I visited the Open City office for the first time in November or December of 2001. I was there to read proofs of Before and After: Stories From New York, the first anthology of writing from Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. The book had been in production pre-9/11, but would now include pieces written after the attack.
I’d been working in the World Trade Center and was in the building that morning. I wrote an essay about the experience and hoped to publish it somewhere. My friend Greg Purcell put me in touch with Tom Beller. Tom read my essay and asked if he could put it in the anthology. The only thing was, he wanted to cut the last page. I said no. I wasn’t thinking clearly. I was too close to the material, still in shock. I thought the last page was essential. Tom persisted. We exchanged e-mails. I relented. I saw the piece with the cut and knew he was right.
He asked me to swing by the office and read some proofs. He wanted my take on the slew of (for lack of a better phrase) “attack pieces.” I was surprised. Tom didn’t know me at all. But I appreciated the gesture on a couple of levels. First, I was territorial about the attack. Hundreds of writers were cranking out words about it. Few of them had been as close to it as I was. (Perhaps you remember Adam Gopnik’s idiotic New Yorker contribution, comparing the smell wafting uptown to smoked mozzarella.) Second, I grooved on the spirit of the request: I like what you wrote, you seem okay, therefore I trust you, come on by! It seemed to me the way publishing—and certainly literary magazines—should function, but didn’t.
So I went to the office. Joanna Yas was there. She was wearing a Joy Division Unknown Pleasures T-shirt. I looked around in awe. Open City was one of the top two or three magazines I wanted to be published in. I’d sent them a story recently, in fact. I eyed the slush pile. It was depressing. I thought of all the slush piles at all the magazines I’d submitted to, my stories in envelopes among hundreds of others.
Tom and I sat reading Before and After proofs. Joanna was working on Open City stuff, but we sought her opinion every three minutes. I kept looking at the slush pile.
“Do you want to read slush?” said Joanna.
“No, I was just— I have a story in there.”
I dug around, found my envelope, opened it.
“We haven’t had a chance to look at it.”
I scanned the first few lines. It didn’t seem that good anymore.
“That’s okay. I’ll just take it back.”
It would be another three years before I was published in Open City. Tom left a message on my answering machine telling me the news. At the time I was almost done with a draft of a novel, and had no idea what would happen next. I didn’t have an agent or anything. It was just me in my apartment, plowing ahead. The story they accepted was an outtake from the novel, and the fact that they liked it seemed to validate the whole undertaking and let me know I was on the right path. I was euphoric when I received finished copies of the magazine, sleek and beautiful, as always.
One of the things I always liked about Open City was that good writing was always the point. It didn’t succumb to the post-McSweeney’s vogue for baroque presentation and editorial commentary rendered in microscopic type. The readings avoided camp spectacle. And the parties, yes, there were those. By the time I hit the scene, they weren’t as epic, or so I was told. I never knew the difference. As a midwestern transplant who’d spent his first few years in New York working in financial offices, the bar where I attended my first OC party might as well have been George Plimpton’s pad in the sixties.
Open City changed my life. It gave me a literary entity with which to identify and align myself, and introduced me to some of my closest friends. Last fall, Open City Books published my memoir. In a way it felt like a full-circle moment. The book grew out of the essay Tom published in Before and After. On the night I read those proofs he sent me home with Sam Lipsyte’s Venus Drive and Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth, two of the first three titles they put out. I was proud to join their company (along with Rachel Sherman, Edward St. Aubyn, et al.). Working with Joanna and Tom on the book was a blast. Again, it seemed like how publishing should operate: editors responding enthusiastically to the imperatives of taste and literature without having to consult marketing departments or kowtow to James Patterson.
The silver lining, then: Open City Books will continue. Which is good news (all self-interest aside), because big publishing is going through fucked-up times, and small presses are doing important work, and to have even one go under now would be a blow to people who like reading books not based on blogs or Twitter feeds, or ghostwritten for dipshit Republican politicians.
I happened to check my e-mail right after Tom sent the message telling me the magazine was closing. Immediately after reading it I picked up the phone.
He answered, laughing. “That was fast.”
Yeah, man. It really was.
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