When Anupama Krishnakumar and Vani Viswanathan started the online literary magazine Spark in January 2010, they weren’t sure how many issues they would be able to put out into the world. In January 2018, they celebrated eight years of the magazine and in April, their 100th issue will be released.
Putting out a literary magazine every month for eight years has its challenges, especially when running it alongside professional and personal commitments. Each month, the magazine focuses on a theme, ranging from “Navarasas” to “Life Online” to “Shopping”, features writing across genres and is freely available to read without advertising or a subscription fee. In an interview with Scroll.in, the co-founders spoke about their individual understanding of how the magazine has survived, the practical approach to running a non-commercial venture, how they choose what submissions to feature, the pressures of multiple responsibilities, and the changes in creative writing online.
In April, Spark will bring out its 100th issue. What does that milestone mean for the founding editors?
Anupama Krishnakumar (AK): We are over the moon! This is definitely a very special moment for us. When we started out in 2010, reaching 100 issues seemed like a distant dream, and now that we are here, it feels surreal. We are grateful to our amazing contributors and readers who have shown faith in us through the years. We look back at our journey with a great sense of satisfaction, and at our body of work with immense pride. Coming this far makes us hopeful that there’s still an audience that seeks out quality literary writing at a time where good writing is increasingly falling prey to diminishing attention spans and mediocre content. It makes us look forward to carrying on with Spark for as long as we can.
It’s remarkable that the two of you have edited Spark every month for eight years alongside your commitments to career and family. Is it harder as women editors to find the time to run a non-commercial venture?
AK: In certain ways, yes. Between writing books, managing home and raising two children, it is indeed challenging for me to make structured work time for a non-commercial venture like Spark. It especially gets difficult during personal emergencies and very often, when things related to my children take precedence. On such days, I end up not being able to give Spark the time it needs. But Vani and I clearly divide editorial responsibilities between us and since it’s just the two of us handling the operations of the magazine, it allows us great flexibility about when we get to work on Spark. Depending on our individual schedules, there are certain days when I work while Vani does it on other days. In this way we have been able to ensure that we stick to Spark’s overall timelines.
Vani Viswanathan (VV): It’s sort of become a habit, actually! When we conceived of Spark in late 2009, I was working in Singapore and Anupama had a toddler. Over the years, I moved back to India, pursued a master’s degree, moved to Delhi, got married, switched jobs, etc., and today I work on two consultancies in addition to running Spark. One could say that Spark – and writing – have been consistent points in my life for close to a decade. My responsibilities at home are rather manageable, because I’m privileged enough to have a strong support system, and a supportive partner. The bigger task is managing this venture in the time I have outside of my two jobs; I have to do this alongside yoga, social commitments and regular travel breaks! But what keeps me going is constant support from Anupama and the fact that we’ve done it for this long.
The magazine has featured such a wide spectrum of writers over the years. How do the two of you decide whether a piece is right for the magazine?
VV: What we look for first is how well the contribution explores the month’s theme (every issue of Spark explores a different theme). Once we see the fit, foremost importance is given to the writer’s ability to tell a story, be it through prose or poetry. To paint an evocative scene, describe something that captures the reader’s attention because it is beautifully written, or is something they can relate to, or is a wholly new experience or perspective. We also require that the writer have a strong grasp of English and grammar, for it can be exhausting to edit a contribution that is ridden with grammatical errors or faulty construction of sentences. We consider the writer’s perspective towards an issue too. For instance, contributions that are homophobic, stereotypical of women or other genders, or of people living in poverty, will either have to be edited accordingly or rejected. Sometimes the piece is perfect from all these angles, and we have little to no work (and we love that!) – it can be published as is. But where we have to edit, the process depends on the writer’s willingness to work with us; we have had some wonderful relationships evolving over the years through discussions during the editing process, but also situations where people have been rather uncooperative, dismissive, occasionally getting personal!
An interview with Your Story mentioned that Spark chooses to stay small and not venture into festival circuits because the editors “won’t bite off more than they can chew, no matter how tempting it is.” I found that honesty and approach so refreshing at a time where scaling up and pushing ourselves to the limit is the norm. Could you talk to us a little about this perspective?
AK: One of the important reasons why we have been able to come this far with Spark is because we are conscious about the extent of ambition we can handle in this regard, considering our professional and personal commitments. This has helped us set goals that are feasible and realistic which has helped us focus on achieving them. This is not to say that we do not have big dreams for Spark – we do! But we also understand the additional responsibilities that scaling-up would entail and therefore, we are clear that this would have to wait till we are sure of handling things without being overwhelmed by the task at hand.
Spark was founded out of a passion for creative writing – the quality of the magazine and the joy of working on it shouldn’t be lost in the process of pushing ourselves towards bigger targets. Our objective through these eight years has been to keep Spark as a platform that showcases quality literary writing and bring forth myriad stories, experiences and opinions. Sticking to this has helped us grow organically and create an impact. By publishing 100 issues, we have shown that it is possible to achieve big by staying small! We do hope to do bigger things but seriously, we are in no hurry.
