Laura Cogan is editor of ZYZZYVA, a triennial magazine that publishes the best prose, poetry, and visual art produced by West Coast writers and artists—along with the occasional piece from east of California. Established in 1985 in San Francisco, ZYZZYVA places an emphasis on showcasing emerging voices and unpublished writers in addition to established authors. We are thrilled to welcome Laura back to campus to lead a session during this year’s Literary Festival.
1. You mentioned in an interview with 7×7 magazine that you had been reading ZYZZYVA since you were 8—which would have been shortly after it was established. Now more than two decades later, you are the editor of ZYZZYVA, taking over after founder Howard Junker retired in 2011. How does it feel to be leading a publication you have admired for so long?
It’s surreal, and a tremendous honor and responsibility. It was shortly after we moved to California that my parents bought a copy of the journal at a bookstore, and I found it on our coffee table. I was intrigued, although as you’d imagine the subject matter was a little over my head.
2. What have you done to change ZYZZYVA, and what traditions have you sought to maintain?
The past two years have been a time of substantial change at ZYZZYVA. Our founding editor retired, and for the first time we had a change in leadership when I stepped in as editor and brought in Oscar Villalon as managing editor. Oscar and I felt that the timing was right to re-imagine both the website and the print edition, so since January of 2011 we have revisited every detail of both formats.
We focused the entire redesign on shoring up a commitment to print in a digital age. I think it’s clear that the burden is now on any print publisher to ask: What is it that our print audience wants, and what does print do best? If someone is buying a print publication, why are they doing so, and what is it they want from that purchase? I believe they’re looking for an experience that is cerebral and tactile, intellectual and aesthetic. It’s a terrifically demanding project to try to satisfy those expectations with every single issue.
First and foremost, we know we have to offer the highest quality content possible, and we know we want to offer a varied, surprising, satisfying collection of works in each issue. But second, on the design front, I felt that we needed to look closely at the impact of the object itself. If our readers enjoy reading in a print format, we should think carefully about how we can give them more of what they may be seeking from print. So we looked for ways to make the journal feel as substantial and elegant as a beautifully bound book. We sought to keep a quietude to the text pages, so that there were no design elements distracting from the reading experience. We looked at creating a more substantial cover and binding, and improving the texture of the paper, and we found a cost-effective way to mimic the old-fashioned pleasure of endpapers. In order to shore up our commitment to the visual arts, we added color art for the first time, too. I never expected to become so involved in design, but I’ve found it incredibly inspiring.
We also reinvented the website, creating an entirely new look, and taking a new direction with it. It’s now essentially a fine arts review, with something of a West Coast slant. We imagined the website as the online home for the journal, a place our readers could turn in between issues to find reviews, and also excerpts from past and current works.
The other big change is that we’re now doing quite a lot of events and public outreach—we do nearly twenty events a year, which is an important part of being involved in the literary and arts community.
Amid all this change, I am devoted to making sure the fundamentals of ZYZZYVA endure: a commitment to publishing new voices; a dedication to seeking out works in translation; a dual identity as an arts magazine; and with all this, a uniquely West Coast perspective in a journal with national appeal and distribution. Most of all, ZYZZYVA is a risk-taking publication, and that’s a tradition I’m committed to continuing.
3. What are some of your favorite works or artists that have been published in ZYZZYVA?
Not a fair question! How could I possibly choose? Every issue becomes a beloved creation to me. But I can say this: there are two distinct kinds of experiences which are exceptionally rewarding, and fortunately they happen with some regularity in this job. One is finding new talent—what a thrill, truly. And the other is working with an author to help a good piece really shine. Revision is not an easy process, and editing someone else’s work can be delicate. But when it works out well, it is incredibly rewarding.
4. How did your experiences at Marin Academy influence your path as a writer, editor, and person?
I think MA is an exceptionally open and accepting environment, and that makes it a great place to explore, discover, and play. As a person, I was most influenced by the friends I made here; those experiences will stay with me forever. As a writer/editor, I was fortunate to have savvy and compassionate teachers, and to learn in an environment that felt safe enough to let me experiment—all of this had a lasting impact. Two brief examples:
For one art class I created a book, using collage, my own photography, and fragments of my own writing. It was, in retrospect, a preliminary way of exploring connections between visual arts, storytelling, and book-making. I don’t remember Dan Babior being impressed with the end result, but that’s alright. My mother loved it.
Of course, there is (or should be) a duality inherent in writing: part of writing well is the time spent writing, but another, essential part of it is the time spent reading. I was not always a perfect student, and when Chris Alexander had me in his class he sagely offered me the opportunity to do a little extra reading. I read Hamlet as an extra project, which kept me busy and momentarily out of trouble.
5. What advice would you give to a high school student interested in the literary ecosystem?
It’s really a difficult thing to give good advice in a general way. But there are a couple things I can say which are, I think, true across the board, for anyone looking to build a career as a writer or to find a place in the publishing world.
- Writing is a long road. Keep working, and try to be patient. Happily, experience and age benefit writers (and, I’d like to think, editors). Channel your ambition into hard work, rather than letting yourself succumb to the pressure to publish early.
- I don’t think you can be a really good writer if you don’t read. And I’m certain you cannot be an editor at all if you don’t read widely. My advice, then, is to read a lot, read everything. Be as driven and hungry in your reading as you are in your writing. It will feed and nurture and inform your skills as a writer and an editor in a way that, I believe, nothing else can.
- Be conservative with exclamation marks. (In literature, that is. Exclaim away in texts and emails!)
- Be careful about taking advice, mine most certainly included. I’d caution you against allowing anyone’s judgment to influence your work too much, especially at this early stage.