On Pindeldyboz: An Interview with Whitney Pastorek and Whitney Steen

Madera: Recently, I had decided that I wanted to start up a literary journal, one that would have both print and electronic content, and I reached out to two other writers who were enthusiastic about the project. It’s now on the backburner. The primary thing that stalled the project was our lack of agreement on a name. So how did you decide on the name Pindeldyboz?
Pastorek: The name was the brainchild of our founder, Jeff Boison, a former Random House employee. If I recall the legend correctly, he used to spend a lot of time trying to get the Random House dictionary editors to include one of his fake words, and “Pindeldyboz” was his favorite. I can only take credit for “Pboz,” our gang name. This is because I am very street, and also lazy.
Steen: I got involved with Pindeldyboz in late summer 2006, so the naming issue was not something I was directly concerned in. Whitney Pastorek did tell me once that the founding editors picked it because they couldn’t get the domain names for any of the other journal names they came up with. She may have been joking.

Madera: Talk about the history of your press’s history. How/when did you first conceive the idea to start publishing?
Pastorek: I do not remember the exact date, but it was a McSweeney’s reading at a famous bar in Williamsburg called Galapagos. Mr. Boison and I met for the first time in the hallway by the bathrooms—just out of earshot of the incessant smashing of tall pint glasses on the floor of the main room, just out of sight of the infinity pool—and he gave me his card, which I miraculously hung on to despite being extremely intoxicated at the time. We eventually had lunch at a famous coffee shop in the East Village called Veselka—at a table in the back, under those great black-and-white murals on the high walls—and at some point after that we started Pboz.

You can take what you want from the fact that I always remember details of bars and restaurants, but I rarely remember much of anything else.

Madera: Who/what are some of your inspirations? Publishers? Writers? Artists? Etc.?
Steen: It’s probably an overly romantic view, but I like to think of the current state of internet publishing as something akin to Greenwich Village in mid-century, when you had all these amazing literary talents gathered in one place and feeding off each other—now you don’t have to be geographically close, but there’s still that sense of “we should have a literary journal—let’s put one together!” Though it is true that Pindeldyboz was conceived in New York City, and a number of the editors have lived or still live here, so that may be why I sometimes feel like we’re feeding off the spirit of that era.

But on a more personal level, I’ve always admired anyone who has the desire to make something creative and just goes out and does it. I have friends who are musicians, writers, artists, cooks—they all inspire me to run with my creative impulses, not to fight them. (Also, I’m a touch competitive.)

Madera: How would you define your role as publisher/editor?
Pastorek: Part camp counselor, part administrator, part checkbook, mostly enthusiastic reader and encourager and lover of the words.
Steen: Editors for the web editions of Pindeldyboz basically guide a submission through to the publishing process, from the moment they pick up a story and decide to accept it.  We don’t do any committee meetings trying to reconcile everyone’s choices for an issue—the first editor to get to a given piece decides whether to accept or reject it. If accepted, they communicate with the author, make sure we get a bio, review any typos or format issues with the author, etc. So even though not all of our editors do the actual transfer into our publishing template, we’re all on equal footing in terms of which stories get selected. As Administrative Editor, I make sure we get issues up on a reasonably consistent schedule and try to keep things moving if we’re working on a theme issue or picking nominees to submit for the Million Writers prize or some other award, but I don’t get veto power (nor would I want it). It’s one of the purest editing positions I’ve ever held—just reading and evaluating, no politicking or bureaucracy.

Madera: How would you define your press’s aesthetic? mission?
Pastorek: All I ever wanted to do—I can’t really speak for anyone else on staff, though they certainly received marching orders from me when they began—was publish good writing that made me feel something.
Steen: The short, simplistic answer to that question—short literary fiction (and occasionally non-fiction) with some degree of originality in either story or execution—is pretty broad by design. Given our editorial structure, there’s also a lot of variation between editors. For the most part, we try to steer clear of broad pop-culture satire and overtly political allegories in favor of character-focused pieces that tell a story, however abbreviated, with a beginning, middle, and end. There are exceptions to every rule, though, which is why we don’t have many hard and fast ones.

Madera: What caught your eye when you picked up a manuscript?
Pastorek: Urgency. Authenticity. Creativity. Intelligence. Heart. Lack of simple grammatical mistakes.
Steen: A distinctive, confident voice right from the get-go. Which doesn’t mean that the story had to be from some crazy point of view or original situation, but that it was told in a way that separated it from other pieces that might have had similar subject matter or structure. Because as soon as my brain clicks into “I’ve read this before” mode, it’s pretty much over for a given piece.

Of course, I read no end of pieces that started promisingly and then fell apart at the end, either because they just stopped with no real resolution, or because things never developed enough to make the ending feel organic to the story. So just catching my eye is not a guarantee that I will end up accepting a piece.

