Interview With Brick

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Author: Liz Johnston

1. How did you come up with the idea for Brick? Tell us all about how this mission started.

The forerunner of the magazine as it is today, Brick, a journal of reviews, came out of Mac and Jill Jamieson’s publishing endeavour, Applegarth Follies. As founding editor Stan Dragland explains in Brick 89, Jamieson invited him to become the reviews editor of the press’s literary magazine: “Somewhere in there I must also have said that I was not impressed with the state of reviewing in the country.” Dragland and co-founder Jean McKay set out to publish reviews of Canadian small-press books—the kinds of books that were being overlooked by larger review magazines.

The first freestanding Brick came into the world in 1977. Set by hand in London, Ontario, the journal attracted a devoted audience through the diligence and eclectic taste of its editors. Though much has changed about the magazine over the years, Brick has stayed true to its original mandate to seek out and publish the most invigorating and challenging literary non-fiction we can get our hands on.

2. What do you hope for the readers and contributors to gain from Brick?

Quite simply, we want Brick to bring our readers abiding pleasure. We want each issue to surprise and delight them—whether introducing them to new writers or artists, reminding them of ones they’ve long loved, or carrying them off to unexpected places, such as an Icelandic lighthouse or nineteenth-century Norwich. We also want our readers to know they’re holding something enduring. We put great care into the look and feel of the magazine. Brick, as a reader once told us, induces “tactile inebriation.” The paper stock, the magazine’s size and shape, and the way it falls open in your hands, make it lovely to hold. Most people find a home for Brick on their shelves so they can return to past issues and revisit a favourite interview or essay or just read the whole thing again.

As for our contributors (who are, of course, also readers), we want them to know that we’ve treated their work with love, that we’ve edited their words with care and presented them as beautifully as we know how. Our contributors are in great company, and Brick puts their writing in of the hands of a dedicated readership—including many who work in publishing. C. M. Cooper signed a contract with Pedlar Press for her first short story collection after publisher Beth Follett read Cooper’s story “Nuclear Heartland” in Brick 89. Other contributors have had their work reprinted in Harper’s and Best Canadian Essays or mentioned in a Pushcart Prize anthology.

3. What have you gained from working for Brick? How has this experience changed your perspective of reading literature?

I’ve been working at Brick for almost two years, though it feels like this can hardly be true considering the way Brick now feels like such a part of me. I’ve gained so much just being surrounded by people who are so passionate about literature and serious about the craft of writing. I leave every editorial meeting feeling inspired—and with a new list of books to read.

It’s also a privilege to work at a magazine with such a rigorous editorial process. Not every magazine has the time to do substantive editing on the pieces they accept, so I feel very lucky to have the opportunity work with writers to push their work further.

I suppose one of the ways working at Brick has changed my perspective of reading literature is that it’s given me that behind-the-scenes look at everything that goes into a published work. I never used to read acknowledgements sections in books, but they fascinate me nowadays. Not to take anything away from the writer, but a book is almost never the product of one person alone.

4. What authors are your editors fans of?  Does that have a bearing on how they select submissions?

Our editors have expansive and rather eclectic tastes. To speak for them and name a few favourite authors, I think a combined list might include Mavis Gallant, C. D. Wright, Anne Carson, Ben Lerner, Julio Cortázar, Rebecca Solnit, Don Delillo, Karen Solie, Jim Harrison, and Jan Zwicky. We’re lucky enough to have had many of these favourites appear in Brick’s pages.

The editors’ preferences definitely have a bearing on what appears in Brick. After all, if you could convince one of your favourite writers to contribute something to your magazine, wouldn’t you? Many readers are first drawn to Brick because they like one of our editors as an author, and they expect to find that author’s sensibilities reflected in Brick. That being said, when deciding whether a given piece is right for the magazine, our editors take into account more than what they personally might like. What’s “Bricky” isn’t just the way their different tastes line up, but something larger that’s developed over thirty-seven years.

