Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

An Interview with Dana Hansen

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Dana Hansen

by Naben Ruthnum

When Dana Hansen asked me to submit a story for the Humber Literary Review a couple of years ago, I didn’t hesitate to find a piece I thought would work with the magazine she and the rest of the team had built into a sharply-designed and interesting magazine that was both consistent and exciting from its first issue. Her professionalism and sharp eye were obvious in every step of the process of working with her.

Now, Dana’s handed off the editorship of HLR and is now in the process of building the Hamilton Review of Books, a new reviews-and-regionally focused journal that I’ve asked her a few questions about.

Naben Ruthnum:

You're blending the very local, in terms of content and the magazine's masthead and many of the writers, with the widest possible reaching media: HRB is a web-based magazine. Are you considering an audience outside of Ontario, outside of Canada in your editorial mandate, or will you be concentrating on a tighter readership?

Dana Hansen:

Our hope for the Hamilton Review of Books is that it will find a strong readership among Hamiltonians who have been wanting more coverage of the literary arts in our city, but also access and appeal to a wider audience across and, sure, even outside of Canada. That’s the beauty of the web – being able to reach readers we can’t even imagine yet – but it’s also a challenge to us to always be thinking of ways to diversify our content and keep it fresh and relevant.

Naben Ruthnum:

How focused on Hamilton writers will the magazine be?

Dana Hansen:

An important part of our mandate is to showcase Hamilton writers and stories that reflect the city. To that end, many of our reviewers will be local, as is our entire editorial board, and we will aim to include a review of or essay on at least one recently published or upcoming work authored by a Hamiltonian in each issue. Our focus will be on reviewing and producing good writing in general, from within and outside of Hamilton.

Naben Ruthnum:

Hamilton is expanding, obviously, and absorbing a lot of Toronto writers and readers. Does it have a distinct literary culture--a distinct civic culture? Tell us a bit about it.

Dana Hansen:

To the outside world, Hamilton is still usually regarded as Steeltown. Ask most non-Hamiltonians what they know about the city and the answer usually includes something about the steel mills and the city’s industrial, working heritage. This is definitely an aspect of Hamilton’s culture, and one to be proud of, but the last many years have seen a revitalization of the city as a lively centre for the arts.

If you attend the annual GritLIT festival, or the Lit Live reading series, or the storytelling series Steel City Stories, or author events at the Hamilton Public Library or the city’s fine independent bookstores, Epic Books and Bryan Prince Bookseller, you’ll encounter a warm, inclusive “come-as-you-are” atmosphere that is refreshing. I’ve been amazed by the hearty welcome we’ve received introducing the HRB to the Hamilton community. Offers of help and support have flowed to us before we’ve even launched our first issue. Hamilton’s literary and civic culture, I would say, is one of openness, pride, and acceptance. If you have something genuine to offer and want to be part of how the city is evolving, the Hamilton community will embrace you.

Naben Ruthnum:

What are your favourite Hamilton books?

Dana Hansen:

There are many excellent writers writing on all kinds of subjects who call Hamilton home, including two of our senior editors, Krista Foss and Sally Cooper. But if by “Hamilton books” we’re talking about books set in or concerning the city, then here are a few favourites:

Blue Moon, James King
Mean Season, Salvatore Difalco
The Good Doctor, Vince Agro
Saints, Unexpected, Brent Van Staalduinen
The Fishers of Paradise, Rachel Preston
The Midnight Games, David Lee
Falling into Place, John Terpstra

Naben Ruthnum:

You were Editor-in-Chief of the Humber Literary Review for its formative issues and quickly guided it into being one of the most consistently interesting and well-designed journals in Canada. Now that you're launching a new magazine, what lessons are you bringing over from that experience?

Dana Hansen:

I learned so many things from that experience. There is, I’ve discovered, definitely a kind of alchemy involved in producing a good magazine.

