Jesse Pearson is making a magazine on his own terms. The Manhattan-based writer and former VICE editor is currently working on the second issue of Apology, the literary and arts quarterly he founded, edits, art directs and markets almost entirely by himself. And though he resists prods to take shots at his former employer, Pearson acknowledges the motivations for creating Apology are partly in response to the media's growing investment in irony and indifference. A labor of love with simple aims to give people something beautiful, valuable and worth their time, Apology is a reminder of the subtle pleasures print can deliver.
Pearson took time from his hectic schedule to talk to me about the new magazine, the state of print, daring to be pretentious and how his cat helped him find the light of veggies. — Angelo
Starting simply, aside from Apology, are there any magazines you're particularly digging lately?
My most satisfying magazine reading is archival. As I mention in my Editor's Notes in the first issue of Apology, I've been really into the classic New American Review (later known as American Review) these days. It was a paperback-sized magazine of fiction, poems, and essays. Really smart, great stuff. It was published from 1967 until 1977.
Similarly, what's your most played album of late?
Lately I've been in one of my big Grateful Dead periods. These have come over me a couple of times a year since I first got hooked on the Dead, via my mom and stepdad, when I was seven years old or so. This week, I've been listening a lot to a Dead show from May 8th, 1977. It happened in Ithaca, New York and it is, as they say, a heavy one. Other than that, I have been just pretty much leveled—every day since it came out—by the new My Bloody Valentine. It's perfect.
Every artist interview asks the inspiration question, so let's flip it, what are some things that don't inspire your work?
The dominant culture to be found on the Internet is the opposite of inspiring to me.
In a New York Times interview you mentioned Apology addresses some of the things you see as problematic with the magazine industry. Could you elaborate on some of those problematic things?
I'm trying to talk less shit lately. Sorry. As the maker of a small magazine, I need all the friends I can get.
Every once in awhile the mainstream media does a piece on the print resurgence, but high-end, niche print has been strong for a decade in a variety of genres. Why do you think that is? I'm broke and buy $20 magazines. Am I an idiot or a valuable patron of the arts?
What you are is a saint. But the story (which, I agree, keeps getting told) that print is dead is not true. Print is evolving, that's all.
Though, while niche fashion, music, etc. mags have done well, literary journals are still kind of out there in their own world. Did you intentionally want to bring a stronger literary element to a more mainstream audience? (not that Apology is mainstream, per se, but here it will be available at Urban Outfitters, so will be seen by more than just magazine nerds.)
I wouldn't necessarily say I'm aiming for a mainstream audience, but maybe more for a… slipstream audience? I don't know. But I absolutely want to make short fiction and also poetry accessible to a different readership than the ones to which those things are usually targeted. For me, that doesn't involve dumbing anything down. It's more about saying, "Look how rewarding this stuff is to read. It can provide you with elation, thrills, laughs, and sobs. Don't let weird ideas of audience demographics keep you away from it."
Making magazines is an all encompassing art form, second only maybe to filmmaking, in that you're writing, editing, art directing, designing, marketing. Do you do everything? Are there elements of the process you enjoy more than others?
I do all of the above except for designing. A patient genius named Stacy Wakefield does that for Apology. And I enjoy the whole process, but maybe the best parts are the very beginning (meeting a writer and deciding on a story with them, for example) and the end (doing the final touch-ups on an issue before it goes to press).
You describe Apology as "a general interest magazine for people whose general interests aren't general. It's a sophisticated alternative to sophomoric magazines; it's a sophomoric alternative to sophisticated magazines." — It seems like you're wrestling with a challenge faced by a lot of high-end publications: making something artful, valuable and (relatively) expensive but trying to be self aware, not pretentious. Is finding that balance something you've thought about?
Actually, I am fully embracing pretentiousness now. I think it's almost like a radical act at this point because culturally we're mired in a lot of irony, cynicism, and fear of vulnerability. All that stuff is dark and sad. So I'm actively trying to fight it. Go ahead and be pretentious, take that kind of risk, maybe even get embarrassed. You'll be stronger for it—and you'll learn things. Part of why Apology is called Apology is because it's me saying that I am sorry for having been one of the many architects of the reign of nihilism that sprung up in the early-mid 2000's.
