Behind the Scenes: The Canary Press
Melbourne-based short story magazine The Canary Press believes that literature should be fun. Its latest issue is a genre fiction special, featuring weird and wonderful worlds dreamed up by new writers alongside work by established names like J.G. Ballard and Stanislaw Lem, all accompanied by fantastic illustrations.
Co-founder and editor Robert Skinner tells us about his mission to reclaim genre fiction, and what it’s like to run a magazine from a shed.
The Canary Press identifies itself as a ‘story magazine’. Are you shying away from using the term ‘literary’?
Yeah, we are a little. We want to do a lot of things. We want to move and challenge people with short stories, but above all we want to entertain them. I think that’s something you don’t get from a lot of self-described literary magazines. You hear them talking about how important the thing is that they’re doing but not about how enjoyable it can be from the reader’s side of the fence.
Your sixth issue focuses on genre fiction, which is sometimes thought of as entertainment writing rather than being particularly serious.
When you mention short stories you see people’s eyes glaze over and they’re like, “Wait, what? Those things where people sort of sit around and nothing happens and then someone picks up a jam jar at the end and everyone gasps (except for me, because I don’t know what the fuck just happened)?” Our goal was to reach much beyond that. And besides, some of our favourite writers make genre fiction! Raymond Chandler is my soul food.
I guess it relates to this dichotomy that we’ve set up between entertainment on the one hand and then meaningful or literary fiction on the other. I really don’t think there’s a difference between genre fiction or realism in terms of what it does. People can write about the day-to-day or about a busload of monkeys who can do magic, and either it resonates or it doesn’t. The tools that writers use aren’t really the important thing.
And has it resonated with readers? Have you had any particularly memorable feedback?
Yeah! One of the things we’re really proud of is that it’s being read by a lot of people who have never read short stories or literary magazines before. I think that’s the thing were proudest of: making readers of people.
You have big name authors such as J.G. Ballard alongside lesser-known contributors. How do you manage the balance?
Very occasionally we have people say things like, “I can’t believe you guys are reprinting a story. That’s a space that could have been used by a new Australian writer.” I think that’s interesting because it reveals a lot about how people perceive literary magazines, and demonstrates what we’re trying to do differently.
We want to be a magazine for readers. We want readers to come to stories by emerging writers in the same way they’d come to a J.G. Ballard or an Annie Proulx story: with the same level of expectation and excitement. Publishing them side-by-side is one way of doing that. We could put out a magazine of just young, emerging Australian writers but who would buy it? Probably just the writers’ parents.
How did you come to start the magazine?
I originally set it up with a friend of mine called Andy [Josselyn] who flew over from America to come here to Melbourne. We were just a couple of jokers – I mean we were really nobodies – but we cared a lot about short stories.
So how do you find writers and illustrators?
I don’t actually know. I mean for the first four issues we knew absolutely no one. We just wrote semi-charming emails to people who we really, really liked. And it helps if you only contact people who you really, really like because it makes it easier to write the emails.
The response has been incredible. We’ve had some of our heroes writing for the magazine. And on the basis of what? You get an email from some dude in Australia sleeping in a shed, saying, “Hey! You should write for my magazine.” And then they do.
Speaking of sheds: the editor’s letter in Issue six paints a brilliant image of penniless editors working in a ramshackle office. How close is that to the truth?
Uncomfortably close. All the editors and designers are working for free for one or two days a week, and I’ve managed to work on it full-time by being pretty much homeless until about a month ago. In Australia the government funds almost all literary magazines but we’ve been running purely on cover sales, which is a rare and wonderful thing (even though it leaves you below the poverty line).
Do you think there’s a particular type of optimism that keeps you going from issue to issue?
There’s a certain type of something. At the start we were just running on ignorance because we had no idea how hard or how improbable it would be. When you get into publishing you think it’s gonna be all cocaine and blowjobs and then the next thing you know, you’re sleeping in a swag at the Cricket Club. I still just have this lovely sort of deep down feeling that most things will work out, though.
Want more Australian publishing? Check our interview with Dumbo Feather editor Berry Liberman
Photo: Andrea Hauksdottir