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So What Do You Do, Leelila Strogov?

A onetime Internet exec is building a new literary magazine for unknown writers.

- June 29, 2004

When Swink launched last March, editor Leelila Strogov said her new literary magazine was looking for work that was "new in concept, form, or execution, and that reflects a diversity of thought and perspective." In other words, this was not to be, as so many new literary mags are, yet another poor man's New Yorker. Strogov was looking to create a publication that would showcase new blood, rather than the usual smart-guy writers. The biannual, bicoastal magazine debuted with a few notable names—including some of those usual suspects, like Charles D'Ambrosio, Jonathan Ames, Neal Pollack—but it also lived up to its calling by including work from several lesser-known yet stellar writers. Particularly notable was a piece by a guy named David Ulin, about the legacy and draw of famously unbalanced writer Frederick Exley. Strogov, who cobbled together the funding for her nonprofit mag from a variety of sources, is happy with the debut; a onetime Internet executive, she's finally getting to release the inner editor she always knew she had. She recently talked to about the magazine, its future, and why she seeks obscure writers.

Birthdate:No comment.
Hometown: Brooklyn, New York
First section of the Sunday Times: Arts & Leisure.

First things first: Where did the name Swink come from?
It's an archaic word for "labor" or "toil." I thought that that would be appropriate because writers know that writing is really hard work. I thought that that was an appropriate name to give to a journal that was devoted to writing and writers.

Is the magazine mostly creative writing?
Yes, it is. It's fiction—and creative nonfiction as well. I'm actually looking to publish more nonfiction in the future. But it's fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and anything that falls in between. Interviews as well.

Not unlike The Believer, it would seem.
It's more along the lines of maybe The Paris Review or Granta but of course with our own spin. I think what I'm trying to do is break away from those types of magazines in that I'm trying to find something really good that doesn't feature all the usual suspects. I think that that's surprisingly hard to do.

By usual suspects, you mean established fiction writers?
Yeah, that's exactly what I mean. I think that I am first and foremost trying to find greatness in unexpected places. I'm trying to find the new great writer, and it's kind of hard to do because you never know where they are. You have to go through your slush pile very carefully, which I think not many magazines do.

What do you think of the kind of fiction that is currently being published? How will Swink differentiate itself from what is out there?
One of my goals is definitely to try to broaden the scope of this type of reading, to the "regular readers." Because I think so many of the readers now of literary magazines are just writers themselves. So it turns into this writers' community. I'd like to branch out from that and have it be just readers—more accessible, combine the inventive with the smart but also the fun. I really try to emphasize that this is fun. Reading something really great doesn't have to be drudgery. Unfortunately, a lot of these literary magazines have this academic feel to them that keeps people at bay, and that's definitely not what I'm trying to do.

Are your issues themed?
No, although I do have some ideas for potential theme issues in the future. But generally speaking, no, they're not done in themes. We will be having online-only theme issues. There's one literally around the corner from being posted, which is the "Lying, Cheating, Stealing" issue.

How do you find writers?
A lot of the process involves going out to the creative-writing programs and speaking to some of the administrators there, and having them send us their stellar students. So that was the first line of attack. But obviously I'd like to go beyond that and really try to find that person who's just really great but not even aware necessarily of these programs. Or not established enough in a literary community to even think that a program like that might be right for them.

Like a Frederick Exley, some guy in the middle of nowhere.
That's exactly what I'm looking for. And it's really hard to find. I am looking for writers who are doing something just slightly off-kilter. I really appreciate the strange, the surreal, and the embarrassing—but still good. I think I also have this vulnerability for vulnerability. Someone who can put that brokenness on the page in such a way that doesn't make you feel sorry for them—it really probably makes you feel sorry for yourself more than them.

I noticed that in the first issue you had a lot of the usual unusual suspects, Neal Pollack and Jonathan Ames and so on.
Sure, and I think that—for a first issue particularly—you're almost forced to go with a lot of known names in order to establish yourself. And so the idea is to get yourself established first so that others will hear about you and will submit.

How many people are on staff?
We're up to 8 or 9 people working on the magazine, all on a part-time volunteer basis. We're not paying anyone on staff per se, although we of course have many expenses. But the editorial staff is all volunteer.

A year or two from now, where do you see the magazine being? Would you want to be positioned to be a successful business, or is it more about finding unknown writers?
I'd like it to be a viable nonprofit. It will ultimately, hopefully, pay for itself, without us having to do an enormous amount of begging from the public. So that would be nice. And to continue to have better and better writing and writers, and to continue to have great new writers. That would be a huge thing for me—discovering a great new writer. I feel like there's so many writers out there who encounter so much resistance along the way that they eventually stop, and then you get someone who might not be nearly as talented, who for some reason in their persistence ends up making it. I think it's so key to find that really talented writer, and not have them stop. Just encourage them to go on, even if they're not hitting every note just yet.

Do you write? Is that where the idea for Swink came from?
I do. Yes. That is partially where it came from, although, for me, just being a writer is not something I'm cut out for. It's too solitary an existence. I just have this natural tendency to try to juggle multiple things and multiple tasks, and I tend to do things better when I am juggling multiple things. But I think I missed the creative side of things when I was in the business world, so the idea was to use those skills to do something I actually cared about.

I think that writing does use totally different skills, even a different part of the brain. But I think running a literary magazine doesn't necessarily. I think a lot of it comes down to being plainly business-savvy. Trying to work out numbers and try to make the thing work in such a way that it's sustainable. I think that many writers don't have that, and it's very hard to make a literary magazine work for that reason. It's hard to get it into the right hands and it's hard to get it to sell. It's hard to make it look appealing. There's a lot that goes into it that's traditional marketing and just crunching numbers and seeing what you need to be able to do to survive.

Do you think that your business experience has sort of helped you with that?
Absolutely, I think it's definitely helped. Not that this is ever going to make us any money, that's not my goal. My goal is really just to keep it from going under. My goal is to have it do well enough to sustain itself and maybe eventually pay a few employees. That's at this point the most you can hope for from any truly worthwhile endeavor.

David S. Hirschman is the news editor of and a reporter for Metro New York.

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