Interview with sinkhole

This week we interviewed the editors of sinkhole magazine, created by UCF MFA alumni Eric Fershtman, Madison Bernath, Brendon Barnes, Allison Pinkerton, Sean Ironman, Nickalus Rupert, and Rachel Kolman. Join us as we discuss what it’s like to run a magazine, the type of work sinkhole accepts, and the obstacles they have met along the way.

Why did you start sinkhole?

Eric: Well so, for me, sinkhole is (or will be, eventually) a vehicle for that weird magical combo of empathy and rationality that’s defined our country’s very best moments. That’s a fancy way of saying that I got really, really tired, over the course of the 2016 election, of the increasingly partisan coverage and the ways that coverage affected the conversations I was having with people, in person and on social media. I wrote a lot about the rhetoric of the campaign, actually, and the ways it confirmed the sorts of ideological differences that led to worldviews that don’t really seem to overlap anywhere. Terry Barr, one of our first contributors, wrote in his essay that “being friends only with those who think like you politically is the road to sterility, to the wasteland, the anti-Bethlehem,” and I think to great degree this is what happened and is still happening – most of the commentary & analysis that followed the news, the essays & podcasts & TV programs which theoretically were supposed to help us average folks digest what was happening, really mostly just pandered to confirmation biases. sinkhole, I’m hoping, can be a space where we can explore, in meaningful ways, not just our differences, but the things which bring us together.

Madison: I worked on literary magazines that weren’t my own for a few years, and I remember passing on pieces that I connected with because they didn’t fit the magazine’s style. I wanted to be part of something where I could publish work that spoke to me. Of course, I was lazy about it. But Eric wasn’t. Two or three years ago, during a retreat at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, I heard him talk to Sean (our design editor) about starting a magazine. It was an off-to-the-side conversation, and I was a little annoyed I wasn’t a part of it.  So to curb my wrath, when Eric did start the magazine, he asked me to help. Or maybe he was desperate.

Sean: I think Eric missed us and wanted to work with us.

Eric: That’s true! The real dream is to go for a Full House type thing and all just live together and go on wacky adventures.


Why the name?

Madison: That’s all Eric. I’m pretty sure it has to do with an essay he wrote in which he said a sinkhole was nothing, and our friend Dianne, a writer with a geology degree, corrected him. A sinkhole is most certainly something. And so something came from nothing. Also, Florida.

Eric: So I looked this up because I couldn’t quite recall what I wrote in that essay. Turns out I had this incredibly pretentious metaphor in there about sinkholes as “collapse, absence, unknowable things” and Dianne (this is Dianne Richardson, another UCF MFA alum) essentially stuck a nail in my balloon – she said “Look, Eric, there’s tons of things we know about sinkholes.” Which she then went ahead and started listing a few of those things off. I’ve since written other essays that talk about sinkholes or use them as metaphors – for whatever reason, the image is just sort of stuck in my head.


What is your vision for the magazine?

Madison: We’re inspired by publications that slow down the flow of the world. That don’t just look at what happened, but ask why it happened. I’m an avid reader of lit mags, but I also subscribe to The New Yorker, and devour just about every article before the week ends. I know Eric has a similar soft spot for The Atlantic. I suppose that’s why sinkhole is this odd mashup of literary journal and literary journalism. We take submissions of flash prose and poetry as one-third of our content. The other two-thirds is comprised of our capital and culture sections. These tend to be longish essays, with a very present author, enhanced by research or experience (or in the best cases, both).

Eric: I guess I sort of jumped the gun and answered this question above, but the idea is to create a place for exploring ideas, for empathetic reasoning, for a kind of rigorous, Socratic open-mindedness. I like that phrase that Madison used, “slow down the flow of the world.” We’re hoping the content in our capital bucket interrogates long-held political beliefs and values, and we’re hoping the content in our culture bucket finds interesting, meaningful intersections between the art, books, movies, music, etc. that we create and consume and the times and places in which we live. We’re hoping the stories and poems that we publish challenge us to look at the world in new ways. We’ve got really big ambitions, but I think that’s okay.

