There is a movie that I love, called Morning Glory. Instead of getting the promotion she expects, the protagonist, Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams), loses her job at a small news network, and shortly afterwards lands another, as a producer at a once huge but now failing morning show, Day Break, in New York. She does well. She convinces egos Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton) and Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford) to work together. She gets serious news journalist and anchor Pomeroy to make a frittata on air. It‚Äôs ratings gold. She gets scoops. The ratings soar ever higher. She falls in love with dreamboat producer Adam Bennett. She runs through Manhattan in the final scene, abandoning a dream job interview to return to the team at Day Break.
This year in May, my Day Break, Prufrock Magazine, turns three years old. It‚Äôs a literary magazine and didn‚Äôt exist before four friends, James, Anneke, Nick and I started it in May 2013, but there are things in common. Mainly, dream jobs.
We started Prufrock after James King, our current art director, took me for coffee one day because I wanted to know more about his job. I had just finished a gap year and wasn‚Äôt sure what to do, and he was working in publishing. I was also reading a tonne of the New Yorker, and had started thinking quite seriously about why it was that South Africa didn‚Äôt have a New Yorker of its own ‚Äì it seemed so clear that we would have the content, certainly, to fill the pages. James had been thinking about something similar, and knew how to do things like design and print a whole magazine, beautifully.
Anneke and I then met up for coffee, beneath a huge tree in Newlands, to which she brought copies of The Gentlewoman¬†and Lucky Peach, and we started thinking a bit more about what something like this would look like. At some point it was decided that each issue would have a cocktail recipe at the back, written by Phil Kramer. Later, we added Andre Sales‚Äô food recipes and their histories.
It was December. I went on holiday to Mozambique. On the way back, after a week without phone signal I got an email saying I had got an interview for a job I applied for months earlier, communications for an NGO. I got the job, I started, driving to Midrand each day from Melville, (one hour), driving home after the afternoon thundershower (sometimes two hours) and going for a swim. I couldn‚Äôt shake the idea of starting this magazine, as yet unnamed.
So, three months later I quit, and two months after we picked up the proofs for the first issue of Prufrock from the printers. We had sold ads (to anyone who would listen and mostly to our families), used savings, put out calls for submissions on Facebook and printed 1000 copies.
Prufrock is a place for new and young writers. It‚Äôs a fiction, nonfiction and poetry print quarterly, and we publish work in any South African language. To date we have published work from writers in Cote D‚ÄôIvoire, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Zambia as well as many from all over South Africa.
At the Franschhoek Literary Festival, where we very informally launched Volume 1, Issue 1, we climbed up on stage after events and spoke in a frenzied way about what we had done. The reactions were mixed. People wished us well. People reminisced with us about old South African literary magazines. People offered their condolences for our brave but ultimately doomed efforts. I flew back to Johannesburg and was interviewed on KykNet. I met Riaan Cruywagen.
We decided to start a print magazine rather than an online one for three reasons. First, we felt that print was more accessible. In theory, while few South Africans have Internet access that they can use for enough time to read a magazine, anyone can go to a bookshop. We made it as inexpensive as possible ‚Äì initially one copy of Prufrock cost R30. Secondly, we felt that among the hundreds of books in any given store, Prufrock could compete. Not so among the trillions of things online. And finally, we wanted a physical, beautiful record, and something our writers could hold, show to people, keep. Bookshops quickly agreed to stock us, even Exclusive‚Äôs. Independent stores like The Book Lounge, Clarke‚Äôs and Kalk Bay Books in Cape Town and Love Books in Johannesburg were wonderfully supportive.
Things carried on. We found more stockists, we continued to sell ads, we approached well-known writers and asked them to write in the hopes that their names on our covers would lead readers to the new voices. We published Anton Harber, Tannie Evita and Songeziwe Mahlangu.
We published 15 year old Mvelo Dhlamini, sixty-something year old Eugenia Keke; a six-thousand word essay in Bacha by Abdul-Malik Sibabalwe Oscar Masinyana, who has since joined the magazine as an associate editor; Rosa Lyster on Picnics, Narnia and Being 25; Laura Windvogel on fruit; the brilliant Genna Gardini.
I worked some odd, odd-jobs to be able to work on Prufrock almost full time. The weirdest and most grueling was at a call-centre for an insurance company, where I was paid to identify the race of someone who had been called and offered a prize — a braai set or a men‚Äôs skincare pack. The company‚Äôs market research indicated that different race groups were more likely to take certain insurance policies. So they would tailor the insurance brochures sent with the gift depending on the person‚Äôs race.
