In the darkened auditorium of Temple Hoyne Buell Hall on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a video montage showing images such as paintings, sculptures, stacks of books, and people writing frantically played on the large projection screen. Over the hypnotic music playing in the background, a voice asked, “What the hell does Ninth Letter mean?”
Ninth Letter is a literary magazine produced through a collaboration of the fledgling Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing program and the School of Art and Design at Illinois. It debuted last May and featured the works of such varied writers as Robert Olen Butler, Louis Jenkins, Tony Hoagland, and David Eggers. It also included an interview with Booker Prize winning novelist Yann Martel.
On Thursday, December 2, members of the University of Illinois and Champaign-Urbana communities gathered at Temple Hoyne Buell Hall for a reading and reception celebrating the launch of the journal’s second issue.
“This is not a literary magazine,” said editor Jodee Rubins in her opening remarks following the video introduction. “This magazine is something as yet unnamed. I think we like it that way.”
Rubins was managing editor of the New England Review at the Middleburry College in Vermont before coming to Illinois last September to take the reins of Ninth Letter.
She originally applied for the position in hopes of returning to the Midwest to be closer to her family. It was not until she got to Illinois and began speaking with Fiction Editor Philip Graham and Poetry Editor Michael Madonick that she realized what kind of project was being undertaken.
“The collaboration they were talking about with Art and Design was something I had not seen done before and something I thought had very strong potential,” she said.
The visual aspect of Ninth Letter is as essential to the endeavor as the poems, short stories, and essays it accompanies. The purpose statement of the magazine, printed in the Editor’s Note to the first issue, states that, “Ninth Letter is a publication that rejects the notion that literature is an isolated mode of expression. Instead, we recognize and seek the intersections of literature with various fields of intellectual and creative life, such as visual arts, journalistic arts, science, history, and cultural studies.”
Part of the reason that the magazine was able to get funding from the university without much struggle was that its mission fit in nicely with the cross-campus initiatives that were championed by former Chancellor Nancy Cantor.
The magazine was envisioned not only as a collaboration between the MFA program and the School of Art and Design, but a project that could incorporate people of all academic disciplines. The inclusion of an essay by University of Illinois Entomology department head May Berenbaum in the first issue is an example of this cooperative spirit. The magazine hopes to reach out to the sciences even more in the future, Rubins said.
In his public remarks at the launch party for the second issue, Graham recounted a chance meeting with Cantor at a reception on campus. He mentioned to the chancellor that the MFA program was looking into starting a magazine.
“Without batting an eye, Nancy was like, ‘You send me a budget and I’ll find the money.’ Not ‘maybe,’ or ‘I’ll see’ or ‘I’ll try’ but, ‘I will,’” he recalled.
When a budget was purposed, Ninth Letter was granted every penny it asked for. Cantor even asked for two more budget proposals and increased funding twice before the publication of the first issue.
The idea of creating some kind of literary magazine at Illinois did not begin with the hiring of Rubins or with Cantor’s promise to find a budget. It started about twelve years ago when the English Department began laying the groundwork for the MFA program, according to Madonick. It was something several professors felt was missing from the department.
“There were actually several attempts to bring magazines here, magazines that already had reputations out there where the editors were going to move themselves and the magazine with them,” he explained.
None of those attempts came to fruition.
When the first class of graduate students in the new MFA program came to campus in fall of 2002, one student led the push to start a literary magazine.
“When the students arrived in the first year of the MFA program, particularly one of them, Chris Maier, was the driving the force within the student body to kind of coalesce the dreams and aspirations of the students and of the faculty,” Madonick said.
Maier began doing a lot of the leg work necessary to get the magazine started. Early on, before the magazine existed as more than ideas in people’s heads, Maier went to the School of Art and Design and spoke with Professor of Narrative Media Joseph Squier about whether he would be interested in being part of the project.
“Joseph was very excited and saw some opportunities for real cross-campus collaboration,” Rubins said.
The graduate students were not only a driving force behind the magazine’s creation but they are also an essential part of its operation.
There are various levels of graduate student involvement in the project. All students in the program are offered the opportunity of a three hour per week practicum working on the magazine. This is basically an internship and includes duties such as reading manuscripts that are submitted to the magazine, clerical work, and meetings with the genre editors to help select the work that will appear in the magazine.
Students are also given the chance to apply for assistantships. Those awarded the assistantships work for a semester as the assistant to each of the magazine’s four editors.
The magazine severs as a pedagogical tool for students as well as faculty. It gives them something tangible to work toward.
