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Interview with Marc Covert, managing editor of Smokebox

Interview by Tina Crandell


Marc Covert is managing editor of Smokebox, an online 'zine where an estimated 60,000 readers and writers log on to receive their monthly dose of "pollution-fueled commentary." When Marc isn't occupied with a career in public relations, he finds success in freelancing, staying connected with the writing community, and the time to chat about the five minds behind Smokebox, writing on the job, the best advice he has ever heard, and why being an editor makes him a better writer.


Smokebox boasts "pollution-fueled commentary." How should a reader interpret this? 


I've been asked this before, and I ask it of myself every once in a while, and I have to admit I've never really been able to come up with a very good answer. I can at least tell you how it came about: Back in early 2000, I came across a story on Salon by Ira Robbins, a great piece on why Grand Funk Railroad was absolutely the worst American band of all time. I forwarded it to John, and as he read it, he came across a reference to Iggy and the Stooges as "pollution-fueled mutants." John had been mulling over the idea of an online 'zine for some time, and that phrase just stopped him cold-- he felt that "pollution-fueled" described perfectly his disconnection with contemporary consumerist culture. So I guess you could say we filched the term, but we did lay all of this out in our infamous "Smokebox Manifesto" ("Pollution-Fueled What?") in issue No. 1. So John had very definite ideas about what "pollution-fueled commentary" meant to him, but I think we've also deliberately left it open to interpretation. Our readers can bend it in any way they see fit. Plus it just sounds cool.


How many people are involved in the publication of Smokebox?  What are their roles and whose heart is in it the most?


There are three of us on the Smokebox editorial staff-- John Richen is our publisher, the person who makes it all pop. He came up with the idea of publishing an online 'zine, and put a lot of time into coming up with the overall look of Smokebox. He also foots the bill for the bandwidth we need, and it's all produced on his home machine. If I were going to say whose heart is in it the most, I would definitely say it's John's. Smokebox would not exist if it weren't for him.


John Pinamonti is our East Coast managing editor. His job, as near as I can tell, is to spend as much time as possible in dingy little Brooklyn bars, chatting up writers and artists, plying them with bourbon and stogies, and trying to convince them to contribute their work to the 'box for our going rate, which is nothing. We've been a non-commercial publication from day one and it never ceases to amaze me that writers of the caliber we get are willing to let us publish their work for free. Anyway, Pinamonti's quite an accomplished musician in his own right, so he's been known to contribute pieces on that subject as well.


I'm the managing editor, so I correspond with contributors, and decide which pieces we'll run or not (in collaboration with the other two-- but as Richen likes to say, "You're the editor"). I also do some light editing, but we don't edit with a heavy hand. Typos and inconsistencies are about as far as I typically go. If there's a raw element to a writer's work, we try to recognize that and not mess around with it. It's also my job to drive Richen's blood pressure off the charts by cutting deadlines for my pieces as close to the bone as possible. I don't know why I do that. It's not like he needs the grief.


We have two artists whose work you'll see in every issue: Troy Dockins and Kurt Eisenlohr. Troy's work displays his mastery of computer generated imagery; Kurt's a painter, and his images are, let's just say, arresting. His paintings are striking enough on a 17-inch computer screen; you should see them up close and in person. He's just an amazing talent. Richen is also a very talented artist and designer in his own right. Troy and Kurt contribute written pieces once in a while; Kurt's actually a published author, you should check out his novel, Meat Won't Pay My Light Bill. We have other artists who contribute fairly regularly, but I would say the gang of five that I've described make up the core of Smokebox.


Who submits? Who gets published?


Lots of people submit. It took a while, but we're getting submissions from all over the globe-- lots of stuff from the U.K., one writer from South China, some New Zealanders, Canadians, Spaniards, it's really an amazing thing. It may sound trite, but anyone with a computer can access Smokebox no matter where they are in the world. We still get a little giddy about seeing ".uk" and that sort of thing in contributors' e-mail addresses.


Not everyone gets published, however. We had to discontinue our regular poetry feature late last year, since we needed the space, and readership numbers for that section weren't very good, so the poets are out. And I do have to reject a few submissions each month. They're almost never rejected because they're bad pieces, though. Usually they just don't fit our style, and it pains me to have to say, "Thanks but no thanks."


Aside from your role as managing editor of Smokebox, you have also produced many of your own bylines.  Do you think being an editor makes you a better writer?


