A Year In Stories: An Interview with Editor Matt Potter’s Ambitious New Project on Pure Slush
Pure Slush is up to something that you want to know about; probably the most ambitious, intense, and MASSIVE project going on in the digital writing community this year. I don’t use those words lightly. The press is working on 2014: A Year in Stories, which is exactly what it sounds like and also so much more. The project is an experiment in serialization: 31 different authors write their own story-arc over the course of the year. Find out more by reading our Q&A with the genius and workhorse behind Pure Slush–Matt Potter. Many many thanks from us at LO to him, for the in-depth answers to the 16 questions that we and you want to know the answers to regarding this project!
1. What fomented the idea for this project, was there an a-ha moment?
Matt Potter (MP): Every day I walk to work (aka my day job, the job that actually earns me money). I drive for 8 minutes or thereabouts and park my car in a free parking zone in North Adelaide and walk through the University of Adelaide playing fields, the City of Adelaide parklands, the university campus itself, then through the main retail district of Adelaide to the middle of the CBD – and the walk takes 35 – 40 minutes. And I do the same at the end of the day. Except for indifferent or overpowering weather, it’s a pleasant walk. And it gives me a lot of time to think and plan. And one day, it just came to me while I was walking … a story a day for the whole year. It was a hot March day last year, (I think I was walking to work) and my head was hot and sticky under my hat, and it just popped into my brain. I don’t think I ever thought it would be online, I just thought ‘print, 12 volumes, one story each day’. (The idea of 31 writers came a little later, 31 story arcs across the whole year, so for a moment I thought 365 stories from 365 different writers. Which makes me grimace now, 365 different writers … though maybe in 2016 …) But always international: stories from and / or set around the globe. I think I went home that evening and said to my partner (who is not a writer and not involved in publishing but listens to me and laughs at the appropriate moments), “What about this idea? A story a day for the whole year, twelve volumes …”
I kept the idea brewing for a while and started talking it up in April or May 2013, with first stories due by 30th June.
2. How did you go about selecting the writers, was it a no-brainer?
MP: The big question for me always is, Can I work with this writer? So 12 stories for the whole year? I knew I had to be able to work with these writers for a whole year, on the same project. (No matter how brilliant or well-known a writer might be, if he or she causes me grief and play games with me, it’s not worth it and I won’t do it.) And the writers had to have the purpose and resolve and interest to sustain their involvement for the whole year. (Now, some writers sat down and wrote their 12 stories very quickly, almost straight away, while others are still writing theirs, one a month. And many have had bursts and then sat back for a while. At the moment, 4 have completed their story cycles.)
But anyone who has worked with me will know, I’m a hands-on editor. I’m tenacious and purposeful and enjoy the work (well, usually) and keep coming back with ideas and suggestions until I believe it’s right. I am not interested in ego – mine or the writer’s – but I am interested in getting the best story possible. I did approach some writers because I wanted them involved – Guilie Castillo-Oriard and Vanessa Weibler Paris come immediately to mind, and there were others – while other writers approached me because I knew they would want to be involved, because we have worked together before. So writers like Gill Hoffs, Stephen V. Ramey and Susan Tepper I assumed would want to be involved.
Still others I’d never heard of before – Jessica McHugh and Townsend Walker come to mind here, but there are others – heard / read about it somewhere online and emailed me, requesting to be involved.
There were a number of drop-outs, only one of whom I was truly disappointed left the project, while the other drop-outs were expected (trust your gut instinct!) and in some cases a relief. (A tip when you are reneging on a deal you asked to be part of: don’t tell the editor / publisher how busy you are now with other projects with every other editor / publisher out there. It’s rude. And then listing all the other projects you have with other editors / publishers and thus revealing how more important they are than the one you’re squeezing out of, is even ruder.)
To a couple of writers I had to say, Hey, this is not working and I sense this is stressing you a lot and it’s not worth it for you or for me. You will always be welcome to submit to Pure Slush, but let’s quit now before it becomes even more painful and desperate for us both.
And Derek Osborne and Len Kuntz were late additions because I emailed them and said, There have been drop-outs and you know I like your work and we work well together and please come on board plus you are reliable. Len, in fact, I always wanted involved, and apart from Sally-Anne Macomber, was the last on board. I actually had a waiting list too, so Shane Simmons came on board because he was on the waiting list. Mandy Nicol was someone I had wished had submitted more to Pure Slush, so later in the scheme of things, I just asked her to be involved.
There was a lot of back and forth for a while: who was in and who was out sometimes changed daily.
And a couple of writers ended their participation in the project explosively, having submitted stories already. Well, no one really likes being called on their bad behavior by an editor! One diva’d out while the other was pushed out! It was a relief when they both were gone.
3. The cover art looks gorgeous, who is doing the design for this series?
MP: Me. I do all the design. I LOVE doing that, exteriors and interiors of the books. It gives me infinite pleasure. It also takes a lot less time to design them than to write and edit the stories! Find the right image and the right font and all your work is basically done for you. Some of the cover ideas play against each other … January’s features wheat and February’s features pancakes! Some feature photographs I took myself, while most are from other (and credited) sources. Some covers, however, have also caused infinite problems. I don’t know how many designs I’ve come up with for May Vol. 5, and I’m still not sure if it’s finalised!
