Interview with Zetetic, edited by George Wells

Hello, George! First, thank you for doing this interview. I know you’re busy. You act as Managing Editor for Zetetic, which is under the larger Empire & Great Jones Creative Arts Foundation umbrella. How did Zetetic, and your position, come about?

I’ve been working at Empire and Great Jones for a couple of years now, and Brian Lewis brought up the idea of an online magazine well over a year ago.  We had actually discussed taking over another online we were fond of that had recently gone defunct, but couldn’t make the arrangements and let that go.  Brian and I kept discussing it and had different ideas for what it would be.  Then, Spark went on hiatus in December, 2014 to deal with the huge backlog of submissions and we were reading all day. As you might imagine, there’s a lot in the slush pile that simply isn’t going to work for the publication, but we kept coming across stuff that we loved anyway.  From there, we started to revisit the idea of the online magazine as a way to find these pieces a home. As we developed the idea, I grew into the position out of necessity.  Brian doesn’t have the time to fully oversee another project, and we agree on the vision, so it made sense to put me in charge of the day-to-day and meet when needed to keep tabs on its change and growth.

The guidelines on the Zetetic website are, understandably, very similar to those found at Spark or Ember, though you clearly have a different aesthetic. What are some qualities you look for in a piece that set it apart from those considered by your sister publications?

Well, it still has to be a story, so there’s that, but it needs something in the language that sets it apart.  For poetry, there might be less of a difference, since poets tend to play with language anyway, but for prose, it might be that the format of it is unusual; it’s fragmented, it’s twisted, it’s torn, it’s playful…I don’t know.  I keep falling back on the Potter Stewart definition: I know it when I see it.

However, there are pieces in Zetetic that would fit well in Spark or Ember, and there are pieces that are far from their style, so we might get a bit out there, but we’re still happily tethered to Spark.

As a matter of fact, we have reprinted two pieces that originally appeared in Spark and one that will in the near future and we’re considering the possibility of accepting a piece that also might fit in Ember.

You are a paying publication that accepts simultaneous submissions, as are your sister publications. This is a relatively rare practice. Can you offer some insight into this decision? 

This is by far the easiest question to answer: Why punch holes in our own lifeboat? We’re writers, and it’s frustrating to want to get your work out there only to find that a market insists that you submit only to them and wait for a response before attempting elsewhere.  We don’t want to contribute to that frustration, so we ask that writers simply tell us if their submission is accepted elsewhere, and they comply for the most part.  Even when they don’t, it’s usually because it slipped their mind.

Speaking of pay, Zetetic has a rather unique addition to its contracted payments to authors. I’m talking about the donation system available on every piece published. This gets overlooked a lot. Can you elaborate on its importance, not just to Zetetic, but to its authors?

Yeah, it’s like a tip jar for the writer.  We don’t make money off it, but we hope that our writers can. If readers really enjoy a piece, they can make a micropayment that we then forward to the writer. Since the site itself is free, I really do encourage readers to do that, as the writers who have received them are tickled by the detail.  And although we do pay our writers, every little extra counts.

You use beautiful Public Domain artwork to accompany your publications. What drove this decision, and how do you decide what each month’s theme will be artistically?

When we were still in the planning stages, I had intended to use images from a book on Zetetic Astronomy—Flat Earth theory—but Brian wanted me to branch out, as there wasn’t enough variation in those images to carry us very long.  I started looking for public domain art based on the titles I had for the first month, but quickly realized that it would be too much work to find something for every piece.  I finally came across and found such amazing pictures in the books stored there, and the whole thing really fits so well with Zetetic.  These old works are mostly forgotten, and putting them in a new context is, for me, a great metaphor for the Internet. Everything seems to be struggling between ephemeral and eternal. We’re hoping for the latter.  I especially like it when the images were never meant to be art, although I’m not adverse to using images that were if they work on the page.

At the beginning, I didn’t really have a theme in mind. I starting moving toward that after about six months, and going forward, I do want to tie the overall artwork to the theme of the month.  As for each image selected for a piece, I still keep that random. Any connection between the image and the writing is usually accidental.

The Zetetic website mentions it is not a venue that pursues work that sacrifices storytelling for risk-taking. As a market actively seeking the “unusual”, where and how do you draw the line?

I’ll get the first big ones off the table right up front: No writing about writing, so meta-fiction and ars poetica are out.  No fan-fiction.  Nothing too violent or sexual or full of swearing. Don’t even send us that.  It’s in the guidelines and we warn submitters about that, so anything that crosses those lines gets declined without even making it to the readers.

The rest is open, though.  One thing we always consider is “Do I know what this is about?” I have declined pieces with writing that I loved, because if I can’t answer that question after a read or two, I can’t ask our readers to.  The story or poem still has to be generally accessible, or Zetetic becomes a magazine written only for writers.

As an editor, you are in a unique position to see trends in writing. Does anything you’ve encountered worry or excite you?

I’ve been lucky to see a lot fewer vampire stories than when I started reading, so I guess that trend is finally dying down.  I’ve personally never liked the traditional monsters—they mostly come off as fan-fiction to me—and we’re seeing a bit more creativity in that area.  We just published a lovely little monster story, “The Shriveled Boy”, in December, and stories like that are far more interesting than a vampire, werewolf, zombie, etc.  It comes from a fresher perspective and is ultimately more human.

We do get a lot of submissions from writers who are new to sending their work out, which is great and should be encouraged, but I’m concerned that they’re not getting any help.  It’s obvious that many haven’t seriously worked on the craft and believe that honesty in writing is going to get them attention.  Don’t get me wrong—honesty is a wonderful think and I salute such daring, and I don’t think a degree is necessary to be a writer.  However, writers should at least spend some time in workshops or otherwise seeking constructive feedback to find what works and what doesn’t. Friends and family don’t count.

You clearly read for pleasure and interests beyond your position at Zetetic. Who are some important voices or venues we should be reading right now?

I should have a great answer for this that supports my colleagues in the editing business, but I’m going to disappoint you here. Most of my recent reading—outside the slush pile—has been work based.  In addition to tons of articles on ESL and Distance Learning and engineering concepts I barely understand, I’m reading Brave New World and The Old Man and the Sea so that I can discuss them with students who name them as their favorites.

I do pop in and out of a few. freeze frame fiction is one, because the editor, Dino Laserbeam, is a friend and former co-worker here at Empire & Great Jones, and also because their ethos is in line with ours.  I keep an eye on Pidgeonholes because I like what you do and you’re one of the markets I aim at as a writer, so there’s that. I’m also trying to dedicate more time to checking out the magazines I encounter via our Twitter cross-promotions.

My personal favorites in terms of well-known authors in recent years would have to be Annie Proulx and Louis de Bernières, but I have a to-read list that I started back in high-school and college, so I still have a lot of Faulkner to get through.

Ultimately, I think everybody should be reading Zetetic.  Every author and poet we’ve published is somebody to keep an eye on, in my opinion.

What is your favorite word or phrase in any language, and why?

In English: Fuck.  In Spanish: Chingar.  For the same reason.  They’re powerful words, flexible, and often funny.  You can do so much with them. Unfortunately, I can’t use either in Zetetic or in my day job.