Andrea Scrima: StatORec is an online literary magazine founded and published by the writer and filmmaker John Reed. It’s gone through various bursts of activity over the years, but in truth, it’s very difficult to maintain continuity with a project of this scale while juggling everything else people need to do to survive and make their art. We don’t have any ads, which means that we don’t have any income. Everything we do is for the love of the written word. John launched and managed it for several years; Jennifer Parker, who is now our associate publisher, ran it very successfully for some time as well. I took over as editor-in-chief around a year ago, David Winner became senior editor, and we began publishing work from outside the US in addition to American writers we know and admire. I’ve been based in Berlin for many years and I’m involved with various literary communities here, and so I see part of my role as establishing a bridge between cultures, an avenue of transatlantic dialogue. But just as importantly, throughout the past year, I’ve been slowly but steadily expanding our social media base, because I feel quite strongly that if I’m publishing writers I admire, and I’m unable to pay them, the least I can do is make sure their work gets read.
David Winner: I entered the picture a bit later than Andrea. I guess it started for me with some really intriguing interactions with John Reed. He contacted me about a decade ago out of the blue to ask Andrea to interview me about my first novel, which had just come out with a small press. Then, also mysteriously, I got contacted by MTV Press (yes, that MTV) to review a strange and compelling book that John had written, called Tales of Woe (2010). Then suddenly John made me an editor at StatORec, which I knew nothing about. The description on their webpage talked about their Dorothy Parker inception and being raved about by The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly. Tantalizing, and (I would later learn) completely in jest.
The transformation from this fascinating but not fully formed entity to where we are now is mostly Andrea’s doing, of course, but it’s a real journey. More and more confidently, as StatORec has grown, I’ve been able to ask writers and artists I know about contributing. One of the great things that Andrea has done is really very simple. Taking it seriously. We’ve begun to take it seriously and others have appeared to follow suit.
Scrima: Yes, I reviewed your Cannibal of Guadalajara—I think that was 2010, the year I began writing reviews. But I never anticipated getting this deeply involved in a literary magazine. Strangely, the more we began doing, and, as you put it, the more seriously we took it, the more there was to do.
Rail: I love the boldly stated goal of “Total World Domination for Artists!” in your mission statement. It’s the world I want to live in.
Scrima: That’s actually a toned-down version of what we had before, which, as David has mentioned, was a fantastically illustrious, albeit entirely fictional account of the magazine’s provenance. John likes to play with these things, he does it deadpan, and we all loved it until one of our authors fell for it and quoted it in her socials. I caught the misunderstanding just in time to warn her that John Silas Reed, Dorothy Parker, and Max Eastman were not, in fact, the magazine’s original founders; that we hadn’t been crowned with the “impetuous radicalism of literary upstarts” by the New York Times, among other outrageous claims—all of which was meant, of course, as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the prevailing snob culture. We’re really quite small, we’re actually too small to handle too many unsolicited submissions, and if we possess any glamour at all, it’s an insidery, edgy one. The author changed her Facebook post and no harm was done. But we quickly realized that we were entering a more serious arena and that there was no more playing around; that we couldn’t risk embarrassing people.
Winner: I may not have posted anything on Facebook, but I didn’t totally get that this was all tongue in cheek at first, either. As we all know in the last decade or so, it’s hard to know what is real or what is fabricated. A book of mine was once nominated for what turned out to be a fraudulent award. With our concocted New York Times quote and our “Total World Domination for Artists,” we could have seemed the same. The work has been to make it concrete.
Rail: You’ve recently put together an issue based on life in the time of Corona.
Scrima: David and I began working on this issue in mid-April. We’ve published over 30 works in poetry, fiction, and essay, and I’m happy and a little astounded by the results, particularly as a collection. The idea came to me after returning to Berlin from Italy in early March, just as the first lockdowns went into place; over the weeks that followed, we watched in horror as the death count mounted in Lombardy. It was still unknown whether or not we were about to suffer the same fate in the rest of Europe—this was before the explosion of cases in the US. I wrote an essay and sent it to the Times Literary Supplement, because they’d published a piece of mine on the fall of the Berlin Wall for a 30-year commemorative issue last November, but I didn’t hear back, and so I decided to publish it on StatORec because it felt too urgent to wait. As we all know, things were changing rapidly at that point; one reality replaced another on an almost hourly basis. It turned out that the TLS editor I knew there had contracted COVID-19 and was very sick. Then David announced that he was planning to write a piece. And then we asked a few friends, and pretty soon we had a themed issue on our hands. And then I realized that I was suddenly fired up—burning with purpose, really—because I wanted to compile a record composed of as many voices as possible, before we began forgetting things. Because I was sure that we would forget. It felt like our perception of events were already undergoing some kind of strange alteration, and I wasn’t sure who we would be when it was all over, or if it would ever be over. If we’d be alive in six months’ time. We’ve been working on it non-stop since mid-April.
