Epistolary device: an interview with Claire Freeman-Fawcett on Spread Letter

this interview was conducted over email in September 2016

Founded in May, 2016, Spread Letter is an experimental epistolary literary series primarily written and curated by Claire Freeman-Fawcett, a Canadian writer currently living in Toronto, and has featured work by Maria Lioutaia, Tom Hobson, Margaret Christakos and Katie Adamson, as well as by Freeman-Fawcett herself. Spread Letter was founded as an exploration and resurrection of the literary letter: part essay and part personal musings. The aim is to keep the introspective intimacy inherent in the practice of letter writing and reading, while hopefully avoiding a bland twee nostalgia for some imagined “golden age” of analogue text. Delivered monthly through the mail via subscription, Spread Letter is firmly rooted in and engaged with the present. Subscriptions are available through Spread Letter’s Patreon page.

Q: How did Spread Letter first begin?

A: I sent the first Spread Letter out in May, but the project had been floating around in my brain for about six months before that. I started thinking about it as a result of an intense few days talking with my friend and fellow writer, Maria Lioutaia. I found myself toying with the idea of starting a blog, but had already found from previous attempts that I didn’t particularly like blogging. I realized that I liked the physicality of reading text on a page and being able to hold it in my hands. I also found myself thinking about the role that even small but regular publications can play in fostering and sustaining literary communities.


Q: Had you any particular publications in mind?

A: I didn’t really have any particular publication in mind. Rather I think it finally dawned on me a publication could exist by virtue of just printing and circulating new work. I realized that it was okay to start small and that I didn’t need fancy equipment in the first instance, or permission from some higher being to do it. Even publications that have since become respected institutions, like the Paris Review, were basically just started by a group of friends with a vision. I suppose I was also taking some inspiration from the idea that Leonard and Virginia Woolf started Hogarth Press from their living room.


Q: How did you come up with the format?

A: The format emerged almost organically as a product of working under a number of constraints. The first constraint was that I believe strongly that artists should be paid for their work with more than just the promise of ‘exposure.’ So I knew right off the bat that that decision would limit how many pieces I could run. I currently spend about half my budget on paying the featured contributor. Right now that means I can only afford to commission one piece of writing each month. I also knew I wanted the publication to be in the form of a letter, or at least to come in an envelope in the mail. So that means I am constrained by the weight and size limits on mail and the cost of postage, and the production costs. I knew that I wanted the design of each issue of Spread Letter to look and feel a bit different every month, so I get to have a lot of fun seeing what I can do within these necessary limitations.


Q: When you say that the series “is an exploration and resurrection of the literary letter,” what examples are you playing off of?

A: I don’t think I am playing off of any one set of examples specifically but I am quite interested in the tradition of writers writing letters to each other and circulating texts among themselves in various ways. I wanted to find my own way to participate in this tradition. Examples range from the way poems were circulated among a small, known readership in Elizabethan courts, to the various now-collected volumes of the letters of well-known authors. I was reading recently the letters of Keats, which are very beautiful, playful, and deliberate as well as the letters between members of the Bloomsbury group. (Forgive the second Bloomsbury reference: I have been drafting a novel in which one of the characters is a fictional member of that scene, so they have been on my mind). And the nice thing about sending out Spread Letter is that though in one sense it is clearly a curated package and in that way similar to a small literary magazine, there is another sense in which it remains very clearly a letter and package specifically from me as a writer reading and interacting with other writers.


Q: How are the authors included in the series selected? Is all the work solicited?

A: So far it has been a matter of approaching writers and artists that I respect and know I want to publish, something that felt a bit hard and scary at first because the publication was just starting out. I’m trying to branch out a bit more and follow up on leads that are more removed from my own circles. I am also planning to have a call for submissions in the new year.

I look for work that has some kind of fierce determination in it…some kind of fearless commitment to the thing that it is. It is a hard quality to describe, because it isn’t genre specific. The last few issues have been poetry based, but for example in June I had Toronto comedian, Tom Hobson, write an utterly absurd comedic prose piece about being horny in Montreal. I loved that not only was it truly a very funny work, but also in the way that it was funny it managed to be unflinchingly faithful to the unexpected, hyperbolic and often conflicted experience of being flooded with desire.


Q: Who else has been in the series so far? Who is forthcoming?

A: So far Spread Letter has featured work by Maria Lioutaia, Tom Hobson, Margaret Christakos and Katie Adamson as well as my own work. I haven’t announced the forthcoming contributors yet.


Q: I take it that Spread Letter is entirely subscription-based. Is this correct? How do you publicize the series? How do copies get out into the world?

A: Yes, that is correct, Spread Letter is entirely subscription funded. I have been managing the subscriptions largely through Patreon (www.patreon.com/spreadletter), though my subscription base is actually larger than what shows up there, as some people have chosen to pay by other means.

Publicity is probably my biggest challenge at the moment. I’m a one-woman publishing house so the task of regularly publicizing the series tends to be the first thing that gives way when I’m pressed for time. That is something I am trying to improve on! I’ve been lucky so far in that most of my new subscriptions are generated by word of mouth or via social media.

I distribute copies each month by mail to subscribers, but I am trying to find a good way of selling back issues. I am also starting to look into representing Spread Letter at small-press and literary fairs.


Q: So far, what has the response been? Anything unexpected?

A: I can’t say that there has been anything terribly unexpected. So far I am happy to say the response has been very positive. After the first issue went out I had many people say how they were surprised by how much they enjoyed the process of opening the package and riffling through the contents. They described the pleasure of feeling the weight of the paper in their hands and being able to interact with the text as an object. That being said the point of the series isn’t to fetishize its physicality but rather to explore and play with the way the content can be shaped and facilitated by a tangible medium.


Q: How does this activity relate to your own writing? Now that you’re regularly curating and publishing, does it affect the way you see your own practice?

A: Yes and no. On one hand I try pretty hard when I am writing to not think too much about the readership or even the end product. What I mean is I try to write initially in such a way that I’m not working to curate or shape the output to make it palatable to some future group of readers. In the early stages of my own regular writing practice I am writing only for myself, guided by own sense of artistic and aesthetic judgement. But after that the editing and curating experience has become useful and creatively stimulating. I feel more able to stand behind my work and more capable of looking at a strange snippet of writing that I like, but am unsure of what to do with, and see the curatorial possibilities. And conversely I feel more able to acknowledge when my own work isn’t ringing true in some way and then either fix it or let it go to the practice bin.


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. The author of more than thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. In March, 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection A perimeter (New Star Books, 2016). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). In fall 2015, he was named “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and recently became a regular contributor to both the Drunken Boat and Ploughshares blogs. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com

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