The Circus Ran for a Little While: Thomas Beller on the Life and Death of Open City Magazine

By Nathan C. Martin

Open City magazine launched when I was seven years old. It ceased publication in February after a 20-year run. In his elegy to the magazine in the Wall Street Journal, editor Thomas Beller, who is now an assistant professor at Tulane, wrote about the thirty-somethings who approached him at the last Open City party to rhapsodize about days during which they had discovered the magazine, ten years earlier. They spoke about that time, around the turn of the century, as if it had been at the beginning of something—they were there, man, from the start! Indeed, the time to which they referred was one of new beginnings for Open City—its book arm had just published debuts from Sam Lipsyte and David Berman, and new-kid editor Joanna Yas had assumed full responsibilities after the untimely death of OC co-founder Rob Bingham. But that hadn’t been the beginning of Open City at all—the magazine had already existed for ten years. Two decades of literary magazine is a lot to wrap your head around.

Beller recently left town for a summer sojourn in New York, where he was born and raised and where he’ll be until December. The imprint of émigrés from New York on the cultural landscape of contemporary New Orleans is becoming increasingly pronounced—the Big Easy has become a destination of choice for artists sick of the Big Difficult. Beller is an especially welcome addition to the city’s literary scene, having not only relationships with a sizable array of quality authors, but also a venue—Tulane—through which he can bring them to town and enhance New Orleans’ too-often insular conversation. He has had his hand in Tulane’s hosting authors such as Amy Hempel, Phillip Lopate, Meghan Daum, Jonathan Ames, Joan Didion, James Salter, Bliss Broyard, Edmund White, and recently Saïd Sayrafiezadeh and Bryan Charles. We look forward to his return from the North.

I spoke with Beller in his office during a sunny day in March, while I was on my lunch break.

Room 220: I heard someone say that doing a literary magazine takes at least one book out of a writer’s life. Do you feel like this is true?

Thomas Beller: It’s a trick question for me because Open City lasted 20 years. The second decade was much less fruitful for me as a writer than the first one. This is a fact that I’m living with. So that would suggest ‘yes’ to your question. But there are caveats. During the second decade the structure had changed dramatically, and my sense of responsibility issue-to-issue and to the institution was larger. I had also started a sort of solo project, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and that was engrossing and involving as a second enterprise. So does that mean that’s two books that I’ve sacrificed? I had my first collection of stories, Seduction Theory, in 1995, then the novel The Sleepover Artist was in 2000, and then I had this essay collection, How to Be a Man, in 2005. There are things I edited in that last decade—I did the Salinger collection, and then two books from Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood—so I was publishing, but as far as books, and novels specifically, it was less verdant than the first one. But I don’t know whether that’s to do with my responsibilities at Open City, starting a second literary magazine, or having a good chunk of one’s brain suddenly left swirling out into the wild stoner ether of the internet, which adds yet another layer of existential doubt to the act of writing literature. So, there’s more than just the simple fact of the magazine. But I would say that if you do a magazine for 20 years, the short answer to your question is ‘yes.’

Rm220: Do you ever wish you’d spent more time writing a novel?

TB: I have no regrets about what happened. But when I was wrestling with what to do now, I went to see a guy named Daniel Halpern, who’s a poet and a publisher and who is a fascinating model for an editor, because he had started with Paul Bowles, who is a writer I absolutely love, with this magazine Antaeus. When I went to see him I said, Well, here’s my situation: It’s getting really hard to do Open City because there’s editorial issues, staying fresh, keeping interested, the energy, but there are also these logistical money issues. And he said, Look, 20 years is a great run, you don’t owe anything more than that. You’re not obliged. And I said I’m thinking of keeping the books going and closing the magazine, and he said I think that’s a great idea. So with that endorsement, that’s what I did. And it’s not so much I thought to myself, Oh gee, if only I hadn’t spent this much energy. But I did think, Look, there’s no question—if you do keep this going there’s no question it’s going to take away from your work.

Rm220: You teach at Tulane now. What other jobs did you have while you were doing Open City?

