Sculpting a Texas Literary Magazine

Article by ben

So, have you heard about Dallas? If you follow literary news—especially the stuff focused on the world of indie presses—you likely know something about Deep Vellum, Will Evans’ translation publisher which cropped up in 2014 with Carmen Boullosa’s THE GREAT TEXAS THEFT. Since then, there has been coverage—like this Literary Hub piece—anointing Dallas as a burgeoning book mecca, and Evans has even opened his own boutique bookstore, Deep Vellum Books.

No doubt Dallas is on the rise—but what you know if you’ve been paying attention all along is that it has never been a literary slouch. Consider the Writer’s Garret Literary Center, a nonprofit that reaches into the community with programs and workshops. Or consider the Arts and Letters Live series at the Dallas Museum of Art, which brings in for readings the biggest authors around. Or consider Wild Detectives, the hip bookstore with a slightly, um, boozy edge. Also, from Ben Fountain (of BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK) to Merritt Tierce (of LOVE ME BACK), there has been a recent spate of great authors hailing from the metroplex.

And then, there’s Carve Magazine, one of Dallas’ great literary journals, which has, in the last few years, grown bigger and better than ever. Recently, I caught Matthew Limpede, editor-in-chief, on the phone to talk about the magazine—past, present, and future.


Benjamin Rybeck: Tell me a bit about the history of Carve.

Matthew Limpede: Sure. It started as an online magazine back in 2000, founded by Melvin Sterne. He ran it until 2006 and then decided to shut it down. At the time, I was graduating with a BA in creative writing and offered to take it over as a side project. I did this in 2007, and I’ve been running it since then. The magazine stayed online only until 2012, when we launched the premium edition, a quarterly print publication. It includes more features and also has interviews, illustrations, and the decline/accept feature [highlighting stories that Carve rejected but got accepted elsewhere—a surprisingly humble endeavor for a literary publication]. Pretty soon, we’ll start publishing nonfiction—essays and such. We’ve taken an alternate route as more magazines are moving online.

BR: How much is design a concern for you?

ML: We’ve actually talked about changing our design and going with what is the more current aesthetic for literary magazines—the thick book format. Right now though, we’re in the traditional magazine format, similar to, say, The New Yorker, but with a harder, glossier cover. We like that style because it’s a throwback to old literary magazines, and it’s just a little friendlier to carry around.

BR: What seems better to you: fitting in with current aesthetic trends, or finding a way to stand out?

ML: [Laughs] I like to stand out. But we want to be friendly to our readers, and I know that they tend to skew older. The font size is small in the magazine because we’re trying to conserve space. We use the two-column format on each page.

But about design: our covers are something I’m really proud of. For each issue, we bring on a designer or illustration. Those covers are very eye-catching—especially when we have them on display at festivals and conferences. That won’t be changing.

BR: As an editor who has experience both online and in print, what changes philosophically between the two formats?

ML: I’ve always had the philosophy that online is a little less personal and more about content consumption. You want the next article, the next link, the next click, and consumers want that too. But print is very personal, you know? It’s intimate, it’s an experience—tactile, and involving more than one sense: you can smell it, you can feel it. I try to make the website visually appealing—our text is centered on the screen, it doesn’t take up the whole width, and it’s very mobile friendly—but with print, I get feedback that readers consume it in one sitting, absorbed not only in the material but also the experience. That’s really what I try to do: I try to create an experience.

BR: Yeah, you get that chance with a print publication, whereas online, readers are apt to click around themselves, to build their own experience.

ML: Yeah, online, we offer a one-line teaser for each story, because you’ll click what you want—readers will go to whatever appeals to them. But I want there to be that lingering sense you get from reading a really good work of fiction—or any experience of art—where you just can’t let it go when you’re done, and it clouds your mind for the next few hours or days. I want to create something that sticks with the readers.

BR: So what are some of the other magazines that do that—that inspire you?

ML: Well, The Paris Review, which is on everyone’s list! [Laughs] And I really admire McSweeney’s, how they change their aesthetic with every issue and are always finding ingenious ways to present the magazine. Tin House has a very nice, simple aesthetic that I admire, and there are great small touches and flourishes, like how, marking the end of every story, they have a tiny tin house.

BR: Sure, and you’re talking a lot about design here—but do those magazines try to provide the reader the same kind of experience you have in mind?