It must be interesting to see the different journeys that Spark’s writers take. Do you follow their literary journeys after they’re published or featured in Spark?
VV: We’re happy to have built good relationships with many people over the years, thanks to Spark. With those we featured, we have been able to reach out to them for feedback or guidance, or to explore collaborations; and they have featured us in articles they are writing or put us in touch with journalists looking to feature writers/editors.
Many of them keep us in the loop about their new book launches, upcoming roles in the publishing world, etc. Many contributors have become friends, so (thanks to social media in some cases) we’re broadly aware of what they are up to in their writing journey! Quite a few contributors have gone on to publish books or anthologies (which include their contributions published in Spark), or have their columns in newspapers, and they share these updates with us. On several occasions, we have featured others’ reviews of books published by our contributors.
In the case of some people, we have seen how life has nudged writing aside – work, marriage, children, health, old age and so on. When we do special issues, such as the 100th, we reach out to these people anyway, to see if they can weasel out a piece for us, for old times’ sake!
What are some of the changes you’ve seen in the online creative writing space over the last eight years?
VV: Personal blogs were still a thing when we started! Today, blog-like writing evokes nostalgia – a lot of my writing, for instance, is very personal and relatable, and it elicits this comment often from my readers: “It reminds me of those good old blogging days!” I suppose blogging could be considered the first online public space that let us express ourselves, and through feedback, hone our skills to write for an unknown audience. Both Anupama and I have been blogging since 2005, and that lay the foundation for us to consider starting an online magazine. By 2010, e-magazines were sprouting across the country, and we joined the bandwagon, though I am proud to say Spark is one of the few that continues to be as regularly published as when we started out!
The beginning of the decade also saw a lot of writing on social media, such as on Facebook Notes – this was also when we started seeing steady declines in the average reader’s attention span. Insta poetry, “Twitterature” and the likes of Terribly Tiny Tales, are all an extension of this trend, and we see these continuing to keep readers hooked. Over the last couple of years, though, we have also seen a revival in interest in long-form writing – highly personal stories, which explore nuanced emotions and are told in evocative prose, are rather popular today.
What in your opinion is the role of online literary magazines in the world of contemporary Indian writing?
AK: I think the main role of online literary magazines is to bring the many unheard-yet-excellent voices of creative writing in India to the forefront. There are many writers who are truly passionate about the craft of writing and write beautifully but choose to stay away from the limelight or mainstream publishing. For such writers, an online literary magazine like Spark is a comfortable space that helps them warm up to the idea of sharing their work with a niche reading audience.
Online literary magazines add immensely to the wealth of contemporary Indian writing by capturing voices and perspectives that generally go unnoticed in the bigger arena. They are wonderful sources to discover diverse, unique and interesting writing styles, stories and ideas. Such magazines are also a repository of the many Indian ways of life, captured in stories, essays and poetry. This is especially true about genre-specific online magazines such as the ones that focus on Dalit writing or voices from the North-East, for example.
Online literary magazines also play an important role in helping aspiring writers take their writing to the next level by honing their craft when they work on improving their pieces based on editorial feedback. Further, the fact that e-magazines don’t need much money or effort to set up, as opposed to print, gives a wonderful opportunity for people like us who aren’t linked to the publishing/literary scene in a big way, to add to the world of contemporary Indian writing.
Were there times when the future of the magazine seemed in jeopardy? Have there been challenges in sustaining a non-commercial literary magazine?
AK: There have been challenges but thankfully, nothing that has threatened the future of the magazine so far. The biggest challenge has been to publish month after month without compromising on quality. Sometimes we are lucky enough to get a good number of high-quality submissions but there have been times when we have run short on submissions that show promise. In such cases, we put in additional efforts to improve the quality of the writing and storytelling or the submission’s connection to the theme. We also step up our outreach activities through email and social media, so that we can bring in good content.
Another constant challenge is ensuring that we do not delay our publishing schedule – which is the 5th of every month – we have never missed this schedule in these 100 issues. However, keeping this up has not been easy and has taken lot of persistence especially during health crises.
Lastly, there are some things that constantly irk us, like poorly proofread pieces, a complete disregard for clearly listed submission guidelines, lack of a healthy attitude towards editorial feedback and the lazy presumption that Spark’s editors are men – handling all this is a huge emotional challenge.
Will there be 100 more issues? Do you see the magazine changing as it crosses this milestone?
VV: We do hope so! Publishing the 100th issue has helped us take stock of where we have reached, and what we could do better. For instance, we would like to regularise some kinds of non-fiction, and we would love to have illustrations for the writing we feature. But like Anupama said earlier, any significant changes or big ideas have to be implemented without compromising on our vision to bring to the fore high-quality writing – or driving ourselves to exhaustion! That said, we do constantly check in and adapt to ensure that the magazine stays relevant and exciting amid changing reading and writing trends.