On That Beyonce Level: An Interview with Lucy K Shaw
Over the past year, I’ve been putting together an anthology of writing and visual art called LEFT. It’s been a much longer process than I expected but it has been very rewarding. Over the course of the period during which I’ve been working on LEFT, I’ve communicated with a number of editors and publishers, asking them questions and learning from their experiences. Recently I asked Lucy K Shaw some questions about her publication, Shabby Doll House, and its recent offshoot, The Reader. She offered some great insight into her publishing process. – JN
FANZINE: I’m interested in publishing as a learning experience. Did you know what you were doing when you started Shabby Doll House? What have you learnt since then?
LUCY K SHAW: Oh, no. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, at all. I have learned a lot since then.
If people trust you with their work, you have to understand that you have a responsibility to them.
If you want people to trust you with their work, be consistent. Treat everybody you work with well and treat everybody you work with the same. It can sometimes be a lot harder to collaborate with your friends than with strangers, but if you can get through that tension with your friends, the results might be the most fulfilling. If you like someone’s work but the piece they send isn’t right for your publication, reject it. If they submit again, it’ll be better. You have to do this even when it’s someone you like, or someone you respect, or even if it’s someone you love. It hurts but everyone will feel better in the long run.
If something moves you, it will move an audience. Having confidence in that fact is challenging. If you don’t understand something but you like it but you don’t really know why you like it, it might be a good thing.
If somebody flakes on you once, don’t ask them to do anything ever again. But don’t feel bad about it. They’re just busy living their own life.
If you love someone’s work, tell everyone.
If you are lucky enough to find people you trust and respect and they want to help you, let them. Listen to them. Don’t ever get to thinking that you’re irreplaceable. Work harder than everybody else. But give yourself time to grow too. Think about what you need from the publication. If you really need it personally, it may have some possible public use. Feel blessed because you’re in the privileged position of being able to create something beautiful with other people and if you ever feel lost or sad or lonely, look at the work. Read the writing. Remember why you ever wanted this. Remember it’s not really about you. Get back to work. Try to make some really cool shit. Keep your eyes open.
FZ: Do you think there were positives to having no idea what you were doing when you started? Would you do it any differently now?
LKS: Yeah, I think I was probably very audacious with realizing it, which might have been helpful. But I don’t think I’d do anything differently because I love everything we’ve done so far. It’s so organic.
FZ: Shabby Doll House has definitely evolved over time, going from a monthly publication, to a quarterly, to a more ‘event’ style release. The Re-Up reminded me of Beyonce’s self-titled album or Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Do you have anything you’d like to say about publishing as an event? Is it just a way to pull in readers or something more important? Does it take attention away from the actual writing by focusing more on the moment of publication? How do you turn a publication into an event?
LKS: It’s cool that you made those comparisons, because those are both central influences to, I think, everything we do. And what I love about those albums specifically is that they really feel like holistic works and they feel like necessary works, to me. You know, Kanye being exiled from popular culture right after his Mom died and going overseas for a year and writing those raps and recording in Hawaii and all of the kind of mythology that surrounds MBDTF. And Beyonce having her first baby and coming back and collecting all of the greatest songwriters in the world and bringing them together for this enormous, secret collaboration in some mansion in the Hamptons when she’s still breast feeding and taking care of her child. I’m really into those narratives. I enjoy those types of stories.
And I think that when Sarah and I, and now Stacey and Rachael too, are thinking about putting together a new issue of the magazine, we’re consciously trying to emulate that type of thinking. Or, I know I am. Like, okay so how can we take this to where Kanye took it and even take it further? How audacious and ridiculous can we get, while still remaining truthful and honest and vulnerable with the material? And it might sound completely out of control to hear of people thinking in this way because of course we’re just the editors and we need the writers and the artists to produce the material. And of course because this is just literature! But I really believe it can become this huge, harmonious collaboration on that Beyonce level. Stadium Poetry. Because I know that when we open submissions for our next issue, we’re going to be receiving writing inspired by Luna Miguel and Chloe Caldwell and Liz Bowen, and by everybody who was in The Re-Up, because even though there’s so much diversity in the different styles of the writing, they’re tied together by, like you said, the event.
But none of this is driven by a motivation to merely try to ‘pull in readers’. Because general popularity is never the goal. It doesn’t matter to me whether there’s an enormous audience or if we’re mentioned by [whatever media outlet trying to make money off of us], what really matters is that the existing audience feels affected and that they feel inspired too.
I think for us, at this point, it makes the most sense to operate on this basis of, like, okay so what are we responding to? What is necessary? So with The Re-Up, it felt like our wider community had been battered and almost completely broken by the revelations and media storm of last September, and the only way, in our power, to effectively respond to some of that conversation was to say, you know what? A lot of people think we’re this group of people who are not smart and not talented and that we’re completely controlled by a handful of questionable men. So knowing that those things weren’t true, we wanted to be able to direct attention back to the writing and to the artwork and to say, just watch this… Let’s focus on the work of some incredible women. And it felt really important to be able to celebrate in that way, at that time. It felt cathartic.