Madera: Did you always have both electronic and print content?

Pastorek: Pretty much. We started and ended as a website, though.
Steen: The original intent was to do both a print and electronic journal, with the once a year print journal publishing longer pieces (and going through a more formal editorial process). We ended up publishing seven issues of the print journal, and one all poetry edition—issue 7, published in December 2007 was actually released as a free pdf on our website—you can still find it here.

Madera: What were some of the challenges that you faced with publishing in both formats?

Pastorek: Print costs real money.
Steen: I didn’t work on the print journal directly, but we shut it down primarily because of the costs and logistical difficulties of printing and distributing. In the web journal the biggest challenge was the short time frame between issues—at one point we were posting new issues biweekly, but that proved hard to sustain so we settled on more or less monthly—and processing the near constant flow of submissions. We cleared out the submissions inbox completely about two weeks ago; this is the first time in at least three years it’s been empty, and we had to shut down entirely to do it.

Madera: What are your thoughts about graphic design? printmaking?
Pastorek: I don’t have a lot of thoughts on either. Our website was and is designed by a good friend named Ben Balcomb, and happily, his aesthetic matched mine, which I would describe as “I do not like messy things.” Also a long long long time ago I used to make little pictures—sort of collage-type thingies—for the top of each story, which I thought somehow enhanced the reading experience. That was crazy time consuming. Then I handed the job off to Ben for a while, at which point he redesigned the site so he wouldn’t have to make pictures anymore. (Ben is crafty.)

But considering I never took a class in design or bookmaking or any such thing, the fact that I managed to design, lay out, and publish half a dozen books from my bedroom is kind of hilarious. Little known fact about Pboz: We were making it up as we went the whole time.

Steen: Pindeldyboz has been lucky to find people willing to help us with the graphic design of our website and also find some amazing artists to do the covers of our journals for the same volunteer rate that the editing staff worked for (that is, free).  I don’t think you have to have a super-interactive, Flash-heavy website to run a good web journal, but it does help to have someone who can give your journal a unique visual aesthetic to match its written content.

Madera: What are some highlights in your history as a press?
Pastorek: Probably the success we had getting our authors noticed by other people. I was so excited when a story by John Verbos ended up in the Best American Non-Required Reading back in 2004, and every year I watched the StorySouth Million Writers Award with baited breath to see how many of my babies made it. And I am so proud of every single one of our writers who grew up to write a real live book of their own—though I never flatter myself to think Pboz had anything to do with their transformations into Published Authors, it does make me smile to imagine in some little way, maybe we helped.Steen: In 2003 we were named the Best Online Publication by the Million Writers Award (then run out of StorySouth)—they’ve been extraordinarily appreciative of our authors, as we usually have a few stories in their Notable Stories list every year. We’ve also had stories which were selected for Best American Non-Required Reading and Best American Fantasy, as well as many other anthologies, and several of our authors have reprinted stories first run in Pindeldyboz in their own short story collections.

Madera: What were some of your favorite stories?
Steen: “Ethical Dilemma of a Sandwich Down the Pants” by Kelly Shriver, which made the Million Writers Top Ten Notable Stories in 2007; “Your Narrator and the Mermaid” by Darby Larson, because I have a weakness for both footnotes and surrealism; and “Employee Performance” by Sharon McGill, which was a graphic short story, but would have been a solid piece of writing even without the illustrations. Those three pieces are all quite different, but together they are an excellent representation of the literary-but-also-kind-of-unusual pieces we were looking for.

Madera: Who have you published and why?
Steen: We published anyone who sent us a piece we really liked and which (more or less) followed the submission guidelines.  In the first few years there was a lot of contribution from the editing staff and their friends, but once we were more firmly established it was a rule among the editors not to solicit stories, and not to read stories by people we knew personally. Though I will confess I once read (and rejected) a piece from a person in my writing group (he had only been in the writing group for one meeting and I didn’t recognize his last name). He forgave me, but it reinforced why we had that rule in the first place.

Madera: Whom would you have loved to publish?
Steen: There were a few times when we just missed out on some fabulous story, because it was a simultaneous submission and another journal got back to the author first. Those were always disappointing.

Madera: Talk about the commerce of publishing.
Pastorek: There’s commerce in publishing?
Steen: As I mentioned before, the print edition was shut down because it became difficult just to break even on the costs—even when no one actually got paid for editing or for having their work selected. The web edition has been operating at a loss its entire existence, because one of the founding editors was usually paying for the domain name registration and site hosting out of their own pocket. This is not really a venture you start to make money.

