The Drawbridge family

by Steve Watson in September 2010
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This month we sent out The Drawbridge to Stack subscribers, so last week I spoke to its editor Bigna Pfenninger to find out what’s going on behind the scenes at the literary magazine. She spoke about the magazine growing up in an age when both magazine and book publishing are changing, and about the Drawbridge family (the same people have now been making the magazine for the last four and a half years). And she shed a little light on this issue’s brilliantly alarming cover image (above). Apparently it’s all about embroidery.

It’s almost a year now since the last Stack interview. What’s been going on in the last year?
The Drawbridge has stayed its course, which I’m very glad about. The magazine is four and a half years old now, so it can walk and talk and nearly swim. I think it has solidified and hope that it has taken on a good character.

What would you say that character is?
Mmh, it’s a printed quarterly. That’s the outcome of its nature and circumstances, its rhythm without rushing. It has abandoned earlier components of journalism along with the succession of its themes. It’s become primarily essayistic, fictional and factual, but with a leaning to fiction and its flights of fancy.

It feels like a very assured magazine. It’s certainly not a magazine that you rush through – you don’t flick through it.
That’s nice, thank you. Considering that we are printing and producing a physical object, it is reassuring to hear that the content is worth its form. The contributors are offering their time, thoughts and efforts. It’s great this translates and arrives.

The last time we spoke you told me that the words and pictures work independently of one another – pictures aren’t commissioned to accompany the stories, which is unusual. This issue the pictures are very strong – do you think the two almost rival one another? The pictures get really good, so the words have to be even better, then the pictures push to be even better still?
It’s interesting that you perceive it like this, because in making it we have the pleasure of the opposite. We’re still exactly the same team as we were at the beginning, a somewhat family-like structure. It’s at the point now where we don’t have to talk so much to know what we’re doing, which allows us to work more instinctively. That way, we can play more and make it stronger and more interesting.

Because I suppose the danger is that if you don’t do that it gets boring. What do you do to keep it exciting?
Oh, heavy words. Perhaps it’s a careful freedom. Okay, we can play more, dance more, but try not to be careless with it. And the themes and the contributors’ responses to them are always exciting.

So how do you choose your themes?
I don’t know! But there is a certain pattern to how the themes come about. There is always something lingering in collective thought, like ‘ghosts’ in the case of the current issue. The themes are often of an enduring quality – basically human. And seasonal. This issue is out as the summer is ending, so you hold your breath and see what your own monsters are doing. The dear ones, too.

One of the things I hadn’t noticed before is that you change the titles of the stories in the magazine. Why do you change the titles, and how do you decide what to call the stories?
It’s partly a design problem and partly a joy. Many writers call their stories ‘The Goalkeeper’, ‘The Goat at night’, ‘Blurred view’, but Stephen (Coates, creative director) puts in the title slot: ‘please fill three lines, 48pt, headline over three columns here.’ So we fill.

The Drawbridge has a contradictory format. People don’t normally write a short story for a paper – they write it for a book with a cover, a blurb and a foreword. Here we don’t have this, so the title has to step in and cover that gap in information.

Besides, a magazine full of ‘The Herder’, ‘The Bull’ and ‘The Snowfall’ isn’t very appealing – it lacks coherence or narrative. I expect a magazine to say, ‘look, this is what’s here, do you want to read it and read on?’

But you have some really heavyweight writers now – people like Colm Toibin and Jose Saramago. Is that ever a problem with them?
No. Usually it’s the more recognised writers who will trust (or are happy to hope) that you’re an editor trying to make the best of their work in the context. The less experienced writers perhaps worry more about handing over their work.

You’ve got a real community of writers around the magazine. What do you do with that now? I know you’ve got a venue now as well?
This is truly a happy coming together. We’ve always married image and text, and now we can do that three-dimensionally. It’s a vast space called Q Forum. It’s the last remaining textile warehouse in Soho, and has been housing a rare book dealer and bookbindery for the past 30 years.

We’ve got Michael Mack moving in and together we’re running a bookshop, a reading room, an editions gallery and an exhibition space curated with a focus on books. There is a big shift in the book world, i.e. reading electronically vs. reading on the page, and you can’t just be nostalgic or blindly enthusiastic about it. So we’re lucky to have a space and the time to follow the transition intelligently, to see where the content of the book is going.

It’s open Monday to Friday 11am to 7pm at 5-8 Lower John Street, on Golden Square in Soho. We have our October exhibition opening on 30 September, The Garden Party by Maurizio Anzeri. Maurizio is an Italian-born artist, London based, who makes sculptures, characters, by sewing together huge quantities of synthetic hair. He is also known for his embroidery of found photographs, like the one on the cover of the Ghost issue. There will be talks, book launches, screenings and more under the umbrella of Q Book – and of course The Drawbridge is based there as well.

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