IT. I don’t know if it’s in the water or what, but I’ve never met so many go-getters in my entire life. It’s the most inspiring thing ever. Maybe it’s because there aren’t many jobs for lit-folks in the city, so we all have to try hard to create our own way. Or maybe we need something to help distract us from the fact that our actual jobs aren’t all that hot. So when we go to a Quickies! reading or a Dollar Store show to let it all out, we realize there are a bunch of people just like us and that’s exciting and inspiring. Everyone here knows this isn’t New York, and many people are happy about it. We’re still a huge city with countless resources at our disposal – we’re not in the backhills or anything. All it takes is the motivation to do something fun. Â So many people in this city have that motivation. It’s humbling to be a very, very tiny part of that.
C. James: Yup. We’re just a bunch of hitmen trying to bust a move. Really, I think part of stems from living in a city this big where it’s very easy to just become lost in the crowd or be overlooked in favor of someone more forceful or more pushy or more willing to be rude than you. So all the people in the literary scene just decided to say, “It’s a competitive business making it as a writer or publisher or what have you. Let’s do ourselves all a favor, make the most of all this talent here, and buy each other some beers. And while we drink them we’ll set up a new reading series or a lit mag.” And it’s all so welcoming, you become really motivated to do something up to the standards of these gracious people who’ve invited you in.
11. Knee Jerk and and PANK meet at a bar, have drinks, hit it off. Do they a. go to a sleazy motel and have a one night stand or b. make out in the bar but leave it at that or c. exchange phone numbers, start dating, and live happily ever after? Show your math.
Stephen: We watch other people make out, then quietly broadcast what the two lovebirds are thinking mid-tongue session. Afterwards, we go to the sleazy hotel, order a pizza, watch Man of the House on TBS, and Knee-Jerk lets PANK take the bed while we sleep on the floor.
C. James: I know this one. All I have to do is use the quadratic equation…
Jonathan: Is this a come-on? (*blush*) The math? How about: a + b + c = whoa!
12. Where is the best place to get a traditional Chicago hot dog? Deep dish pizza? White Sox or Cubs? Finally, why is parking so expensive in downtown Chicago?
C. James: Wiener Circle or the stand on the corner of Damen and Milwaukee. Anywhere that puts on an actual dill pickle slice is gold. For pizza, I’m a sucker for Pequod’s (not just for literary reasons). And Brewers, because no matter how terrible the Cubs get, the Brewers will always be the underdogs. As for the parking, you see, we make up for it because our taxes are so low. …What?
Stephen: Hot Doug’s, Chicago’s Pizza (get the deep-dish stuffed with Italian beef and peppers), Cubs because I’m not a cop and I don’t have a mustache, and it’s so expensive to park because of a certain someone who sold the rights to the meters to an independent company. If I say his name, he appears, as if out of nowhere, with a baseball bat and an empty sack.
Jonathan: Steve’s apartment / Stefano’s, unless you hate cheese / Cubs, because my brother-in-law would be mad at me if I said otherwise, and I like my brother-in-law / Because they have to pay for those parking meters, which are very expensive to maintain.
13. What is on your reality television viewing itinerary these days?
Jonathan: I still haven’t bought one of those digital transfer boxes yet. I’m very behind. What do you suggest?
C. James: Not a big reality TV guy. But I’ll admit I did had a huge crush on Colleen from Survivor when I was a junior in high school. And I still laugh to myself whenever I think of that girl dropping a duke up the staircase on that first season of Flavor of Love.
Stephen: I can’t lie, my girlfriend got me hooked on More To Love. Normally stay way clear of most reality television, but it’s so much fun. So much crying, so much hugging, so much crying.
14. What do you do when you’re not editing Knee Jerk, either professionally or personally?
C James: I write fiction and music reviews. I tutor writing undergrads. I hide things like ticket stubs or newspaper clippings in my books so I can be surprised by them years later.
Stephen: I write and read and feel terrible about not writing and reading more. I walk around my neighborhood looking for the ice cream man. I eat two bomb pops, then nap.
Jonathan: I read and sell books in Chicago. I write stories and book reviews. I like riding my bike very dangerously. I also admire birds quite a lot. Especially very little ones that let you feed them.
15. What question did we forget to ask?
Jonathan: You asked every possible question you could have asked, except: What is the square root of Knee-Jerk?
The answer, although you didn’t ask, is desire.
C. James: Pop quiz, hotshot: There’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes fifty miles per hour, the bomb is armed. If it goes below fifty, it blows up. Whatta you do? Whatta you do???
Stephen: How many times has Jon Fullmer wrapped his hand in saran wrap in order to use his palm like an ice cream bowl? One.