And of course it’s going to be online forever, so it will continue to affect people in different ways. It’s always there for you when you need it.
There’s no formula behind creating these kinds of events. We just make them happen when we need to.
FZ: I think what you said about focusing on the existing audience is a great way to begin talking about The Reader, which seems like something that you couldn’t have launched without first developing not only a following but also a community around Shabby Doll House. I’d love to know, if you don’t mind sharing, how many subscribers you have so far and where you plan to take The Reader in the future.
LKS: Yeah, sure. The Shabby Doll Reader launched at the beginning of February and now we currently have just over 150 subscribers. Every time someone signs up, I get really excited. The subscribers seem to be approximately half people with names I recognize and half people with names I don’t know, which seems, I think, really great.
The plan with The Reader is to keep producing content which wouldn’t otherwise exist for an audience who wants to read about niche and specific topics, to cover the external work of Shabby Dolls and the forthcoming issues of Shabby Doll House, and to remain open and adaptable to whatever unpredictable futures might occur.
I want being a subscriber to feel really worthwhile. I want The Reader to feel intimate and personal and for the people who care about us to feel cared for too. I’m constantly trying to figure out how best to achieve that. It’s fun.
FZ: I think that the first two issues of The Reader have definitely succeeded in creating that intimate feeling. It’s interesting that with The Reader you’re returning to the monthly publication schedule that Shabby Doll House began with. From my perspective this seems like the opposite of publishing as event. It feels more comforting, something your audience can rely on. Do you have any thoughts on how this type of publishing will work in tandem with the larger, more event-like issues of Shabby Doll House?
LKS: I’m glad you feel that way because it feels like that to me too. Publishing The Reader on a monthly basis feels a lot more manageable than regularly producing new issues of the website would be and I get to delve deeper into particular things I’m interested in and to pay further attention towards writers and artists we’ve supported in the past and to examine the rest of their oeuvres. I’ve always been into literary criticism and biographies and books of letters and journals and those types of things, so I think I am naturally inclined to want to work on this type of venture, and now that we have built up this sense of community, it does feel like a natural progression.
The three major differences between The Reader and the rest of Shabby Doll House are: The Reader isn’t free. It is predominantly commentary based. And it is edited, primarily, by just me. The rest of the website is available to anybody, includes original prose, poetry and artwork, and is a collaboration between myself, Sarah Jean Alexander and Stacey Teague, also.
FZ: I really admire that you’ve put a price tag on The Reader, especially because it is a digital publication. You’re placing value on the content and the time it takes to produce that content, rather than on paper, ink, and glue. However, I think a lot of people would be interested to know where that money goes. Does it pay part of your rent, allowing you the financial security to spend more time on creative work? Or does it go more directly back into Shabby Doll House? I know you’re planning to pay your contributors for the next issue of Shabby Doll House, how is that going to work?
LKS: Thanks for asking this. Yes. We are going to pay contributors for their work in the next issue of Shabby Doll House and that feels like a really big deal to us. I don’t know how much it will be yet. We are in the process of planning the logistics for this at the moment, but that’s definitely something that’s very important to us and something that has taken a long time to move towards.
There’s a lot more information regarding our new submissions guidelines here.
I think there’s a sort of impractical level of resistance towards any type of monetary exchange happening in online literature, which feels really positive on the one hand because it means there is open access to a lot of great work for free for everyone, but on the other hand, it’s very frustrating because of course it costs money to be alive and how are artists and writers and editors supposed to advance in their work when they’re spending all of their time doing something unrelated just so that they can eat and sleep somewhere.
I don’t ever want Shabby Doll House to become elitist, but as the subscription fee is only $4, or about the cost of one beer a month (depending on where you are in the world), I don’t feel like we’re in any danger of that happening.
It took me a really long time to figure out how to monetize Shabby Doll. Considering that I’ve been working on this website for three years for zero compensation. Or in fact, I guess I’ve been paying for the domain and the server, so it’s actually been costing me money. But that amount is nothing compared to the cost of the thousands of hours I’ve spent working on the magazine. And I’m not saying I don’t love it and that it isn’t one of the most joyful experiences of my life, because I do and it is. But simply that yeah, my time costs money and has value. Because for the last three years I’ve gone through intense periods of working full-time jobs I don’t like or care about to then go home and work full-time hours again, on Shabby Doll, until falling asleep. And when you live like that, you can’t be very present for the other people in your life. You don’t have energy left to give to anything or anyone else. There are only 24 hours in a day and they are never enough.
But my life is different now. I want to be a better friend. My first book just came out. I want to write another one. I live with my boyfriend. I want and need to be more of a real person.
Plus, I’m a lot better at writing and editing now. People are receiving a different service than they were in the beginning. I really believe that in terms of what we do, we’re the best of the best.