The Humber Literary Review was my foray into magazine publishing, so I learned a lot by trial and error. A well functioning editorial team is key to the success and sustainability of any publication. It helps to have a small, like-minded group of editors who communicate well and share a similar vision for the publication, and it’s important to collectively clarify that vision regularly. I’m so fortunate to be working now with four remarkable, book-loving, super intelligent women (Krista Foss, Sally Cooper, Rhonda Dynes, and Jessica Rose) who bring different strengths to this project but who all share a real affection for and involvement in Hamilton and its arts scene.

Another lesson I’ve learned is the tremendous value of advisors. We have a small advisory board, including Noelle Allen, publisher at Wolsak & Wynn, and Jaime Krakowski, ower of Epic Books, who have been instrumental in helping us form our mandate and make important connections in the community.

I’ve learned the value of social media and of establishing a presence there to spread the word – something we’re trying to do in the lead up to our launch. It’s also essential to create from the very beginning a recognizable look or identity for the publication (something that Kilby Smith-McGregor did so well for the HLR). In addition, carefully pairing artwork or photography with the content – something I love doing – adds a compelling visual element to the publication. We’re very fortunate to have a portfolio of Gary Barwin’s artwork to complement the writing in our first issue.

In terms of content, I’ve learned the importance of variety and finding fresh ways to package content – this is especially true for web-based magazines, as readers tend to anticipate something new each time they visit a site. As the magazine continues to evolve and we learn more about our readers and their interests, we’ll expand our offerings.

We’re keenly aware of the importance, too, of providing space not only for established writers and reviewers, but also for newer ones. It was one of my greatest joys at the HLR to be able to showcase emerging writers and perhaps even give them a little leg-up in their career and I’m looking forward to doing the same thing with the Hamilton Review of Books.

Finally, I would say that I learned a lot about working with writers in the editing process and how valuable, edifying, and interesting that relationship can be. I’m just as passionate about other people’s work as I am about my own, so I’m excited about working in this capacity with our reviewers and essayists.

Naben Ruthnum:

What genres will you be covering in reviews--and will you be printing any fiction, poetry, memoir?

Dana Hansen:

We’re founded as a book review and that is our focus for now, but we haven’t disregarded the idea of printing original fiction and poetry in the future. There’s certainly always the need for more publishing platforms for creative work here in Hamilton, so we may eventually go in that direction. First, though, we want to provide space for bold, sagacious criticism – the kind of criticism that engages in close, constructive readings of works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. We will have shorter reviews, or what we’re calling round-ups, of children’s books, genre fiction, and more, but the main content of our bi-annual issues will be book reviews of 500-750 words and literary essays of up to 5000 words – enough space, in other words, for writers to really immerse themselves in conversation with the work they’re considering.

Naben Ruthnum:

Which lit mags and websites are you most drawn to--are there any particular qualities you'd like to emulate?

Dana Hansen:

Lots! There are many exceptional print and digital literary magazines in this country and elsewhere that I’ve been looking to for inspiration for the Hamilton Review of Books. Among specifically book review magazines and sites, the Los Angeles Review of Books stands out for its depth and breadth of coverage and for its appealing aesthetic, as does The Millions. For serious, intelligent nonfiction reviews, Literary Review of Canada is a go-to. I think Canadian Notes and Queries is doing exciting things under the new editorship of Emily Donaldson, and I admire CNQ’s long-form essays that fascinatingly combine the personal with the literary. The Puritan’s reviews and Hazlitt’s interviews are also great examples for us. From all of these publications, I’d like the HRB to emulate the qualities of boldness, wit, variety, relevance, visual appeal, and, importantly, a respectful approach to writers and their work.

Naben Ruthnum lives in Parkdale, where he writes literary and genre fiction. He also writes criticism, and was last year's Crimewave columnist at the National Post. Naben won the 25th annual Journey Prize for his short story, Cinema Rex, and continues to publish widely.

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