An Interview with John Lavin: Part One

Susan Maiermoul

I have caffeinated memories of the Cork International Short Story Festival in 2014. CISSF is an outstanding event brimming with readings, workshops, and lively pub calls. Easily one of the strongest impressions from that week is running into John Lavin literally everywhere and at all hours of the day and night, indefatigably interviewing writers for Wales Arts Review. It’s rare to encounter an extraordinary commitment combined with such fine modesty in carrying it out. His ubiquity went beyond enthusiasm to vocation while maintaining a great personal charm. Quite soon after that John founded The Lonely Crowd.

SMM: Joan Didion once said ‘By the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone,’ so I’m going to start right out with huge congratulations. The Lonely Press is about to publish its first books!

JL: Yes, I’m delighted to tell you that The Lonely Press will publish two new titles in the spring of 2017. The first is quite simply a classic short story collection – The Beautiful Rooms by Valerie Sirr. When we first started last year, we set out to be the ‘New Home of the Short Story’ and I can hardly believe our luck that we are able to publish the debut collection of such a talented, award-winning short story writer as our first book. The collection is psychologically complex, emotionally uncompromising and expertly crafted, as Valerie’s startling story ‘Made You Look’, illustrated so succinctly in our recent spring issue. I really do think that it is the perfect first short story collection for The Lonely Press to publish.

The other book we are publishing is a debut collection of poetry entitled Ergasy by Swansea MA student Chris Cornwell, a poet that we’ve published three times now in the Crowd – including two entirely scintillating poems in this current issue. Poetry has grown to be as integral to The Lonely Crowd as short fiction, and I believe that Chris is exactly the type of new young writer that we should be championing. I feel like it is probably the most ambitious debut poetry collection that I’ve read in a decade. Unlike so much poetry written today, one instinctively feels that Cornwell completely believes in the power of the written word. Yes, there are hints of the young Dylan Thomas as with so many Welsh or Wales-based writers but in Cornwell’s hands the influence does not feel slavish so much as a relationship of equals. There is also a strong Yeatsian impulse. Cornwell believes that poetry is as important as it ever was – maybe more so – and that it can be an instrument of change.

SMM: It’s fantastic news. Ambitious and powerful writers. Your curation of The Lonely Crowd is one of its strong points. How do you go about deciding what stories and poems will become part of an issue?

JL: Simply by choosing the best pieces that we receive through submissions. We receive a great many more submissions than we used to now, so this is an increasingly long and difficult task. But also an immensely rewarding and gratifying one as the standard of work seems to increase with every new submissions window. Afterwards I will try to arrange the work into the best possible order, so that the pieces work well next to one another – whether that be harmoniously or jarringly – but I do not choose them in the first place for any thematic reasons, only for their quality.

I will also usually approach a few authors to contribute to each anthology but again this is simply from a desire to feature work which I admire rather than for any thematic concerns.

SMM: I’m curious how you decided on The Lonely Crowd as a name for the journal. I’ve thought of David Riesman’s 1950 book, The Lonely Crowd when I see it, but I doubt that’s your touchstone.

JL: Obviously Riesman’s is a book that I’m aware of but no, it wasn’t the inspiration. I wanted to reference Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice because I think it’s such an indispensable work about the short story, and one that I had referenced a great deal in my PhD thesis, which I had only recently finished at that time. Also, it wasn’t long after the Cork Short Story Festival 2014 – where you and I met – and O’Connor and the Irish short story tradition was much on my mind. So The Lonely Crowd as a title quite appealed to me as it seemed a little humorous too, as so many short story writers treat The Lonely Voice as something akin to a bible.

I should say, however, that the name also comes a little from my longstanding obsession with the band Suede. One of their lesser known b-sides, ‘God’s Gift’, contains the lyric ‘And we got lost in the lonely crowd’, and it was kind of stuck in my head at that time… so it suggested itself while I was thinking about O’Connor and The Lonely Voice.

SMM: How did you come to collaborate with Welsh author Jo Mazelis on the artwork for The Lonely Crowd?

