Bruce Bauman on the Origins of Black ClockMagazine
"Others will and are coming along. But I think there is no doubt—it will be missed."
Bruce Bauman is an award-winning author and an instructor in the CalArts MFA Writing Program and Critical Studies Department. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Salon, BOMB, Bookforum, and numerous anthologies and other publications. His latest novel is Broken Sleep. Born and raised in New York City, he lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the painter Suzan Woodruff.
Bauman served as the senior editor for the eclectic literary magazine Black Clock (CalArts) for over a decade, before the magazine folded earlier this year. This position involved working closely with the editor-in-chief, iconic U.S. novelist Steve Erickson. I interviewed Bauman about that experience and what about Black Clock was unique.
Jeff VanderMeer: How did you get involved with Black Clock and what was the relationship editorially between you and Steve Erickson? Who did what? How did that relationship evolve over time?
Bruce Bauman: My wife and I had gotten a residency at the 18th Street Art center in Santa Monica around 2000. They had a small lit mag and asked me to help out. I don’t even remember how but I got Steve’s email, but I asked him if we could reprint a section from American Nomad. He was so damn gracious and generous. It was kind of amazing to me at the time. Rebecca Goldstein had previously introduced me to his work, and said you will love this guy—and she was right, it just blew me fucking away. So, soon we became email friends. A year or two after that I started adjunct teaching at CalArts. Steve and I discovered we had extremely similar tastes in literature, music, film, and the same basic sense of American culture. Also, let’s say, Steve is quite verbally reserved, and well, I’m not.
Early on, before the first issue, he realized was going to need some help so he asked me and Dwayne Moser, who was working for the program at the time, to help out. It was just the three of us and we had no defined duties. Figuring out things like distribution, printing costs—all the nuts and bolts of putting out a magazine which we were learning on the fly. Dwayne took on researching much of that.
Also, just coming from New York City, I had some friends who I could contact for the first issue like Rick Moody (he and Steve had met but not been in contact), Joanna Scott and Rebecca. All immediately said yes once they heard Steve was the editor-in-chief.
From the very beginning when Jon Wagner had hired Steve to start the magazine, it was clear the vison, the content—all final decisions would be Steve’s. I was always cool with that. In fact, I think that’s the only way it could work. Steve edited every single piece in every issue of the magazine. As time went on, he let me do first edits on a number of pieces. Especially the younger or newer writers I brought in and the unsolicited pieces. We had a process where our interns would read the unsolicited pieces: every piece was read by at least two interns. Then I would read them. Then Steve would say yea or nay and edit it if were yes.
Sometimes if he were having a difficult time with a piece or a writer, he’d ask my opinion. But he approved every piece first, and then did the final edit. In 13 years and 21 issues I’d say we agreed 99 percent of the time. We were remarkably in sync.
JV: How would you say Steve’s tastes in fiction differ from your own and where do they overlap?
BB: Again, remarkably similar influences and obsessions. If I had to say, I think he was more seeped in speculative fiction than I, and I was more obsessed with some European Jewish writers and the American Jewish writer generation that emerged in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
JV: The magazine always had a different look-and-feel. In what ways did content define the layout and in general how synergistic was the relationship between editorial and design?
BB: I don’t think the magazine got enough credit for the physical beauty of each issue. This too came out of Steve’s vision. In one of our first group meetings—it was Steve, Jon Wagner, Dwayne Moser and Gail Swanlund, our first and wildly talented art director. Steve was explaining the look he wanted and I was thinking to myself—this is like Lennon saying to George Martin “I want the sound of a thousand praying monks on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows.'” I was kinda worried. And Jon said “Oh, just make it Ericksonian”—and somehow she did. It wasn’t quite that easy and we looked at lots of images for the covers of 1 and 2. But the vision—from the cover to the layout to the contents, each issue was Steve’s. He was always open to advice from me and a few others, and often he took it, but what made BC unique was that “Ericksonian” vision.
When Gail left after working long hours, under intense deadlines for almost no money, for most of the rest of the issues we were so lucky to have the wildly gifted (and very funny) Ophelia Chong as the AD (and she worked long hours, under intense deadlines for little money). She took up on the template that Gail had established and kept it beautiful but gave it her own signature and style, all the while keeping it Ericksonian. Both Gail and Ophelia were experts in finding art and artists that fit perfectly with each issue.
JV: For me, the magazine stood out and seemed relevant because it didn’t really follow trends but always published interesting writers. Did you and/or Steve have a guiding principle or idea that helped you to plot a course?
BB: Not really. If anything it was Steve’s dictum to let writers do what they want and stretch beyond what they usually do if they felt like it. Take chances. Maybe fail. I think the first issue with David Foster Wallace, Joanna Scott, Rick, Michael Ventura, Jonathan Lethem, Aimee Bender and a few others made one statement. Then the second issue, which was Steve’s idea for a theme issue of the imaginary music of the mind—inspired by an old Greil Marcus piece that we reprinted—added Samantha Dunn, Lynne Tillman, David Ulin, Geoff Nicholson, Emily White, and Brian Evenson, all of whom became semi-regulars in the magazine. Of course we added many others, and numerous new voices along the way. But I think the first two issues sort of set up what we’d do for the entire run.
