Interview with Travis Kurowski and Vito Grippi of Story Magazine
If there were ever a person prepared to create and head a literary magazine, it’s Travis Kurowski. It was inevitable. In his undergrad days at Southern Oregon University he was working on the West Wind Review. Then came an internship at Tin House. Next: Southern Mississippi University to study fiction. In 2007 he started a web review of literary magazines, Luna Park Review. His doctorate degree in literary publishing led to his culminating book Paper Dreams, a study of the history of literary magazines.
When York College hired him in 2009 to teach creative writing and publishing, it was also with the agenda that this individual might build a national magazine. In our recent interview, Kurowski says, “One of the reasons I came to York was that I was told I was going to have a lot of freedom to pursue a literary magazine.”
And in 2013, with the help of faculty think-alike Vito Grippi, student powerhouse Ashli Mackenzie, a slew of big-name contributors (and a grant), he did. It’s called Story Magazine, and it is exactly what Travis and Vito set out to make: a print publication that’s worth each of the eight-dollars it costs to purchase.
Story is a national magazine, meaning it is not the literary journal of the York campus (that would be The York Review, which Travis, Vito, and Ashli have all worked on over the past few years) but rather a major print publication with distribution throughout the US.
Story, as the name of a literary magazine, may sound familiar. I won’t launch into the whole history (for that check Travis’ book, Paper Dreams), but in a nutshell: it’s been a magazine twice, first between 1931-1967, and again from 1990-1999. Copyright on the name “Story” recently ran out, becoming available for purchase. Travis was a reader and fan of the magazine in the 90’s, discovering now heavyweight writers like Junot Diaz. He and Vito thought it was a title that deserved to be used. After all, there’s Poetry, Creative Non-Fiction, and even Narrative, but no Story. Until now.
The editors realized early on that there isn’t a need for another short fiction magazine (there are thousands in print and online). They decided to broaden, and at the same time sharpen, their focus. Travis says, “There isn’t a print magazine that’s just about the narrative arts—Poetry magazine is about the poetic arts—but there’s nothing out there about narrative.” So Story‘s goal is to be diverse in genre, form, school of thought, gender, race, and ethnicity. It wants to be a well-curated collage of anything narrative.
Travis and Vito also felt the pressure to ask and answer the question What justifies printing another journal? Vito says, “We spent a lot of time thinking about the design…we want to represent to our students not what publishing looked like 5-10 years ago. We wanted to get students thinking innovatively about print publishing. We think it’s something to be proud about.” They found that a common denominator between some of their favorite magazines and literary journals was that they were, in themselves, art objects. Travis calls the publishing of beautiful print material an “event.” This means the thing has to look nice, feel right, and exude a very intentional aesthetic. Kudos to Story, as it does all of this in a way that feels effortless.
Story‘s design is innovative—a culmination of many influences. It utilizes dos-a-dos binding, the way old pulp magazines and comic books were printed. It works like this: Issue 1A starts in the front and Issue 1B is flipped upside down and begins in the back, so the two halves end in the middle. The reader must interact with the object by turning the magazine over to begin the second half of the issue. This reader-action, although simple, is something different. The magazine is also big, not-too-thick, and attractively designed.
The editors also knew that they had to not only make something worth owning and worthy of printing on paper, but also worth the name it borrows its tradition from. “At AWP we had so many people who looked at it and we’re like “Ah! It’s back’… we knew that using that name was a lot of pressure to do something awesome,” says Vito. Travis adds, “We couldn’t insult the tradition of that name by putting out a mediocre magazine. We needed to respect the tradition…”
Achieving that respect and awesomeness involved soliciting all of the submissions for the first issue, something the editors don’t plan to do again. They wanted to set a precedent not only for variety but for the quality of writing they wanted. Therefore, issue 1 includes pieces by Andrew Malan Milward, Tao Lin, K. Silem Mohammed, Mary Miller, David Shields, Frederick and Donald Barthelme, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s a star line-up. Magazine content from this point forward is being garnered through open submissions, and the editors say the submissions so far have been high-quality.
Diversity breakdown of Issue 1a/1b
Male writers: 19
Female writers: 9
Short stories: 11
Creative non-fiction/Essays: 9
Flash fiction: 3
Visual art/Comic: 2
Other: 1 (found object)
When we talked about submissions, the subject of diversity came up again. Readers will likely find Story already highly diverse but Travis and Vito strive for more. “Issue 1 didn’t end up being as diverse disciplinarily,” admits Travis, “Hopefully issue 9 will have like 72 different disciplinary points and writers from all over the world.” The two leaders of the magazine are the first to admit that they are a bit limited in the diversity of their own masthead. Travis says, “It’s two white dudes and a magazine… so we need to keep these questions on our plate at all times… is this diverse enough, is it gender diverse enough, culturally diverse enough, because if not, why are we doing a a publication about the current diversity of storytelling?”
To that, he adds, “We want to break through genre limitations as well.” Story has theme-based issues—the first being superheroes—with the forthcoming issue based on monsters. The introduction to 1B is by genre-champion Ryan Britt, in which he talks about the need for genre-based stories (horror, sci-fi, crime, action, etc.) to be seen with equal respect and value as literary fiction. Britt writes:
“So if your imagination needs some help on how the hybrid of monsters of literature and genre fiction will function in a brave tomorrow, then I hope these few beautiful, deranged, wonderfully mutated stories can give you a terrifying, hilarious, and glittering little glimpse of that bold and genre-confused future. And with a little luck, maybe make you forget what a genre is in the first place.”
Other areas Travis and Vito want to improve upon with Story is its recognition and connection to local community. They went to some notable writing conferences this year to show the issue and get the name out there—not just the name of the magazine but “York.” Travis says, “We had to load our table with York peppermint patties. People were like where are you guys from again?” The duo wants to put York on the literary map. As Travis put it, “We’re excited that Story is like this hub for a bunch of different narratives. And then York, Harrisburg, Lancaster is this hub, regionally…We’re hoping the magazine can help do that, help show what’s already here.”
With that said, the editors told us they haven’t really had time to reach out to the local community yet. This made sense to me, as someone who discovered Story on Twitter and couldn’t believe they were doing this in my home county, and I hadn’t heard about it before. The reason is because Story received their funding grant last summer very suddenly. They weren’t expecting the grant to actually come through, and when it did, it put them in sort of a rush. Travis says, “We weren’t ready for a first issue yet,” and Vito adds, “We felt a very urgent obligation to make something happen, because all of the sudden we had the money to do it.” So the process of putting together this issue, which was released in spring 2014, was a hectic one—one that put all of their focus and energy on submissions, design, marketing, and publishing. This left little for community events, local promotion and other approaches that would help to situate the magazine into its own environment. However, community outreach and connections are now becoming more of a priority. For example, they are bringing Tao Lin to speak this fall for a free, public reading at York College.
The first issue of Story is impressive; the story of Story is interesting. In talking to Travis and Vito about the magazine and their future ambitions for it, enthusiasm, ideas, and positive energy abound. It stirred in us a looking-forwardness, for not only the magazine itself, but for York College, York city, and really, the South Central PA literary community as a whole. There’s that feeling you get when you read the first few pages of a book, and you can tell that what is to come is going to be worth your time, attention, and excitement—how you just want to keep reading.