AMY BROWN talks to Brigid Hughes, judge of the Prize in Modern Letters, about literary magazines, the qualities of a good editor, and judging New Zealand’s richest prize for new writers.

YOUNG, BLONDE, American, and the founding editor of New York literary magazine, A Public Space, Brigid Hughes went straight from an MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University to an internship at the The Paris Review, of which she eventually became the executive editor. This impressive CV left me slightly intimidated. So, on Friday 14th March, when I went to Downstage to listen to her panel discussion – ‘Who owns the story’, with fellow editors Fergus Barrowman and Jane Parkin – and to interview her afterwards, I was surprised and relieved to find her softly spoken and approachable.
‘Oh, you’re Amy,’ she said when I ambushed her as she was leaving the theatre. ‘We’re,’ she gestured towards Fergus and Jane, ‘going for a drink now.’
‘That’s okay, I can meet you later, or tomorrow.’
‘No, look, would you like to come with us? We can do the interview after.’

At The Tasting Room I sat next to Brigid and listened quietly as the panel wound down. Craig Sherbourne, my other interviewee, whom I would be interrogating the next day, turned up. The conversation drifted over to the mini scandals of Writers and Readers Week; who had gone on a bender the night before, and whether the rent girl who turned up at the hotel, where both the writers and English cricket team were staying, was for a novelist or an opening batsman.
More lagers were ordered. It was time for Ian McEwan’s session and some people left. I was beginning to wonder whether I had outstayed my welcome. The group seemed to be settling down, getting more comfortable, so we rescheduled the interview for lunchtime the next day.

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AB: Did you enjoy judging the Prize in Modern Letters?

BH: I did, very much. I was flattered when Bill invited me to be the judge. I think one of the reasons I wanted to do it was to see what was going on over here, on the literary scene.

AB: How did you and Bill meet?

BH: One of Bill’s students, a writer called Tracey Hill, who had gone on exchange to Iowa and now lives in New York, knew one of our [A Public Space’s] contributing editors. We’d been doing these focus portfolios looking at the literary scene in other countries, and we’d been talking to Tracey, saying how it would be fun to do one on an imaginary place. And, although this isn’t quite the same thing, Bill Manhire had put together this amazing anthology on Antarctica. So he, from his anthology, curated a portfolio for us. He added a few new pieces and we did an interview with him.

AB: So that’s how you got to know him, and then he asked you to judge the Prize in Modern Letters?

BH: And then he asked me, yes.

AB: My next question is about literary magazines generally, and, perhaps, A Public Space specifically. Working with a number of editors on the same publication must lead to the odd disagreement. Do you think it’s better to work with people who have similar tastes, or is discussion and argument of this sort good for a magazine?

BH: I was sort of raised, or taught, as long as I’ve been working at magazines, that disagreement is a good thing. It forces you to hone your judgements. On the one hand you want your magazine to have an identity, but on the other hand you don’t want that identity to be stale. You don’t want to be always publishing the same stories. What we’re trying to do with future issues is publish someone we really love and publish someone who challenges us.

AB: In saying that magazines ought to have an identity, do you think that themes are a help or a hindrance?

BH: As soon as you decide on a theme a piece comes into the office that you’re desperate to publish and there’s no way you can jam it in. We’ve sort of compromised by doing the portfolios, which gives a section of the magazine a focus or theme.

AB: Yesterday, Jane Parkin answered the question about the qualities a good editor should have. What would you have said, or added?

BH: I was curious to hear what she had to say. I mean, for years I worked at The Paris Review, and that was a place which came with this huge reputation so I think that sort of shifted my idea of the way an editor should work. In some ways, these past two years [working on A Public Space] have been a crash course in editing in ways that I’ve never experienced before.

AB: How is editing for A Public Space different to editing for The Paris Review?

BH: Well, now we’re working with a lot of younger writers, seeing work at earlier stages. I think Jane was spot on when she said generosity. And I think you need to have a sharp skin, or a thick skin, I should say. I think the writers are going to be sensitive so you have to be understanding of their sensitivity.

“I was sort of raised, or taught, as long as I’ve been working at magazines, that disagreement is a good thing. It forces you to hone your judgements.”

AB: So, at The Paris Review, did you have less influence on works in progress—were the contributions more polished when they arrived?

BH: No, it just worked in a different way, I think. A lot of the editing that we did at that magazine had to do with writers who were working on books; that was really the meat of the editing.

AB: Would you, or have you, considered editing for a publishing house or starting your own?

BH: I had certainly talked, when I was leaving The Paris Review, with a few publishing houses. But, I like editing a magazine – I like the curatorial aspect of it. I’ve talked with the magazine and started making plans to start an imprint. If there were more than 24 hours in a day, we’d definitely consider it.

AB: I think it was at The Paris Review when you were associated with Zoo Press?

BH: Oh, do you know about the history of Zoo Press?

AB: No, I’ve just read that The Paris Review suggested writers to them. Is that right?