JV: The magazine didn’t much seem to care about divides between realists and non-realists. It seemed at times experimental to me, but also to publish more traditional types of stories. Do you personally care about these divisions? How would you describe the magazine in terms of its stance in this context?
BB: I don’t think Steve cared about those kinds of differences for one minute (and I know I didn’t). He was just looking for the best work to fit in each issue, whether it was an obvious theme, a less obvious theme or one where we collected all the pieces we had and he picked the ones that best fit that free-from issue, and somehow he would make it come together so it all flowed together.
Look at Steve’s novels—they are original works of genius. The name Black Clock comes from Steve’s novel Tours of the Black Clock—which he modestly didn’t want to use. Jon had to persuade him. To get back to Tours, it is a novel that is impossible to summarize quickly but breaks barriers of time and pace and is an alternate history that includes a unique portrayal of Adolph Hitler.
Steve also appears as a character in some of his books as does his wife. There are passages in American Nomad, a nonfiction book, that are just so beautiful. His riffs on Sinatra, Springsteen, and Patti Smith could easily fit inside say, The Sea came in at Midnight. And his new novel Shadowbahn is a continuation of the Ericksonian world. So I think he approached putting together each issue the same way. No rules and let’s see how it goes.
JV: Do you have any editing highlights you’d care to share? Any stories or issues you were particularly proud of?
BB: The first highlight was getting David Foster Wallace’s story Oblivion for the premiere issue. Wallace, William Vollmann and Delillo were the only writers who did not communicate via email. DFW sent a disc and postcards to Steve. Vollmann gave us a PO Box. And DeLillo sent his story, I think through his agent, but we communicated though fax—which I had to send and receive because Steve didn’t have one. There were a certain few writers who dealt only with Steve, not me or the interns.
A highlight for me, and I think for Steve too was working with our interns. Starting with I think year three, we had between 8 and 12 interns every year. They were all exclusively CalArts MFA students. We’d meet once a week. They’d have office manager duties, read unsolicited pieces, helped on all our events (launches, LA Times Festival of Books) and were part of the copyediting process.
The three things I am going to miss most about the mag are working with Steve and our staff Orli Low (managing editor), Joe Milazzo (assistant managing editor), and Anne-Marie-Kinney (production editor), publishing writers who hadn’t been in the mag before (or not been published much at all or never) and working with our interns. It’s pretty extraordinary how many smart, wonderful responsible interns we had. Many of them kept on helping, working with us after they graduated. Many of them are published already, working in publishing as agents, and editors and teaching. We were incredibly lucky. Each year, we’d go “How are we going to replace the bunch that just graduated?” And then a whole new crop of amazing students would come in.
We were also very fortunate to have the president of the CalArts, Steven Lavine, the person most responsible in the admin for our existence and support, and Jamie Wolf of the Rosenthal Foundation, who also supported us financially and spiritually. Neither of whom ever once interfered with the editorial content. They’re only feedback was, well, really complimentary. When we did the sex theme issue we got a piece from Samuel Delany that was, whew—Delany to the max. That was the one time we were worried that we might get some shit. But, nope.
If pushed I’d say my personal favorite issues are 1, 2, the psychedelic, the imaginary film with Anthony Miller’s fantastic alternate history of the cinema, and the last issue. We did a sports issue, where Steve let me (and David Ulin helped me)—do most of the picking and editing—though Steve did a final edit on every piece, and also came up with the idea for the Box Scores. I’m a sports nut and most of the pieces are pro-sports, but I asked Paul Cullum to write an anti-sports piece—and it’s one of my favorite pieces we ever published.
JV: “What did you learn” is a kind of obnoxious question about what’s actually a journey. But how did Black Clock impact your life and your writing, if it did?
BB: I think it’s a bit soon to look back and reflect with any clarity on some “big statement.” But I made some great friends through the magazine and met a lot of super writers. The first thing I learned is how damn hard it is to put out a quality magazine twice a year. It was a full time, no summers off job. And at the same time I was teaching at CalArts (for the first few years I was still teaching at UCLAx, private workshops and sometimes at other programs), writing my own novels and stories, and I was writing art criticism at that time too, and, you know having a life with my family and friends. I think Steve would agree. He once emailed me that “I wake up at 6 or 7 and by 9 or 10 somehow I’m already two hours behind in my day.”
It certainly changed my life and much for the better in ways I can’t specifically articulate. I’m not sure I would have been teaching at CalArts for 13 years without the magazine. BC was a national, actually international magazine as we had subscribers and readers from all over. But the mag was made in LA. As a born and raised New Yorker, this is almost heretical to say, but Los Angeles is a great fucking place to be a writer, an artist (as is my wife)—and being part of the Black Clock community made it all the much better for me. Publications like LARB and the LARB channels, Los Angeles Review, Santa Monica Review and Dan Smetanka with Counterpoint Press and many more are doing great work. Others will and are coming along. But I think there is no doubt—it will be missed.