"The idea is to present difficult work in a way that doesn’t put off the reader, and to engage with culture that’s often considered garbage with intelligence and respect. The emphasis on humor is key."
December 15th, 2010

Andrew Leland Magazine Editor

For the past eight years, Andrew Leland has been Managing Editor of The Believer, flagship literary magazine of San Francisco-based independent publishing juggernaut McSweeney's. In December, after seventy-five issues with the publication, he will hand over the Managing Editorial reins to his successor. But before he moves on, Andrew was kind enough to talk with us about what the Managing Editor at The Believer does on a day-to-day basis, and some of the ways in which the magazine operates that help to make it the singular publication for stylish book nerds the world over.

You’re basically the only Believer employee in the magazine’s San Francisco office. The other editors are not in-house. Can you describe that dynamic, and how it affects your role as Managing Editor?

I was the only full-time paid employee solely dedicated to the magazine. There are lots of people on staff at McSweeney’s who work on The Believer, and various far-flung editors both in SF and elsewhere — mostly NYC — but they all have other jobs. The Managing Editor is the only person whose full-time job is to make sure the magazine comes out. The main outcome of this arrangement is the lack of editorial meetings. Nearly everything gets decided over email.

So The Believer is basically a body, and you are its brain. The editors are the heart, lungs, kidneys, whatever, none of which would work, of course, without you — Brain — telling them to work, and in conjunction with one another.

I see your point about the brain giving instructions to the other parts of the body, but I have to say, with the size of those other editors’ brains, and their level of experience, it’s pretty tough for me to think of myself that way. I feel more like the body’s conscience. Its lymph, maybe.

And you’ve been with The Believer almost from the beginning. What was the original vision for the magazine? It’s become this sort of vanguard publication for an entire set of aesthetic notions — literary, design, and cultural — and I’m curious if that was part of the plan from the onset.

I came on with the second issue of the magazine, and the 76th — Dec./Jan. 2010 — was my last. When I arrived at the San Francisco airport after dropping out of college to take the job, in 2003, my new coworker and friend Dave Kneebone picked me up with an advance copy of the first issue. The design and format of that issue would serve as the magazine’s template for all subsequent issues. So, in many ways, the magazine hasn’t changed. And that’s a good thing. Charles Burns still illustrates every cover. The magazine still features three to four essays and three to four interviews in every issue, all of which are informed by an omnivorous, irreverent curiosity. We added columnists, including Nick Hornby, Greil Marcus, and Amy Sedaris. And after Sedaris left, she was supplanted by a rotating cast of the finest comedians. We added a section of one-page book reviews, to expand our coverage of overlooked new, mostly small-press, fiction. We started taking ads, but only non-ugly ones from non-heinous companies. Now every issue has a spread of comics, edited by Alvin Buenaventura. Despite the lack of a real budget for it, we’ve tried to expand the amount of journalism in the magazine.

So let’s talk about the tone of The Believer, which is subtle but incredibly specific. Literary, but almost self-deprecating. Where the low-brow canoodles with the high. What role did you have in actively cultivating this? Was it a collective decision between the editors? Is it something which has evolved over time?

The idea is to present difficult work in a way that doesn’t put off the reader, and to engage with culture that’s often considered garbage with intelligence and respect. The emphasis on humor is key. For all of its omnivorousness, the focus of the magazine always comes back to literature; and so much of literature, even that which is most serious, and most lofty, comes back to laughter and pleasure.

You’re totally right. I worked with Lewis Lapham for a few years, and I remember him always coming out of his office, Pliny the Elder or, like, the letters of Kaiser Wilhelm in his hand. He would read aloud some passage to the other editors and just start cracking up.

For a moment I hopefully thought that you were describing Lapham emerging from his office as if he were Pliny the Elder himself!

Oh boy, I wish! But the idea that history and literature, being parallel studies of lives lived rich in these moments helps to humanize and unite our weird, collective past. Histories, in particular, seem to be a large concern of The Believer. It’s also a notion that carries into what is one of the magazine’s trademarks — the interview.

History is important to The Believer, and the interviews are a part of that, though the work we do in that regard is somewhat overshadowed by other parts of McSweeney’s. I’m mostly referring to the Voice of Witness series, which publishes collections of oral histories that document human-rights crises from around the world — survivors of Hurricane Katrina, wrongfully convicted and exonerated prisoners, abducted and displaced people of Sudan.

Does the interview as a literary form have any bearing on the Q&A’s, or are their purposes more humble? Like, find interesting people and talk to them about interesting things?

We have no obligation to publish timely or popular material, so a subject is just as likely to be a 95-year-old philosopher as it is a 20-year-old rock musician. And the format itself is wonderfully flexible. We can leave in the digressions and conversational turbulence that are so often absent from most tightly controlled interviews. [Leland coughs violently, then whistles warbled arpeggios. He sighs and smoothes his mustard-stained chinos, blinking expectantly -- Leland].

Can you expand a little more on the dynamics of working within the larger McSweeney’s empire? I’ve been in your office before and there’s basically a million things going on — McSweeney’s the book publisher, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer, Voice of Witness, the Wholphin DVD publication — all of these operations chugging along under one small roof situated behind a postcard boutique. You mentioned that The Believer often reprints material from Voice of Witness, but are there other areas of overlap?

As you know, it’s an open-plan office — no cubicles, no walls — so we feed off of each other, and eavesdrop and annoy each other and so on, all the time. For all that, though, there’s still a weird lack of communication that happens. It gets really quiet, especially before the so-called “postcard boutique” opens around noon. People do kind of hunker down into their work. But every day there are collaborations and cross-currents. I’ll have trouble with a layout, so I’ll print it out and ask our senior designer and art director for his take. Or the managing editor of McSweeney’s might ask me for a synonym for mouthfeel. We have weekly staff meetings in the basement where everyone can really get into each other’s business — we’re all invited to suggest new book ideas, or offer ways to publicize the books, or help organize each other’s events. Then we all go back upstairs and frown — happily — at our laptops for another eight hours.

But now that you’re departing from The Believer, can I ask where we might find you next?

Dog, I’m not sure. I might stay on the masthead in some capacity, and I hope to continue bringing artists and writers to the magazine. Last year I helped edit this book for the Oakland Museum of California, and as a result, early in 2011 I’ll be writing and editing for an online magazine they’re developing called The Oakland Standard.  I’m going to try and set aside some time to write some avant-softcore speculative adventure fiction, which I hope to sell to a commercial publishing house in a debased corner of Europe for tens of hundreds of dollars. My girlfriend just applied for teaching jobs at twenty college English Departments across the land, so if she gets a job, I may be about to move to the worst part of New York state, or the best part of Kentucky, or the “coolest” part of Missouri — something like that. Wish us luck.