“We teach an art that’s primarily abstract,” said Madonick. “We’re not producing sculpture or an object that you can walk up and kick. But the production of a magazine, it ultimately becomes an art object. It ultimately becomes a collection of art and an object in and of itself.
“So the students are now involved in the collective production of an object.And though that may sound materialist, it is a function that I think is essential and is gratifying for the students in all kinds of ways.”
When the time came to begin production on the first issue, the people at Ninth Letter had to actively seek out work to be submitted to them. This involved calling on a number of connections possessed by the faculty and students involved.
Graham secured the interview with Yann Martel featured in the first issue when Martel visited campus last fall. Having a name like Martel associated with the project helped Ninth Letter attract others to submit their work, according to Rubins.
The staff approached Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, editor of the journal McSweeney’s, and alumnus of Illinois, in hopes that he would write an essay about literary magazines.
“He said, ‘Look, I’ve done that for a lot of magazines. I’ve got new stories. Would you like to see some of my stories?’” Rubins said. “We never thought that we could dare to ask him for a short story but he gave us three or four and we had a choice of which one we wanted.”
The fact that Rubins is the editor of Ninth Letter was enough to attract some people to contribute work to the magazine.
“I knew Jodee Rubins as the managing editor of the New England Review, a fabulous review in which I been published before. She kind of has a world-class reputation for having a nose for great writing,” said fiction writer Adam Johnson, author of the short story collection Emporium, whose short story “Denti-Vision Satellite” appears in the second issue of Ninth Letter.
“When I heard she had a new venture I just sent a piece and she happened to like it,” he explained.
“Nobody’s got the selection of writers that Ninth Letter does. I think their publishing the smartest, the brightest people and I’m lucky to be in their company.”
Now that two issues of the magazine have been released to the public, writers whose work has appeared in its pages are promoting it as much as the staff. Poet Bob Hicok, whose poems are in the second issue, has had half a dozen friends submit work to the magazine, according to Madonick.
The magazine’s initial print run was 2000 copies. There were about 25 subscribers before the release of the first issue. The print run for the second issue was doubled to 4000 copies and subscriptions increased tenfold, according to Rubins. The second issue has national distribution and will appear in Barnes and Noble stores and independent bookstores across the country.
But what the hell does Ninth Letter mean? At the launch party for the second issue Madonick was credited with coming up with the idea for the title.
One of the first titles considered for the magazine was “Flatland,” which was suggested by Maier, according to Madonick.
“Some of us liked it and some of us were troubled by it because we didn’t want to call more attention to our magnificent landscape,” he said.
When trying to think of titles for the magazine, Madonick looked at the university letterhead.
“We do want to acknowledge the university presence but we don’t want to call it the Illinois Review or the Illinois Quarterly,” he said.
He studied the logo that the university spent hundreds of thousands of dollars designing, which he describes as a “column looking I.”
“So I’m looking at it and I’m thinking, ok, what’s an I? What is it? How can I do this?” he said.
Madonick opened up the old Thorndike-Barnhart Comprehensive Desk Dictionary from 1967 that sits on the desk in his office to the letter I.
“The ninth letter of the alphabet,” the dictionary entry read.
I’ll admit that I was a little drunk when I got behind the wheel. Don’t worry. This isn’t going to end in a fiery, tragic car accident or anything like that. I just thought you should be aware of the state of mind I was in when I decided to leave school in my roommate’s car just before Christmas last year. I wasn’t wasted or anything. I think I’d had like two, maybe three, beers while watching the Illinois – Memphis basketball game.
It was finals week but all my exams were over so I was just hanging around waiting for one of my roommates to be done so I could get a ride home. Everyone in my house was studying hardcore for their tests so I was lying in my bed under the covers watching the game by myself. I don’t usually like to drink along but it’d been a rough semester and now that I was done I figured it was ok to reward myself with a couple beers to accompany the game.
There were about ten minutes left in the second half. I think the Illini were winning. I know they won the game but they might not have been winning at that particular moment in time, but whatever, that’s inconsequential.
It was freezing in my room. We lived in this old house that was probably built in the twenties or thirties and you could tell that my room used to be an enclosed front porch. It was always ten degrees colder in there than anywhere else in the house. That’s probably why my fish died when they turned the heat down while we were gone for the week at Thanksgiving. The damn thing sunk to the bottom of the tank like a fucking ice cube. That kind of cold, lonely death seemed fitting for a fish named after Holden Caulfield. I thought the thing was going to get stuck when I flushed it down the toilet.
