Behind the scenes: Desert Oracle magazine

by Miranda Thompson in March 2015
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The man who takes the blame for nurturing the snarky ‘Gawker’ style of writing has turned his back on the web in favour of creating a quarterly periodical focused on the wonder of the American desert.  Why? I caught up with Ken Layne to find out more about Desert Oracle magazine.


What led you to the desert?
It’s my favourite place. I’ve spent a lot of my life in the American South West; Northern Nevada, Arizona, Joshua Tree, and my first jobs out of high school were on these small back-country newspapers. There was something very romantic working in these far-flung communities, and there’s things about the American desert that are far more interesting and mysterious than just its flora and fauna; sinister, oddball stuff that’s prevalent in science fiction, like UFOs and the Manson family murders. I hadn’t ever really seen that in a publication.

Is this magazine your reaction to internet culture? I read you were ‘fed up’ with it.
I think I used those exact terms, just with more vulgarities! Writing for the internet was fun for a long time, but I’d always wanted to do some kind of desert publication, and I knew it had to be in print. I couldn’t do it where you have lots of things beeping.

Tell me more about Desert Oracle.
It’s a publication that has little topical value to anyone; the only news in it is half-true tall tales and local gossip, and the rest of it is out of time, a mix of interesting natural features and strange modern folklore.

I wanted to create an entire world that you could drop into, something that’s entirely hypnotic, like a David Lynch movie. I don’t write about the big cities; I leave out the interstates, the chain stores, the outlet fashion malls. It’s the small places and the folklore I love. Even if you weren’t in a desert cabin, you could be sitting quietly with a beer and it would transport you to this desert world. It’s probably the most fun I’ve had writing in 10 years.


How did you come up with its visual tone?
When I first got my driving license and started exploring the desert, I used to come across these field guides to dirt trails or hidden springs; small striking things with bright cardstock covers that you’d see in the gas station, saddle-stitched with eccentric hand-made maps, written by some local geology teacher. That’s the sort of thing I was going for, something that looked like the desert and felt like the desert.

You can’t buy single copies online, only a subscription. Seems like a pretty clever move to me…
That started out as me being realistic about how much I could do myself, and how I could maintain it, because that’s the hope. I didn’t want to send out single copies to everyone who paid me $4; it’s too much work and you’re never done. I thought if I just did subscriptions then there’s only four big mailings a year. At the moment, I have just under 500 subscriptions – I didn’t think I’d have anything near that many before the second issue appears!

Tell me about how you’re distributing the magazine throughout the desert? It seems you’ve really embedded Desert Oracle in its natural habitat.
I’ve not done much print distribution before; only once for a small town desert newspaper called the Back Country Trader, where I’d drive to tiny towns in a pickup truck loaded with newspapers. When Desert Oracle seemed like it was becoming real and I had to think about distributing it, I thought, well I love nothing more than driving around the desert for days, so I worked that into the job as publisher.

I’ve just got back from 14 days driving across seven national parks, meeting people and contributors, handing out issues where I thought they might sell. I printed about 10,000 copies for this issue – a huge amount, but I’m trying targeted mailing in desert towns across the South West – and distributed about 2,000 on my trip.

It’s not terribly important for it to have a real distribution – it doesn’t need to be in chain bookstores – but I like the idea of people discovering it. People love to document what they come across, so I’ve had a lot of people subscribing and writing to say where they found it. I like looking at the Twitter mentions and seeing pictures of the magazine in front of the places they got it; old 1950s Route 66 diners, out of the way Western bookstores… Really, you’ll find one in every place you can’t help but stop at.

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