Josh Melrod and Dave Koch: The Land-Grant College Review--Slightly Less Than Twenty Questions

June 13, 2003

Today is the day to be meet my new lady friend.

Second to last Second City show tonight!

I'll admit up front that my interview with today's subjects is entirely based on word of mouth. I'm always interested in learning about new literary journals that are good and fun (as opposed to boring and stuffy) and I've heard nothing but good things about the Land-Grant College Review. So I caught up with their editors to find out what makes this journal so great.

Josh Melrod and Dave Koch: The Land-Grant College Review--Slightly Less Than Twenty Questions

Okay, let's start with the first, basic question. Why should somebody pick up and read the Land-Grant College Review?
Josh Melrod : First, the stories are really good. It's like reading a big collection or anthology. Most of the stories are kind of dark, and the book works really well that way on the whole, not that there's a common theme necessarily, but there is a common feeling, something dark and a little bit unsettling. Those are the stories that we like as readers and we think other people will like them too.

Dave Koch : We've said that all along, that if we couldn't find really great stories, there'd be no reason to put out a magazine.

Tell us the story of how it came to be.
DK : Well, initially we were going to call the magazine "Bar Mitzvah Money." We thought we'd be able to start a magazine, that it wouldn't take a particularly large amount of money, that it wouldn't really take all that much time (we started talking about it in April 2002 and I thought it'd be out by the end of the summer), and that just wound up being all wrong. Everything wound up being more expensive and more complicated than we thought it'd be.

JM: We spent a good part of this year just trying to raise the money to cover the printing costs.

DK: We're kind of getting to the fun part now.

JM: Right. Interviews are fun.

This might be redundant after Question #2, but for your first issue, did you woo authors, and if so, how did you do it, and how did you choose your authors?
JM: We did woo some of them. Dave went to Bread Loaf to woo a few and I went to Russia with Tara (Issue No. One's fiction editor) to woo others. Mostly we just asked writers we admire if they'd be interesting in giving a story to us. Once Tara and I went to a Stephen Dixon reading and during the Q&A I suggested, jokingly, that she stand up and ask if he'd give us a story. So that's how we got that one.

DK: Josh is a diabetic, and I'm colorblind. We played the sympathy card a lot.

How is it different from other journals?
DK: Well, we don't have any poetry, just fiction and nonfiction, so that makes it different from a lot of other journals.

JM: And we have full page color title page for each of the stories. That makes it a lot more expensive to print than other journals.

Do you know if many of your readers actually buy your Amazon recommendations? How did you come up with that idea?
DK: My oldest friend, Mikey, does all our web stuff for us, and the links to our authors' books and their recommendations was his idea.

JM: We get a check for about three dollars from Amazon twice a year.

Dave, you're currently in the MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis. I think that in about a year I'm going to go to grad school for writing. Do you have any advice for people like me considering continuing their literary education?
My advice is to go to a program where they give you a stipend. And pick a program where they let you teach fiction workshops - the teaching fellowship is definitely the best thing of the program I went to.

Josh, do you have any advice for people considering dropping out of MFA programs?
My advice is to flee in the night, under cover of darkness. And don't look back.

Dave, I have a friend who is going to be a TA soon…do you have any advice in regards to maintaining the attention of young undergrads studying literature?
Instead of having them buy some sort of awful writing manual (like Writing Down The Bones), tell your friend to use the Land-Grant College Review's Issue No. One as the text in the class. Study after study shows that the color orange holds kids' attention. Why fight science?

Josh, why does the topic of summer camp provide such good fodder for stories?
Well, I think this question would be better directed at Dave, because he writes a lot about camp experiences. But I did go to sleep away camp one summer. This particular camp was located at the northern tip of Maine and it was very cold and isolated. I was eight years old and I'd never been away from home before. I didn't know anyone, so it was lonely at first. But the biggest problem I had was that the toilets in the bathroom adjacent to our bunks were completely open - there was no privacy. There were just these two porcelain bowls in the middle of a little room, right next to the sink and the showers. It was disgusting and very troubling for a little kid like me, and I imagine many of the other kids as well, who were used to having a little alone time when the urge presented itself. But these bathrooms were like something you'd find in an army barrack. It was terrible. Anyhow, to make a long story short, I held it in for practically the entire summer. My opportunity to take a b.m. finally came on the Fourth of July, while everyone else was outside watching the fireworks. That was one of the greatest character building experiences of my life. I think that memories of summer camp are something that a lot of people can relate to, for one reason or another.

DK: You never told me you went to camp in Maine. If you try to write about it, I'll cut you.

Dave, how did you come to have your Bread Loaf Writers Conference diary published on Slate?
Well, there was that Rebecca Mead article about Bread Loaf in the New Yorker a year ago, so when I got that "waiter's" fellowship I pitched the idea of doing the diary to Slate. They called me while I was driving to New York and said they'd decided against running the diary and then called the next day, as I was pulling into the Bread Loaf parking lot, to say they'd changed their mind.

Can you tell us what the Bread Loaf Writers Conference is? Who attends?
Bread Loaf's the oldest writers conference in the country. Faculty standouts on the fiction side last summer were Josip Novakovich, Kevin McIlvoy, and Steve Almond. I'm not sure who's going to be there this year - Charles Baxter, I think. Everyone they have is great. Vermont in the summer (like Maine in the summer) is beautiful-all woods and freshly cut grass. Hurry up and apply already. And tip the waiters.

Josh, tell us about studying literature in St. Petersburg.
The conference in St. Petersburg is great. I've been twice. The faculty is terrific and it gets better every year. The thing that's so cool is that Russia, and particularly St. Petersburg, is a very unusual, semi-chaotic place for foreigners, so that the people that come there for the writing conference, the students and the faculty, really band together. My workshops there have been among the best I've ever had. And I also met Tara there on my first trip, so it's a special place to me for that reason.

What kind of person decides to start a literary journal?
DK: True story: When Josh was in St. Louis, he was on an all veal diet. We kept going to one terrible restaurant after another (St. Louis isn't exactly the center of the food world), and for whatever reason, he thought the dish they'd be least likey to fuck up was veal. I'm a vegetarian. Have been for years.

Williamsburg: hot, or not as cool as it thinks it is?
JM: Historic Williamsburg, Virginia? Not as cool as it thinks it is: all those hipsters in eighteenth century regalia, churning butter, shoeing horses. Big deal.

Who are some writers you'd love to publish?
JM: Nicholson Baker, Tom McGuane, A.M. Homes, Lucia Berlin, TC Boyle, Dean Koontz, and others.

DK: Kevin McIlvoy, Amy Hempel, Joy Williams. There are a million people I'd love to publish.

Your submissions page seems pretty broad. Is there any type of writing that you don't accept, or discourage?
JM: About the only thing that we don't accept, in terms of form or genre or style, is poetry. In terms of fiction and nonfiction we'll look at just about anything, and I don't think there's anything we'd rule out absolutely. We just want to publish stories of quality that people are going to enjoy reading.

DK: Soon, we're going to start taking submissions online, the way Glimmer Train and Story Quarterly do.

Why does your website feature a house on fire?
JM: It's a barn, not a house. The reason for it burning will be revealed on our website in time.

How does it feel to be the 64th and 65th people interviewed for
DK & JM: Exhausting. Thanks for giving us individual numbers.