So I was laying there freezing and thinking about how I been freezing for like a month. I’m a born and raised Midwesterner. I’m used to the cold. I usually don’t even complain about it. Personally, I like living somewhere where you get to experience all four seasons…sometimes in the course of one week. Places like southern California where it’s sunny and warm all the time seems as fake as the people out there. My grandparents live out in the middle of the desert in Arizona and I don’t know how they can stand to live in a place so hot that they can’t even leave the house some days during the summer. And their yard is rocks instead of grass. Rocks. Can you imagine that?
For some reason the cold was really getting to me this year. The game was just about over and it was getting to the point where the losing team just keeps fouling every time the ball is put in bounds. Why can’t they just realize they’re not going to score ten points in the last minute and just give up? I grabbed the remote off my nightstand and clicked off the TV. I got out of bed, dropped my blue plaid pajama pants on the floor, pulled on the pair of jeans that I’d been wearing for the past four days, and checked to see if my wallet and phone were still in the pockets. As I walked out of my room, I put on my ski cap and winter jacket.
Down in the basement, there was music coming from Tom’s room. I was planning on going out for a walk or something, maybe grabbing some food. I thought maybe he could use a break from studying. Just sitting around the house was making me restless. The idea of hanging out at school after my finals were over sounded awesome when I decided to do it. But everyone else still had exams and papers and shit, so I was getting bored out of my mind. I didn’t really want to go home either because no one else was back from school yet and I’d have nothing to do.
Tom wasn’t in his room. I looked back over my shoulder and saw that the bathroom door was closed and the light was on. I could hear the shower running. He must have been in there. Some gigantic engineering textbook sat open on his desk and some program was compiling code on his computer. I saw his keys sitting on his dresser. When I got out of bed the idea of a walk sounded really appealing. I’d been sitting on my ass for days and I thought maybe getting up and moving around a little would do some good for the mood I was in. But standing there looking there looking at the keys to Tom’s hatchback Corolla, I decided my feet just couldn’t take me as far as I wanted to go. Maybe I’d just run out and get myself some Taco Bell or something. I couldn’t’ remember if I’d eaten a real meal yet that day or not. Thinking I might be able to slip in and out without him noticing I’d borrowed the car. He had a final at eight the next morning so he probably wouldn’t be leaving the room much at all that night. I slide the key off the ring. The shower shut off so I quickly left the room and went out the side door at the top of the stairs.
It was one of those quite December nights that they write Christmas carols about. There was light dusting of snow on the ground and more flakes drifting down softly from the sky. For some reason our house was the only building on the block with any Christmas lights. Yeah, we only had one strand running across the front but at least we put forth some effort. A little snow had accumulated on the car but not enough to make me want to go digging around in back for a brush.
I opened the door and tried to squeeze myself into the driver’s seat. I always forgot how much shorter than me Tom was until I got behind the wheel of his car. Reaching under the seat to find the lever that slid the seat back with one hand, I turned the key in the ignition with the other. The car roared to a start and I backed out of our steep driveway slowly to avoid bottoming out. I flipped on the radio and pressed the seek button, searching for the right station. Country. Top 40. Preacher. Traffic Report. News. Rap. Easy Listening. Christian Rock. The radio hit a familiar note and I took my hand off the button. It was a cover of a song by The Cure done by a band I really liked. I sang along loudly like I always do when I’m in the car by myself. Sometimes I think I forgot that people outside my car can still see me when I’m driving alone.
The streets were pretty empty. Everybody must have been inside studying or gone for break already. Usually I love these deserted, crisp nights. But lately the cold had been driving me crazy. It wasn’t just the cold it was everything. My friends. My roommates. School. Every once and awhile I get the urge to just go somewhere else. It doesn’t matter where I am. I think I have some sort of instinct for flight. Maybe I just have trouble being content.
I went through the Taco Bell drive thru which was a pain in the ass because Tom’s driver’s side window didn’t roll down so I had to open the door to give the woman my money and get my food. Like always, I ordered way too much food but I figured it was ok because I hadn’t eaten anything all day that I could remember. Setting the food down on the seat next to me, I pulled out of the parking lot and onto University Avenue. I started to head home but saw a sign directing me toward the interstate and decided to follow it. Tom would be studying all night so he probably wouldn’t notice if I took the car for a little drive as long as I put in a little gas before I brought it home.
My phone rang just as I was getting onto I-57 heading south. I pulled it out my pocket and saw that it was my friend Ryan calling.
“What’s up?” I answered.
“Hey, what’s going on?”
“Not much, what are you up to tonight?” I looked over my shoulder as I pulled into the right lane.