BH: The guy who founded Zoo Press was a reader at The Paris Review. And, he’d been a student of the poetry editor, Richard Howard. So, when he started Zoo Press, he asked if we wanted to help with a book of poems. So we did do that for two or three years and then he did books with various other magazines. I think, especially in recent years, a lot of magazines are establishing imprints so that they can carry on a relationship with their writers. McSweeney’s, they do books. Tinhouse has an imprint.

AB: Do you have any strong feelings about the efficacy of creative writing MFAs?

BH: That’s a big question. You could argue it either way. I think that what’s a little bit worrisome is the number of programmes that have popped up recently and the number of students paying exorbitant sums of money. That terrifies me.

AB: That few will actually succeed after spending exorbitant sums of money?

BH: I think that if they find the right programme – the right students and teacher to study with – it could be invaluable. I mean, how did you find it?

AB: It was interesting. A very productive year, being able to devote enough time to one book.

BH: Was it mostly the time?

AB: Yeah, but also having ten focused readers providing feedback each week. That was definitely effective. But, maybe not for everyone?

BH: I guess if you’re not a writer an MFA won’t make you a writer. But if you are, and if you choose the right programme for you, then it can make you a better writer.

AB: This is quite a general and possibly stupid question – is there any pattern, or indication, of where the best writing seems to be coming from, at the moment? Or are you just finding surprises, like the Kenyan magazine you mentioned yesterday?

BH: Um, yeah, I think we’re constantly surprised. I mean, the Kenyan magazine – I read an article about them a couple of years ago, and at the time they were just sort of starting up their website, which seemed to crash every other day, so it was hard to really get a sense of them. But some of their work I saw eventually in other magazines and it was nice to be able to trace it back. We’ve been trying to look in unexpected places for new writers. There’s one writer who we’ve published a few times now in the magazine. He works in public radio back in the States, but whatever it is that makes you a storyteller, he has it. He’s just a beautiful writer. We play this game every now and then, we try to think of writers of our generation who haven’t come through MFA courses and it’s getting increasingly hard. But he is one of those few writers.

“We play this game every now and then, we try to think of writers of our generation who haven’t come through MFA courses and it’s getting increasingly hard.”

AB: I read that you have editors overseas, sort of scouting for work?

BH: When we did the Japan portfolio in the first issue we had an editor who travelled back and forth between the States and Tokyo. He’s still looking for work for us. And one of our contributing editors is actually in Beijing right now looking around for some Chinese writers. We did a Peru portfolio too, and, actually, one of the Peru editors is now in Italy, so I guess we do have some international links.

AB: How do you go about soliciting writing – is it just a matter of asking and the writer says, yes?

BH: [laughs] It’s not that easy! Um, I think it sometimes comes out of the course of a conversation with a writer. They’ll mention, almost sort of on a tangent, something that they’ve been thinking about. And, we’ll say, oh wow that’s interesting, and then, would you like to write an essay or a piece for us. And, that’s great because sometimes it means they’re writing pieces they wouldn’t normally write otherwise. But, it tends to take quite a while to get from the ideas to the finished piece. Sometimes we just send out a general call, letting them know that we’re interested in their work, asking if they have anything they’d like to give us.

AB: Now that A Public Space has been going for two years, do you think you’re getting a good reputation?

BH: That’s a difficult thing to judge from the inside. I mean, I’m really happy with the issues we’ve produced so far, the writers we’ve used. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t pieces that I wish we could’ve published that we missed, or audiences that we haven’t reached.

AB: I noticed yesterday when I was flicking through the latest copy of A Public Space that you had pieces from Anne Carson. She’s a very established writer—

BH: Mm, that’s one of the nice things about the literary magazine world, there are a lot of established writers who are incredibly generous with publications like ours. They recognise the importance of carrying on the tradition. I also think that there aren’t that many places for their work to be published – even for someone like Anne Carson.

AB: Would you say that literary magazines have a role other than to showcase new writing, and nurture new writers?

BH: Sure! I think they can generate a conversation about literature – where it’s going.

AB: Just backtracking now, for my last question; you went straight from the student magazine at Northwestern University to The Paris Review. This seems like a dream first job – I’m interested in how that transition came about, and how you found it.

BH: Um, it was just one of those little bits of luck. I had studied for two weeks one summer with Richard Howard, The Paris Review’s poetry editor, and he very generously said stay in touch. At the time I was studying poetry, so when I graduated, instead of actually sending him my poems, which seemed too overwhelming, I sent him a note, asking if there were any openings at The Paris Review. I mean, what did I know? And, they had this internship, so Richard called me in for an interview, which has really been my only job interview. But, we just talked about books and what we were reading. I had showed up in my suit and with my briefcase, thinking it was going to be really big and official, but it was just him and a bunch of co-editors in their twenties, hanging out in an apartment around this pool table. It was totally unexpected. And, I think I spent the first month just in the basement reading manuscripts and eavesdropping on every conversation.

AB: He must have liked your poetry. You’re not still writing?

BH: Oh, no! I gave that up a long time ago. Some people are meant to be readers.