Winner: In March, the NYT published a piece advising writers not to write about COVID yet, suggesting we needed time, distance. That seemed wise, but I’m not. A novel of mine called Enemy Combatant is scheduled to come out next year. There is a blank file on my computer called “COVIDCombatant.” Thankfully, I gave up the foolish idea of somehow incorporating the virus into a novel written well before it. But I did (as Andrea mentioned) end up writing something about running up and down stairs in Prospect Park with my dog that seemed to hit a nerve, and I began asking writers I know to contribute. Cliff Thompson wrote about Malcolm X, the clarinet, and Park Slope. Joan Marcus delved into the preternatural whiteness of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s pioneer imagination and her family’s life in Ithaca, New York. Jon Roemer touched on the Bay Area, the role of the writer in a global pandemic, and his overwhelming sense of uncertainty. Andrea published many more pieces, including your harrowing essay, Rebecca. What’s struck me about them is that they (at their best) find some complicated place between the particular and the universal. Before this all started, I was working on a piece about Uzbekistan, part of the point being to take readers someplace they probably haven’t gone before, but here, in this situation, none of us really has something entirely unique to report on. We are all living through this. For our Corona issue, we were looking for writers who could relay their experience vividly enough to resonate with readers.
Rail: Your recent series of pieces focused on living in the time of pandemic makes me think about the tension inherent in having a literary/art magazine that is not news driven, and the need to respond to events that shake our world deeply. The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement are having a huge international impact this summer. Do you imagine a series focused on race?
Scrima: We never set out to be journalists—and so when we decided to do a Corona issue, we had to navigate our way around the all-too-familiar fact that events can become old news very quickly. Things we’d thought and said only days before suddenly seemed naive. Lockdown, quarantine, a flood of epidemiological information, a new kind of numb fear, and—as we see in many societies including the US, the channeling of that fear into all kinds of self-destructive behavior—the challenge became to put ourselves and our writers to the test, to see what writing can do at a time when so much is suddenly at stake. I was struck, for instance, by a line in Scott Martingell’s poem describing “writers starting to squirm / as they come to terms / with their cul-de-sac of ironic distance.” That seemed to sum something up for me.
Rail: Yes, absolutely.
Scrima: And then, in the US, it became evident that the virus was disproportionately affecting Black people and people of color. When the anger and shame over this fact, compounded by the death of George Floyd and many others, finally found their outlet in the Black Lives Matters protests, several of our authors, particularly Uche Nduka, Clifford Thompson, and Caille Millner, addressed these events directly, but in very different ways. All at once it seemed that the BLM protests embodied the energy and conviction we need to get ourselves out of the mess we find ourselves in, on every level. I can easily imagine planning an issue focused entirely on race, but I’d want to broaden the scope to include Asians, Latinx, and Native Americans. And I’d want a person of color to be on board to guest edit or co-edit the issue with us. There is still too much that we don’t understand. I’ve pushed back three times now with our authors on what I felt to be an unconscious blind spot of white privilege. Black readers might smile at that: a white expat Italian American calling out another white writer on white privilege. But whenever the discrimination and suffering happening everywhere isn’t directly affecting the group you happen to belong to, there will be some degree of incognizance to that discrimination and suffering. There will be ignorance, and there will be bias. The only way we can learn is if we pay attention and listen.
Rail: Full disclosure: I was one of the writers Andrea pushed back on and I’m very glad you did. The piece that you published in StatORec as a result of our editorial conversation had a powerful impact on my own writing process. There is a kind of bearing witness that writers and artists are able to do, in times of great change, but we need editors, and more broadly, artistic directors and curators in all disciplines who are willing to challenge us to be deeply honest and fully present in our work. In the ideal world—where artists have Total World Domination—we challenge each other to bring our best work to the table.
Scrima: For me personally, apart from learning how to avoid contagion, the past half year has been about growing into this role of editor. I hold up a mirror: this is what your piece sounds like, this is how it can be misunderstood. And this here is perhaps an area you’re shying away from. Another writer might have been annoyed by that first, rather lengthy mail I sent to you, Rebecca, but you were so open and willing to think your piece through that it really crystallized things for me. We both learned from the process. And later, when you asked my permission to use our editorial dialogue as the basis for an online lecture for your MFA students, I thought: this is what it means to go out on a limb and assume responsibility for the writing we publish.
