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Jesse Pearson of Apology Magazine / Dot Gain

The former Vice editor's quarterly mag goes deeper than of-the-moment hip mixing smart punk writing, highbrow literature, groundbreaking photography, important poetry, and contemporary art.

Interview By John Dugan, July 15, 2013

In Dot Gain, we explore the world of independent print publishing.

Today, we're checking in with Jesse Pearson. The former editor of Vice and index magazines (and producer of the online interview series "Soft Focus") recently launched the quarterly Apology Magazine. In a statement of intent, Pearson has promised varying amounts of fiction, poetry, photography, interviews, essays, humor, and art in the new mag, which he says is inspired by the golden ages of The New Yorker and Esquire and '80s punk zines like RE/Search and of course, MAD Magazine. "I want Apology to be smart, beautiful and funny but I also want it to be really weird because there aren't any other genuinely weird magazines alive today," he's written.

The debut issue featured a memoir from the punk scribe Sam McPheeters, a detailed history of lost Robert Altman film O.C. and Stiggs, and contributions from comedians Tim & Eric, photographers Ryan McGinley and Terry Richardson, the late writer Frederick Exley, musician Bill Callahan, and a sit-down interview with the poet John Ashbery. The clean and spacious look for the book-like tome comes from designer Stacy Wakefield. No. 1 is technically sold-out but you can find it online at BuyOlympia.com.

Apology: Issue No. 2 hits the bookshops and online outlets in late July, so we thought it a good time to meet one of the more ambitious independent magazine editors working today.

The name? We didn't ask about that as Pearson had already explained it sufficiently in the New York Times. "It’s my apologia against what I see as the problematic state of magazines today, both big and small," he said.

You edited the great index magazine when it was in print. I loved that large format. How did your gig at index come about?
I was actually one of three editors who collaborated there for a time (it was me, Steve Lafreniere, and Ariana Speyer). We took over after Bob Nickas, who was the founding editor of index and a big influence on me as an editor, left the magazine.

I’d started there as an intern in the summer of 1999. I’d worked every previous college summer as a process server. I was a work-study student on lots of loans, and I had to make a fair amount of money to be able to afford each year of school. So I delivered legal papers and subpoenas all over New Jersey and Philadelphia. Fun job. For my final college summer, I saved up just enough money to pay the rent on a room in Jersey City and work for nothing at index. Or, wait, maybe there was a $100 stipend now and then? I can’t remember. I do remember that they bought us interns lunch every day, which made a huge difference. Anyway, they liked me enough after that summer to hire me in rapid succession as Web Editor, then as Associate Editor, then as one of three Editors.

index really was a great magazine—especially under Bob’s editorship. I didn’t like where they went in their last couple of years, after most of the original staff was gone. But it’s a shame more people don’t know it now because I think its influence can be seen in lots of places. 

You were EIC at Vice for eight years, both a provocative and very successful print mag. Why did you leave? What did you learn there? Any regrets?
I quit because the company around me was going in directions that didn’t interest me. Pretty simple. I have zero regrets, especially about having left. 

What did you do in between Vice and launching Apology?
Mostly freelance journalism, including a long piece on the steelworkers in my family and the death of American industry (Playboy), comedians on Twitter (Playboy), and an extensive marijuana-infused tasting menu with my friends at Roberta’s restaurant in Brooklyn (GQ). I also wrote various introductions and texts, including a foreword to a new edition of the great Charles Willeford’s pulp classic Cockfighter and a collection of Tim Barber’s photographs. Also, I took up the private study of Ancient Greek and caught up on my reading in general.

Someone recently said the recipe at Vice was to treat serious things ridiculously and take ridiculous things seriously—or something along those lines. Is that true? Or too reductionist?
I suppose that was one guiding principle I used for at least some of the time I was there. 

