Michael Ray, Zoetrope: All-Story
After yesterday’s UK public holiday, we’re back at work today and sharing the week ahead with Michael Ray, editor of Francis Ford Coppola’s story and art quarterly, Zoetrope: All-Story.
Michael is also a screenwriter whose films have been selected for the Venice, Telluride, and Toronto film festivals, among others. His most recent film, While the Women Are Sleeping, was directed by Wayne Wang, starred Beat Takeshi, and premiered at the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival.
We hear from him as the latest issue of Zoetrope: All-Story is published.
Outline your Monday morning routine
Monday morning, I start the coffee, read the news, kiss the kids as they ramble out the door, pour the coffee, settle onto a stool at the desk, and gaze out the window to a lovely tree in the back garden. It’s a Chinese pistache we planted a few Mother’s Days ago, with this exact vantage in mind, as this desk was intended for my wife.
We live in Berkeley, CA, in an old house on a hillside with a view to the city and the bay. My wife and I have always worked a fair bit from home—our work and home lives, our work and home interests, are so synthesized that any distinction fuzzes out and evaporates—so when we moved here from San Francisco nearly a decade ago, as we figured where we’d hang the art and store the kids (littler then, requiring far less space, less food), we scoped out our desks, too.
I opted for the unfinished basement: a bit low-ceilinged and cobwebbed, but—aside from the occasional thump of a boy’s feet overhead—quiet, and with windows to the garden. There’s an ancient workbench against one foundation wall—a man who lived here before us was a celebrity among the local model-train crowd—and I imagined that with a bit of adjustment it would serve me optimally.
For Anne, my wife, we quickly settled on a pass-through closet at the back of the house, between the breakfast room and the library. To be sure, closet is underselling the space: wood-lined, with built-in redwood shelves, ample elbow room, and that window. A friend and I joined a couple of shelves into a desk, removed the door to the library to let in even more light, and she was set.
For a while, we both were. Down below, I was happy with the spiders. Yet then the winter floods came; and with the floods, the ants; and with the ants, a bit of loneliness—or perhaps it was just the humming and flickering of the overhead fluorescent light. Whatever the case, I climbed the basement stairs, and my wife suggested I take her desk, and I’ve been here since. She sits in the library on a sofa, so I can lean back and catch her eye. She’s too good to me. I think about that whenever I look out at the tree.
So Monday morning, the coffee, the tree, and music.
I suppose I should explain what it is I do. Since 2002, I’ve edited Zoetrope: All-Story, Francis Ford Coppola’s quarterly of short fiction, with occasional one-act plays and essays on film.
Francis founded the magazine because he shares Alfred Hitchcock’s belief that the short story is the art form most akin to film, given that the audience consumes each in one sitting, and he reckons that a filmmaker does well to usher more stories into the world.
In the magazine’s second year of publication, he introduced the concept of the guest designer, by which we invite a different leading artist to design each edition in its entirety—so to manifest the collaborative nature of filmmaking.
Among past guest designers are William Eggleston, Agnès Varda, David Bowie, Zaha Hadid, Kara Walker, Ed Ruscha, Nick Cave, Elizabeth Peyton, JR, David Lynch, Lou Reed, Kelly Reichardt, Jason Schwartzman, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tom Waits, Olafur Eliasson, Kate and Laura Mulleavy of the fashion house Rodarte, Iggy Pop, Abbas Kiarostami, Will Oldham, Carson Ellis, David Byrne, Wim Wenders, Mark Mothersbaugh, Helmet Newton, PJ Harvey, Laurie Anderson, Guillermo del Toro, Bill Callahan, and Gus Van Sant.
The magazine has won every major prize for a periodical, including the National Magazine Award for Fiction four times, along with a number of international design commendations. Last year, one of our stories was honored with the BBC National Short Story Award.
Back to music: Every edition of All-Story includes five or so stories, and as I edit each, I find myself returning to the same record, perhaps even the same song. Eventually, it’s automatic: I queue up a manuscript, I queue up its associated record. Moving between manuscripts, between voices and landscapes, I find a record to work like a compass: I hear it, I get my bearings, I recall where all the furniture is situated, I press on. (I moonlight as a screenwriter, and the same trick does wonders for the parent jamming out a couple of scenes between kid pickups.)