Brendon: My goal is for us to find a handful of different ways to become a staple food in your media diet. Like, “Wow, looks like the president is being impeached. I gotta open up sinkhole on my phone right and see what they’re saying about it. Oh, look at that. There’s two longforms on the impeachment, some incredibly prescient poetry that kind of vibes with this moment, and a new podcast on that and some other stuff, too? Where do I live? What time is this?” You know. Something like that.

Madison: To add to that, I think we’re hoping to facilitate conversation. If someone reads a piece in sinkhole, and has their own opinion on that issue, we’d like them to send us their take. We’d love to incorporate voices from across the spectrum that speak to each other, even if they don’t agree.

Eric: Oh yeah, absolutely to media staple and conversation-facilitating. Madison mentioned above that one of the publications I tend to really admire is The Atlantic – well, a big reason why is because of this “Notes” page they’ve got, literally it’s headlined NOTES, with the subhead “First drafts, conversations, stories in progress”. Writers post drafts of what they’re working on and ask readers to weigh in, or to have conversations about the subject matter, etc. I’d love to try something like this down the line.

Do you accept work from UCF students?

Madison: Yes! Give those academic papers some voice (for real, throw yourself in there) and send them over. And, of course, we’d love to see your flash and poetry.

Rachel: Also, after interacting with a lot of current students, I know y’all have great opinions on things beyond politics (i.e. film, podcasts, TV, comics). We want those thoughts, too.

Madison: I agree with Rachel. There are stories to be found in pop culture—even Eric can wax philosophical on Taylor Swift. In fact, he has.

Eric: Many times.


Do you have contests?/Do you plan to have contests?

Madison: We don’t have contests, but you’re giving me ideas.

Nick: I’m certainly in favor of the idea.


What type of work do you look for?/ What work do you feature?

Madison: As far as the capital section goes, we’re looking for the story in a non-story. We recently published a piece on the estate tax. Tax law isn’t something most people get excited about it, but Eric Farr thought estate taxes were misunderstood. He did a heck of a lot of research, mixed it with personal experience (he practiced law in the past), and made a damn good argument in favor of the estate tax. He made tax law interesting. I like pieces like that. A piece that turns the smooth rock on its side to expose the ridges.

Eric: I think I’d agree with this. I never quite understood the debate over the estate tax until Eric framed it in terms of a much bigger debate we’re having about income inequality. Nor did I ever really think too hard about the psychology of ultrarunners.  I think we’re looking for work, to keep harping on this point, that explores something, that finds its way to an answer (or more questions), rather than beginning with the answer and then arguing for it.

Allie: I read with my heart more than I read with my head, I think. I have to feel emotionally connected to a character to feel engaged in a story. (This doesn’t mean, though, that I have to like characters, or that I have to see myself in them. Please don’t flood our submissions queue with stories about young women writers.) I guess this means that the characters should be multilayered and surprising, just like real people. I’ll put a story down if the voice doesn’t feel honest, because an authentic voice affects every other element of the story – conflict, pacing, place, and dialogue. Brendon gave me great advice on dialogue once: Characters should talk around the conflict, not about the conflict (I’m paraphrasing.) I’m irked when I read stories with dialogue that’s really expositional. I think one way to get around the expositional dialogue problem is to follow this other great piece of writing advice I got once: You should let your characters keep their secrets for as long as possible.

Eric: Voice is a powerful thing, I’d agree – I think that’s why podcasts, e.g., are sort of exploding right now, and it’s why, I’d argue, George Saunders has become so popular. I’d maybe push back a little bit, though, on the heart vs. head thing, and ask: do they need to be separated? Do we need to read with one or the other? At least for me, coming to understand that everything we do and say and think emerges from this weird combination of emotional and cognitive intelligence – it’s helped a lot when I look at and try and digest ideas I don’t necessarily agree with on first pass.

Allie: Good point, Eric. If I don’t agree with someone politically, I won’t necessarily reject their work. One of the cool things about fiction and poetry is that they can connect people who have disparate beliefs.

