Monday, June 1, 2015

My dream job

‘We can write from where we are’, asserts Mel Campbell in her column for the forthcoming issue of Overland. The idea of a special New Zealand issue of the magazine came to Jacinda Woodhead when she was preparing to take over the editorial reins last year. It was an extension of Overland’s efforts to recruit writers and seek new readers from outside Australia, which in turns harks back to how the original project of Overland was conceived: as an Australasian, regional publication.

I was delighted to be asked to serve as guest editor. This was my dream job. I had fantasised more than once about what I might do if I had a publishing budget, and Overland is the perfect vehicle for the kind of writing I believe in. Jacinda sealed it with the brief: that the issue should feature New Zealand writers writing about the world, as opposed to themselves; that it should look outwards, as opposed to inwards.

We asked Jolisa Gracewood to be the fiction editor and Robert Sullivan to take charge of the poetry pages. We secured early the services of Christchurch artist Marian Maguire for the illustrations and the cover. She came back with this.

I’m very proud of the issue we produced, and Marian’s cover encapsulates it beautifully: its search for insight and meaning; the sense of a journey complicated by history and struggle. In fiction and poetry as much as in nonfiction, these are the threads that join the twenty-three contributions by writers variously linked to New Zealand. I like the way Apirana Taylor’s poem ‘thank you’ illustrates Morgan Godfery’s lead essay; or the fact that Pip Adam’s story ‘Zero hours’ describes the reality of contemporary working lives just as sharply as Faisal Al-Asaad does the policing of Ferguson, Missouri. There are shared preoccupations with emancipation, colonisation and culture that bring the three sections together, and not by design but as a function – I can only surmise – of ‘writing from where we are’, for this particular publication, and at this particular point in time.

My own association with Overland began in late 2011, when I was approached to write a piece for the magazine on the Eurozone crisis. I had written essays on commission before, but this was a challenge of a different order, to write on economic matters, and not an idea I would have had the confidence to pitch myself. Eventually the piece – written about a European monetary crisis by an Italian literature graduate and published in Australia – resulted in my being invited to discuss the topic on New Zealand television opposite economist Rod Oram.

I mention this episode because it changed my perception of how my writing could travel and the value of placing it in a publication that would put it through rigorous editing and make it part of a broader conversation. I could still write about distant matters from my current vantage point, but to a different set of expectations.

I believe in amateurism, I do. I value blogs and small magazines that can’t afford to pay for contributors, and all of the informal mechanisms that allow people to produce culture outside of the traditional channels, take risks, learn their craft. I’m quite convinced I wouldn’t be writing at all if I hadn’t been blogging first, and it’s a form that continues to give me pleasure and in which I believe. But equally I recognise the value of the other layers, of literary magazines and serious general interest publications that promote and organise new writing according to a logic that is not that of the author alone; that support – with money, hopefully, but also in kind, with expertise and advice, with editorial feedback and intervention – the taking of further steps, and that most writers need in order to grow in confidence and skill.

There is, besides, the value of being published alongside other writers as part of a coherent intellectual project – which, in Overland’s case, is ‘to foster new, original and progressive work exploring the relationship between politics and culture’. While New Zealand is very well-served by its literary magazines, I would argue that we don’t consistently place these particular demands on our writers. Coupled with our small cultural ecosystem, this has made the economics of writing longform political pieces quite precarious. The research that these pieces require can be time-consuming, and if a commission falls through or a submission isn’t accepted they can be hard to place somewhere else, especially as they often have a shorter shelf-life compared to other kinds of nonfiction. Setting out to produce a New Zealand issue therefore required having faith that we would receive enough work of sufficient quality to fulfil Overland’s stated mission. Happily, we did, so much so that we’re going to have to produce a special digital issue to accommodate some of the essays that we wished we had been able to include in the print magazine. This is our line-up:

The New Zealand issue may be a one-off event, but Overland will continue to solicit work from our writers and seek to appeal to our readers. The other question, which was posed by Wallace Chapman in a Radio New Zealand interview with contributors Catriona MacLennan and Morgan Godfery – namely, if New Zealand could sustain an Overland of its own – is harder to answer. On the one hand, besides our more traditional magazines, online publications like The Pantograph Punch, the work of Freerange Press in Christchurch and the flourishing of Bridget Williams Books suggest to me that the appetite for critical longform writing hasn’t diminished, and that it can be met; on the other, the opportunity to publish outside of New Zealand whilst still making the writing available to us afforded by magazines like Overland expands our own ecosystem, helping to keep our freelance writers in work.

We are launching our issue this Thursday from 5.30pm at Vic Books in Wellington. Do come along if you are in town, or you can pre-order the magazine from the website (it ships for free to New Zealand) or, even better, subscribe. It’s worth it.

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