Volume 76, Number 25 | November 8 - 14, 2006

Photo by Tobias Everke

Brigid Hughes

A place for fiction

A conversation with Brigid Hughes, editor of A Public Space

By McKay McFadden

Brigid Hughes spent ten years at The Paris Review, where she worked as executive editor under the literary champion George Plimpton. After his death, Hughes decided there was a need for a new magazine dedicated to fiction.

So began A Public Space, a quarterly literary journal that pursues the power of fiction and wider worldviews. It debuted in March, but I was thrilled to discover it a few months later during the otherwise disheartening process of looking for my first job out of college. Entering Hughes’ office, a refurbished old stable in Cobble Hill, I knew I’d found the perfect fit, a place where I could work for something and someone I respect.

Last week, Hughes sat down with me on the comfortable leather couch usually occupied by readers dutifully sorting through the slush piles. Per usual, the music alternated between the assistant editor’s Postal Service and Hughes’ daily dose of NPR, punctuated by kids ringing the doorbell as they ran by after school. We talked about the range of voices in her magazine, where fiction holds court for a new conversation on the contemporary relevance of the imagination.

What was the impetus for starting a new literary journal?

I’d thought about starting my own magazine for years, and at the time I left The Paris Review, I talked with several people who gave fuel to that fire. We felt that fiction was getting a bad rap—that it was irrelevant, that it wasn’t a way to understand the world in these times, so on and so forth—and I thought there was a need for a magazine to counter that argument.

Why fiction? What’s the power of fiction to you not as an editor, but as a reader?

Fiction is the way of accessing other worlds. It makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange.

Why did you call it A Public Space?

One night I was talking to a friend about how much seemed wrapped up in the name, and how I wanted the magazine to reflect a passage I’d read by Aleksandar Hemon with the phrase “a public space” in it. Hemon was talking about taxicab literature versus public transportation literature — where all these different voices bump into each other. That’s what I wanted this new magazine to be.

What was the original mission? How did you set out to make this magazine different?

We’re aiming for a wide range of voices; that might be a bigger factor here than in other magazines. And I wanted to open up A Public Space. I wanted to see what a story looks like up against work from another country, or an illustrated guide, or an op-ed piece. That’s a big part of a magazine, I think—not just the work you publish, but how you fit that work together.

One major theme for the magazine seems to be including work that stretches beyond the New York literary scene.

It’s proved to be a good thing for the magazine to not have everyone from New York, but that’s not what I initially set out to do.

Editorially, A Public Space has a range of voices, from Yiyun Li, whose first published story we found in the slush pile at the Paris Review, to editors I’d worked with at The Paris Review like Elizabeth Gaffney, to the guest editors for the portfolio sections.

I respect the contributing editors’ tastes and enjoy talking to them about fiction, not because I always agree with them. Sometimes it’s the disagreements that are the most valuable.

It also makes for a better conversation.

What do you want to do with the magazine next?

We’ve had a great first year, and now we’re working on starting up some of the longer-term projects we originally thought of—getting the writers out into the world. Many stories you read exist in a small world, which they don’t really see beyond. They’re insular. I don’t know if that’s a result of MFA programs, or writers not having contact with anything, but I like the idea of forcing collisions between writers and places and different sorts of people.

Do you think an MFA program can hamper pure writing talent?

At the Paris Review we used to try to come up with a list of writers in our generation who hadn’t gone to MFA program, and it was hard. Some of the best writers I’ve published are graduates of MFA programs. But we also see a lot of stories from MFA graduates who are less than exciting—they’ve learned the rules, but you can see the rules in the stories.
They know how to craft a story, but they don’t really have any story to tell. For me at least, that’s the most frustrating.

I’d like to hear about a story or writer that debuted in A Public Space. How do you find unpublished writers?
I remember meeting Aviya Kushner, one of our contributing editors, for lunch in Washington Square Park one day last summer. We talked for hours, and as we were walking to the subway, she pulled a random page from a manuscript out of her bag and read me one sentence, and I just remember thinking, I want to publish this writer. The writer was Tim O’Sullivan, and we included his story in our first issue—it was his first publication.

What about established authors — how do you attract them?
I like A Public Space to be a place where well-known artists can experiment, take a risk, try something they couldn’t try in other magazines.

You’re a long way from your old office at The Paris Review. Are you glad to be in Brooklyn?
Having worked for ten years in George Plimpton’s basement, which was part of a home, with people constantly stopping by, I knew I didn’t want to go into a cubicle. I knew I wanted to be in Brooklyn, because having worked in the Upper East Side for so long, I felt far removed from the literary scene. It seems the nine out of ten writers and artists live in Brooklyn, so that’s where A Public Space is.

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