JL: I’d commissioned a couple of pieces from Jo for Wales Arts Review – one of them was an essay that featured a photograph she’d taken of a black bin bag caught on a barbed wire fence somewhere in the Gower. It looked like a witch. Straight away I poured over all of the work on her photography website. Jo worked as a photographer and graphic designer for Spare Rib, City Limits and various magazines in London during the 80s and has a hoard of astonishing photos from that time. She takes wonderful photos now too – indeed the one on the front cover of this issue is a much more recent one – but until now I’ve chosen the older photos for the print issues, partly because I’m fascinated by that era but also because I just think they are photos that really need to be seen! Having Jo on board from the beginning was an amazing stroke of luck because it enabled me to create a unique visual identity for The Lonely Crowd right from the very beginning.

SMM: Let’s flashback a bit to the beginning— when did you first get the idea to found a literary journal?

JL: While I was completing my PhD at Trinity Saint David, I co-founded the Welsh online literary journal The Lampeter Review, which I was very dedicated to for three years. I was reading a lot of literary magazines at the time – especially the big ones like McSweeney’s, Granta and The Paris Review – but I also noticed that a lot of other universities either had literary magazines or anthologies (especially in the US) and I wondered if it would be possible to do something similar.

SMM: You’d discovered these cultural lodestars, and once you saw what could be done, it sparked you, confirmed your own ambition. Is there anything in the practical aspect, from the perspective of the hands on work, that affected how you approached The Lonely Crowd?

JL: Yes, very much so. The Lampeter Review gave me invaluable experience in learning how a literary magazine works, everything from submissions to proofing to social media. However, I suppose the thing that surprised and encouraged me the most was how easy The Lampeter Review was to do – at least in some ways. Almost all of the authors that I approached – who were often considerably acclaimed writers – gave us work for free. And this, I think, was because we had a strong aesthetic and because they admired our goals and ambitions. And so with The Lonely Crowd I wanted to try and take it all a step further. I wanted to be print and I wanted to be able to pay the authors this time (because no matter how seemingly small the amount that you pay is I still think that that’s an extremely important thing to do). And I wanted to also have a lot of online content in order to be a constant voice in the literary community. There’s a great deal of competition out there and so I don’t think it’s enough to just put a quality publication out two or three times a year anymore – I think you have to be consistently involved in the conversation, and hopefully in time, you sometimes instigate it too.

SMM: Right off then, at the heart of The Lonely Crowd it’s a quite serious intention. You’re aiming for a larger, an actually formative role, and a significant presence.

JL: Yes, without wanting to sound too crazily ambitious or highfaluting, I think it would be fair to say that I founded The Lonely Crowd out of a desire to energise the Welsh literary scene, in somewhat the same way as a magazine like The Stinging Fly has energised and enriched the Irish literary scene. I started work on The Lampeter Review in 2010 and then in 2012 I became involved with Wales Arts Review, becoming Fiction Editor the following year. What this means in practicality is that I’ve read a great deal of Welsh literature in the past six years, whether it be submissions from unknown authors, books from Welsh independent publishers, or by authors that have been picked up by major publishing houses. I think this has given me a very clear idea of what is to be admired but also what is lacking in the Welsh literary scene.

SMM: In that space you saw the opportunity for something fresh. Could you say more about the scene, especially what’s wanting?

JL: The Welsh literary scene is one that is increasingly characterised by ambition and high quality work; it is also a scene with a far stronger sense of identity than some critics from outside the country might suppose. However, when you compare it to the current scene in say, Ireland, then it could be said to be still reaching for those heights. The bar is high but it can be much higher still. And that is not so very surprising when you consider the sheer number of high quality literary journals that exist for new writers to publish in in Ireland, and how far back that culture goes. I think there’s just as strong a love for fiction and poetry in Wales as there is in Ireland – in fact it’s one of things that the two countries most have in common – but in Ireland it is given more central importance. I suppose it is a lot to do with Yeats, Joyce and Heaney and the way that they were somehow able to use the power of literature in extraordinary political and cultural ways that few have ever managed. But it is also down to the culture of literary journals over there – they are the lifeblood of new literature. The Lonely Crowd wants to be a literary journal like that, and it wants to help encourage a similar proliferation of high quality literary journals in Wales.