4. Did the writers write out their submissions prior?
MP: As in their story ideas? Yes, mostly. Those I had not worked with before, I asked to see samples of their writing. Some writers I knew already sent me a plot summary or general idea. Some started sending me stories straight away, so we jumped right in. (These were writers I had worked with a lot beforehand.) But I had some idea about all the writers and their abilities and talents and flavours before submissions officially started.
5. If you had to summarize this series in one word, what would it be?
(And in more words: Diversity in style and story and plot and setting and length and ideas. You could not ask for 31 story cycles more diverse. That has been such a pleasure to experience and an immediate response from readers … these are all so different and interesting in so many different ways. That has been a true revelation. Not once have I had to say, look, your story is too similar to another so can you change it please, even just a little.)
6. Can you talk a little on the decision to have the stories written in the present-tense?
MP: You could be crass and say “it’s gimmickry” (and it is, in part!) but I thought, well, anyone can get a collection of stories together. Anyone can do that. Anyone can sit down and email 100 writers and say I need 50 stories 500 words max each by the end of this week, guaranteed publication, and voila! taste and talent and ability aside, there’s your collection.
But I thought why have 365 stories for the whole year and have them dated, slated against each of the 365 days and then not make something of that? So it seemed obvious, in a way: write these stories like they’re happening NOW. Turn to April 6th 2014 (which is a Sunday) and you should be able to picture those events happening NOW, in real time, as you read, on that day. Otherwise, they could be happening any day. So if the day you turn to is a celebration of some kind, then let’s see it’s celebrated. If a character is in France on July 14th – and Len Kuntz’s stories are all set on the 14th of each month – then let’s see Bastille Day celebrated. (And no, his main character does not go to France in July.)
That’s perhaps the biggest challenge for writers of the project, setting all their stories in the present. (Plus, having events take place that are appropriate for the day of the week and the season. So there’s no going skiing in Austria in the middle of August, no matter what day it is! Unless arriving and having no snow is part of the drama.)
In Stephen V. Ramey’s interview for the 2014 project – these interviews are conducted by Gloria Garfunkel, and Stephen is writing a daily blogpost about every single story, on their designated days – he points out that some writers struggle more with this concept than others. That’s true. With some writers I’ve had to say, but this story is not written entirely in the present. Your story takes place over three days here … and that’s okay, as long as it finishes in the present. As long as the story ends on the designated day, then that’s okay. But it has to end on that day. Write it in a way that makes it sound like the narrator is speaking about past events TODAY, and end it TODAY. (Most stories are set entirely in the present, however.)
With some writers I have suggested bookending their story with the present. But it’s no good just saying hey, you’ve done the wrong thing here re the parameters of the project: as editor I have to suggest alternate ways of making it work. I’m the one who set up these guidelines, so there is some responsibility on my part to help those involved keep to them.
My time as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher aids me greatly in this, because putting a story in the present is often just about appropriate verb tenses. Your story works well but change the verb tense and it’ll work even better. Some writers slip from past to present to past for the main through line of their story, so that again has to be pointed out and adjusted.
Some writers never write in the present, normally. Others do it more frequently. From my own personal writer’s perspective, some stories just lend themselves to the present better. Others work more with some distance from the events. I don’t have a problem writing a story in the present, but it doesn’t come naturally or easily for all writers.
7. Serials seem to be such an anachronism these days – why do you think it is we don’t see more serials, more projects like this?
MP: Basically, because people don’t have the vision to think them up!? Pure Slush always has themes to everything it does, online or in print. 2014 is the closest to not having a theme Pure Slush has run with … but the structure works very much like a theme really: 12 slices of life (well, 11 for the 29th and 30th of each month, and 7 for the 31st) across the whole year, strung together in ways the writers choose. There’s a skill in dropping reminders of previous incidents and happenings in each new story without them sounding clunky. And that can involve some back and forth too, between the writers and me.
But back to your question … hmmm. Dunno. Things go in and out of fashion and flash fiction by its very nature does not immediately lend itself to longer forms … although in many ways, it’s made for serialisation.
8. I’m impressed by the magnitude of your (and your partner’s! ;-)) devotion – if you had to guess, how many hours have you devoted to this project thus far?
MP: I have not given it any thought, how much time I spend on it. 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 hours every day. Now, this also includes promotion. As I write this, almost 2/3 of the stories have been submitted and signed off, January Vol. 1 through to April Vol. 4 are available to purchase (print, Kindle and ePub) with May Vol. 5 about 2 weeks away and June Vol. 6 ready to proof.
Sometimes I take the night off. But I am like a dog with a bone, I don’t give up easily. And there’s always that idea in the back of my head, if it’s all easy, then it’s too easy and it’s not worth doing. When I moved to live in Germany for a while, friends said, so you’re 42 years old, you’re not 20. If you want to live overseas again, why go to a country where the main language isn’t English? I would always laugh and say, “Oh, an English-language country would be too easy.” And it’s true.
