Knee-Jerk is an online literary magazine created by three local writers: Casey Bye, Jon Fullmer, and Steve Tartaglione. The monthly magazine features stories, interviews, excerpts, and reviews of things (e.g., "Review of The Power Team", "Review of My Mother's Abs," and "Review of My Pregnancy at Seven Months"). In describing the Knee-Jerk vibe, the three founders suggest "a dinner table filled with friends and family. We’re all sharing ideas, stories, laughter, and a whole lot of corn dogs." The journal spotlights a diverse array of writing, from both emerging and established talent, with an emphasis on the experimental and the humorous. I interviewed the editors about how they launched the magazine and how it has evolved. —Laura Pearson, CAR Literary Researcher
So Knee-Jerk started out as a grad school project? Was that the impetus?
Casey: We'd actually been talking about it for about a year before that.
Jon: We all had a desire to do something creative. Personally, I'd always want to do a magazine, and in talking about it over beers, we all got excited about the prospect. It wasn't something we had to do for school, but we definitely took advantage of being in school to get Knee-Jerk going.
Casey: I took a small press class at Columbia to get some info. on how to run this [kind of publication].
Steve: For a long time, we were pretty bad about setting deadlines, so the small press class that Casey was in gave us deadlines, which was wonderful.
Did you begin with the decision to make it a monthly magazine or did that idea evolve?
Casey: I think we always knew wanted to do an online monthly.
Steve: We wanted to stay relevant, too. We knew if we were going to do this, we had to [publish] it a lot.
Jon: Again, it took us a year for us to decide what we wanted to do, so during that time we talked about any possible connections we had to solicit [contributors], how to promote it beforehand, that sort of thing. In the process, we decided to go monthly. It seemed feasible enough, especially for online. I mean, what's the point of having an online publication that's only updated every quarter?
How did you decide what kind of content to include?
Casey: We started talking about people we'd want to see stories from, and then that started opening it up to ‘What if we don’t just get straight fiction? Let's have nonfiction. Let's have interviews with people from different backgrounds.’
Jon: An initial idea that we had that, in some ways, fell through—though it's still something we emphasize—was to focus on the merging of the arts… We had some lofty ideas that seemed to make sense at the time, but when we launched we kind of had to pare it down to the bare essentials.
Steve: We're getting back to that merging of the arts with our [forthcoming] print issue.
You have a flexible approach to what types of content you publish, but was there ever a point where you thought, 'We need to have a narrower angle for this literary journal'?
Steve: We were batting around doing themes for a while, but that idea didn't really take.
Jon: I think the big thing early on is that we wanted content to be—and this is a vague term and cliche, too—but we wanted to be somewhat experimental. To us, this meant opening the door to more stuff. We didn't want [potential contributors] to feel limited by anything. But we were also trying to emphasize humor pieces, just to keep it lively and fresh.
Steve: Why sit at a computer and read like, a 6,000-word story about divorce? [Laughs] Though surprisingly, we still get a lot of that. Sometimes we'll come across something that isn't exactly a "Knee-Jerk story," but we'll publish it because it's damn good. We'd be dumb to pass it up.
Jon: An original idea that has stayed with us is our "Reviews of Things." It's something that stands apart and gives the magazine a lighter feel.
What has been one of the more surprising elements of publishing Knee-Jerk?
Jon: One thing I didn't expect, not to this degree, was that we take the most joy out of getting involved with the stories and interacting with the writers. And not just saying 'Thanks for the piece, and then taking it,’ but working with [him/her] to make it better.
Steve: Our first order of business as a magazine was to have a couple beers, eat a Snickers ice cream bar, and email George Saunders at 2 in the morning and ask him for a story or interview if he had the time. Just the fact that he emailed back within a half hour, even though he said no—we were like, 'We're really gonna do this!'
Interviewed in Summer 2010. A version of this interview originally appeared on Center Square Journal.
Casey Bye, Jon Fullmer, and Steve Tartaglione met in the MFA writing program at Columbia College. They published the first issue of Knee-Jerk in July 2009. In December 2010, they'll release their inaugural print issue (Knee-Jerk Offline, Volume One), featuring fiction, essays, artwork, comics, and more, plus lists from the likes of David Shields, Roy Kesey, Kim Chinquee, Joe Meno, Dan Kennedy, John McNally, Zoe Zolbrod, Billy Lombardo, Adam Kidder, Kenny Keil, and Aaron Delehanty, as well as an interview with renowned screenwriter/film director/ghostbuster Harold Ramis.