SMM: Is there a shared quality running through literary work that makes a good story? Do you have a personal sense, a philosophy if you will, of what fiction should do?

JL: I think the job of fiction, and poetry too for that matter, is to make us look again. It should nurture and re-charge our capacity for wonder. And it should promote our capacity for empathy – more than most things I can think of, literature helps us to understand what it is like to see the world through someone else’s eyes. And I think, of course, that this is hugely important, especially at the moment when everything in the news seems to tell us that it is impossible to see the world through somebody else’s eyes.

SMM: So, then, are you compelled by contemporary events?

JL: Perhaps not so much as an editor but as a writer I would say that yes, I most definitely am driven by contemporary events, even if not in a particularly overt way. I’m an enormous admirer of Paul Muldoon and I admire the way that he can mix events of universal significance with much more personal ones… he can give a sense of everything being linked in someway, even as he draws our attention to the fractured nature of our lives. It’s a hall of mirrors kind of effect but then it’s a hall of mirrors kind of world.

I don’t think that literature, even if it is literature set in a different period of history, can really exist if it is not concerned with contemporary events. I don’t think something is literature really, if it isn’t concerned with contemporary events. But I would say that I use my personal history much more as the palette with which to write my own work than I use universally contemporary events such as, for instance, those that are happening at the moment with the fallout from Brexit. And as a reader I tend to be more drawn towards work like this too. Writing which is about ordinary lives but which can take on a universal significance. If you write well about people then you should, by the very nature of what it is to write well, be able to explain something of the time in which you live.

SMM: With live streaming, emerging performative arts, and interactive media, you would argue the static page of fiction and poetry remain relevant today?

JL: Fiction and poetry are and will always be of great importance. I finished reading Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs recently, a novel that I was deeply moved and impressed by, both for it’s lyrical beauty and for it’s uncompromising journey into the darkest recesses of the human condition. I was somewhat amazed to read shortly afterwards that O’Brien was saying something to the effect that the novel is dead. After she had just written a book like that! When Will Self says something like that I can understand it to an extent because his books all suggest an inherent anxiety about the viability of their existence. It’s kind of an extension of his writing. But with Edna O’Brien, when her work at it’s very peak is equal to that of a painting by Van Gogh, when the quality of her writing alone will always ensure people read her books, then I’m confused as to why she would say that.

SMM: Is there anything about the times in which we live that contributes to your interest in publishing a journal of fiction and poetry rather than going into other media?

JL: Of course, it’s true that literature is not the primary medium anymore in terms of popularity and nor has it been for a long time. But it is still the most intellectually stimulating medium, in my opinion. It is still the closest you can come to understanding another person’s innermost thoughts about themselves and the world around them. It is easily the most intimate medium. As I said in reply to your earlier question, I think that more than most things I can think of, literature helps us to understand what it is like to see through someone else’s eyes. So I think that in times like these – and really aren’t times always like these? – we need literature and we need new literary journals like The Lonely Crowd within which to promote and house it.

SMM: There’s a complex activity of networking, promoting, raising awareness that demands a lot of a publisher. It goes well beyond reading submissions, and yet it’s that public and social dynamic that drives the quality of the work and its reception. You have to be willing to deal with marketing and lifting the journal above the noise.

JL: If you’re going to produce something that you really care about then I think you owe it to yourself to make it as successful as possible. And I think that means paying attention to all aspects of the venture, from the artwork and editing, to other more mundane things like promotion, something that no writer or editor really enjoys very much I wouldn’t think, but something that’s essential if you want people to actually read your publication.

See the The Lonely Crowd site tomorrow for part two.

maierSusan Maiermoul won the Sean O’ Faolain Prize in 2014. Her year long series Magnetic appears monthly on her website maiermoul.com where you can also find her 2014 visual project on New York. Her story in this issue is excerpted from a novel in progress, a reimagining of Andre Breton’s Nadja.

Copyright © Susan Maiermoul & John Lavin, 2016. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2016.