But there are limits.
9. Why do you Edit? Why devote so much time to being an Editor? And how did you first get involved with Editing?
MP: In its crudest form, because I’m an idiot.
Really, because I like to create and refashion and make things over into how I think things should be. I have, in fact, done this all my life. A counsellor I was once seeing (for professional reasons!) told me, “You’ve spent your entire life doing exactly what you want.” And I had to reply, “Yes.” And that includes remaking things into how I think they should be. Publishing is like that – here is my vision of the world – and editing is the same … actually, editing is like teaching too. My partner was a primary teacher, my mother was a junior primary teacher for years until she retired, most of her friends are former teachers so I grew up in that environment and thus avoided teaching forever … but on the second day of the ESL teaching course I took in 2008, I thought, oh, I was meant to do this. There’s a certain amount of performance to teaching, too. And publishing and editing are like leadership as well – come along on this journey with me. I sort of fell into editing, but on reflection, I started editing almost 20 years ago, with newsletters I compiled and wrote for communications jobs I had in the community services sector. And the only compliment I ever received from this old bastard film and TV lecturer I had, after cutting a 1960’s TV script from 30 to his required 20 minutes, was that I’d enhanced the meaning with my edits. It really was the only praise he had for me in the two years he was my lecturer, but I held on to that. (Yes, he really was an old bastard!)
Part of the reason I became a social worker is because I actually like to help people. And through editing, I can help writers become better at what they do too. That sounds kind of sappy, but fuck it, it’s true.
10. Have you sacrificed anything (such as your own writing) to be an Editor?
MP: Yes, my own writing and my own reading. It’s a well-worn story. But I can control that balance to an extent and I am growing better at controlling that.
11. You talked about the international setting of these pieces – can you give us some information about where some of these stories are coming from / taking place? What countries / regions?
MP: Curaçao, many many many parts of the US, Austria, Australia (country and city), Manchester and London in the UK. The locations will no doubt broaden as the stories develop.
12. How Australian, or Adelaide-ian(?) is this project?
MP: Well as much as it reflects my own tastes and ideas, it’s Australian. I have a very Australian outlook, I think – open and direct and upfront, but that’s a bit of an Australian cliché, one I am usually happy to milk – but if you look at everything PS does, my tastes and ideas are reflected. But if you don’t know me well, then you wouldn’t see that. (If you know me well then it leaps out at you!) But wouldn’t that be obvious of anyone who has started up a website and publishing arm similarly?
13. Regarding diversity – are there different genres (mystery, romance, sci-fi) represented in this collection?
MP: Well, some are more mysterious, others more literary, some more humorous … I don’t think any adhere to any real rules or guidelines re genre. And I have to say this … genre only interests me with respect to what I don’t like. So it’s a difficult question to respond well to. And you know, writers talk about genre at times and I think, what are they talking about? That’s a genre? But that sounds like a soap powder or an ointment for skin rash. There’s really a genre now called that?
14. Who has done the most work, on the editorial side of this project, besides yourself?
MP: Well, editorially, no one else … though I always send my own stories for 2014 to Gill Hoffs, and have also sent some of them to Stephen V. Ramey for the same purpose, for another opinion, and guidance. They know what I like to do, so it works well.
But acknowledgement needs to be made of … my partner for listening to me rave on about it endlessly; Susan Tepper for her online posting about all facets of 2014 plus organising some interviews for me and her musical choices to illustrate Stephen V. Ramey’s blogposts and oh countless other things she has done in the name of promotion and awareness-raising; Stephen V. Ramey for his daily blogposts for each story; Gloria Garfunkel for her interviews of writers involved in the project; Gay Degani for her own promotion via a competition offering print copies to winners and various other posts and enthusiasms; Guilie Castillo-Oriard for her unbound positivity and her embryonic book trailer; and Nate Tower for suggesting making audio recordings and doing so.
15. If you were given $50,000 for this project, what would you do with it?
MP: Easy. Divide it amongst the writers involved.
16. I know all of them aren’t complete story-lines yet, but which story-line has surprised you the most?
MP: I’m going to be diplomatic here and say my own! (My day is the 25th of each month.) I have 7.5 of the 12 stories written and their twists and turns again show me how quixotic story-writing can be. Two days ago I was singing in the shower and I thought, Morgana (my main character) should get singing lessons as a break-up gift! And there’s a whole story and plot twist in that. So is it that different from life? No, it’s not.
Which character have I loved the most so far? Sylvie. She makes my eyes well up and I have to stop reading. And she’s not one of mine.
I’ll admit it–I’ve always been interested in serializations ever since I learned that The Strand published The Hound of the Baskervilles in that format. If you’re like me and it’s time to play catch-up with this unique serialization experience, head on over to Pure Slush’s store and check out the January edition, which is now 20% off.
Many thanks to Matt Potter for taking the time to talk with us,
Mike Joyce, Editor-in-Chief