Rail: And I thought: this is the kind of dialogue young writers need to know can happen, if rarely. Though I have been teaching creative writing for many years, sharing my own process in a very personal way with the students is not something I have ever done before. Sharing it about something as explosive as race in this moment, as a white writer, feels both risky and necessary. I don’t know how the students will respond yet, as we are doing our residency online, and their follow-up session with me is still a couple of weeks away. But the level of thinking and honest conversation that we engaged in with my essay keeps me going as a writer, and I wanted to share that with the MFA students.
Scrima: Of course, giving an author lengthy editorial input always carries the risk that they might retract the piece and send you a polite note promising to “give it some thought.” Interestingly, this has only happened to us once or twice. The majority of our authors have understood how much care and deliberation go into an editorial email or an edit, and that we’d only go this far if we felt their piece was worth it and necessary. And that the version with tracked changes they’re looking at with dismay—this hacked-up thing that resembles a battlefield—is, in fact, a testimony of respect. If I feel that there’s something the author is not taking into consideration, I offer feedback in as objective terms as possible—because I would never willingly expose an author to criticism that could have been foreseen. I’ve been relieved each time an author expresses gratitude that I’m giving their text so much careful consideration, because I feel this risk each time. We never take it lightly. And David and I share texts when we’re unsure of something. Contributing authors don’t always realize how much discussion takes place on an editorial level, how many emails are written back and forth, how many hours of work go into it all.
Winner: I’ve written quite blunt emails to Andrea about some of the pieces we have worked on. And she has done the work of engaging writers about their work. Because we consider our authors’ intentions as well as the results, writers have trusted us for the most part. Another factor that has helped us, I think, is that all our essays are addressing situations that dominate our minds. Through our essays and our conversations about our essays, we work out what we’re thinking about this new world that we’ve all found ourselves living in.
Scrima: Many of our pieces are raw, from the moment. Joan Juliet Buck, for instance, was writing a gripping, philosophical, very personal Corona Diary on Facebook, and I wrote and asked her if I could select excerpts from it. She agreed immediately, we spent a few days editing, and then we published it. Mui Poopoksakul was a victim of an anonymous anti-Asian hate crime here in Berlin and wrote an essay just as the Kriminalpolizei began investigating. Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, on the other hand, fled Manhattan for the relative safety of rural Maine, and yet his musings throughout April and May gravitate toward mortality. The essay, stories, and poems all vary widely, and yet there is a common sense of immediacy.
Rail: This is why literary magazines remain crucial in times of crisis. You walk that tightrope by providing readers with a range of responses to the world around us, and the magazine becomes a place to engage in challenging, revealing conversations.
Winner: Andrea and I share a sense that the magazine needs to respond to the present tense, particularly in this time in which the present tense is so fundamental. 9/11, particularly for those of us who had been in close proximity when it happened, changed the “distance” between our personal lives and events in the world at large. Now that distance has been entirely shattered. I do want us to do issues that address race, and I agree with Andrea that we can’t be doing that alone as white people. But we’d like to be able to provide a platform.
Scrima: And I’d like to say at this juncture that we welcome proposals by experienced editors.
Rail: These unfolding virtual exchanges feel more important than ever, especially in this time of extended quarantine in the US, where nobody can travel very much yet, at least internationally.
Scrima: Here in Europe, we’ve seen a range of reactions to the pandemic, with some countries responding more quickly and thoroughly than others. Until Boris Johnson came down with COVID-19, England was tossing around the concept of herd immunity. And we all know what that course led to in Sweden. Once I was able to think beyond our own immediate reality (How safe are we outside? In the stairwell of our building? Should we disinfect everything we bring home from the supermarket?), I began to wonder what the closure of theaters, cinemas, schools, universities, daycare centers, gyms, bars, restaurants, most stores and businesses, essentially the suspension of public life—the prospect of quarantine and lockdown, a government-imposed restriction on people’s freedom—would do to the national psyche of the formerly communist countries of the Warsaw Pact. Because even if the measures were temporary, and necessary, they seemed likely to trigger old trauma. I was afraid of the populist response it might provoke and what that could mean for European stability further down the road.
