Ten Years of Publishing Good Writing:
Tom Dooley and Eclectica
by Cy Dillon
Electica (http://www.Eclectica.org/) was begun in October 1996 by Tom Dooley and Chris Lott. Their intention, according to the magazine’s current self- description, was to create “a magazine not bound by formula or genre, that harnessed technology to further the reading experience rather than for the sake of flashy gimmickry, and that was dynamic and interesting enough content-wise to keep readers coming back for more.” In the past decade, Eclectica has been just that, and has even published an award-winning collection of the fiction it has featured. The ezine has attracted enough attention to have its own Wikipedia entry, but it has stuck to Dooley’s original vision of presenting good writing in a modest but attractive format. In this interview, Dooley reflects on the origin of the magazine, its accomplishments, its continuing potential, and his own passion to keep it alive.
VL: Eclectica has been recognized as one of the first and most professional of the Internet literary magazines. Its consistency is remarkable. Why do you think you have been able to maintain such a high standard of quality in the content and presentation of the journal?… not everyone has the
lack of sense to want to
keep beating their heads
against the wall for no
TD: Before I answer, I’d like to thank you for such a kindly worded question. In fact, it’s so kindly worded that I’m not sure I can respond without sounding prideful, but I’ll give it a try. The short answer to how we’ve been able to maintain any standards — or presence on the Internet at all — is low expectations. What I mean is, we, meaning anyone who’s been involved with the magazine, have been fully aware that we’re a nonpaying online magazine with a negative budget. So, when ten years go by with no income, and the New Yorker hasn’t called, we’re not so brokenhearted that we can’t gear up for another ten years. Or at least, I should speak for myself, because not everyone has the lack of sense to want to keep beating their heads against the wall for no tangible gain. But speaking for myself, I’ve always felt from the beginning that the “gain” to be had from doing this magazine is the magazine itself. In a way, the magazine is like a child to me, in that it didn’t exist before, and now it does, and I feel responsible for keeping it alive.
I’m not sure I’ve really answered your question, though, so here’s another shot at it. One of the ways we’ve been able to maintain a standard, besides the stubbornness to just keep doing what we’ve been doing, is that we’ve been fortunate to have the help of some energetic, high-quality individuals over the years — both editors and contributors.
VL: Chris Lott was instrumental in starting Eclectica. Can you comment about his role?
TD: Chris gets all the credit for starting Eclectica and most of the credit for keeping it going for the first two and a half years. And, considering that we were doing an issue every month for the first year, an issue every other month the second, that translates to about five years’ worth of work. It was his idea to start an online literary magazine, his vision for it to pursue a lofty ideal of print-quality literature on the web, his hard work and technical wizardry that put the site together into something coherent, functioning, and beautiful in its simplicity. You can go back in the archives and look at early issues, and you can see how Chris was constantly evolving and distilling the look of the magazine to what we have now. It really hasn’t changed since he left, although I’ve shaved away much of the functionality (comment boxes, drop down menus, search bar, etc.) in favor of the bare bones. Lookwise, I’m still not in a hurry to change anything except the home page, which is, I admit, one of the least exciting, least representative home pages on the web.
I don’t want to give you the wrong idea — that I did absolutely nothing for the first two and a half years. Nor am I saying that the magazine doesn’t reflect my own vision of what an online literary site ought to be. But the truth is, I contributed very little until Chris’s departure meant I either had to step up or close up.
VL: What other members of Eclectica’s staff had significant roles in developing the magazine?
TD: My wife Julie had a significant role, in that she was one of the original contributors (second issue), back when neither of us had any idea we would ever be married to each other, and she served as the poetry editor and general coeditor for over five years. During that time, she brought in a number of great assistant editors, including Pam Gemin, Mitchell Metz, and John Reinhard. And she provided the connection to our current poetry editor, Jennifer Finstrom. The word poem challenge, one of our most enduring features, was her contribution as well. Besides her work in the poetry arena, though, she has always given me solid advice when I’ve needed it. Whenever I’m stuck on something, she provides an unwavering, dead on perspective that clears the way.