We're noticing a surge of interest in print publications. I think the web has made us long for quality periodicals with which one can spend more time, and not want to toss immediately. But I also think that the writing is sometimes reflective of how blogs and personal writing online has changed what we think is acceptable in print. Why do you still love print? Has the internet changed what a magazine can be?
If you have to ask why anyone would still love print, you’re not the kind of person who would still love print. What I mean is, you know the answer to your own question because I bet you love print. So I won’t do the usual paean to paper; we all know it already. In brief, it goes like this: Tactility, objecthood, beauty, tradition, scent, touch, direct interaction, emotional investment… and so on.

The web, for me, has changed what a magazine can be in terms of giving me things to react against. For example, one reason that you’ll find so many long articles in Apology is because I want to do what I can to provide an antidote to the fleeting, insubstantial, micro nature of much of web writing.


Apology features two very recognizable voices for those that came up on punk in the East Coast, Sam McPheeters and Ian Svenonius. What do you like about them? How did they up in Apology? Are punks grown up more interesting than young snotty punks?
They were/are two of my favorite punk lyricists. Ian’s insanely great Nation of Ulysses liner notes and Sam’s fantastic zines both made clear that they were writers who were able to transcend the limits of the hardcore and punk worlds. Over the years, working with them as an editor has led to two of my closest real-world friendships. So they had to be in Apology.

What's funny to me about Ian's Wikipedia piece is that I've heard musicians argue the exact opposite. Jarvis Cocker, for instance, basically pointed out that its just an alternative to dictionaries and encyclopedias, which could be just as fraught with error. Anyway, pop singers arguing over Wikipedia... what's that about?
Sounds like Cocker has been drinking the Kool-Aid. Dictionaries and encyclopedias are written, researched, and then stringently checked by professionals. Wikipedia entries are written by pimply, bitter dilettantes in the dark. (I’m kidding, but not totally.) People who think that it offers a radical alternative to the establishment of research materials are dangerously misguided, and are going around with a lot of spurious “facts” in their heads.

The O.C. and Stiggs (Robert Altman's obscure '80s movie) piece is prettty amazing. The detail is incredible. Is that type of piece, shining a light on some forgotten cultural moment, going to be a continuing thread you'll explore in Apology?
Yes, whenever the opportunity arises. The Stiggs piece was lightning in a jar. Hunter Stephenson, who wrote it, could not have been more passionate or emotionally invested in telling the story of that movie. That made the piece as excellent as it was. 

There are elements of Apology—the Exley piece, the Bill Callahan, and the semicolon piece—that give it the feel of a literary magazine, but elsewhere, it's more pop and comedy, or personal essays. Is Apology a chance to have all of those things together? And is that mix what you think readers will respond to in this era of niche everything?
I sometimes tell people that Apology is a general interest magazine for people whose interests aren’t general. That’s kind of cute. But what it really means is that every issue will have a solid core of literary material that will then be complimented by material from all over the place. The main thing I try to remember is to be brave enough to be weird with it. 

On the business side of things, it seems tough to make money on this kind of print periodical with paper costs rising. You've got ads and a pretty heavy cover price, however; is the mag in the black?
Is my cover price really that heavy for a 256-page magazine with a way smaller-than-industry-standard ad-to-edit ratio? Apology is a quarterly, and I really do strive to make each issue capable of lasting for four months for its readers. I pack these issues very full.

We’re also working on a far less expensive digital version now. I want everybody to be able to get the magazine, but I also need to pay contributors and my printing press. Page-for-page, I think Apology is a pretty good deal.

We’re in the black, but it all goes right back into getting the next issue done. I personally make nothing off the magazine at this time. 

What's next for you? We hear you have another magazine title in the works? True?
Nope, Apology is my only magazine. It’s more than enough. But PictureBox just put out a book that I edited of nude photography by various artists. Maybe that’s what you’re thinking of? It’s called Nudity Today. It was really fun to do.

Apology: Issue No. 2 includes the 1939 debut story by noir legend David Goodis; the selected discography of Black Flag in food form by chef Brooks Headley; Tim Heidecker on Mork After Mindy; a portfolio of new photographs by Jerry Hsu; photographs of teddy bears; a rave maze by artist Christy Karacas; an essay on Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther; and a visit to the Beverly Hills home of Jackie Collins. It is available for pre-order now.