- David Haskell
- 25 years old
- Born in Durham, NC "but I grew up in NYC from 2-10, and then in Connecticut." Now lives in Williamsburg.
- Editor-in-Chief, Topic Magazine.
What makes a magazine?
Curiosity. Magazines are not for lazy people. Some magazines are more trivial than others, but the good ones all have the ability to make their writers’ and editors’ curiosity contagious. (It’s also safe to say that boring magazines are made by bored people.)
What was your original mission in creating Topic? Do you feel you’re on track?
I think we’re on track, although the magazine looks a lot different than it did when we started. From the beginning we wanted to start a conversation among an unusually diverse collection of people and see what they brought to the table based on their personal experiences. I think what’s changed is that we’ve become more confident in our mission, which means being more comfortable turning down interesting pieces that don’t fit. We’ve also learned that magazines (as opposed to journals) are more than words, and that art direction is just as important as editorial direction.
Was it always your intention to start a magazine? Did you somehow suspect it’d be better than being an editorial assistant at an already established outlet?
No, I just had this fear that I’d missed the boat by not pursuing journalism in college. So when I found myself with time on my hands in Cambridge, I concentrated on starting something new that had to do with writing, and over the course of a few months it became clear that what we were working on was a magazine.
Your Gawker IMterview revealed that you had little in your childhood by way of pop culture. Do you think that had anything to you with your focus on non-fiction? (And a lot of first person non-fiction at that.)
We only publish non-fiction, but the writing we publish shares with fiction an interest in telling a good story. When we invite someone to write on a topic, we’re not looking for a discourse or a thought-piece or an argument—we’re looking for a personal narrative. And I’m a firm believer that people can tell their own story in a way that engages the rest of us. It’s why we enjoy good dinner parties.
You have an impressive gamut of contributors from some unusual walks of life. How do you find them, or do they just creep out of the woodwork?
We find our writers by paying attention to local papers and bar conversation and the web, and we reach them by tracking down their email address. Topic’s got a great editorial staff, and I love walking out of a meeting having been introduced to fifty potential contributors who are each extraordinary examples of a certain walk of life. It’s surprisingly easy to convince people to write for us — everyone loves sharing their story, especially these days. In fact, I think the big irony about Topic is that while we started this magazine outside of popular culture, we found ourselves at the center of this contemporary obsession with first-person storytelling.
What’s it like to write a letter from the editor? Electrifying? Tedious? Mortifying?
Pressured. 600 words every few months isn’t very much, so you better not fuck it up.
How much editing goes into the pieces, or are you more hands off given their personal nature? Do you consider yourself as much curator as editor?
Curating is a good word for what we do, in the sense that we find people who’ve already done something interesting and ask them to share a part of themselves. The amount of editing we do on a piece varies, but generally speaking we find that the more work we do on establishing a strong structure, the more we can step back and let the writer’s voice guide the piece.
What’s your average reader like? Esteemed editors like Victor Navasky? Williamsburg hipsters? Whiffenpoofs and key-holding FBK members?
I doubt our average reader is very different than the Gothamist reader, which is really a way of saying that all of you should subscribe. Someone came up with the scientific formulation that the Topic reader subscribes to The New Yorker but wears Pumas, and I think that’s more or less correct.
We're told that you stole stationery from the Gates Foundation to help get Topic started, and they ended up giving you money. True? And if so, does that consign you to a lifetime of PC loyalty?
Yes, we stole Gates Cambridge Trust stationary, which probably helped attract our first contributors. Also, though, the topic was War, and the letters were sent in December of 2001, so I think a lot of people felt like they had something to say.
As a startup, how difficult was it to convince sponsors to come aboard? How did/do you make a mark in a supersaturated industry?
Difficult doesn’t begin to describe it. The Gates Foundation has nothing to do with the magazine anymore, which means we don’t have to worry about PC loyalty, but we do have to worry about lifetime….
How do you choose the topics in questions? Is there anything you’d consider taboo? Unappealing? Uninteresting?
We just bounce them around for a while, and the ones that stick we keep. I like to keep a list of horrendous topics that have been suggested to me in earnest. My favorite is “Asbestos litigation.”
Of the ones you’ve focused on (cities, war, fantasy, fads, prison, food), which do you think worked the best? And how are you defining ‘best’ -- personal satisfaction?
Fortunately, we haven’t had a major fuck-up yet, so each issue is better than the last. But I have a special place in my heart for Topic 5: Prison, because it took so long to come out and reintroduced us as a tighter, more elegant magazine. It certainly wasn’t a favorite for advertisers, but I think it proved that we could be a smart magazine even if we didn’t stack our pages with Officially Smart Writers.
Many of your back issues are sold out. Are most of your sales subscription based? Do you know if people read the magazine straight through—or is that a lot of a single topic to take in at once?