I think being an editor can definitely help on the writing end… to a point. In my case, I step pretty easily from one role to the next-- when I sit down to write, I'm as prone to dangling participles, double negatives, and fragmented sentences as the next guy. So my experience as an editor doesn't necessarily make my writing better from a technical standpoint; what it does do is help me take editorial criticism for what it is-- a tool to help me improve individual pieces. I don't go ballistic or have a nervous breakdown when an editor tells me I need to rewrite a piece. I recently got back a profile I wrote for a client with "BORING BORING BORING" written by their editor across the top. I wasn't supposed to see that, and the editor would be mortified to know that I did, but she was right.


You write nonfiction, correct? What do you have against fiction?


Nothing, other than the fact that I suck at writing fiction. I've just never been any good at constructing people and situations and worlds of my own devising. That's a job for people who are crazy enough to be real writers. I may try my hand at fiction some day, but for now I'm perfectly happy writing about people, places, and things that actually exist.


The Internet has treated you well. You have been published many times as well as developed your own venue for creativity, Smokebox. Has your success online affected in any way your opinion regarding good old-fashioned print?  


I'm pretty old fashioned when it comes to print. I have a deep, abiding suspicion of web-based publications and frankly I hate to read anything more than 500 words long on a computer screen. There are just so many webzines out there now, I've never been able to pick up on any that I really like, except maybe Salon. People seem to think I spend a lot more time on the Internet than I actually do. The only pieces I write exclusively for the web are my Smokebox articles. Everything else you cite comes from web versions of print magazine assignments. Richen and I would love to come up with a paper version of Smokebox, but the cost and time it would require make that out of the question. That's the reason it's web-based in the first place. It's the only way we can possibly pull it off.


That being said, I like computers fine. I can't imagine living without e-mail, or being able to look things up as easily as you can now, and I've pretty much given up on broadcast news. I like being able to peruse CNN or local news, not that they do a whole lot better, but I feel more in control. I just think you'll never come up with an electronic gadget that equals the utter simplicity and magnificence of a book or magazine. You can stick a book in your pocket and read it wherever and whenever you want.


Do you write while on the clock at your "real job"?


Um, well, why, of course not, are you kidding? You almost made me spit coffee all over myself. Actually, that's a very good question and to be perfectly honest, I do spend a lot of time writing in my work office. As to whether I do it "on the clock" or not, that's something I try to be very conscientious about. My real job involves deadlines, and if I were spending a bunch of time at freelance work or side projects and that impacted my production deadlines at work, it just wouldn't be ethical or fair to my coworkers or my employer. I happen to like my job a great deal and it would be stupid to jeopardize that. So the writing I do outside of work has to be done keeping that in mind. One nice benefit of my job is that I have an actual office, with walls and a door that go all the way from the floor to the ceiling, and it's fine for me to be there on weekends, or come in early, or stay late. I'm given a lot of freedom to budget my time, but it's very clear that I'm expected to put in a full day's work and to make that an absolute priority. I also have a home office, much to the chagrin of my wife, who has to deal with the constantly growing paper piles and my panicky close-to-deadline behavior.


Give us a hint. Say I had a friend who wanted to submit a piece to Smokebox. Should said friend submit her most brilliant short story or her most scathing op-ed on saving the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?


We'd be happy to see either one, but we're always excited to see really good scathing op-ed pieces. Those are hard to come by, you know. When you publish on the web every other month a lot of what happens is old news by the time you go live. Right now we're trying to be careful not to let Smokebox get too fiction-heavy. Commentary was at the heart of the 'box at the start and we don't want to evolve away from that.


As a writer, what advice would you give a writer looking for a byline?


Get a job. Doyle's dad's advice is probably the best I've ever heard. It's tough to make it just by writing. Bylines aren't that hard to come by as long as you don't care about getting paid. Just check with the local neighborhood newspapers in your part of town, they're always looking for articles. Just ask. And don't forget about newsweeklies, they're always looking for material too, and might actually toss a few dollars your way. Editors are incredibly harried, stressed-out individuals with constant worries and woes wearing them down, so they'll remember you as long as you write well and meet your deadlines.


As an editor, what advice would you give a writer looking for a byline?


Get a job. Doyle's dad's advice is probably the best I've ever heard. It's tough to make it just by writing. You writers need to stop worrying so much about getting paid and just be happy to get a byline. We editors are incredibly harried, stressed-out, persecuted individuals with constant worries and woes wearing us down. Write well and turn in your pieces on time and I'll remember you, believe me.


Tina Crandell is twenty-nine years old and currently focused on a checklist of things to accomplish before she turns thirty. She lives in Durham, North Carolina, with her husband and two cats. She has been writing since she won her first contest with a poem about a tree, at seven years old. She writes mostly essays and fiction; this is her first published interview.



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