“Nothing. I don’t have any more finals till Friday so I’m taking a night off from studying. What are you doing?”
“Nothing either. I’m out running errands in Tom’s car right now thought. Do you want me to call you when I’m done?”
“Yeah, sure,” he answered. “Where are you right now?”
“I’m down in Savoy by the Super Wal-Mart,” I lied.
“All right, well give me a call.”
“Will do. Later.”
I hung up the phone and tossed it into the passenger seat. The green sign overhead read “Memphis 400 Miles.” Maybe it was warmer there than it was here in the middle of the harvested cornfields of central Illinois. It had to be. I could laugh at people there about how they’d just lost to my school in basketball.
The interstate was dark at night. There weren’t many cars out along this stretch of road. Off in the distance there was the occasional light of a barn or a small town. There was something meditative about driving along the highway at night. You can’t see where you’re going or where you came from. You can’t really see what lies out in either direction of you. There’s just the road as far as your headlights show and the occasional other traveler.
I always wondered where everyone was going whenever I drove on a highway. Were they headed home from a week away on business to see there wife and kids? Were they headed somewhere to make a new home? Were they running away from something or rushing toward it? Each car contained a person who had their own life and their own story. When I thought about the sheer magnitude of it, it made my head want to explode. I wanted to tell the people who were headed the opposite direction I was to turn back. There was nothing back there waiting for them except coldness. They were 200 miles away from the lights of the city. There wasn’t even corn to block the biting wind.
The thing is, I couldn’t even answer those questions about myself. I didn’t know where I was going, if I was running away or racing toward something. If I went somewhere else I’d probably feel like getting away from there after a short time. Staying in one place made me feel like my life was getting stagnant. I needed change. At least a change of scenery.
The phone rang again. I glanced over at the seat next to me and saw that it was Tom calling. I reached over and silenced the ring. Sure, I felt bad about taking his car but he wasn’t using it and I needed to get out of there. I’d make it up to him somehow. Maybe I’d be back in a couple days, by the time his finals were over. Or I could just send him some money to pay for the car. But I didn’t have enough for that. I’d figure something out.
After about an hour the radio station that was on started breaking up. I search around the dial for something worth listening to but couldn’t find anything. It was too bad that I left the house without my CDs. I wouldn’t have if I knew that I’d be going farther than Taco Bell. In the CD player there was an unlabeled disc that Tom must have burned. His taste in music was close enough to mine to be sure that it would be better than any of the shitty country music I could find on the radio.
I pressed play and the music started. Acoustic guitar and a distinct high, nasally voice. It was a song that I was pretty sure that I introduced him to.
“Oh well, you’ve got me under your spell, and I don’t think you’re kidding around. I don’t think I can forget you now,” I belt out along with the voice coming from the speakers. It was a little out of my range but there I was no one around to hear and I wouldn’t have cared much if there was. “I once sat up on my roof and examined the planning of my town. I saw the structured grid and pavement cutting through grass.” I had to look up the lyrics online before I got them all right. The singer had away of stretching out words over too many syllables that was distinctive but sometimes made them hard to understand.
“And I remembered the cold of winter running up the legs of my pants. I picked the nicest lawn and imagined the two of us rolling around down along the ground. I saw myself touch your face and I noticed jets begin to race above our heads. But I pinched my arm and remembered how much you hate me. I remembered the fact that I can’t see what you need and I’m too stupid to be aware of the beauty that you give this place and how shitty this town would seem with out you in it. When you aren’t around I let the shades fall down to shut out all the sun’s light and make myself feel all right. What am I doing with my life? Remember the only things we need sometimes are chilly nights and warmer thighs. ‘Cause there’s nothing like being held, sometimes.”
The song always reminded me of Jessie. Maybe she was what I was running away from. Things hadn’t been the same between us since I got drunk I told her how I felt about her that October. I also I apologized for not being good enough for her. I didn’t think she thought she was better than me. That’s just how it was. She was the one who that town was shitty without. I wondered if it would seem any different to her without me there.
It wasn’t that I was trying to prove something to anyone by getting out of there. I wasn’t even really thinking about her at all that night until that song came on. But maybe the fact that I knew now that nothing was ever going to happen between us was what put me in the mood to get the hell out of there in the first place. I did like the idea of getting away from her and the thousand other guys she’d rather be with than me. Maybe I just knew that anywhere in the world had to be better than east-central Illinois in December.