Brendon: Ultimately, there will be points of overlap in subject matter between sinkhole and other magazines like ours. That’s fine. When I’m interested in a book, for example, I’m going to seek out 5-6 reviews of that book because I want to find a reviewer whose voice appeals to me. So hopefully it comes through, in our magazine, that we’re always trying to find voices that are original. That’s my goal when I’m editing anything: how can I make you sound like the clearest version of you?

Rachel: In terms of culture pieces, I love when universal truths are explored in a piece of pop culture that we’re all consuming. I like when a writer asks bigger questions of how our entertainment reflects our subconscious anxieties of the world. I also like obscure pop culture references, or anything really surprising and funny. Heck, do what Eater did, and give me your definitive ranking of the best chicken nuggets. I’d read that.

Brendon: I agree with Rachel, and I think we want to have conversations in that zone around culture that a lot of people are consuming. But, to take TV or film as an example, that monoculture is kind of crumbling at the edges, right? Like, yes, Game of Thrones is still a water cooler show, but there are people who ride just as hard for shows that are only available on Amazon Prime, or on Crackle, or for YouTube series, etc. So, hopefully, we’ll be able to balance conversations about the worldbeater shows with conversations about things like streaming exclusives or shows that are doing something formally interesting. And to step away from TV, I am a big fan of the hot take on a not-hot topic, i.e. Rachel’s chicken nuggets ranking.

Nick: For fiction, I’m reading for an encounter with the unfamiliar, and by “unfamiliar,” I don’t necessarily mean stories about interstellar robotic crabs riding around in quark-powered spacecraft. That said, if you can pull off a heartfelt story about robotic crabs, then that’s okay, too. What I’m really hoping for, though is that the story will remind me about the strangeness of the world and the people who inhabit it. There’s a very delicate balance to strike here–lean too hard on lofty conceptual ideas and quirkiness and you risk pushing the story’s emotive weight off the table. My all-time favorite stories make me forget all about the craft “truisms” that I’ve spent the last seventeen years learning. These stories cultivate a certain story-level “magic” that’s difficult to account for. For my money, writers like Lauren Groff, Rebecca Curtis, and Brad Watson are a great place to start for analyzing story-level magic. Obviously there are many, many more amazing writers who also pull off this trick.  

Allie: I really like what you said, Nick, about the “unfamiliar.” I’m down with that. Also, I love Lauren Groff and Rebecca Curtis. Anthony Marra does wonderful work, too.


What is it like to run a magazine?

Madison: Most days, I’m just really tired. I work three jobs, and when I get home, there’s barely enough time to sleep five hours (which, approaching 30, means way more to me than it did a few years ago). But it’s worth it, because I’m putting something out in the world that I (here comes the cheese) believe in. I hope that someone reads a piece in sinkhole that lingers. We live in a polarized time, and I’m really not trying to get anyone to change their mind. I’m just trying to get them to think a little longer, to dig a little deeper, to follow that hole in the ground to a series of caves. The pieces that we publish do that for me. I sleep a happy few hours hoping they do that for our readers, too.

Eric: I look it as like this weird little democratic space – we have conversations about what we do and don’t want to include, about our goals and values, about our long-term projects. I think we’re still very much in this kind of start-up phase, where everything feels possible and everything we do is essentially a step forward. Also: I hope Madison gets more sleep soon.

Sean: Eh, it’s a job.

Nick: My role on sinkhole is minimal compared to the head editors, but I can speak to what it’s like trying to complete a PhD program while teaching, working on Mississippi Review, and working on sinkhole: imagine flying at 30,000 feet, when someone abruptly hands you a burlap sack and kicks you out the door of the plane. During freefall, you open your sack to find it filled with silkworms. You have no choice but to use the silk worms to weave yourself a parachute before you hit ground.

Brendon: First off, that’s beautiful, Rupert. For me, the challenge comes from choosing to carve new routines into my life to give time to reading and editing and writing new culture stories. Jamie Poissant advised me to try to give the best part of your day, and your mind, to what you’re creating. So, some days that’s the few hours before work. And some days that’s the middle of the night. And some days you’re just kind of immobilized until Nick Rupert drops a burlap silkworm metaphor on you, and then you’re inspired enough to keep at it.

