Interview with Matilda Battersby, Editor of Popshot
By Georgia Tindale
Speaking personally, one of the best aspects of being involved with Porridge as an editor comes in the form of the connections we make with other publications from all around the world. Whether it’s something as simple as an encouraging retweet of someone’s call for submissions, teaming up on a competition or offer, or putting the world to rights together during one of our biannual print launch events, there is certainly plenty of truth to be found in the old adage about being stronger together. One publication which has had its place firmly on the Porridge-radar for quite some time is Popshot, a well-respected literary magazine established in 2008 which publishes short stories, flash fiction and poetry alongside gorgeous and often provocative illustrations by (what will soon be) the up-and-coming generation of writers and illustrators.
With its humble origins something we can identify with at Porridge (Popshot was essentially started by “a guy in his bedroom”), ‘the illustrated magazine of new writing’ was bought by the Chelsea Magazine Company a couple of years ago and is now in the capable editorial hands of Matilda Battersby. Thanks to the publication’s success, Matilda’s main charge takes the form of sifting through the hundreds of submissions for each of the magazine’s quarterly issues. These have solicited work on themes from the profound to the intriguing, including ‘Chance’, ‘Escape’, ‘Fantasy’, ‘Mystery’, and the upcoming issue takes ‘Earth’ as its theme. As a long-term fan-girl of Popshot myself, I was delighted to have the opportunity to pick Matilda’s brain about the highs and lows of being Popshot editor, what really grinds her gears in submissions, and which books are best for soothing ourselves in order to survive this small matter of self-isolation.
Your potted history please.
Chelsea Magazine hired me a year and a half ago and I’m currently editing issue 28 of Popshot. My background is in arts editing. I was Digital Arts Editor at the Independent, commissioning features about books and writing, as well as other aspects of the arts. I’m also a writer myself, currently writing a novel, so it seemed like a good fit. I work as a freelance journalist and editor, so I’m not based in the Chelsea Magazines office and am only there for production four times a year – although with lockdown, of course, we are all now working from home. It’s part-time but I am always checking in with our social media and our subscribers and we call for submissions four times a year, so it can get very busy.
Tell me your favourite things about editing Popshot
The surprises that appear when I dip into the inbox. Whenever I make a call for submissions, I generally have a checklist in my mind. So, for example, the next issue is themed around ‘Earth’, and I was expecting huge amounts of content to come in about environmentalism, sustainability and green lifestyle. All of that did come into the inbox but we also received a huge volume of content about death, about humanity and about our codependence with the Earth. I find it really fascinating that I have an expectation of what’s going to appear, and then what actually comes in is so much darker, deeper and more exciting than I could have anticipated.
What makes Popshot special?
People generally comment on how beautiful Popshot is as an object because of how colourful it is and because of all of our illustrations. It’s really a testament to both Lauren Debono-Elliot, who is our art director, and all of the wonderful work we get in from our illustrators. We choose the written work before we commission the illustrations so, again, you never have any idea what approach the illustrators will take or in which direction they will go. We go through the portfolios of the illustrators who want to work with us and match them based on their styles to try and ensure that they complement one another. Waiting to see what comes back as the finished product is so exciting because you’ve got a kind of creative mind reading taking place: a transfusion of creativity.
Tell me how the different forms work together in Popshot (flash fiction, poetry and short stories).
I love that we have these different disciplines and the way that they complement each other as I see them as having quite different functions. Poetry is immediately very impactful. It’s a series of images: a stance or an emotion and it chucks you in straightaway. It’s the same with flash fiction – it’s more immediate and gives you a kind of instant hit. In contrast, longer fiction and short stories have the ability to play with you as a reader, teach you things and take you on a bit more of a journey. You can play with genre, you can play with concepts and be a lot less rigid in how you construct a piece of fiction in a shorter piece, than you might in a novel for example. By containing all of these different elements, the magazine has the ability to be quite punchy and surprising.
We try to complement the pieces we receive with pieces in other forms that draw on their ideas, extend them or impact on them simply through proximity, but often we have very little control. It’s a little bit like curation rather than editing in the traditional sense because you don’t really know what’s coming in and then once it’s in, you have to help sculpt it.
What are the best qualities to have as an editor?
You need to understand the importance of having a broad range of voices in the work you publish in order to provide readers with a variety of perspectives from different backgrounds. Of course, you also need to be very picky and have the ability to cut things and make them work in harmony with the imagery on the page, to make them sing and to ensure they are as impactful as possible. This could mean re-nosing something that has a boring introduction or just making sure you get the impact you need from the initial story. Plus perfect grammar and an eye for detail.
What are your pet peeves as an editor?
Sloppiness, bad spelling and inconsistency. When something starts off being very exciting and then you realise it falls apart right in the middle: I really don’t like flabby middles!
Your top literary recommendations for getting through isolation?
It depends if you want distraction or if you want to dive into pandemic fiction. If you want to do the latter, ‘Station 11′ by Emily St. John Mandel is your best bet. It’s basically a prediction of what we’re going through but more dystopian. It takes things further, to the point where the majority of the human race has died out and you see what happens when everything that we know is permanently taken away. So that’s good, but you might not want to read it right now…
Similarly, because of the whole lockdown scenario, if you want to read about the interior life and the whole idea of being imprisoned, I am currently reading Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen which has a very interesting female protagonist who is semi-trapped in a house with her alcoholic father but also works in a prison, so she has this dual sense of being present but also has these limitations on her life. In terms of lockdown escapism, I recently just read My Sister The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite which is just fantastic. It’s set in Lagos and it’s just really sparky: she’s an amazing writer. It’s complete escapism and entertainment, but so clever.
Tell me more about your own writing
On my desk in front of me, I have the best book I’ve ever read about writing and the process of writing: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. She is very honest about how hard it is and how many rejections you have to get and how many pitfalls there are before you can feel confident enough in introducing yourself to the world as a writer of fiction. I’ve been writing a novel for the last year and I find it very hard to describe what it’s like, where it fits in or what the inspiration behind it is. It’s a form of madness in the best sense.
I find the process of actually writing fiction to be like some sort of mysterious alchemy. You have a plan and then what actually comes out is completely different. It is a process of revisions, rewriting and understanding what you’ve got and its potential failures and its successes. It’s a sort of massive soup!
What are your literary influences?
In terms of people I read again and again, Emily St. John Mandel is a clear, contemporary influence. I also really like Doris Lessing – she’s brilliant. In general, I like people who are slightly genre-bending for its own sake and I like very authentic literary voices.
Media, editing and publishing jobs can be difficult to crack into. What are your recommendations for someone aspiring to be an editor like yourself?
It’s about luck, tenacity and being good at what you do: those three things. If you’re doing it from a freelance perspective, it’s just about keeping on pitching and if you’re getting rejections you need to keep going because eventually something will stick. As soon as you get a reputation for being reliable, as soon as you deliver something good, your pitching will get easier and doors will open so much more easily once you’ve got a few established pieces behind you. That’s all it is really: it’s about persistence.