Interview with Managing Editor of The Sun Tim McKee
From their website – The Sun is an independent, ad-free monthly magazine that for more than thirty years has used words and photographs to invoke the splendor and heartache of being human. The Sun celebrates life, but not in a way that ignores its complexity. The personal essays, short stories, interviews, poetry, and photographs that appear in its pages explore the challenges we face and the moments when we rise to meet those challenges.
Tegan Swanson: A reader characterizes The Sun as showing “the beauty, the wonder & the dirty truth of the human spirit” – why do you think this is representative of your artistic aesthetic?
Tim McKee: The dirty truth is pretty key – beauty and wonder is important, but we don’t want to leave out the hard part. We don’t shy away from occupying the messy parts of life. A Sun reader is someone at a party, if you ask them how they are, they’d much prefer to stand in the corner with you and have a conversation for 45 minutes, rather than the superficial social moment. There are a lot of party conversations in the media – we’re not interested in furthering small talk, or illusions that life is easy or simple. That’s the writing that we gravitate towards. People write us letters that ask us why we’re down or dark, but as a staff, we take the opposite position. We think it’s inspiring to read about people’s own grapplings with the messy parts – as a community, we feel less alone, and to see something beautiful in all of that, it’s inspiring. Finally, we might find some way to get out or through these things.
TS: Since 1990, The Sun has been an ad-free, non-profit publication. Founder Sy Safransky started The Sun as a sort of street-side guerilla publication in 1974. More than 30 years later, how much of that backpack-to-reader intimacy remains in the magazine? What sort of challenges has the staff faced in order to maintain this status?
TM: Sy had nothing against ads, but there was a feeling that the writing and photography is very intimate, sort of a connection developed between the piece of art and the audience. Anything that rots or dilutes that relationship is undesirable. We are a nonprofit, so essentially we need to break even, which means there is less pressure to bring in huge dollars. Everyone is paid well, the offices are comfortable. We ask our readers once or twice a year to contribute – this is the price that readers pay for not having ads. The thing is, when people send in donations, they often write that they do so because we don’t take ads. There is the passive appreciation and the idea that it is nice not to clutter, and also the mere act of support for taking that stand in this world where ads are following us everywhere.
We have 70,000 readers now, in comparison to the handful which were buying magazines out of Sy’s backpack in 1974. Back then it was him and one other guy, now we have 14 full time staff, freelancers. It’s a bigger operation. But we’re still all about the dirty truth, telling the stories that we don’t necessarily hear in the mainstream media – that remains at the core. Content is still alternative, but I think the term “new age-y” would bother him now, because we’ve moved passed that. Look at an issue from the 1970s, now the tone is slightly different.
TS: The motto of the magazine as attributed on the website is “Personal. Political. Provocative. Ad-free.” Features about controversial figures like the interview with Peter Coyote or Sea Shepherd’s Paul Watson certainly typify the “political” aspect of this approach.
TM: For the interviews, we try to feature people who are going to make our readers think about something a little differently, learn something new. Having folks who run against the grain. We get letters about controversial issues, like the interview with Stewart Brand where he is questioning the “sacred cows” of the environmental movement. Here’s a guy who was an environmentalist, and the opinions he’s expressing were sort of unexpected. People wrote in saying things like – what’s with this guy, he sold out? But we’re trying to expand the conversations, broadening the market place. It’s important to feature people who don’t just say exactly what you think you know something about already.
TS: In an age of instant accessibility and 24 hour media coverage, what role does print media – and The Sun in particular – occupy in the contemporary American political conversation?
TM: There is a kind of headspace that the reader has to get into, a particular one. I still read The Sun sometimes at my house, even though I’ve been involved in the creative process. It’s a meditative state – I curl up in my favorite chair by my window, by the fire, try to really have the openness to really take things in. Besides the Sunbeams feature [ a page of quotations at the end of every issue], nothing in the magazine is something that you could really digest on the go – you’re going to have to give it the time. It’s a certain line that we’re holding. We are going to have a digital version for those who prefer to do their reading online, but it’s still “here’s an idea or story, sit and get into it.”
TS: I loved the short story by Kathleen Founds in the September 2011 issue, and I was pleasantly surprised by its inclusion because of the nontraditional structure. In wading through piles of manuscripts and submissions, what characteristics are most appealing for publication?
TM: With our fiction, it opens the window, let’s some fresh air in. There can be so much experimentation with voice, character, narrative perspective, versus the confines of the other forms. But it still needs to feel real to us, still in the realm that we could come across in daily life. Founds’ piece was creative and funny and vibrant. There is some satire in that piece, but it worked because the voices of these high school kids, and the teacher, had a resonance with reality. We’re not interested with literary sleights of hand, experimentation just for the sake of moving the form forward. Going to break with form just for some meta-literary thinking, we are utterly uninterested in that. Sometimes we act like we’re dense, almost purposefully. When it comes down to it, we’re people around the fire, and someone is telling the story. The trickery is distracting.
I’ve done some poetry workshops with youth – what they think about poetry, what comes to mind. They say things like “I can’t understand it , doesn’t make sense, I don’t know what’s going on”, and I think this is really counter to what the heart of poetry really is. I don’t want to have to look it up to get it. A poem that is doing its job should be understood by a teenager, not because it’s simple, but because you don’t need insider knowledge to get it.
TS: When you are considering work for publication, how do you interact with the authors? Do you work with them on edits, etc.?
TM: We have lots of exchange with writers. We edit heavily. Always send edited galleys to the writers, and we expect them to exchange opinions. A sort of back and forth until both parties are pleased. I only know of one case where we lost a piece because we couldn’t reach agreement with a writer on edits.
TS: What suggestions do you have for writers looking to get their work published?
TM: I know it’s been said before, but knowing your publication is key; I’m still shocked at number of submissions that are so off of our base, it makes me think that a person has never seen an issue. It’s hard work getting published. But literary spamming, the scattershot approach – I don’t think that works. Find magazines that you as a writer enjoy reading, and those are the ones to keep trying.
TS: It seems like this idea of the dirty truth is pervasive on many levels at the magazine. Any final thoughts about what The Sun means for you personally?
TM: It follows a line in my life. I’m searching for communion with other people. I also struggle with solitude and alienation, because I’m looking for real conversations – the 45 minute chat at a party – and that can be hard to find. When we have retreats, a hundred or so readers will come, and it’s amazing even though we’re from really different walks of life, you get them together, and just to see how deep people will go. It’s not about hearts on our sleeves, trotting out all of our woes, that sort of thing. I have this neighbor, an old man who lived in a small town for a long time. He used to say he liked the kind of folks who, when you ask them how they are, they really answered. That’s the kind of conversation we’re trying to foster.