ZYZZYVA @ 30: speaking to your endless curiosity about the world

The first 10 minutes we sat in ZYZZYVA‘s office, on the sixth floor of the Mechanics’ Institute building, I may as well have been a beetle on an L.A. palm: editors Laura Cogan and Oscar Villalon spent the time discussing the merits of and differences between Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante, the Norwegian and Italian writers who have become worldwide sensations for their epic multivolume portraits of modern life.

“I found myself arguing with [Knausgaard],” Cogan said, “and felt like that was probably more because he just moves on to the next thing. He doesn’t worry about making every single idea perfect — if you don’t like that one, fine, he’s already gone, he’s off on the next thing already. That’s a little daunting to think about, if you’re talking about how many volumes?”

Six. Knausgaard was in town to promote the U.S. publication of the fourth volume of his autobiographical work, My Struggle, and had been in conversation with Daniel Handler at City Arts and Lectures the previous night. ZYZZYVA was to host a release party for Issue 103 later that evening, leading Villalon to marvel at the number of events happening on a Tuesday.

“It’s been a huge change,” he said. “I don’t think it was this way 10 years ago.”

It wasn’t. Ten years ago, San Francisco’s literary scene consisted mostly of open mics, spoken word events, and authors passing through the bookstore circuit. But 10 years ago, the amount of readings in a given evening would have had little to do with a literary journal — even here, where ZYZZYVA‘s big 30-year celebration is but one of three events the magazine is throwing in May alone. But that’s not the only thing that’s changed.

zyzzyva covers

framed back issue covers line the office walls

Founded in 1985 by Howard Junker, who ran the journal as a quarterly almost by himself before passing the reins to Cogan in 2010, the newly redesigned ZYZZYVA, in addition to hosting some 24 events per year, now has a regular intern program, and a blog that focuses on contemporary arts and culture. Perhaps most significantly, the journal — previously dedicated to publishing West Coast writers and artists — now accepts submissions from anywhere in the world.

“When we came in,” Cogan said, “I think our main concern was to keep this journal, which already had such an established and such a terrific pedigree in place, going, and to keep the level of quality there. And not just the quality, but also the investment in emerging talents.”

Junker gave early publishing credits to a lot of now-notable authors, including Po Bronson, Aimee Bender, and an undergraduate named Sherman Alexie. For others, ZYZZYVA was their first time in print — among them F. X. Toole, whose short stories inspired Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, winner of four Academy Awards. Junker also published the first English translation of Haruki Murakami.

“Oscar and I really felt that there was no reason to be exclusionary, that S.F. is the home of the journal,” Cogan said. “It’s the vantage point from which we look out on the world, but that we want to be able to take the best work we find regardless of where an author is living,” she added, pointing out that “organically,” the majority of writers they publish are still based on the West Coast.

ZYZZYVA issue 103With an average of 7-10 submissions coming in every day, and about 70 pieces published through three annual issues, ZYZZYVA receives enough mail each week to fill its yearly calendar. Cogan said not a single manuscript leaves the office without at least one (or often both) of them reading it first, and they don’t accept online submissions simply because they wouldn’t be able to handle the volume.

Villalon summed up the editorial focus as “a place for emerging writers to get noticed and a place for established writers to try something different,” referencing, as examples of the latter, the poems of writer/critic John Freeman and a memoir excerpt by acclaimed fictionist Glen David Gold. Villalon sees the role of literary journals as a crucial part of a larger ecosystem.

“For it to be healthy and for it to continue it’s important for readers to support them,” he said. “So yes I’ll subscribe, or yes I’ll buy an issue or I’ll come to an event. It really does work that way. Sometimes I think we forget that people have to start somewhere, and that you need venues for them to launch their careers, or that people need to try something different and they need a venue for that. Without those venues, it’s going to make the entire ecosystem weaker.”

“I think Oscar and I are very curious and avid readers,” Cogan added, “and I hope that the readers of the journal are as well, and that they find some echoes of that in the journal, and that they find things that speak to their endless curiosity about the world. What are other people’s lives like? What is somebody else’s experience of life? You can never really know. But you can keep asking; you can keep exploring; you can keep reading.”

This article originally appeared in SF Weekly.

ZYZZYVA’s 30th Anniversary celebration

Friday, May 29, 6:30p.m. on the 28th Floor of the Two Embarcadero Center in San Francisco: a festive fundraiser amid spectacular views of the Bay and the City, featuring

  • Presentations/readings by Michael Krasny, Molly Giles, Hector Tobar, and Dean Rader
  • Light bites and drink from some of the Bay Area’s finest food and wine and beer purveyors, including Alta CA, Broadside Wines, Lagunitas Brewery, Bi-Rite, and La Mediterranee.
  • A silent auction with opportunities to bid on exclusive experiences (such as lunch with ZYZZYVA’s editors) and decadent treats and special items from City Lights, Green Apple Books, Litquake, Dandelion Chocolate, Lagunitas Brewery, and more.

For more information, click here.