The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Worst Interviewer in the World

By Andrew Tibbetts

About a year ago I interviewed Kim Jernigan, the editor of the New Quarterly, one of Canada’s most notable literary journals. In the heady rush of setting up the Canadian Writers Collective, one of the things we envisioned was regular interviews of the movers and the shakers in the CanLit industry. (Hey, just ‘cause an industry’s small, doesn’t mean it isn’t one! Doesn’t mean it doesn’t get moved or shaken!) Ex-CWC-er, Denis Tailleffer (kind of like being ex-gay and found in a gay bar, Denis can be spotted around these parts guesting and commenting from time to time) did a super interview of book store owners/managers- an indie one and a big-box one. I volunteered myself to interview an editor. Aspiring writers envision editors as pitbulls, or perhaps some monstrous half-pit-bull-half-bitter-divorcee. We imagine them sitting in their fashionable offices sipping martinis tossing manuscripts (unread) into solid gold diamond encrusted shredders, chuckling the whole time. I picked Kim because I suspected she wasn’t like that- the rumours were that she was ‘nice’. Oh yes! A nice editor. I’d seen her once in public interacting with writers- interacting with them as if they were actual human beings- whose company she enjoyed. Weird, eh? I thought she’d be a good start to my interviewing career.

It was a summery day at the University of Waterloo campus. Nervous, I got there insanely early. I looked around for a square of grass that wasn’t covered in Canada Goose manure, practically impossible along the creek that runs through the campus. I leaned against a tree with my knees against my chest in the only spot I could see. Our national bird is disgusting. It produces tons of green-grey slime and smears it everywhere. It’s also not friendly. Friendly polite Canada should have a friendly polite bird. I thought about this for an hour and then I brushed off the spiders and went in to see Kim.

She was in a tiny office that she shared with an intern. There was nothing golden or jewel encrusted. Nothing luxurious. In fact, it kind of sucked. She took me out to the cafeteria to chat. She paid for my coffee. With change from a change purse, not with a platinum master card.

I turned on my little tape recorder and we chatted about the New Quarterly, Canadian writing, what editors talk about when they get together, the finances of literary journal production (I learned Kim didn’t actually receive a salary. That’s right, she and many other Canadian Literary Journal editors are volunteers! I don’t think she noticed my jaw dusting the floor) and the joys and sorrows of being an aspiring/emerging writer. I remember her saying some very smart things. However, my tape recording is inaudible.

So, over a year later- (It wasn’t two summers ago was it? No, just the one- I think) I’m still thinking, “One of these days, I should try to put my notes and that buzzy hissy tape recording together sometime and write that damn thing up.”

Never hire me to conduct an interview.

I do remember our one point of disagreement. She said she admired a short story that had the courage to be quiet. I thought all Canadian short stories were quiet! I was eager to admire a Canadian short story with explosions and zombies. I was wishing movies would get quieter, but fiction get noisier. She asked me what I’d like to see in the New Quarterly and I don’t think she registered that I said “Pirates.” Also, I remember she asked me something about the story of mine they published. Wasn’t that super nice! When I asked her, on behalf of all my fellow writers aiming to get published, “What are you looking for in a short story?” (Again, never hire me to conduct an interview.) She said, “If I knew that, I’d write it myself.” I think she was quoting someone, but I was sucked up into a vortex of self-recrimination (oh what a dumbass question that was Tibbetts every editor gets asked that every day at least twice can’t you think of something intelligent to ask you utter bonehead) so I didn’t quite catch it. And of course the tape is inaudible.

But there are some things I can confirm for a fact: Kim Jernigan IS nice. She loves fiction. She works hard for very little in the way of tangible reward. She admires the staff/volunteers who work with her at TNQ and the writers who submit their work. She didn’t say anything mean about anyone, even when I begged (Come on! Which of the other editors bugs you? Those Descant people, they suck, right? Mark Anthony Jarman, he must smell. A little? Come on! Isn’t there a writer who keeps sending you stories and you just vomit when you see their return address on the corner of a bulky envelope in your in-box? It’s Pasha Malla, isn’t it? Come on!) I honestly don’t think she was being coy. That’s just not the way she thinks. She’s a little other-worldly actually. Cate Blanchettish. Maybe you have to be, to volunteer to man a slush pile and wrestle a journal to the ground four times a year. Or maybe she was just slightly faint because she can’t afford to eat.

Kim, I apologize for doing such a lame interview and taking so long to do it, too. If it’s any consolation I will never inflict my interviewing self on anyone again. (Unless the CWC gets me the staff they promised or a solid gold diamond encrusted tape recorder!)

Read The New Quarterly!


Blogger Denis Taillefer said...

Ha! I've heard too that many (if not most?) editors and other Canadian literary magazine staff work on a volunteer basis. I find that incredibly admirable and am a little envious of the Kims, out there.

Maybe next time I could assist you as the recorder guy. Mine still works fine! (once gay, always gay) Great post, Andrew.

Mon Aug 13, 05:23:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

Oh, man! This is too funny! You call this an interview? Whatsa matter with you, Tibbetts?!? But you know what's got me laughing the most, the fact that you pulled it off! I'm actually getting a good, clear sense of what Ms Jernigan is all about. Good job... I think. Too funny. For your next interview, pick someone you just know will be full of themselves, and then tell it like it is.

"Our national bird is disgusting."

Too funny!

Mon Aug 13, 05:30:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

We're working on the staff, but the purse strings are tight around here!

Mon Aug 13, 07:32:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Kim is wonderful to work with and very supportive of "her" writers. I'm glad you got the opportunity to chat with her. I never realized she volunteered! What dedication.

Tue Aug 14, 12:44:00 am GMT-4  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I cried, I laughed. Okay, I didn't really cry, but I teared up at the thought of an unpaid editor wading through a field of green goose poo on her way to a shabby office and piles of slush. A true Canadian hero!


Wed Aug 15, 11:34:00 am GMT-4  

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