I pulled off the interstate and into the parking lot of a little gas station that was completely deserted. Not even one car at the pumps. Inside there was one man, a guy I’d was in his late fifties, sitting at the register slumped over the next morning’s paper. I used the bathroom, grabbed a bag or Combos and a bottle of Diet Coke and got back on the road. While I was inside I missed another call. I checked my call log and saw that it was Tom again. He must have known I’d taken the care by then. I’m sure he was pissed.
I couldn’t have told you exactly where I was at the time. I looked in the glove box for a map but there didn’t seem to be one. Memphis was only 315 miles away. The snow was starting to fall more heavily. It was good to be on the interstate because I knew if the weather got really bad it would be one of the first things to be plowed. Tom’s CD was pretty good. There was only like one song I didn’t really know but I was starting to wish for some company. I should have stopped to pick up Ryan before I left town. He still had finals though and even if I we were leaving school completely, he’d want to have good grades for that semester’s classes in case he ever wanted to go back. If Jess were there it might actually have given me enough time to explain what I was trying to say to her that night I attempted to profess my love and ended up making her think I thought she was conceited or something.
A state trooper car pulled into the lane behind me. I looked down at the speedometer and noticed I was going a little bit over the speed limit so I slowed down. Then I wondered if Tom had reported his car stolen. It hadn’t even occurred to me until just then that it was entirely possible that he would do that. I began to panic. I looked back over my shoulder 500 times in about a minute. The cop sped up and got closer to me. As his lights came on he pulled into the left lane and whipped past me. I was relieved.
There was a bump in the road and I heard a pop. The steering wheel began to wobble almost uncontrollably. I pulled onto the shoulder and flipped on the hazards. I hopped over into the passenger seat and got out that door. There was no traffic in sight but I thought I’d still be cautious. I stepped back from the car and saw that the front right tire had been blown out. There was a two-by-four in the back that you had to use to prop the hatch open because the hydraulics didn’t work any more. Digging through all Tom’s shit, I unburied the spare and the jack. As I cranked the car up on the jack, I realized that the only tires I’d ever changed were on Tom’s cars. He’d always owned crappy cars that had at least one tire that seemed to like going flat. At least he could say he’d owned a car. It took me about ten minutes to change the tire. I’d never done it in the dark before. I got back in and continued driving south. About five miles down the road I had to get out to tighten the bolts because the thing began to wobble.
A roadside sign read, “Memphis 295 miles.” There was no way I could make it that far on a spare tire. Even after I tightened the bolts it still didn’t feel stable. At the next exit I turned got off and turned around to head north. I was trying to leave and I didn’t even make it out of Illinois. I don’t know exactly where I was when I stopped but I don’t think I even got as far as Carbondale. The experience seemed typical. And after about ten minutes of the return trip, Tom’s CD ended and I was stuck searching the radio dial for something that wouldn’t make the trip pass slower than silence. I finally settled on a classic rock station that was playing “Just What I Needed” by The Cars. The rest of the selection wasn’t that great but it was better than anything else I could find.
The phone rang again. Another call from Tom. I hesitated before picking it up and answering, “Hello?”
“Umm…” the voice on the other end paused, not wanting to make the accusation he knew he had to. “Did you take my car?”
“Well, I…uh yeah.”
“What the fuck?” I knew he was pissed. I’d only ever heard Tom say that word one other time in the ten years that I’d known him and he was drunk at the time. I knew he definitely wasn’t drunk. He was definitely livid.
“Look, I’m sorry. I was going to go to Taco Bell but then I just needed to get the hell out of there. Out of Champaign. Out of Illinois.”
“Take a bus if you need to get away. Don’t steal my fucking car.”
That was twice.
“Listen, I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking. I just started driving and then I didn’t want to stop,” I tried to make excuses. “I got a flat so I’m on my way back now. I couldn’t make it all the way to Memphis.”
“Memphis? You were going to take my fucking car all the way to fucking Memphis?”
Three. Four. I was a dead man.
“Yeah, but look, I didn’t, ok? I’m on my way back now. It’ll be like an hour and a half or two.”
“Well, hurry up. And you’re paying to replace that tire.”
“Goodbye.” He hung up without waiting for my reply. I should have waited for him to be done with his finals and asked him to get the hell out of there with me.
When I pulled back into the driveway I sat starring at the house for a minute waiting for the song to end. It did and I turned the car off and pulled the key out of the ignition. I walked through the front door and down into the basement. I walked into Tom’s room and put his key back on the ring without saying a word. He looked up at me from his studying. I walked out without acknowledging his glance. Back up in my room I laid down I put my pajamas back on and crawled into bed. I clicked on the TV and put on Sportscenter. They were playing highlights from the game I’d watched earlier that night.