Madera: Do you write fiction/poetry/nonfiction yourself? Did this influence and inform your approach/aesthetic/mission?
Pastorek: Yeah, I was a pretend fiction writer when we started Pboz; in fact, the first piece on the website these days—after an early contributor asked that we remove his work—is one of mine. Now I’m a pretend journalist, a job I never would have stumbled into were it not for the friends/associates I made via Pindeldyboz and the NYC literary scene. I have no formal training in this field, either, and have spent the past six years waiting for someone to figure that out and send me back to managing the Gap where I belong.

It should also be mentioned that I never would have started writing at all if it weren’t for McSweeney’s. Like many of my generational peers (I’m almost 35), I found myself profoundly influenced by Dave Eggers and the vibrant literary community that he generated at the turn of this so far otherwise unfortunate century. Better yet, I was lucky enough to witness that community at extremely close range, and be inspired by its lunacy.

More than anything else, what Eggers et al. taught me is that there is no “right” way to write. There is just what you think, and how it sounds in your head, and the quest to represent those thoughts on paper in a way that might resonate with someone else. Pboz is pretty good proof that there’s no “right” way to run a lit mag, either. We just liked reading stories, and for some reason people sent them to us; and when we could, we tried to give the ones we liked a little boost into the world. I’m so proud of all we accomplished, but we never took ourselves seriously enough to have a “mission.” And without the brave men and women who submitted their work for our consideration, we wouldn’t have lasted through our first summer.
Steen: I write fiction—in my application to become a Pindeldyboz editor, I remember writing that after getting “no” on my own work so many times, I wanted to be the person saying “yes” for a change—and certainly my experience as a writer, and as a participant in writing workshops both in and out of school influenced my approach to editing. I can recognize when a writer is trying to take a shortcut in plot or character development, because I’ve done all those things myself. I would say, though that my opinion of what is a “good” story has expanded dramatically since I first started at Pindeldyboz (I used to have a terrible bias against flash fiction, until I read and accepted this story. Also, my own work has gotten stronger because I’ve become quicker and better at seeing weaknesses in the text.

Madera: Why did you decide to close the press down?
Pastorek: Because I’m tired of doing it, I can’t ask my amazing staff to keep doing this for free when my heart is barely in it, and we’re not going to get any better at doing it than we already are. So why not?
Steen: Various reasons. A lack of time, for one: since we’re volunteer run, most of the staff has paying and/or academic commitments that take precedence over this one, which means we get behind on submissions reading and start to lose great pieces to other publications. And on the other hand, we have too much time: ten years is ancient in Internet time, and just maintaining the status quo doesn’t cut it. There are so many great younger web journals out there; sometimes it’s best, as Whitney Pastorek said in her good-bye message, to just get out of the way and let the kids take over.

Madera: What’s next for you?
Pastorek: This has been my favorite question throughout this whole process. There’s no answer. Pboz was an amazing compliment to my life, but I never had the luxury to make it the central focus. I have a day job. I’ve always had a day job, and I most likely always will. So what’s next is basically just more of the same, but with less to do when I get home.

Maybe my biggest point of pride over the last 10 years, though, is that we—me, Jeff, and every single person who ever volunteered their time to us, especially the ones who did so without ever having met us in person—hornswaggled a whole lot of strangers into believing we were some sort of highly professional organization, with, like, resources and office space and letterhead or something. Like I said before, it’s hilarious. So here’s my biggest advice to aspiring publishers: You don’t need any of that formal junk. You just need a work ethic, a little faith, some good friends, and a credit card. Everything else you can make up as you go along.
Steen: Personally, I’m going to spend some time focusing on my own fiction: I’ve been playing with a novel idea for a few months now, and I have several short stories that need that last thorough editing before they get sent out to journals. At Pindeldyboz, we’re pulling together an Editor’s Picks issue which will include good-byes from several of our former and current editors, and the remaining back issues of the print edition have been sent over to Mud Luscious Press, thanks to J.A. Tyler, who edits both for us and Mud Luscious.

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4 thoughts on “On Pindeldyboz: An Interview with Whitney Pastorek and Whitney Steen

  1. This was interesting to me:

    “It should also be mentioned that I never would have started writing at all if it weren’t for McSweeney’s. Like many of my generational peers (I’m almost 35), I found myself profoundly influenced by Dave Eggers and the vibrant literary community that he generated at the turn of this so far otherwise unfortunate century. Better yet, I was lucky enough to witness that community at extremely close range, and be inspired by its lunacy.”

    …esp after reading Elizabeth Ellen’s “Stalking Dave Eggers” piece in Bookslut. Is it fair to say the whole McSweeney’s phenomenon played a vital role in catalyzing some of what’s become our internet/indie lit community/communities?

  2. Pingback: Another one bites the dust, I think « Exile on Ninth Street

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