I have to mention two people who’ve been associated with the magazine for most of the last ten years, Stanley Jenkins and Paul Sampson. They both contribute regularly to our Salon section (op-ed); Paul is now our nonfiction/ miscellany editor; and Stan has placed more stories (sixteen) in Eclectica than any other author. These guys are as much a part of the magazine as I am.
Another frequent contributor, Kevin McGowin, became our review editor in 2003. He had previously worked with Damon Suave at another pioneering ezine, Oyster Boy Review, and he expanded Eclectica’s review section considerably. Unfortunately, Kevin’s life was tragically cut short, but his protégée, Colleen Mondor, has picked up where he left off.
There are many others — Elizabeth Glixman, our interview editor; Mike Spice, our travel editor; Don Mager, classical music reviewer and poet; and Tara Gilbert-Brever, assistant poetry editor and graphic artist — and it really goes back to what I said earlier about the great people who’ve helped give the site whatever quality it possesses.… I’ve shaved away much
of the functionality … in
favor of the bare bones.
VL: Has the potential you saw in web publication back in 1996 been realized?
TD: Absolutely not, but it’s getting there. Until there’s a way for Internet writers and editors to be widely compensated monetarily for their hard work, I don’t see the potential being fully realized. But given that compensation isn’t yet in place, the web has still made huge strides in garnering attention and respect in the literary world. It is inevitable, I believe. Books and print magazines aren’t going away in the face of electronic publication, any more than movies went away in the face of television, or television in the face of cable; but just as those other media gained their own rightful place, so will publishing on the web. And the advantages — instant access, global reach, a zillion other things — have web publishing poised to be something really great.
One of the factors that I think is starting to give momentum to online literature is National Public Radio. It makes a difference when you’re driving home from work and hear commentary from someone like Andrei Codrescu, founder of the online site Exquisite Corpse. Sites like Corpse and Salon and storySouth are changing people’s minds about online literature. The day that several stories in Best American Short Stories come from an ezine, we’ll know we’ve turned another very big corner.
VL: How do you attract accomplished and innovative writers to a magazine that doesn’t pay for material?
TD: There are only two things we can offer. One is what little bit of reputation we’ve been able to build for ourselves, mostly by being as picky as we can be. An accomplished and innovative writer may feel that if his or her work appears in Eclectica, it means the work was selected because it met some standard of excellence and beat out a considerable amount of competition. We’ve been fortunate that the last two years, the first credible effort to recognize the best fiction on the web, storySouth’s Million Writers Award, has lent some validation to our claim that we’re being really picky with the work we accept.
Besides high standards, we do of course offer a permanent publishing venue with the potential to reach any person on the planet who contrives a way to access the Internet. One that isn’t too hard on the eyes and has a respectable following.
VL: You are recognized as an exceptionally good fiction editor. What do you look for in a short story?
TD: The short answer is that I want to be hooked into reading the story, and then rewarded for investing the time I spent doing so.
As such, I use a tiered reading approach to find stories for Eclectica. The first tier is looking to be hooked. When I’m plowing through a hundred or more short stories at a time, it’s not too difficult for me to get into a very fickle mindset — not unlike the kind of mindset I imagine the average web surfer might have. If something lacks originality or polish, I’m probably going to pick up on that within the first paragraph or two. Don’t get me wrong — this doesn’t mean a story has to have a particular kind of opening paragraph. I’m just looking for assurances that my time isn’t going to be wasted if I read further.
If I read all the way to the end of the story, I’m then looking for the reward. Ideally, the end of the story — the sum total of the story — will have an impact: knock the air out of me, make me laugh, something. Often it’s the “or something” that I really appreciate — an impact I wasn’t expecting, and maybe haven’t encountered before.
When I’ve distilled a batch of submissions down to stories that have both hooked and rewarded, then I really get picky, until I have eliminated every piece I can find a reason to eliminate. The current issue has quite a few stories in it, more than I thought I’d have. That seems to be the pattern lately. I set out to have only five or six, but I end up with fifteen. I know it looks bad on some level — like I’m not doing my job as an editor if I can’t whittle them down to fewer than fifteen, but they’re all good, for heck’s sake. I can’t see rejecting a story I love, particularly when the only cost of including it is my time and a little extra bandwidth.I’m psyched to have
had the chance to
publish fiction from
VL: Would you give some examples of stories you are particularly happy to have published?
