Slice Magazine Reminds Us That Good Writing Is Eternal

It’s a troubling trope that sometimes feels like a harrowing truism — print is dying, so is good literature, and our brains are slowing atrophying as we consume listicles, hot-takes, and celebrity-slop at break-neck speed as we hurtle toward the cliff of our inevitably illiterate demise.

And then, something like Slice Magazine comes along and reminds us that good writing is eternal — like energy, it can neither be created or destroyed, but is forever transmuted. It reminds us that humans need incredible stories, true or imagined, but beautifully wrought.

Co-founded by book editors Maria Gagliano and Celia Johnson in 2007 (who first met at Random House), the Brooklyn-based magazine bridges the gap between literary greats and fledgling pen-wielders; everyone is presented egalitarian-style, side by side. Each print edition — published in March and September — boasts a cultural theme (like obsession, or escape) and features interviews, articles, poetry, and fiction. On the pages of Slice, new writers are given the space and clout to sound their barbaric yawp, and not-so-rarely, land a book deal.

The Establishment took to the Internet to pick the brains of our much-admired fellow bibliophiles. We talked about writing, the annoying-ness of zeitgeists, and of course, the ultimate combination for a dream literary greats dinner party.

Tell me about your childhood, where did you grow up? What kind of kids were you?

CELIA: I grew up in Melbourne, Australia. As a child, I used to run around barefoot, on concrete, on dirt, wherever I was. I loved adventure. And when I wasn’t outside, roaming around town, I was in the library or curled up somewhere with a book.

MARIA: I grew up in Brooklyn and New Jersey. My parents are from Sicily and I spent my childhood speaking Sicilian and eating pigs’ feet at home (I didn’t know that was weird), and obsessively reading everywhere else. I was in love with Stephen King, very loud music, and trying to play guitar.

Celia, your last stint as an editor was at Hachette. Maria, you also wended your way through the publishing world for more than a decade and now work as a freelance editor and consultant. What was the catalyst for starting Slice?

Celia: We actually met at Random House, as wee editorial assistants. Maria was at Clarkson Potter and I was at a brand new imprint beneath Clarkson Potter, called Potter Craft. We had a great deal in common. Book editing was our dream job. We were enthusiastic, dedicated, and, in due course, occasionally disenchanted with the industry. I’ll turn to Maria for the story of the catalyst for Slice.

Maria: Yes, I think we both went into book publishing with the dream that we’d discover new authors, nurture them throughout their careers, and help them rise to literary greatness. That certainly does happen in some corners of the industry, but it wasn’t happening at Potter, an imprint dedicated to publishing highly visible nonfiction authors. One day we were sitting in the grass in Central Park during lunch complaining about this, and we decided to channel our frustration into something productive. Celia said she’d always wanted to start a publishing company and I said I’d dreamed of starting a magazine. Slice was born in that moment. The next day, we went to Borders in Columbus Circle (RIP) during lunch and started researching the literary magazine shelf. We haven’t stopped going since.

Why is it important to publish well-known authors and fledgling writers side by side?

Celia: We’re all about sparking new conversations at Slice, both on and off the page. And certainly there is a conversation between pieces when they are published side-by-side. A new voice and a familiar voice speak to each other in interesting, often unexpected ways.

Why did you decide to launch the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference five years ago? What was missing amid all the other workshops and panels and advice and hobnobbing that transpires in the literary world? How was the conference evolved over the years?

Maria: Slice exists to help new writers make the leap to published author, and after four years of publishing the magazine (in 2011) we wanted to take our mission off the page and into the live community. When you’re an emerging writer, it can seem like the publishing industry is guarded by an ivory tower with no way to get in. We know from working with so many amazing agents and editors over the years that this is not the case. They’re looking for great writers just as much as the writers are looking for them. So we created the Slice conference to offer a warm, supportive environment where writers can get down-to-earth advice on the whole book publishing process — from the moment you finish your first draft to the moment it hits bookshelves.

Over the years, the conference has evolved to include one-on-one agent meetings at several levels, each one suited to writers at different stages of their project. This year we introduced our “Authors in Conversation” lunch, where longtime Slice contributor Brian Gresko interviewed authors Leslie Jamison and Nicole Krauss; in 2016 he’ll sit down with Rob Spillman and Karen Russell. The conference content also evolves each year as we talk with attendees about the issues with which they struggle and what they’d like to hear from folks in the industry.

You are obviously both keen editors and book-heads. What is it about literature that turns your gears? Do you also consider yourselves writers?

Celia: For me, it’s getting lost in a story, missing a subway stop because I’m so immersed in someone else’s tale. That kind of power to transport has had me hooked since childhood. Yes, I consider myself a writer. I’ve actually written a couple of essay collections all about writing! These days, though, I’m hard at work on a novel.

Maria: I’ve always turned to books as a way to see the world through a new lens. I especially love stories that make me look at everyday life in a new way. I do consider myself a writer. I write nonfiction and I’m at work on a collection of personal essays.

Obviously, I can’t resist. If you had a dream dinner party — what authors or poets would be there?

Celia: Raymond Chandler, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Agatha Christie, John Donne, William Faulkner. . . And there isn’t enough space left in the room for me to move on to all of the living writers I admire!

Maria: Raymond Carver, Joan Didion, and Junot Diaz.

Is there a literary zeitgeist you’ve watched evolve? Do you think the aughts (yes I said it!) will be marked by a particular voice, societal obsession, political climate, style, etc.? (Like the paranoia of the post-modernists or the stream of psychedelic consciousness of the Beatniks?)

Celia: Oh boy, I have no idea. One thing I learned as a book editor: it is damn near impossible to predict the next big wave. So I’ve stopped trying.

Maria: I hope this era won’t be remembered for vampires and zombies. I also worry about the backlash against gratuitous personal essays. I get it, more people than ever are airing their dirty laundry, especially online, but I hope it doesn’t stop great nonfiction authors from continuing to put out their work. We need new perspectives all the time.

What’s the book you know you’re supposed to love and adore and you just can’t stand it? (Mine is . . . basically anything by Faulkner. I also tried to get through “Midnight’s Children” like four times and never could.)

Celia: Not Faulkner! Just kidding. Honestly there isn’t a particular book that comes to mind. I never hesitate, though, putting away a book if I’m not engaged in the story. I generally don’t power through to the end, just because we’re supposed to.

Maria: Speaking of psychedelic consciousness, I just despised On the Road.

Is there one book or poem you wish you had written?

Celia: Actually, I’m glad I didn’t write my favorite books and poems. If that were the case, I’d be wrapped up in the actual composition, rather than simply arriving at the text as a reader.

Maria: Great question — I’ve honestly never thought about this. I don’t ever feel envy for books or poems in the sense that I wish I’d written that very piece of work. But I do often find myself reading Joan Didion and thinking, “Damn, I’d love to be able to rock a sentence like that someday.” To me, the best writing makes me want to write immediately.

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