An interview with James McAdams from Barren Magazine

This is the second interview in our features and interview section in Vestal Review. In this edition we are interviewing James McAdams from Barren Magazine, specializing in flash fiction. This interview was conducted by both Kevin White and Gillian Walker.

VR: What is special about Barren?

JM: Barren has one of the best design and web presences in the literary world. The photography and tone of the stories are amenable to my aesthetic, and the staff is second to none. We editors/contributing editors have committed to becoming the most helpful out there, even with rejections, which we make as useful as possible. No form letters!

I hope my tombstone says: “He wrote the kindest and most sincere rejection letters ever.”

VR: Every magazine has a different process for reading stories. What kind of system/process do you go through when reading?

JM: We read everything straight through, of course, but I make a note in re: if the first ½ page puts me in a different world or not. Anyone submitting to us should know that I’m sort of an asshole with regards to a story needing to grab me within the first couple paragraphs. As far as our reading process goes, we have a team of Contributing Editors for each medium that serves as a first-line, and then subs that make the cut go to our EIC and Managing Editor. Every piece has several pairs of eyes on it from the moment they’re sent in.

VR: What is the number one thing that drives you nuts when people submit?

JM: At Barren we consider it an honor to have stories shared with us and a holy privilege to give feedback. However, please consider these things if you are submitting; they are small and persnickety, but could be the difference between publication and an enthusiastic rejection:

  • 1,000 words of distant summary will probably bore us. Give us unique characters, give us weird dialogue, give us new contexts, give us details we never noticed before. And give them fast, not on page 3.
  • Italics to indicate interior monologue will make us sad… Try to work harder to express what the characters think/feel.
  • Apocalypse stories, stories where animals die for no reason, creepy stories by men about objectified women, banal love stories, stories that make no sense before a “reveal” in the last paragraph—some very nice people seem to think #FF is a kind of weird detective story where the last line works like O. Henry. It doesn’t, for us at least.
  • Finally, by reputation Barren focuses on hard truths, dark matters, difficult emotions, traumatic recall. I notice (some) authors appear to “play” at these themes and it doesn’t feel real for whatever reason? It seems instead like they sit down to write a “Barren story.” And it always rings false. My advice to writers would be to write stuff that resonates with you, don’t imitate Lynch movies or Carver stories or Arbus photos because you think Barren will like it. However, genuine stories about any of these things are fucking awesome! We publish them all the time when the tone is authentic.

VR: What do you consider flash fiction?

JM:  Flash fiction should create a new world, or a new perspective on our world. Dig experimentation. When the craze started, someone said flash should always be weird and experimental because it’s so short. If the experiment fails, who cares! One of my favorite pieces, which we didn’t publish, was a grocery list. Brilliant idea!

At Barren, we consider a piece as flash fiction if it is under 1,000 words.

VR: What advice do you want to give to any writers, either aspiring or established?

JM: I have no right to give advice – I’m a struggle-in-progress. But if I may suggest: put down your phones? As a writer you need to be aware of your surroundings, you need to experience the world. When you’re out, even if you’re shy (I can’t talk to people without Xanax), try your best to say hello and hear the stories people are begging to tell.

VR: What is the future for Barren?

JM: We’re working towards developing a press for a hardcopy distribution of poetry chapbooks and short story collections. We also are in the midst of our first annual Flash Fiction contest judged by Barlow Adams, so look that up. Everything we publish is intended to challenge our audience. We want to make them think.

VR: And what is the future for you and your writing?

JM: My collection of short stories, Ambushing the Void, will be published in March 2020 by @FrayedEdgePress. These stories are a little longer than flash, probably around 2k on average.

Currently, I’m writing a novel-in-flash about “The Florida Shuffle,” which denotes a rehab scam we’re famous for down here. Writing a novel-in-flash provides the satisfaction of completing a story every few days or week, and the pleasure of watching it accrete and develop into a larger unit.

You can find the first chapters of “The Florida Shuffle” here:

VR: What are you reading now?

JM: I’ve read two books in a row that changed my life: James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1939, with mesmerizing-Barren-esque photos by Walker Evans) and Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977). They’re excellent, sincere, morally urgent works of immersive journalism. Joy Williams is awesome if you want to read about the destruction of FL, for instance I just bought a house on the water and don’t even go outside because it’s so toxic and lethal.)