Books In Conversation
THE EDITORS OF THE COFFIN FACTORY with Aspen Matis
The Coffin Factory is a new literary magazine. Its first issue published new stories, essays, and poetry by Joyce Carol Oates, Bonnie Nadzam, Bernard Quiriny, John Reed and Fred Reynolds, and old stories by Milan Kundera and José Saramago, among others. I met Randy Rosenthal and Laura Isaacman, the magazine’s editors, in Park Slope’s Tea Lounge.
ASPEN MATIS (Rail): Tell me a little about the logistics of founding—and then producing—The Coffin Factory.
Rosenthal: I think everyone believed in our mission of celebrating books and print and trying to perpetuate an intellectual culture. People exercise their brains when they read. And when they read the newspaper, they might be exercising their brains less than when they’re reading literature. And if they don’t read at all—I think half of Americans read less than one book a year—how educated are people going to be? How intelligent is American society going to be? What kind of political decisions are we going to make if no one really knows how to use their brains anymore? It’s kind of an ironic situation that we have all this information at our fingertips, but people are using their intellectual capabilities less and less. The Coffin Factory—we know we can’t save society but we hope to perpetuate intellectual culture before our society loses all of its intelligence.
Rail: The quality of the stories and essays—the people you got and the people you discovered—is incredible. I guess I wonder: how.
Rosenthal: When we went to approach a writer, we would spend three weeks on a letter. We tried to be professional and communicate in language at the level of the writing we wanted to publish. We knew if we wanted to publish Milan Kundera, we had to be taken seriously. If you’re nobody, you have to present yourself well. We had a strong vision.
Rail: The first piece in the first issue of The Coffin Factory is a dead writer’s retelling of Genesis; the selection—and the placement—of this first story seems intentional. Coffins and dead writers, the beginning—genesis—of a new magazine.
Rosenthal: Well the placements are definitely intentional as an editorial decision—but the fact that the writer, José Saramago, is dead was not so important. But “Cain” is a retelling of Genesis, the first story of Western civilization, and it was Saramago’s last book. Since we’re a magazine for people who love books, the Bible’s the first book. We wanted to ground our magazine in this root of Western literature.
Rail: What is unique about this baby?
Isaacman: The format. It’s the only lit mag in a glossy magazine format and, unlike a lot of other lit magazines that are just pages and pages of text, we really wanted to break that up and make it visually engaging, as well. So, we have a lot of great art.
Rosenthal: The glossy format makes us more accessible to people who are book lovers but not necessarily literary journal lovers, and more appealing to people who read glossy magazines.
Rail: On your website, you describe The Coffin Factory as “a nexus between readers, writers, and the book publishing industry.” How, in these network-terms, is The Coffin Factory distinct?
Rosenthal: Where does the publisher fit into that network? Who is publishing writers today? We’re not going to find out through literary magazines. Publishers decide who gets what advance, who gets what contract for book deals, publicity. What they choose to put money behind. And what to publish. So, the publishing industry actually controls the state of reading, and where it’s headed. But no one really talks to them and asks them how it works. We do. We have, in our first issue, this interview with New Directions. They discuss all these behind-the-scenes aspects of what perpetuates literary culture. So, the next issue we have an interview with Peter Mayer of Overlook Press.
Rosenthal: We would love to interview Lorin Stein at the Paris Review or Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker about the same behind-the-scenes process. Literary journals are a part of the publishing industry. And editors and agents are too, and we’ll interview them too.
Rail: Do either of you have previous experience in publishing or working for a literary magazine?
Isaacman: Yeah. I was a reader for Fiction Magazine. Working with Mark Mirsky was amazing—he’s a brilliant man. I learned a lot from him.
Rosenthal: But, basically, we’re people who love books. We love literary magazines, and we subscribe to like a dozen of them. And we’re kind of obsessed with literature and writing and reading. So we knew exactly what we wanted to do—the magazine we wanted to create. The best of every magazine we like, because we love many magazines but we weren’t satisfied with any of them. So, we had an idea of the balance we wanted—fiction, essay, art interview, and kind of a high-brow, low-brow mix.
Rail: Tell me about the editing process.
Rosenthal: We edit. A lot. There are two ways of editing: content-selection—what you choose to include in the magazine—and line-editing, to make those pieces you’ve chosen as strong as you can. We suggest: lose this last paragraph, change the word, change the title. Obviously for Milan Kundera’s piece and José Saramago’s piece—they were set. So we couldn’t line-edit José Saramago and Milan Kundera. We have a particular style.
Isaacman: It’s just as slight as a comma, but a comma makes a world of difference.
Rosenthal: There are some stylistic choices. We’ll spell out any number under a hundred. There’s an aesthetic, too, of how we’re using our punctuation and our numbers and and our words. So we have rules. We like Oxford commas.
Isaacman: Yeah, we do like the Oxford comma.
Rosenthal: We’re big fans of the Oxford comma.
Rail: There’s a song about the Oxford comma. “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?” By Vampire Weekend.
Isaacman: Haha oh. We give a fuck about the Oxford comma.