TD: There are thirty of them in our first print anthology, Eclectica Magazine: Best Fiction, Volume One. That was published in 2004 and included selections from our first seven years on the web. I have a list of stories started for the next anthology, one that it’s going to be very difficult to whittle down to thirty when the time comes.
Of course, I’m happy with the stories we placed in storySouth’s Million Writers Award Notable Stories — nine in 2003 and eleven in 2004. Their sheer number is a testament to the great writers who’ve been sending their work our way. In addition, two of the 2003 stories, Gokul Rajaram’s “The Boy with the Hole in His Head” and Sefi Atta’s “A Union on Independence Day,” and two of the 2004 stories, Joan Shaddox Isom’s “Remade Tobacco” and Chika Unigwe’s “Dreams,” all made the top ten list for their respective years. We’ve nominated several stories over the last few years for Africa’s prestigious Caine Prize, as yet with no luck, but we continue to hear from great African writers like Atta and Unigwe, and we’re hoping to break through there someday.
I’m psyched to have had the chance to publish fiction from every continent. Besides Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America, we’ve had some success in building connections to Europe — particularly the UK, where we’ve collaborated with Alex Keegan’s Boot Camp on several flash fiction projects. The latest appears in the January/February 2006 issue. It was a fundraiser for Children in Need. They needed an outlet for the fiction they generated that was more adult-oriented, so Alex and I agreed to publish a second set of winners. Even though these stories are flash fiction, written from prompts under time constraints for a children’s fundraiser, I have to say that they’re some of my favorites. At least a couple of them are sure to make it into the next anthology.
I could go on and list dozens of stories that I’m happy to have published. If I’ve succeeded as a fiction editor at all, as you were so kind as to suggest earlier, it’s probably because I really love doing this. I love going through a hundred stories and finding one or two that just blow me away. Or, to be more accurate, hundreds of stories and finding ten or fifteen. So really, any story that winds up in an issue of Eclectica is one that makes me happy.
VL: Have you been able to continue writing yourself while editing Eclectica?
TD: Nope. I had to struggle just to find the time to do this interview. I used to write editorials in the Salon section, but lately I haven’t been able to put together anything remotely readable for that, either.
I’m not complaining, though. I’ve gone through a series of realizations about myself. For one thing, while I was a decent athlete, I was a slightly better coach. More important, I got much more of a jazz out of coaching someone to win rather than winning myself. Similarly, I was a decent student, but a much better teacher, and understanding something wasn’t half as rewarding to me as leading someone else to understand. When it comes to writing, it’s the same thing, at least at this point in my life. I think I have the potential to write a decent short story, maybe even a novel someday, but in the meantime, I get much more of a kick out of editing Eclectica, trying to bring people’s attention to great stories that have already been written.
VL: Do you have any innovations in mind as Eclectica moves into its second decade of publication?… understanding
something wasn’t half
as rewarding to me as
leading someone else
TD: Other than somehow making the home page a little more representative of the site as a whole? Not really.
Well, I would like to eventually bring back the scrawl wall, which was a message board-like feature we used to have so people could give immediate feedback/commentary after reading a piece. The trick is going to be finding a way to do that without compromising what I think is now a very clean, attractive look.
There’s a website called “The Best Page in the Universe,” put together by a computer programmer now living in Utah. He’s been online about the same amount of time we have, and he gets about a million hits a month. Something he says about webpage design I think bears quoting: “I’m keeping my website shitty as a protest against all the slick-looking, contentless websites out there. Nobody cares about your stupid rotating icons and fading links” (http://www.thebestpageintheuniverse.net/c.cgi?u=faq).
He may have put it a little more bluntly than I would have, but the point he makes is valid, I think. The vision for Eclectica, even back when Chris Lott and I were talking about how cool it would be to start something like this, was to keep it simple, to use technology in service of content and not the other way around.