There’s a quote from ‘The Moon & The Sixpence’ by W.S Maugham which says, ‘Life isn’t long enough for love and art’ which for a long time I felt obsessed with and believed, I think. Or I wanted to believe it, because it felt comforting to tell myself that I was prioritizing art. But if life isn’t even long enough for just love and art, and I’m a poor person who needs to work too. Then what is life long enough for? I’ve now come to the conclusion that this idea is just some tortured-white-man-artiste bullshit. I’m a woman and I will multi-task! But thinking about this a lot has made me realize that I needed to find a way to combine two of those things. Love. Work. Art. So I chose work and art. Because you don’t fuck with the other one.
And once I’d decided this, what options did I have? I could write [articles about distant cultural figures or some vaguely amusing listicles or travel copy] for magazines and websites like a lot of my friends do, and that way I would maybe occasionally get to focus on something that means a lot to me… and maybe eventually I’d get to be in control of content for somebody else’s existing magazine. But could I do that really?
I figured that seeing as I’m 27 years old and I graduated into an economic recession 6 years ago and have never had a job I cared about at all, seeing as there is nothing else I’m particularly suited for and seeing as we [my boyfriend and I ] live in Berlin where rent is cheap and the quality of life is high, I should really try to do what I really want–which is to build something for this existing community and to make a magazine that couldn’t exist anywhere else, to support the work of the writers and artists I care about. Every mogul has to start somewhere!
So The Reader exists only on a subscription basis because I want to spend time making the magazine great, not selling a product. If we had published a print anthology, which is something we considered doing for a long time, it would be a beautiful object and it would make some profit, I imagine, but I don’t get any pleasure out of just selling things. I don’t want to spend my time doing that. I’m not a business woman. I’m a writer and an editor. So rather than spending all of my time and energy trying to market one book, one product, I am now able to spend my time creating new content designed specifically to inspire a particular audience. I think this model makes the most sense for us at this moment.
So as Shabby Doll House grows, I want to be able to pay other people to work on the magazine too. Maybe we will eventually publish a new issue bi-weekly. I don’t know. But at the moment, the money raised by Shabby Doll House goes back into the magazine, ie: into paying myself and the other editors for the work we do, and when we do our next issue in May, we’ll be paying the contributors, too.
I know that some people, without thinking about it too much, might find all of this to be controversial for whatever reason. But I think it’s a bold move for female editors to assert that their skills are worth something. And if people care about what we do, I think they’re happy to support that.
FZ: I’m glad you brought up Berlin. I wanted to ask you how you’re finding it there. You’ve lived in a lot of different places over the past three years while working on Shabby Doll House: Canada, England, America, Germany. Does where you are in the world have an effect on the process of putting an issue together?
LKS: The biggest issue is just the time-difference a lot of the time. Always having to be aware of–like New York is 6 hours behind and London is one hour behind, but so-and-so is in LA at the moment so she won’t read her emails until this evening, our time, and Stacey’s just waking up in New Zealand so I’d better send her this before I go to sleep, so that she can reply before I wake up again, etc. From this perspective, being in Europe is really helpful because I have about six hours every morning before everyone on the East Coast wakes up, where nobody emails me and I can just work on things uninterrupted.
I feel like I can be productive here, and it was the same in Toronto and in the UK, just because there are less distractions than in NY, probably. I always say I can’t get anything done when I’m in New York, but maybe if I stayed there for a longer time, I could get used to it eventually. I don’t know.
Something I really like about Berlin is that a lot of people seem to work for themselves or from home and on projects that they’re passionate about. Rent is so much cheaper here than anywhere else I’ve ever lived and so it feels like there is much more opportunity for experimenting and taking risks.
We’ve only been here for 5 months, and it’s been dark and cold for almost all of them, but so far I really like it anyway. I’m excited to see the Summer.
FZ: Your book, The Motion, has just been released from 421 Atlanta. What’s it been like being on the other side of the editorial process? Have you learnt anything from Amy that will have an affect on your work with Shabby Doll House?
LKS: Amy McDaniel has repeatedly proven that she has faith in me and in my work, which is like–I think something that’s never happened to me before, not like this. A lot of the time, for me, as a young writer and as a woman, I feel like people are sometimes so surprised if I do something well that they become a little bit suspicious. Like, who is she? Who told her she could do this? She’s just a selfie who thinks she can write. That’s how it feels sometimes! I always have to prove myself more than a man would, because how could a girl possibly be able to do this? What could someone like me have to say for herself? And as a result, I sometimes just don’t feel confident about my writing. It’s too tiring.
But the overwhelming and lasting sensation I’ve experienced while working with Amy is that she has consistently made me feel like my writing is worthy of her time and of her attention. She has made me feel like my stories are valuable and that people should be able to read them.
So I really hope that I’m able to make other people feel that way when they work with me and with Shabby Doll House.
Jackson Nieuwland likes unicorns. He is a writer from New Zealand and the publisher of LEFT, an anthology of words and pictures.