TB: Well, let me say for the record two things: One is I’m thrilled to be teaching at Tulane, and enjoying it—the whole fact of being part of an institution that’s much bigger than me and the little rowboat I’ve built by hand. Teaching was something that I was extremely wary of, and I would say for a long time felt total contempt for, because I embraced a vision of being a writer as a hustler, an adventurer, an improviser, some sort of hunter-gatherer figure. Of course all of those are fantasies that you can sustain if you are in fact a hunter-gatherer, but if you want to have a family that changes everything. So this is a new chapter for me, and it’s been an interesting adjustment.

Rm220: Open City always seemed like a very New York operation, and from the perspective of someone who knows you only from your work, you seem like a very New York guy. How long have you been in New Orleans, and how did that influence your relationship with Open City?

TB: I set foot here for the first time in my life in February 2008. I moved here in the fall of 2008. I’m actually trying to write about this right now: I think where you’re from is a lens through which you see new places, and that’s true if you travel to a place for a week or move there. So I came down to New Orleans with a certain lens through which to see it, and my first reaction was that New Orleans reminded me of 70s-era New York City—which is the New York of my childhood—in the sense that it was a place that was a bit dangerous, a bit disheveled, a bit dysfunctional, the civic services were dicey, but at the same time it was a place that had not been totally marred by gentrification, had not been marred by the horrendous visual attack that New York has now. And New Orleans is amenable to life and curious pursuits. That’s a very abstract way of saying rents are very cheap, relatively, and it’s a very forgiving place for freaks, bohemians, and experimentation. When I thought of this place as New York in the 70s, it wasn’t entirely that it was a mess. It was that the very mess of it allows for curious life forms in a way that becomes more and more difficult to pull off in New York. In relationship to Open City—the truth is, if you work in the same office as someone, but they’re just down the hall, you’ll probably email and phone with them ten times more during the day than you’ll actually see them, so the functioning of Open City as an editorial process didn’t get affected that much at all. But it didn’t help as a fundraiser to be in New Orleans, because the places where you would fundraise are probably back in New York.

Rm220: It’s obviously rare for a literary periodical—or any periodical, for that matter—to run for 20 years. Do you have any general or particular ideas about to what you’d attribute Open City‘s longevity?

TB: That’s a tough question, because these things are two things—they’re an explicitly literary enterprise, so you’re publishing writing, you’re publishing writers, you’re thinking about that—but it’s also a gesture, you know? It’s something to do in life, a particular way of living, which has liabilities and pluses. You know, did you lose a book by doing a magazine? That’s a big minus. The act of putting so much energy into something that doesn’t make money in any meaningful way is ennobling, but part of it is absurd. So, to last for a long time is a both a combination of being idealistic, sticking to your guns, having stamina, and it’s also a function of denial and some sort of crazy wish to hit your thumb with a hammer over and over again. What’s complicated also, with Open City, were the deeply, deeply weird personalities of a magazine—it’s very dark and weird. For me, it was really important, when all hell broke loose at what is now the halfway mark, to not end. It was a matter of real pride to survive—Daniel Pinchbeck’s changes as a person and what was going on between he and I, and even moreso to survive Rob Bingham just dropping dead. And then it was actually really rewarding, the second half, with Joanna Yas, who was the sanest among us. There were just really a lot of good things were happening, and the magic sort of remained. So that was the incentive. And, frankly, when I had to go out and try to be a grown up and raise money from people—at some point I need to just do an essay about the weird distinction in American life between earning money and raising money. Earning money is what normal people do. Raising money is what very poor and very rich people do.

Rm220: It’s kind of insane, the idea that you don’t really have to work for a wage or a salary—you can just get an idea and convince a rich person to give you a bunch of money.

TB: Well, ideally it works out so that there’s a rich person, but usually there’s kind of a pack mentality. There might be one lead investor but usually it’s a consortium of people. I don’t know—Marc Andreessen has invested, but so has X Y Q, maybe because he got in, but he’s not the whole thing. So metaphorically it’s a party, just like the magazine is a party, then the money part is literally a party, because you have this benefit event, and then it becomes a kind of circus. And what does the person who runs the circus do? They stand there in a tuxedo and a top hat with a monkey on their shoulder. It’s both a very grandiose position and a totally ludicrous one. But I’m proud to say that the circus ran for a little while.