Rusty Barnes, cofounder of the acclaimed literary magazine “Night Train,” grew up in rural Appalachia. He earned his M.F.A. from Emerson College in Boston. His poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in such journals as GUD, Red Rock Review, and others.
Sunnyoutside Press will be publishing a book of his flash fiction due to be released this winter. I talked with Barnes on my Somerville Community Access TV Program “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”
Doug Holder: Could you talk a bit about the genesis of “Night Train” magazine?
Rusty Barnes: Well we got some capital together and nine months later we birthed an issue. We had great expectations. We printed 1,000 copies of our first issue and sold 400. We found out later, after we beat ourselves up a bit, that number of sales was pretty good. We managed to scale ourselves down a bit and then build up. We brought in a couple of people to be involved in the PR end of things. We landed a half page article in the New York Times (Long Island edition). We branded the name “ Night Train.” We sort of became branded nationally.
DH: Why did you go from a print to an online magazine?
RB: It became clear that we needed a cheaper business model. Fundraising was 85 percent of what I was doing. I said let’s switch to an online format and a print-on-demand production method.
I credit that with the initial push we made. We started peppering the world with press releases. We did this by sitting by fax machines for hours at a time. We did massive emails, and Internet bulletin boards. I took every speaking engagement that I could; even non-paid. I spoke at Emerson College. I spoke to Grub Street. You have to be aggressive. You have to press the flesh. It’s the name of the game you have to do it.
DH: You had or still have the “Richard Yates Award.” Yates wrote “Revolutionary Road” and other works. Why use him as a focal point?
RB: “Revolutionary Road” is being made into a movie. I know that Kate Winslet will be in the film. My interest with Yates started in graduate school. I had to take my comprehensive exam. My class was among the last to take these tests. One part of the exam concerned Richard Yates. “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness,” was one of those works I fell in love with, and I began to read everything I could find. Later we published in “Night Train” an excerpt from a biography of Richard Yates: “ Tragic Honesty.”
I guessed what I like about Yates is his fidelity to real life detail. You can look at his characters and you could see the way you act in the world. His detail—his fiction rang true. I think he was a masterful writer when it came to sentimentality. There is always a line you risk crossing when you write like that. He wrote breathtaking books, but never maudlin. We decided if we were going to have a contest in honor of anyone it would be Yates.
DH: Are you more at home with poetry or fiction?
RB: I have been solely a fiction writer for twenty years. I found myself during National Poetry Month this year joining a program where you write a poem everyday. I wasn’t having much luck with my fiction at the time. I was at sort of a stand still. But I have written nothing but poetry since. I really don’t have any desire to write fiction at this time. I have switched gears. Poetry is more fun than fiction. Fiction is work for me. My poetry tends toward the everyday. I have a lot of natural details. I have wonder and amazement with the world.
DH: Whom did you study under at Emerson College?
RB: I had an instructor named Christopher Tillman who wrote a series of great books such as “In A Father’s Place,” and “The Way People Run.” Through him I was introduced to the works of Andre Dubus and De Witt Henry. Henry was instructed by Yates at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. So if I could be so bold, I could considered to be one of the long line of writers to be influenced by Yates.
DH: You grew up in Appalachia. This is not known as a hotbed of literary activity. How did you become interested in writing?
RB: My father wrote poetry. He never tried to publish any of it. I knew it was something he was interested in. He was a construction worker. I became a reader early on. It became very clear early in my life that whatever I was going to do, it was going to be involved with words. I wrote a lot of childish poetry at first. I was lucky to have a really good public school education. My teachers always encouraged me. It was clear that it was my destiny to get out in the world.
DH: Does much of your fiction take place in the place you grew up in?
RB: Much of my work has been focused on the area I grew up in. I guess because I had to write my way through it.
DH: How was it for you at Emerson College. It was quite different from what you were accustomed to, no?
RB: I knew I was a writer. But I hadn’t announced it. I walked into my first class with a trucker’s hat and a flannel shirt. I was amidst these East Coast intellectuals. I was a fish-out-of-water, and I had to spend a lot of time adjusting. I was well treated throughout my program. It was clear that this was not the milieu I was used to.
DH: Sunnyoutside press, formerly of Somerville now of Buffalo, NY, is publishing a collection of your flash fiction. What is flash fiction?
RB: I got involved with Dave McNamara and the sunnyoutside press because I was interested in doing a chapbook of my own work. The more we got to talk the more he got interested in my work. He thought I could get together a good book, be active in the community and get some sales.