5. What do you look for in a publishable piece of writing?

Here, I’m going to borrow the words of Editor Laurie Graham. In a recent interview with Zinio, Laurie looked to the epigraph that appears at the start of each issue of Brick, which comes from Rilke:

“Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing to be so little appreciated as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and fairly judge them.” The writing that ends up in Brick possesses a quality of attention, enthusiasm, and appreciation that lifts it away from plain critique. There’s love—or strong feeling akin to love—in the thinking and in the writing of the pieces that appear in Brick. There’s also an eye on the art of a thing: paper folding, martinis, misspent youth, commode design—all of it intermingles with works of fiction or art or music because of this attention to a “lonely” work of art, an attention borne not of assessment but of appreciation.

Love, attention, appreciation, these qualities reveal themselves in writing that has been honed to a razor’s edge. They reveal themselves in pieces that engage fully and deeply with their subject. They can reveal themselves, also, in the idiosyncratic humour and playfulness that makes Brick Brick.

6. How has Brick changed since its inception in 1977?

Though it started out as a journal of reviews, these days Brick takes on everything from film to food to fracking. You can still find the kind of review Stan Dragland and Jean McKay set out to publish—ones that bring to light books that may have been overlooked by other outlets—but alongside these, you can also find interviews, memoirs, travelogues, belles lettres, and unusual musings on all sorts of things literary and otherwise. And whereas those first Bricks focused on Canadian writers, the magazine’s mandate has expanded to include international writers and works in translation. Our editors see Brick as a cultural force both in Canada and internationally, fomenting a discussion about art, culture, and the written word.

The older Bricks look quite a bit different than the ones you’ll find on the newsstand today. They were saddle-stitched, printed on newsprint, and shaped like most glossy magazines. There’s a thread that connects their aesthetic with Brick’s current one, and our editors’ love of photography was reflected early on, but a lot has changed. The magazine did a major redesign in 2000 with issue 65/66, establishing its square shape and perfect-bound format. It has maintained this look ever since, with subtle innovations by our designers over the years to continue refreshing it.

The editorial board has changed, too, of course. In 1985 Linda Spalding became both editor and publisher and soon invited Michael Ondaatje to be contributing editor. He edited the magazine for nearly thirty years, helping to establish Brick’s international reputation before retiring last year. Linda continues to shape Brick as an editor, and over the years she has been joined by Michael Redhill, Michael Helm, and Rebecca Silver Slayter. Laurie Graham, my predecessor as Assistant Editor, became Brick’s newest editor this past fall and will be on the masthead with our upcoming Summer 2014 issue.

7. Tell us about a piece you recently published that got you and the staff excited. Why did you love it?

It’s so hard to choose just one. In our most recent issue, Mark Fried’s introduction to his translation of Severo Sarduy’s Firefly knocked my socks off. I didn’t know about Sarduy before reading Fried’s piece, and the translator’s studied insight provided the perfect primer for the exacting pleasure of Sarduy’s prose. Then there was Michael Dickman’s poem “John Clare”—a love poem, in a way, with lines like “Flowers call you on the telephone / and the rain passes you notes.” Dickman surprised us further by providing a brilliant bio of John Clare that was poem in itself. We were also, of course, thrilled to have Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with Richard Sennett. In it, you not only get Sennett’s brilliant take on cooperation, cities, and the new economy, but you also glimpse the artist behind the sociologist, the kid who played the cello and had to give it all up after surgery on his hand. All that, plus the guy’s sense of humour, makes the interview an absolute pleasure to read.

But I think my favourite part of Brick 92 were the letters between Publisher Nadia Szilvassy’s grandparents interspersed throughout the magazine. The exchange between a young husband and wife in 1928 is intrinsically fascinating, and, for me, knowing these “characters” are Nadia’s grandparents made this glimpse at the past even more special.

8. What is the next exciting thing happening at Brick?

Our summer issue! With start from scratch with each issue, so this one’s just beginning to take shape. We’ve already got some great stuff in there, and I’m excited to see what else will materialize before we begin getting into the production process.