Inside the Quality Castle

by Steve Watson in October 2009
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I spoke to The Drawbridge‘s exuberant editor Bigna Pfenninger last week and spent half an hour chatting with her about making a literary magazine that’s not a ‘literary magazine’, and why she has so little time for editors. See below for the whole transcript…

I think The Drawbridge has been going for about three years – is that right?
That’s right – since April 2006. Three and a half years.

And have you been involved in the magazine since the start?
Yes. The Drawbridge grew out of a discussion with Giuseppe Mascoli who is the owner of Black’s Club. We sat eating dim sum, moaned a little about the publishing landscape, had the idea and just ran with it. Stephen Coates [creative director] was onboard from the beginning, as were Paul Davis [drawings editor] and Mark Reynolds [commissioning editor]. At the core, we are still the same team.

So why a literary magazine?
Well, since you asked for its beginnings… It was not set out to be… it was not set out to be anything. Giuseppe and I just thought it peculiar that the UK produces very good academia, great reviews and fantastic satire, but that there’s not much of a process of distilling this into good ideas conveyed in digestible writing. You’d think it would grow naturally – something intelligent and genuine that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

So we thought we’d have a go at it, and after a month or two we saw the first issue out, thinking, “okay, that’s nice.” It wasn’t even all that “literary” at the beginning. We had for example Gerry Adams writing a funny anecdote, Hugo Chavez complaining about London traffic, and later Ryuichi Sakamoto composing a few bars, many people mostly thinking outside the literary world.

So if it was never supposed to be a literary magazine then it was a magazine that became more literary?
I think ‘literary’ is difficult as a label for a magazine because it immediately implies playing to an industry. You’d like to allow a magazine to grow and change with ease whilst maintaining its essence. So of course it is a literary magazine, it carries words and images, and ideas presented in that format. But there are so many things that we do not want it to be. “Literature” can sound a bit like a disease, “making it” like suffering from a condition.

One of the most striking things about the magazine is the format – what made you use newsprint to produce it?
It was actually quite simple. We mimicked an Italian paper called Il Foglio and the initial idea was to have one sheet only. Then it grew out of this.

There is the obvious problem that currently even in quality papers you cannot read anything. There is usually no valuable information or analysis – zero. But a paper, thank god, is a tactile thing too. You read it in the morning because the coffee tastes better with it or because you can actually sit somewhere alone with a paper more easily than you can sit somewhere alone without a paper. It’s a nice carrier, very kind company, so why not turn the matter upside down and make it into a lasting format? You need good paper for a start, a bit thicker than newsprint.

And of course you’ve just had the shift down from broadsheet to tabloid?
True. It’s again very simple. We wanted to have more content and with the big format we couldn’t add a page because it wouldn’t fold anymore. No great philosophy. We tried the tabloid format and thought, “oh yes, it feels right”.

So the tabloid gives you more flexibility?
Yes, and I think it was Stephen who said, “ah well the other one was perfect but perfection is fleeting”. If it’s more exciting for us to make then it will be more exciting to read.

And presumably it must be cheaper to make it in the smaller format?
[laughs] It’s a tiny difference! I mean it’s ridiculous. A tiny bit cheaper – it’s a folly, unjustifiable altogether…

So you find this more exciting because you’ve got a new format to play with – are you finding the tabloid gives you more opportunities you didn’t have before? Does it give you more difficulties?
No – we had done the whole commissioning process without thinking too much about the new format. It wanted it – it just happened to work.

It just came together quite naturally?
Yes. And of course now we have more spreads, which is lovely. Before we just had that one dramatic centre spread and then the rest we treated as singles. But then maybe Stephen thinks about it differently! I like it but maybe for him it was a nightmare!

Talking about the layouts, the pictures are sometimes very clearly related to the writing but sometimes it’s more tangential. Do you commission pictures according to the copy you’ve got or do the two work independently?
The latter. Initially that was quite a principle – I didn’t want to have a hierarchy between words and image. With a quarterly, if people take the time to read the words, they’ll take the time to read the image.

Putting the two sides together is one of the moments I enjoy the most. Of course I see some of the images coming in and they probably give me an idea and influence something I write to somebody in an email, but it’s not too conscious. Otherwise you lose this “Aha! This is how it will work!” And that’s the fun for us. It is also why I generally do not like editors very much.

What do you mean?
Editors are complete pains! Okay, somebody has to make the platform – somebody has to make this thing otherwise it’s not there – but I remember Paul despairing on the phone, he’s been working for hours on a drawing, thinking about it, and then some complete numb wit says, “can you change the background colour please?” I mean this is no way of making something nice. People who produce text and images at this level, they will have thought about them much more than I could ever anticipate, so just let them do it. All our curating is in that they sit nicely together, the individual gems.

Otherwise you slide so easily into “ah there’s an exhibition, ah good, then should we have some pictures from it? And should we have some text that goes with it? Which author would help?” That’s a different game. Completely OK. Just not what I’m interested in.

You have some advertising in the magazine but not very much, so you’re funded by your cover price presumably?
[laughs] Yeah right.

You laugh every time I mention money!
Can I be completely honest? Of course we’re printing and we’re alive and it always works somehow. But there is no quick business model to it. (This godsend of a crisis! I’m so happy for it!) You have to accept that at the beginning things like The Drawbridge are made out of a passion and you use a tiny bit of that passion to survive. Then it takes patience to let it grow. So we carry advertising – carefully, with consideration. I’d love to have more – if it would yield a Jaguar for each of the team, I’d advertise anything. For now, we work within the quality castle.

The quality castle? What does that mean?
It puts barriers up. If you think you want to make something of quality and wanted by people, it will not initially be a hundred million. But you can invite people.

Okay, so another question about the magazine – you’ve got a lot of translations in there. Is that something that’s important to you or is it just that you see good things and feel that they should be in English?
A bit of both. A lot of people in our network are not English, they’re in India, all over Europe, Latin America, and naturally the things they suggest are not necessarily written in English. But then there is also a complete gap in the UK market. I’m not English so I have a slightly different mental library and often I think, “it cannot possibly be that this is not translated”. They are not even pieces or books that we discovered, half the planet already knows all about them, but in this country it’s not published and, well, really they should be.

Of course – and the magazine gives you the opportunity to do that. There’s a lot of very powerful writing in the magazine too – people in difficult or extreme situations. Would you say that there’s a ‘type’ of Drawbridge writer?
Our texts are relatively short and they cannot be longer because of the layout. It’s 1,000 to 3,000 words – that’s it. That’s the frame. And our themes are vast, like ‘Silence’. To say something decent about such a big theme in 1,000 to 3,000 words, you probably end up saying something strong. And if you want to be genuine at a certain level, without becoming mind-numbingly dull, then you have to be unafraid of touching people. It might be laughter or tears or something in between. It’s good fun to be cynical, too, though you get a bit stuck…

I meant the strength as a compliment. Almost everything in the magazine really grabs hold of you and makes you want to read it. I think it’s very good for the magazine.
Thank you.

Okay – last question. Why is it called The Drawbridge?
There’s an Escher-like etching by Piranesi, in the Prisons series [below]. Crazy staircases going everywhere, and in the middle there is a drawbridge. It’s a muddle and it’s dark but makes sense. A drawbridge, you can lower or keep up. The magazine is for everybody – it’s not expensive and anyone can pick it up – but we keep the bridge quite firmly up. There’s a moat around the castle. But you don’t want to discuss names for too long. You choose an acceptable one and let it do its thing.

Piranesi Drawbridge

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