Paper and Ink: A Conversation with Katie Raissian of Stonecutter
The first fellow editor I’ve decided to speak with for Real Pants is Katie Raissian, Editor in Chief of her own print literary arts journal, Stonecutter. Katie and I decided once, during a previous conversation, that Gigantic Sequins and Stonecutter were like the journal each of us would put together if were weren’t producing the ones we’re currently producing.
Lafayette, Louisiana has six sister cities; its first acquired in 1967 was Le Cannet, France. GS and Stonecutter are, for sure, sister publications. Though the two publications’ differences most likely outweigh their similarities, I wanted to pick the brain of someone else who also produces an indie print journal. Like GS, Stonecutter is an all-volunteer effort not funded by anything outside of itself/its makers, and like GS, Stonecutter‘s issue debut in the physical sphere rather than the digital one.
Stonecutter is an arrestingly beautiful journal. Seeing it IRL is like seeing a gorgeous woman walking down the street and thinking, she must be a model; then she buys an ice cream cone or does something equally as mundane and you can’t stop looking because the journal looks so good, even if she’s doing she’s supposed to do–eating an ice cream cone or printing some delicious poems.
Putting together a print journal, to me, sometimes makes me feel like a scientist trying to resurrect a triceratops. Thinking about GS as an art object has helped, and I wondered if Katie and the Stonecutter crew thought about their journal similarly:
RP: To me, the value of a specifically print literary journal is in its production. Of course the art and writing it publishes have to be superb, but just as importantly, it has to be a beautiful object. You and I have sat down over a beer (or two) and had an emphatic conversation about textured covers and French flaps and offset printing versus digital printing. Can you talk a little about the importance of Stonecutter as a physical object?
KR: I could talk about this for days! When I started Stonecutter, I had an idea that I wanted it to look like an old-school art and lit journal. I wanted it to feel amazing in your hands. One of the most important parts of the reading experience for me is the smell and texture of the book. It really can enhance the way you absorb the work. So I wanted Stonecutter to be an almost luxe experience to read and flip though—a book containing important and dazzling art and writing, of course, but also an objet d’art in and of itself. I was very inspired by journals like A Public Space, Granta, trnsfr, Tin House, The Paris Review, Fence, and old issues of Grand Street. But I didn’t know how to make an actual book.
Someone who really helped me hash out my airy ideas in a pragmatic way was Kate Abbey-Lambertz. After I told Kate what I envisioned for the physical object, she put it all down in a very concrete manner in the form of a bid sheet and helped me think of trim sizes. I talked to friends at magazines and in publishing who gave me names of various printer reps. I met with several who were exceptionally helpful and who talked me through the pros and cons of digital versus offset and how each would look. Even though it’s the pricier option, I settled on offset printing; it made more sense for how I wanted to journal to look. I didn’t want something super glossy and slick and modern. I wanted Stonecutter to feel timeless.
Along with Kate and founding editors Ava Lehrer, Zara Katz, and Anna Della Subin, I carved out the ideal aesthetic. Anna Della and I spent many a night laying out the first issue and making it look exactly as I wanted it to. Chris Young, our printer rep, has been with us since the start, and he is truly an indispensable part of the process. He helped me pick the paper. French flaps were a bit of a no-brainer for me—I love them. Maayan Pearl advised us on fonts and typesetting and assisted with designing the cover of issue one. Putting it all together was very collaborative, which is the kind of process I most enjoy. Everyone who weighed in in on those initial decisions was equally passionate about books and visuals. It took a while to get issue one there, but it was worth it. It looked exactly as I’d imagined when I had first expressed my vision to Kate.
As you know, making a journal is always a work in progress, and changes happen with each issue—masthead-wise and layout-wise. After our second issue, production turned over to Kayley Hoffman, who is also a full-time production editor at Simon & Schuster. Kayley has really fine-tuned and augmented how the journal looks. When she came onboard, she changed up our running heads and made some vital tweaks to the layout. She took over production completely and doesn’t let me touch the InDesign document (which is great because the way I used to lay poetry out was a bit painstaking). She’s very patient with me and is an integral part of the journal. I literally can’t do it without her.
We spend a lot of time thinking about the order of contents and how each piece will relate to the one before and after it. We don’t have themed issues, so content curation is tantamount to me to provide the reader with a particular experience, one that I think would be lost (or strongly diminished) if Stonecutter were an online publication. I hope that in the way we put the issues together, subtle connections between each piece and contributor emerge. We have to carefully consider layout and think about how a particular artist’s work might print on our paper. Our aim is to represent each contributor’s work exactly as they want it. Getting that physically right is part of the challenge and joy of creating the journal.
With every issue, our production choices get bolder. Our covers reflect this boldness, I think, as does the content. Our visual art (especially our full-color art spreads) increases with each issue, as does the balance between US-based writers and international writers and work in translation. Actively seeking out and publishing voices from diverse backgrounds is fundamentally important to me as an editor (I’m half Irish and half Iranian, so that’s what I grew up with,) and I love seeing how those elements strengthen from issue to issue.
RP: So much of what you’re saying here resonates with me, it would be insane to point out every moment where I was vigorously nodding along, but I will say Shereen Adel, the GS Production Editor, is my Kayley Hoffman. There’s such an important lesson here that I keep learning and relearning: knowing my strengths and weaknesses, being able to say, here’s what I don’t know. I feel so lucky to have found someone who does know and who’s willing to work on GS. Shereen also helped build (and helps me maintain) our current website—not one of my strengths at all, which kind of brings me into my next question.