And yet this obsessive repetitiveness would, on occasion, drive my wife insane. I do wear headphones—I’m not a monster—yet I’m told the volume pushes broadcast levels, and by the fortieth straight spin of Neil Young’s On the Beach, no matter how brilliant that record, and it is brilliant, she was ready for a bit of variation, reasonably so. And into this rare marital rift stepped my heroic mother-in-law, with a pair of Apple AirPod Pros, which seem to hem in my compulsive audio tendencies, and thus keep the peace.
So, the coffee, the tree, the music, the AirPods, a lamp, part of a wooden tea set I bought in Tokyo that doubles as a mouse pad, an iMac dating from the early Obama years (we stoke the coal to review the magazine proofs; a new model is on order), a MacBook, a few bits of mail I’m ignoring, and my wife’s desk. On the sill above: my Covid vaccination record, a holiday card from the artist Carson Ellis, and the magazine’s business registration certificate. Our proper HQ is still the Sentinel Building in San Francisco’s North Beach, a grand old Flatiron just down the block from City Lights, Tosca, and Vesuvio, and which Francis acquired in the early seventies when he was shooting The Conversation. Yet since the pandemic landed, we’ve been working here. And so the certificate is here. With all bureaucracy, we’re compliant.
Are you feeling optimistic about 2021?
Yes, resoundingly. At least until the next mass disaster. Yet truly, I don’t see much use in any sentiment but optimism.
Which magazine do you first remember?
Ranger Rick, just like every other future captain of industry.
Which magazine matters to you the most this morning?
Ranger Rick. (I’m loyal.)
Describe Zoetrope: All-Story in three words.
Ideal blind date.
Each issue is designed by a different person. How do you select the guest designers, and how do they collaborate with the editorial team?
We seek artists of all sorts who’ll surprise our readers and make beautiful editions. As one superlative example: PJ Harvey (above).
Back in 2009, as Polly was approaching her fortieth birthday, an interviewer asked whether she’d carry any regrets into her fifth decade, and she cited only one: the abandonment of her visual art practice. She’d attended art school while playing in bands on the side, and gradually the recording and touring took over and delivered her to the coda of her fourth decade with a vital creative career, just not the one she’d intended.
I searched the farthest corners of the interwebs and could find no examples of her visual work, yet I so admire her musical output and general artistry I was willing to take a chance. I queried friends and eventually found someone who knew someone; and via circuitous reference, I offered her a way back: deadlines and a venue for her new work. She eagerly accepted.
We communicated mostly by fax—that most antiquated of modern miracles. The machine would start its huffing, and—like magic—emit the most stunning photo-realist drawings. She mixed in some playful sculptures, too. While preparing her edition of the magazine—Summer 2010—she was concurrently writing and recording a record.
The magazine was released in June, and the record—Let England Shake—the following February. It would go on to win the 2011 Mercury Prize. In subsequent interviews, Polly discussed how each process fed the other, and that the magazine had represented her first chance to show her visual work anywhere.
With changing page formats, new contributors and a different visual overview each issue, how do maintain a sense of identity?
We don’t think much about the magazine’s identity. Rather, with each edition, we aim to immerse you.
What will be your highlight of the coming week?
The release of our Spring 2021 edition, with design by the Choctaw/Cherokee artist and 2019 MacArthur Fellow (and absolutely lovely human) Jeffrey Gibson, and stories from Pulitzer Prize–winner Steven Millhauser, Giller Prize finalist David Bezmozgis, and three writers who earned their first recognition in our Short Fiction Competition: Tommy Orange (honorable mention, 2013), whose debut novel, There There, was among the most critically acclaimed releases of 2019, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award; Sefi Atta (third prize, 2003), whose subsequent works have garnered Africa’s top literary prizes; and Deborah Forbes, the champ of our 2020 comp, with a piercing story about three women—mother, daughter, granddaughter—and the ties that sustain beyond life.
I’ve spun through that one more than twenty times, and the final scene still cracks open the ducts.
And circling this whole Q&A round is another super fun fact: this edition marks the first with my sweet and generous-with-desks wife as managing editor of the magazine.
For fifteen years, she’s served as our copy editor, designer finder, and voice o’ reason; and if there’s one consideration the pandemic presents to all bubble-mates, it’s this: What if we were to spend even more time together? We’re about to find out.
Cheers, all, to a stellar week!