Most of our sales are subscription based, through our website. As for reading the magazine straight through, I think we come out at such a mercifully infrequent pace that our subscribers can take their time and move slowly from start to finish. That’s what I recommend, anyway.
You used to wait tables at Gonzo’s as well as edit. Is that still the case? If not, at what point were you able to turn all your attention to Topic -- and don’t you miss the pizza?
I waited tables at Gonzo, and before that at Spice Market and the Cub Room, but for the past 6 months I’ve been freelance editing, which I discovered does not include staff meals and unlimited access to the cappuccino machine. No offense to the pizza, but the best thing to come out of Gonzo was meeting the boy who lives upstairs. (My relationship with him has far outlasted my relationship with the restaurant.)
Do you consider your mag a success?
For sure. We’ve just started work on Topic 9, which is a little astonishing when I step back for a minute, and we have a staff of about 40 people working incredibly hard to make this magazine work. I only wish we could pay them!
Who would you like to have in the magazine, either as a writer or subject? Has the critical attention on Topic helped you attract more contributors?
I have a few favorites — Michael Chabon receives a plea to contribute every few months or so — but to be honest I’m a lot less interested in getting names in the magazine than I used to be. My hope is that we get better and better at discovering amazing people, so that Topic becomes known as a place to be surprised. My favorite piece in Topic 7: Family is by a woman who lives in Vegas and adopts monkeys as children. Knowing that she exists makes my life a little bit bigger.
That Family issue featured Adam and a pregnant Eve in a tree. Starkers. What was the reaction to that?
The lady from Tampa who distributes Topic to Barnes & Noble sent us a furious email about exposed breasts. Thankfully, they polybagged every issue — Lord knows what horrors kids are exposed to these days.
Given that you once worked at Knoll -- do the Topic offices have fabulous furniture?
Most of it was found on the street.
What magazines do you read? What else do you do for information?
The “News”: New Yorker, New York, New York Times Magazine, New Republic. I look to them as shining examples of what’s old.
Nine things to know about David:
What's the best thing you've ever purchased/salvaged off the street?
Our apartment is evidence that street furniture is a full-fledged hobby of mine. Once, after a big windstorm, a tree fell on my street. I walked by the next morning as the Sanitation Department was stuffing it into a woodchopper, and on a whim I asked to take a big chunk of the tree home. It loomed over my entire bedroom and, over the course of many months, sprouted flowers and leaves. Eventually it started smelling the way New York streets smell in the summer, and I had to throw it out. But I’m always looking.… Just the other day Topic scored big when the lady across the street died, and her old filing cabinet found its way to the street.
Which city establishment sees more of your paycheck than you do?
These days? Gimme Coffee (on Lorimer street in Williamsburg), one $3 latte at a time.
Gotham Mad Lib: When the __________ (noun) makes me feel __________ (adjective), I like to __________ (verb-plus).
When the restaurant industry makes me feel worthless, I like to browse shamelessrestaurants.com.
Personality Problem Solving: Would you consider your personality more hysterical or more obsessive, and have you changed since living in New York; has "New York become a part of you?
Like any good Brooklynite, I hide my obsessions under a veil of casual jeans and a bad haircut.
NYC Confessional: Do you have a local guilty pleasure?
The 24-hour Grand Morelo’s Bakery around the corner serves up a nasty $2.50 chicken burrito.
When you just need to get away from it all, where is your favorite place in NYC to be alone, relish in solitude and find your earthly happiness? (We promise not to intrude.)
The little park in Williamsburg where Grand Street meets the East River. It’s usually pretty empty, except for a few Hasidic Jews skipping rocks, and you can see almost all the NYC bridges.
Assuming that you're generally respectful of your fellow citizens, was there ever a time when you had to absolutely unleash your inner asshole to get satisfaction?
I’m generally good at keeping my inner asshole in check—and my outer one, for that matter, although there is an embarrassing story that involves the consequences of a Grand Morelo’s $2.50 chicken burrito.
Describe that low-low moment when you thought you just might have to leave NYC for good.
It was still snowing in March last year, and I hadn’t left the city for months. The restaurant where I worked was in precipitous decline (we didn’t even have beer on tap for St. Patrick’s Day). I had no other job prospects. Walking home from work, I would watch all these middle-aged couples eating Thai food in ugly glass restaurants on 7th Avenue, and I thought about how depressed they must be. I called my uncle and asked him, “Is this it? Is this what you do for the rest of your life in this city?” I’ll always remember his response: “They’re not the ones who are depressed, dear nephew….”
Besides more square footage, what luxury would you most like to have in your apartment?
An outdoor shower. Our bathroom window opens onto a semi-private terrace, and I want to rig up a hose from the shower nozzle and set up the shower by summertime.
311: Help or hoopla? Have you ever put it to use?
Help. Remembering that it came from a Republican administration helped me keep it together last November.
-- Interview by Lily Oei and Aaron Dobbs