While creating Grantland (different arena definitely, but cultural force nonetheless) Bill Simmons talked wanting to be the place young writers aspired to write, like The National was to him. I think VICE is that publication for a lot of writers my age, but there are only so many versions "We Took Acid and Went to ______" to be written. Do you feel an obligation, or a desire, to be an aspirational publication?
I love to see people wanting to be published in Apology. I'm already getting a lot of blind submissions and requests-for-guidelines, so I guess it's happening. That's great. It's heartening.
Advertising is the necessary evil of making magazines (or maybe you feel differently, they're a valuable partner?) Apology has some high end advertisers. What does that say about the magazine's audience, or what those advertisers perceive to be the audience?
Advertisers are not a necessary evil. They're just a fact of magazine life. I can't afford to do this thing myself, and I'm not interested in grants. As for high-end ad clients, yeah, there are a couple in the first issue. There are also ads from small record labels. No matter who they are, if a company wants to advertise in Apology, I take it as them saying that they see value in the magazine's mission. So I'm just grateful for that.
You wrote on the Apology website about being conflicted over social media. It's a boringly hot topic, but one that everyone in media has to deal with. It's an incredibly easy way to get in front of people, but an inherently vapid and egotistic method. Have you given any more thought to the subject, or leaned nearer toward the pro or con, since writing about that conflict?
I feel like starting an Apology Instagram or Twitter account would be like trying to force my infant child (if I had one) or my cat to tweet. Something that is dependent on me, that I pour a lot of love into, and that is incapable of living without me doesn't need to be explicitly involved in social media. I, on the other hand, have a personal Twitter and an Instagram, and I post Apology stuff on both of those when the time is right—in addition to the usual idiotic jokes and observations.
Tell me about your cats?
Thank you for asking. I have two cats—Pickles and Schweppes. I love them both, but my bond with Pickles is just ridiculously deep. I'm pretty sure he's the reincarnation of somebody I knew in a past life. Sorry, I know that's crazy. But I totally, 100 percent mean it. Also worth noting: Pickles turned me into a vegetarian eight months or so ago. I was reading in bed and he jumped up on my chest and just stared at me like he was saying, "Dude. We have to talk." And I had a fully revelatory, Road-to-Damascus moment where I thought, "Wait, Picks, you're an animal and I love you like crazy. Why am I eating other animals?" And then he moved over and lay down. It was like he was saying, "Finally. Thank you." So I haven't had any meat except for a little seafood since that moment, and I'm trying hard to cut that out too. You probably think I'm a huge freak now. Oh, and I quit Facebook right around the same time I quit meat. That was an equally great decision.
There are two pieces, I think, in the first issue that are in some way about the 1980s. In my lifetime the 80s have mostly been portrayed as a kind of novelty of neon and spandex. Are we far enough away now that the decade can be explored more seriously?
In 1980 I was five and in 1989 I was 14, so those were pretty formative years for me. It was a complicated, super weird decade. At 10 years old, I was more scared of nuclear war and AIDS than I was of, I don't know, monsters or bullies. But it was also a decade of crazily amazing art and music—probably much of it in response to fear and anger. There are a thousand examples, but just off the top of my head, let's say, hmm... Black Flag and David Wojnarowicz. Anyway, yeah, summing up a decade like that with just "neon and spandex" would be goofy. And, besides all that, I like neon and spandex.
With the cycles of nostalgia getting shorter and shorter along with our attention spans, how can we write about eras in a timeless manner? In a way that's not just "hey, remember this?" but that is important even to those who didn't experience it?
Yeah, I've noticed this compression of the cycle too. It's weird to me to see some of the younger artists that I like being so obsessed with the '90s. As for writing in a timeless manner? If the story has good characters, emotional resonance, and a point, then it'll turn out fine.
Anything else you'd like people to know about Apology?
Issue two is coming in June. I'm working on it now. It will have some really strange surprises in it. The website goes into 2.0 mode in mid-March. It will feature original pieces that will be published according to a relaxed schedule. Think weekly and monthly, not daily.