Rail: Yes, and as David mentioned earlier, the global distance between all of us has been shattered…
Scrima:…which leads to an acceleration of events, through all kinds of channels. As it turned out, I received a submission from a journalist in one of these formerly communist countries. The piece was full of insinuation—the government was obviously inventing the danger of the alleged virus to seize control and reinstall a dictatorship—but it tried to cloak itself in a kind of pseudo-left, provocative stance. It was basically conspiracy theory, and it disturbed me deeply. I should have turned the essay down right away, but in our commitment to include a range of viewpoints, I asked her to preface it with an introduction contextualizing her position: what was the timeline of the virus’ spread, how many cases had emerged, how had the R0 factor fluctuated over the past several weeks in comparison to countries that didn’t impose lockdown until much later, etc. Because the government of the country she lives in had been among the first to close its borders, and did so sensibly and effectively; the virus was quickly contained and the lockdown was lifted fairly early.
Rail: And yet, another earmark of this moment, along with the rise of populism is the abandonment of fact-based journalism.
Scrima: Yes, and with all the consequences of that. She responded by sending me an introduction that paraphrased my own mail to her. It was lazy and petulant, and it was the only time I was actually angry. I looked up the magazine she writes for and quickly learned that despite the leftist image it tries to cultivate, western journalists consider it borderline yellow press. And then it all made more sense. But really, I was interested in having a critical assessment from a formerly communist country delve into what the pandemic was doing to stir up old fears and trigger processes that could potentially lead down a dangerous path—and I suppose her essay was a clear enough answer to that question, but it certainly wasn’t something we were going to publish. It was the only time I felt a submission hadn’t been worth the time I’d put into it.
Rail: I hope you find another writer ready to honestly pursue that question. I would love to read a piece about the relationship between the mechanics of a formerly totalitarian state and daily life during and after this pandemic.
Scrima: As would I. For the moment, though, we’re finalizing the Corona issue and moving onto other platforms to help call attention to the publication. We’re excited that the off-off-Broadway performance art organization HERE, which has moved online to weather the Corona period, has agreed to feature individual video clips of our authors reading from their pieces accompanied by short texts linking to the site. We’re also tossing around the idea of an anthology. Our contributing editor John Casquarelli, who teaches at Koç University in Istanbul and heads the Lethe Literary and Art Journal, will be guest editing an issue focused on Turkey in the late fall that will bring together Turkish literature and works by the community of foreign writers living and working in Istanbul. And then it will be time to assess what we need to do to move forward. An issue on race would be a solid next step.
Winner: I agree with Andrea about that. In general, this has been a terrifying but liberating time. For weeks, protests were springing up everywhere. And yesterday, I passed hundreds of people on bikes, an impromptu BLM protest. Large groups of people were dancing salsa in Prospect Park this morning, which would have been inconceivable as recently as last summer. Ominous things, too. We aren’t being invaded by violent federal law enforcers like in Portland, but I heard the drone of helicopters over the Brooklyn Bridge last night and saw literal drones that were probably monitoring peaceful protests. Fear of COVID has kept me from spending that much time at protests, myself, but it’s been really satisfying to play a small part in a magazine nimble enough to respond to this moment. We don’t have the staff to handle masses of submissions, of course, but I really like the idea of doing what we have managed to do at least some of the time, which is to publish things really quickly, freeing writers from having to contact their agents or sending things over Submittable that could take months and months to see the light of day. I think these times demand that kind of immediacy.
Scrima: Yes, we’ve been able to move very quickly. In early June, after watching the Black Lives Matter protests burgeon, I asked Roxana Robinson if she would consider writing an essay on the militarization of the American police in the period following the fall of the Berlin Wall. She agreed immediately and wrote an extraordinary, in-depth essay that not only took a close look at the allocation of war-grade equipment to individual states, but traced the roots of the US police forces and armed militias to the Slave Patrols of the South. She too felt the urgency of the moment and the necessity of getting the piece out quickly, and finished it in three weeks’ time. In other words, we haven’t been working on a normal editorial timeline. And the authors have been incredible.
Rail: It’s clearly a time of intense growth at the magazine, which gives me hope to balance the fear of this moment. Artists must speak truth to power, and StatORec is clearly committed to pushing and nurturing writers, so that a range of “truths” may be heard.
Scrima: We’re all trying to figure things out emotionally, intellectually, politically. In the US, we’ve seen the fear and frustration of a murderously mismanaged pandemic crisis become channeled into a largely peaceful protest movement that radiates self-control, wisdom, perseverance, ferocity, and love. And we’re seeing some pretty scary populist reaction to that. We’ve worked very hard on the magazine these past months, trying to do our part. Readers interested in exploring the StatORec Corona issue can begin with our About page, which contains a hyperlinked summary of everything we’ve published since mid-April 2020. Thanks so much for interviewing us, Rebecca.