Joanne Chan is the founding editor of Illustoria and guided its first eight issues. Beginning this month 2019, McSweeney’s will publish the magazine. Issue 9 is themed on food and includes art by Hein Koh, interviews with chefs, artists, and activists including Rachel Parent and Tunde Olaniran, original comics, cut-out Chinese Zodiac trading cards, and an interview with a donut designer. To mark the release of Issue 9 this week, Chan and McSweeney’s Executive Director Amanda Uhle spoke about art, writing, children, and what makes for a great magazine.
AU: Why did you start Illustoria? And more importantly: how?
JC: I started Illustoria with the hopes of inspiring kids and grownups to slow down and take the time to enjoy art, stories, and being creative together. I am passionate about print as a powerful medium to share ideas and to tap into a part of something larger than ourselves.
The road to creating Illustoria involved many individuals — from seeking the advice of my partner, close friends, and colleagues in publishing to collaborating with artists, writers, and makers whom I’ve long admired. All my favorite picture books, graphic novels, magazines, DIY books, zines, and literary blogs served as reference material and inspiration. While I had a strong vision for the magazine, it took the sage input and guidance of numerous individuals and the unique hand of our uber-talented art director, Elizabeth Haidle, to bring it all together. After a lot of hard work, iterations, and refinement, when our first issue came together we felt (with some amount of disbelief) that we had hit upon something that would really resonate with the world.
AU: What’s a normal weekday like in your house and in your office?
JC: A normal weekday begins with a busy morning ritual of elaborate breakfasts, lunch packing for three kids, the essential consumption of tea and coffee, diaper changes, and dropping off my eldest at middle school. A nanny comes several days a week to care for the little one; and my son and I recently chose the path of homeschooling/unschooling for him — so our days are quite packed and varied! The times and days that I have carved out for work are intense because there’s no doubt I’m a busy mama. My designated home office is connected to our art studio, and you’ll typically find me going back and forth between working at my desk, fulfilling orders, and taking photos or dipping into projects at the art table. I enjoy the variety of tasks because the essential (but not glamorous) parts of running an indie press give me a heightened appreciation for what it takes to do creative work for a living. Having the paintings, drawings, crafts, and materials of the art studio in view as I work is a great, constant reminder that creative expression is at the heart of Illustoria — and it’s also, conveniently, where our publishing assistant, Claire, would dream up and concoct many of our DIY activities and coloring pages. After hours plugging away, when there’s a precious spare moment for myself, I like to take off on a quiet forest walk or delve into my latest project. Amanda, what’s a typical weekday look like for you? How do you manage home life, a busy work schedule, and time to be creative with your daughter?
AU: My best days start with a one-mile roundtrip walk to my daughter’s school to get her started on her day at fifth grade before I start my own. And then if I don’t have a call or a meeting right away, my first order of business is a long, scrawly handwritten list so I can visually see what’s important for the day ahead and where I can choose to put my attention first. In addition to working with the super-talented Illustoria staff, I work with youth writing centers around the world who are part of the International Alliance of Youth Writing Centers and organize a summer gathering of teenage activists, and of course work with McSweeney’s on our book publishing program, our humor website, and our Quarterly lit journal, too. My days usually have more phone calls and emails than quiet reflection and reading and writing, but I like a lot of activity, and I love the unexpected. Joanne, tell me about your reading habits. I often have an unholy mix of several books, for kids and for adults, all in progress at once.
JC: Likewise! I used to be the type of reader who had to complete a book from cover to cover, even if I wasn’t enjoying it, before I would let myself start another. That is entirely not the case anymore. I’ve learned to read what calls out to me in the moment. My nightstand and desk are filled with fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, poetry, go-to picture books and board books for the little one, magazines of all stripes, and at least a book or two on design and art. I find having plenty of options at my fingertips to be extremely reassuring, even if I sink into a delicious book that I can’t put down. Just knowing there’s more pleasurable and engaging reading to come is a comfort. Amanda, what’s currently on your nightstand? What is your relationship to buying, borrowing, and sharing books?
AU: I can show restraint and follow a less is more attitude in some aspects of my life, but acquiring books is just not like that for me. I’ve finally embraced the idea that I am generally a “more is more” person when it comes to books. Every book has something to offer its readers, and if I can’t find it, I assume the failure is my own. So I pick up everything my curiosity leads me to grab at my local public library, at the incredible Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, and of course gratefully accept friends’ recommendations. I’m never without a novel in progress, and I normally also have a tall stack of other things to sample: nonfiction books about politics and social issues, cookbooks, picture books, memoirs, a ratty New Yorker folded over to a story I’ve been trying to finish forever, and various magazines that may have caught my attention. Joanne, in your opinion, what do magazines do that books cannot?
JC: Ah — that is the question that I asked myself quite a lot when developing Illustoria. Why a magazine? Why not a publishing house for beautiful, timeless books that can live on in respectable hardcover form instead? For me, magazines can give readers behind-the-scenes insight into people, places, and subjects in a way that can be both intimate and informal, not too precious but potentially profound. Magazines allow us to share not just our polished, labored-over work (as the commitment to the book form usually demands), but our in-progress selves and more spontaneous, fleeting projects can have a valid forum as well. Well-designed and considered magazines are able to seamlessly break down barriers that separate “high art” from “low art,” established talent from new voices, one genre or format of storytelling from another — and in so doing provide a diversity of styles and points of view. I suppose books cannot do what magazines, as serial publications, do best — which is to create an ongoing, inherently evolving dialogue with its readers through an ever-morphing cast of characters.