Allie: I think that’s one of the great things about our little community – we can weave each other’s parachutes during freefall. Writers and editors need to support each other, and hopefully sinkhole provides a great online space for that. It’s wonderful to have this opportunity to work with my “tribe” and to share what we love with everyone.

Nick: It’s a pretty great “tribe”!

Rachel: I don’t know about y’all, but our Facebook video editorial meeting was hella fun. I’m glad to be connected with this group of people; I admire the heck out of them.

Nick: Stay tuned for our summer issue, when Rachel Kolman and I go head-to-head on on the subject of HBO’s Westworld!

Rachel: Nick, I can’t wait.


What obstacles have you met?

Madison: Money! Seriously, though. We want to pay our contributors what they deserve. Unfortunately, we have no Medici.

Eric: Agreed – we’ve got, let’s just call it a very limited budget, and we’ve had to make some difficult decisions, already, on where that money goes. And also: submissions! We received tons before launch, but the flow has sort of dropped off a cliff since then, for whatever reason. We’ve got some things in the works – interviews, blogs, solicited content – but we’d really love to see some new work in our inboxes.

Nick: Unfortunately, our cultural moment is kind of difficult for the written word. Literary writing has an increasingly difficult time attracting monetary value. Fortunately, there will always be readers who enjoy narrative writing. Also fortunately, sinkhole publishes a great deal of material on culture, and that’s something that will continue to interest people.

Sean: Planning. It’s really no different than writing, or any major project. You write 20, 30, 40 drafts of something over the course of a few years and then call it done. With a publication, you really need to think out every little thing–much of it before the publication launches. For example, with an online journal, you need to think through submissions, platform, design, site structure. This all seems like, “Well, of course you do.” But, in each of those areas, there are a hundred other questions that need answers. You can’t just start a website one day and there you go. I don’t even really bother with day-to-day operations. I’m thinking of how this will all work next year.

Eric: Yup, that’s a great point. We’ve already run into a few issues that would keep us from scaling up smoothly if the opportunity arose. There’ve already been moments where someone’s mentioned something and I’ve had to admit, you know, shit, I never even thought of that. Sean’s trying to get us on a smoother path. We don’t want to overplan (because then we’re inflexible if things change), but we also don’t want to just sort of constantly be reacting to things as they come along. Flexible planning is, I think, what we’re aiming for.


Are you hoping to have an in-print journal or do you intend to stay online?

Madison: We’re going to stay online. It used to be the case that without a print component, you couldn’t be taken seriously, but now there are so many respected magazines that are all or mostly online (Brevity, Paper Darts, TriQuarterly, etc.) that the stigma is largely lost. Online, our audience is expanded, and we don’t have the overhead of a print magazine. It just makes sense for us.

Eric: Ya, I think at this point a print magazine is mostly just a status symbol.

Allie: An online publication seems perfect for flash, I think – you can read a whole story in one sitting, before Facebook lures you away to click on the latest panda video. I’m way more interested in reading something short online, and I hope our readers are, too!

Nick: I tend to agree with Allie – flash and the online format make a good synergistic relationship.

Sean: Who actually reads print journals? Really. If you take out the audience of those working on the journal and those submitting to the journal, what audience is there? For some of the leading journals in the field, sure, they have readers. But, I think with a journal starting up these days, it’s all about online. It’s difficult to thrive if you don’t try to reach new audience members. Online also enables us to respond quicker to what’s happening in the news.

Nick: This whole “online vs. print” debate seems like a false crisis to me. I like print journals and online journals, and I don’t really see any need to devalue one or the other. For the most part, I still prefer to read from a page, especially if we’re talking about a longer piece of text. That said, as I mentioned elsewhere, I still think online journals are great, too.

Rachel: I think there’s the potential for a greater intimacy or connection with the reader when it’s online. We’re all in this together, sharing our thoughts in the same digital space.


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FINAL sinkhole logo with face_postcard


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