Lit Mag Spotlight: Barrelhouse
by Treehouse Editors
Our fiction editor Rachel Bondurant interviewed Tom Mcallister of Barrelhouse:
Q. What motivated you to start Barrelhouse?
A: The Barrelhouse origin story is a pretty simple one. The founders (which, to be clear, does not include me; I became the NF editor in 2010) were in a writing group in DC together and became good friends. After many beers and many discussions about their dissatisfaction with the literary landscape, they decided there was a void they could fill: high-quality work that still had a sense of humor and embraced so-called “guilty pleasures.” Since then, we’ve worked hard to produce the best possible work but also to carve out a niche as a place where people can send their poems about Back to the Future, for example, or their essays about Magnum P.I. and pro wrestling. Not that people have to write poems about Ed Asner to end up in the magazine, but one of the fun things that has happened is we’ve become a place where serious writers can have a little fun.
A student of mine once sent an email to say he checked out Barrelhouse and really liked it because “it’s just really good writing for people who don’t have a stick up their ass.” That was basically the goal.
Q. When it comes to choosing a literary magazine to read these days, we have an outrageous number of options. Pretend for a minute that we don’t read yours, and tell us why we should.
A: Because we are producing writing that is not solely meant for writers. From day one, we’ve worked incredibly hard to publish a journal of great literary merit that can nonetheless be enjoyed by people who don’t care at all about MFAs, small press publishing. They just want good stories.
I know, I know. “We publish good stories.” Pretty flimsy sales pitch. What can I say? Read an issue, read the stuff we’re publishing online, check out annotated versions of the issue 11 materials on our site, and I’m confident you’ll want to read more.
Also, and I don’t think I can understate this: we pay writers. It’s been a long haul to reach this point, and we totally understand why a lot of other great journals can’t afford to pay their contributors. But still: a Barrelhouse subscription means you’re actually helping to financially support underpaid writers. Which is pretty cool.
Q. I recently read a piece in which Steve Almond called the literary pursuit “an incestuous contraction.” In other words, the majority of readers these days seem to also be writers. Barrelhouse offers writing workshops, major events for writers, and a podcast about books, as discussed by writers/editors. Do you think there’s some truth to what Almond says? And if so, in a sort of chicken/egg scenario, do you think lit mags created that contraction or have we maybe evolved in response to it?
A: The more active I’ve been on social media, I’ve become increasingly worried about the incestuous contraction of the lit world. Some days, it seems like everybody knows everybody else and the same roster of 300 writers are just publishing their stuff on a rotating basis in the same 30-40 magazines.
I know that’s not necessarily true, and even in the cases of a certain set of indie writers who are ubiquitous (for better or worse), I know there’s nothing malevolent about it. Those writers just know how to hustle, and they are working their asses off, and each individual editor happens to like their work.
Still, I get it, that concern. It’s easy to feel like you’re on the outside looking in, like you’re the only one at AWP who doesn’t know the secret handshake or the code word or whatever. But in the end, if you get to know the people involved in indie lit, the thing that becomes clear is that, with very very few exceptions, everyone who is doing this thing is doing it only because they love it and they want more people to love it like they do and it kills them that they can’t get their non-literary friends to share that passion.
Short answer: I think that sense of contraction is a safety thing. Writers and readers are marginalized, so it’s only natural that they would withdraw, surround themselves with like-minded people, and build up their defenses. That can lead to creating a vibrant subculture, but it can also be a problem: it can effectively make us disappear.
Q. Speaking of major events, Barrelhouse hosts Conversations and Connections, the Indie Lit City Summit, and Barrelhouse Presents in DC. What’s your favorite thing about being a part of these events? Have you thought about branching out to other cities for any of them?
A: These events actually make me feel a lot better about the concerns re: the “incestuous contraction” S. Almond is talking about. Obviously, these events support the indie lit community (our C & C conference pays about 50% of the money directly back to small presses and small press authors), but they are primarily designed to to address this exact problem of alienating people who aren’t already a part of the club. At the C & C conference, we get 150-225 attendees who are largely not part of the indie lit infrastructure and may not even have friends and family who write or want to talk about books. So we give them the opportunity to meet great writers, to talk to them during happy hour, to begin developing those relationships that help the community to grow.
In short, my favorite part is that we get to meet a lot of really cool, talented people who we otherwise might never meet.
As for branching out, we started running the conference in Philly last year, and it was such a success that we’re now viewing it as an annual Fall event at The University of the Arts (9/28 this year; all other details TBA). We do occasional reading events here in Philly too, especially with the Temple University Library.
Q. What have you read recently that just blew you away?
A: inscriptions for headstones by Matthew Vollmer. Best book I’ve read all year. So good it made me worry that I was doing everything wrong in my own writing.
I really liked The Antagonist by Lynn Coady, which I read recently, and I’ve already found myself re-reading passages.
Also, for a class I’m teaching, I just reread a portion of Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father, specifically the inset book-within-a-book A Manual for Sons, and found it just as hilarious and heartbreaking as I did the first time around.
Q. Is there anything you want to tell us that I haven’t given you an opportunity to mention already?
A: Yes! There is something. Two things.
1) We’ve just started publishing books. Our first book is called Bring the Noise. It’s an anthology of the best essays we’ve ever published, plus five new essays. I’m obviously biased, but I think this book is really great, and also if you’re trying to get a sense of what Barrelhouse is all about, this book will answer every question you could ever have. You can buy it here.
2) You mentioned the podcast, but I want to mention it again. I’m the co-host of Book Fight! along with our fiction editor, Mike Ingram. Our mission is similar to the one that started Barrelhouse so long ago: we want to have serious discussions about books and writing without being so god damn serious. Think of it like going to the bar to meet your writer friends for some drinks, with all the tangents, occasional profanity, and unfiltered honesty that entails. Go to bookfightpod.com to listen.
Tom Mcallister is the Non-Fiction editor at Barrelhouse. His memoir “Bury Me in My Jersey” was published by Villard in 2010, and his shorter work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, elimae, FiveChapters, and some other places. He’s the co-host of the Book Fight! podcast and he’s on twitter @t_mcallister