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Knee-Jerk Reaction: Local Writers Discuss Their Literary Magazine

By Laura Pearson | Wednesday, September 15, 2010

(l?r) Steve Tartaglione, Casey Bye, and Jon Fullmer, creators of Knee-Jerk. Photo by Laura Pearson.

It goes without saying, but there’s a lot to look at on the Internet: email, Center Square Journal(!), YouTube, those almost irritatingly beautiful photos some friend of a friend posted on Facebook of her Balinese vacation.

With a dizzying array of sites to see, why bookmark yet another one? Because Knee-Jerk, a quality online literary magazine, deserves your attention (and a space in your Google Reader/on your bookmarks bar).

Created by three local writers who met in the MFA writing program at Columbia Collegen – Casey Bye, Jon Fullmer, and Steve Tartaglione – the monthly web magazine features stories, interviews, excerpts, and reviews of things (e.g., “Review of The Power Team,” “Review of My Mother’s Abs,” and “Review of My Pregnancy at Seven Months,”).* In describing the Knee-Jerk aesthetic, the three founders suggest “a dinner table filled with friends and family. We’re all sharing ideas, stories, laughter, and a whole lot of corn dogs.” Knee-Jerk spotlights a diverse array of writing from both emerging and established talent, with an emphasis on the experimental and the humorous. It has proven itself to be a consistently interesting destination – maybe more exciting than that friend of a friend’s trip to Bali. At least as pleasantly diverting.

Last month, the magazine celebrated its one-year anniversary with a reading at Lincoln Square’ s Fill in the Blank Gallery, and this fall, the editors will launch their first-ever print issue. Center Square Journal sat down with Casey, Jon, and Steve to ask them about the origins of the magazine (it had to do with a Snickers ice cream bar) and how it has evolved.

So Knee-Jerk started out as a grad school project? Was that the impetus?

Casey: We’d actually been talking about it for about a year before that. I took a small press class at Columbia to get some info. on how to run this [kind of publication].

Jon: We all had a desire to do something creative. Personally, I’d always wanted to do a magazine, and in talking about it over beers, we all got excited about the prospect. It wasn’t something we had to do for school, but we definitely took advantage of being in school to get Knee-Jerk going.

Did you begin with the decision to make it a monthly magazine or did that idea evolve?

Jon: In the process of planning, we decided to go monthly. It seemed feasible enough, especially for online. I mean, what’s the point of having an online publication that’s only updated every quarter or something?

How did you decide what kind of content to include?

Casey: We started talking about people we’d want to see stories from, and then that started opening it up to “What if we don’t just get straight fiction? Let’s have nonfiction. Let’s have interviews with people from different backgrounds…”

Jon: An initial idea that we had, that in some ways fell through (though it’s still something we emphasize), was to focus on the merging of the arts? We had some lofty ideas that seemed to make sense at the time, but when we launched we kind of had to pare it down to the bare essentials.

Steve: We’re getting back to that merging of the arts with our print issue.

You have a flexible approach to what types of content you publish, but was there ever a point where you thought, ‘We need to have a narrower angle for this literary journal’?

Steve: We were batting around doing themes for a while, but that idea didn’t really take.

Jon: I think the big thing early on is that we wanted content to be – and this is a vague term and cliche, too – but we wanted to be somewhat experimental. To us, this meant opening the door to more stuff. We didn’t want [potential contributors] to feel limited by anything. But we were also trying to emphasize humor pieces, just to keep it lively and fresh.

Steve: Why sit at a computer and read like, a 6,000-word story about divorce? [Laughs] Though surprisingly, we still get a lot of that. Sometimes we’ll come across something that isn’t exactly a “Knee-Jerk story,” but we’ll publish it because it’s damn good. We’d be dumb to pass it up.

So tell me more about the print version. Is it archival? Does it feature the best of the website? Is there new stuff, too?

Jon: That was the original idea: If we couldn’t get enough new submissions, we’d turn to our favorite stuff from the web. Honestly, we thought we’d have a harder time getting quality, [original] content than we have. We’ve actually been surprised at how quickly the magazine has evolved and how happy we’ve been with it.

The men of Knee-Jerk look up to one another. Photo by Laura Pearson.

Is it a similar mix as the website, content-wise?

Jon: Yeah, we’re doing all the same stuff that we do online, with the addition of artwork and comic strips.

How are you funding the print issue?

Steve: Jon and I are selling Casey’s car.

Casey: WHAT? [Jon and Steve laugh.]

Jon: We got one big grant from the Portfolio Center at Columbia – the Weisman Award. We were just recently invited to do a Kickstarter campaign, so we’re going to try that, and also just from sales.

What has been one of the more surprising elements of publishing Knee-Jerk?

Jon: One thing I didn’t expect, not to this degree, was that we take the most joy out of getting involved with the stories and interacting with the writers. And not just saying ‘Thanks for the piece,’ and then taking it, but working with them to make it better.

Steve: Our first order of business as a magazine was to have a couple beers, eat a Snickers ice cream bar, and email George Saunders at 2 in the morning and ask him for a story or interview if he had the time. Just the fact that he emailed back within a half hour, even though he said no?we were like, ‘We’re really gonna do this!’

(*Full disclosure: I’ve published a couple pieces in Knee-Jerk. You should too.)

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