Stonecutter, like GS, is a print journal–as in, the content is printed on paper with ink– though we have one slight difference: After an issue is published, none of the work from Stonecutter is archived online, and at GS we do archive a few select pieces on our website. I’m curious about why you’ve chosen to remain a strictly print journal and also about any conversations you’ve had with your masthead about doing so—or not doing so.
KR: Oh, yes—our online presence has been an ongoing conversation for a while now and has been the source of some heated discussions at various junctures. I’ve tried and failed on numerous occasions to reinvigorate the website with content, and each time we publish an issue I promise myself that “this one will be the game-changer.” I had an idea for a long time that I wanted to upgrade our current website and host online original works that we loved but which hadn’t necessarily made it into the print issue. Also I was excited by the fact that, in doing so, we would have a place to host multimedia content and video art. For a long while our art editor, Zara Katz, was a driving force behind trying to get someone onboard to manage the web stuff full-time. We came close to finding someone but it just hasn’t worked out. It’s tough to find a willing and able soul who would want to take that responsibility on– and for no money. I get it. It’s tough to do any of this.
All of the team at Stonecutter work full-time—some of us in more than one job. We’ve had Facebook and Twitter accounts since we launched, but it has taken me years to really understand how they work and get the hang of regularly posting and staying on top of them. I’m just now getting into social media and making concerted efforts to regularly post to them and our Instagram. It’s sad to admit that I’m so many years late in getting there, but it’s true—I always had a “life’s too short to spend it on Facebook” attitude. Friends of mine know how opposed to Facebook I am, in concept and practice, but it’s a necessary evil if you want to reach an audience and promote the writers and artists. And championing the work of our contributors is the most important part of this whole endeavor—that’s why I do it.
RP: We also had a (failed) grand plan to host an online aspect of GS with strictly online content—again, what we maybe couldn’t “fit” into the print issues and also things that aren’t printable—music, video, art with color, etc.! It just… never happened. Regardless of how excited we were about it, putting together a print journal with an all-volunteer staff is already time consuming enough.
One of the hardest things for me is packing and mailing and distribution in general–keeping GS in stock at the various bookstores that carry us. How do you deal with the fact that Stonecutter is a physical object and must be transported through time and space to the places that stock it?
KR: To be honest, that part of the process gave (and still gives) me numerous panic attacks and bouts of hysteria. I remember issue one arriving from the printer and all of these boxes strewn about my tiny studio apartment and thinking, Oh shit! What the hell am I going to do with these? Of course, at the start, I had somewhat naively optimistic notions—primarily that people would buy the thing. Don’t get me wrong, I work full-time in book publishing so I am under no delusion as to books being a road to untold riches and fortune, but I did think maybe more than a few people would purchase it. My friend Owen Roberts kindly set up our Paypal and added the buy buttons to the website. Some folks did and do order it directly online. But the website has never been the key way to get the journal into the world. Our subscription model totally failed after the first two issues. Then we lost control of our domain name and had to change it, which caused problems.
Though we do still get online orders from time to time, independent bookstores have been the major channel of support for us. Our booksellers are AMAZING. They are patient with us, kind to us, and they keep us visible and in stock. I’ll never forget the first time a bookstore found Stonecutter. Ames Gerould from McNally Jackson e-mailed me and requested copies. It was thrilling. I brought them to the store myself and was asked if I was an intern. I told them I was the publisher and editor and they responded, “Wow, that’s how you know it’s a small operation.” McNally, Greenlight, St. Marks, and Book Culture have all been constant supporters. We are also stocked in wonderful stores across the country and in Ireland and Australia, thanks to Mieke Chew, publisher of Higher Arc, and Will Heyward, who brought Stonecutter to several Melbourne bookstores. Being “found” still happens from time to time. Stephen Sparks recently discovered us on Twitter and to my glee now stocks us at Green Apple Books in San Francisco. And last week I brought copies to my favorite magazine shop in NYC (Casa Magazines, on 8th Ave), and they stocked us right away. My husband, Chris Russell (who does our contributor illustrations and is also an art editor at the journal), is currently our official distribution manager. He took over the job from me during issue three, I think in a bid to keep his home life a bit more peaceful. Chris stays in touch with the booksellers, handles online orders and mailings, and schleps each issue to and from the stores. We love our booksellers and they are incredibly good to us.
Did I mention that Chris and I pay for this ourselves? We save our pennies and fund the magazine. We can’t pay our contributors (yet,) but they are so amazing and generous that they understand. I have to say, without them and the booksellers and readers, we wouldn’t have the strength or sanity to keep going. Our stonecutters make it all worth it. And we’re a bit like the mafia—once you’re in the family, you’re in. You’ll have our undying support and love forever.
RP: Yes! We actually call all of the GS contributors/contest judges/masthead folks our “Shiny Family” and they are, for sure, what makes everything worthwhile. Oh, and those contributor illustrations that Chris does are… I don’t want to say they’re my favorite part of Stonecutter, but they’re the tipping point– as in, if someone I knew was like, “maybe I’ll buy this issue of Stonecutter…” I would flip to those contributor illustrations–in any of the four issues that exist in the world thus far– and be like, “The time for maybe is over.” And if that didn’t sell them, we would no longer be friends. I think it’s awesome that you have them on each page that advertises the issue. See! You do have some digital content! Everyone in the world should be so lucky as to hold in your hands a copy of any past or the forthcoming issue (Spring 2016!) of Stonecutter. I mean it.