ML: That’s another way we’re different, I think. Those magazines don’t organize their fiction together, or their poetry together—you just kind of browse your way through. We’re also different because all of our interviews are with the authors of the pieces in the magazine. It’s a very connected experience. I don’t know of any other magazine that does it like that. We offer a true immersive conversation, and each issue is curated and edited with the reader in mind. I don’t think many other magazines are as cohesive—which is ironic, when you think about: they’re built and shaped like books, but not consumed like books.

BR: So what’s the process for Carve? How many folks on staff?

ML: Our reading committee consists of fifteen or twenty volunteers, and they comb through 300 submissions a month. Then there are two fiction editors, and I’ll be bringing on poetry and nonfiction editors soon. From there, the work goes to the managing editor, who makes the final selection of stories. Then, the production editor gets brought it and tasked with helping.

BR: And then, you? How authoritative is your editorial control over the magazine?

ML: Well, you’ve caught me at an interesting period. Right now, I’m in transition. The managing editor’s responsibility will be relatively new after this next issue.

BR: But when you’re calling the shots, how hands-on are you with the pieces?

ML: When I started in 2007, I was pretty hands-off. I accepted pieces as they came in, and the copy editor might present some interesting questions, propose reworking a section here or there, but that was about it. In the last two or three years, with the premium edition, I’ve been much more hands-on. Man, I could tell you some stories! [Laughs] A few pieces, I really worked through and presented the suggestions back to the author—though telling them, “It’s your story, so take them or leave them.” Most of the time, they took the suggestions—most of the time. [Laughs] But anything that’s a risky, creative work: we want to be sure to publish that, which is a good reminder if I’m ever getting too set in my ways in terms of what I want to see.

BR: So in a way, you’re saying that your aesthetic is no aesthetic.

ML: But if you read our stories, there is an undeniable aesthetic. I’m into stories of emotional honesty, with moments of catharsis and change; I’m interested in grace and the connection and disconnection between characters. Even when I leave, that aesthetic will still hold true. I may get too set in my ways in terms of how a story is told or crafted—but really, I want stories that are willing to take risks.

BR: So you’re transitioning out of your current position—but into what?

ML: It’s sort of trial and error, you know, running a business. I skipped all business classes in college, which is not something I recommend if you want to run one! But right now, I’m working on expanding our editorial services [as part of Carve Literary Services]. For years, we’ve been working with writers on short stories, but I want to move toward working on novel-length manuscripts one-on-one with authors.

BR: Who do you have providing these services?

ML: The full list of consultants is on the website, but they’re all established authors, editors, teachers, people who’ve been in the industry for a long time, and so on. They all have experience helping writers who need guidance and edits. It’s really a mix of people all over the country.

BR: So you’ve been in the Dallas scene for years now. What have you seen changing?

ML: It’s an exciting time. We’ve gotten…oh, I hate to sound like I’m referencing Star Wars, but there has really been an awakening! [Laughs] You start to realize, oh, are other writers in Dallas, and, oh, there are other magazines. Recently, it has been helpful to have Wild Detectives, and Deep Vellum is doing great stuff. They’ve got a huge presence in Dallas, and they’re opening their bookstore. Of course, there have always been stalwarts like the Writer’s Garret, but our scene really felt like it might collapse with the loss of Borders and some independent bookstores. Now, it seems that isn’t the case.

BR: So how does Carve fit into everything that’s going on?

ML: Right now, to be honest, our presence is not as strong as it used to be. A few years ago, I was trying to put together events. I did a couple events in a series: Dallas Literary One Night Stand. The second event consisted of presentations from different literary magazines in the area. What was so fun about this event was I didn’t even know a lot of them! I found these magazines through that event.

BR: Well, I imagine Dallas is sort of similar to Houston in how its sprawl can occasionally disconnect literary-minded people from one another.

ML: What I really think we need? I think we need an MFA program here. Houston has that, Austin has that, but Dallas doesn’t have that. What a program brings is a stable, renewable source of community. You always have new, young writers coming in, and the teachers themselves become fixtures—and they bring with them all their networks from other cities, which helps organize readings and events, and helps put people in contact with other people. We don’t have it now, but I’m hopeful we’ll have one in the next ten or twenty years!

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