I listened to 600 calls a day, and it made me crazy. I think it had the same effect on other people there too. The vending machine had a typed note asking people not to slam it if they didn‚Äôt get the right change, with a handwritten response WHAT MUST WE DO THEN! One of the telemarketers sang while he waited for the phone to be answered. He sang ‚Äú8 Days a Week‚Äù and ‚ÄúDog Days Are Over.‚Äù
Perhaps jolted by that experience, perhaps by the fact that Prufrock would soon be turning two, that we had actually survived (and were growing), I decided to apply for an internship at Harper’s Magazine in New York. One evening, driving home with a friend after a jog, I checked my phone and there was an email saying I had an interview. My head hit the ceiling of the car. Two days later, at David Goatham, a family friend‚Äôs house, I was interviewed. The advice that David and his friend gave me was ‚Äúsound enthusiastic‚Äù. I got the (unpaid) job.
I was very lucky to be able to go. I arrived in bitterly cold New York and had the best 8 months of my life. The dogs wore little blue shoes so that their feet wouldn‚Äôt get cold. An actual person shouted ‚Äúwatch it, I‚Äôm walking here!‚Äù; The interns made white Russians and read through the unsolicited submissions (the slush pile). The Harper‚Äôs doorman was a Russian who made comedy films. We worked hard, checking facts, looking for interesting numbers for the index. John Berger called when I was covering reception. From Paris. Zadie Smith was on the masthead but rarely seen. Rafil Kroll-Zaidi.
On Sundays, to earn a bit of money, I proofread the magazine at the Hungarian Pastry Shop.¬†It has low ceilings and the soft lights are low on the wall. It is filled with Columbia students who seem all to be talking and studying quietly at the same time. The water comes from a blue glass cooler, and the menu written on the walls offers almond horns, strudel, chocolate with cumin. The walls of the bathroom, predictably, are covered in (predictable) student graffiti: “There is no god” “Be the god you want to see, asshole”. The other walls are painted like this.
One evening I filled the Harper‚Äôs editor‚Äôs empty chair, attending the Overseas Press Club awards. The man who won a lifetime achievement award was exactly like Morning Glory Harrison Ford. He looked like him. He spoke about drinking whiskey. He spoke about Vietnam and cigarettes.
I interned at Harper‚Äôs for five months, during which time I was accepted to the Columbia Journalism School‚Äôs Publishing Course. The course is a fairly basic introduction to book and magazine publishing, only your lecturers are the editor of the New Yorker (yes I did give him copies), the beauty editor of Vogue (too terrifying), an editor at the Paris Review (more on this below). It was glorious.
On the last day, I left the class party early to go to a Harper‚Äôs baseball game against Vanity Fair, walking through central park on a hot summer evening, fireflies floating softly above the damp grass.
The day after, and three days before I would leave, a friend of mine from Columbia and I went to the Paris Review editor‚Äôs house where we had been invited for St. Germain cocktails. She had a baby grand piano in her living room. She was baking a blueberry pie. She gave me a book called Helen in the Editor‚Äôs Chair about a child who has to take over the town newspaper in an emergency. We heard, we thought, her furiously tidying while we waited at the door.
There were so many moments in New York that were like that final scene in Morning Glory. Rushing to this place, feeling that most amazing luck, falling in love. There were lots that were like the scenes in many movies, where the bright-eyed hero emerges from the subway and sees all those buildings. They sure are tall.
On the morning I left I received an email offering me an interview at a magazine with offices in the One World Trade Centre. But I wanted to come back because, since starting Prufrock, there have been so many of those breathless moments in South Africa, too. The moments where you know you‚Äôre doing the thing you really want to do. Standing on stage at Franschhoek, running between events. Last year‚Äôs ACT, UJ Arts & Culture Conference and the incredible people there. Every last minute rush to finish an issue. Every wonderful, original, unexpected submission.
Helen Sullivan is the co-founder and editor of Prufrock, a multilingual print quarterly of African fiction, nonfiction and poetry. To submit, subscribe, find stockists or get in touch, visit prufrock.co.za. This is her first piece for her Casimir column.
St. Germain Cocktail by Phil Kramer
2 shots St Germain (Elderflower Liqueur).
3 shots Sparkling White Wine.
Serve in a highball or Collins glass.
Standing on your balcony, squinting down at Zuccotti Park, you wonder if those dreadful protestors are still there.
It’s really quite hard to tell from the penthouse – everything looks rather¬†small¬†from up here. It’s been years now, but quite possibly a few of the more dedicated ones are still holding out. Like those Japanese men they find in Guam from time to time. Just thinking about it is giving you a headache. You need a drink.
It’s far too hot, and you’re in far too foul of a mood to make anything complicated; so grab the St Germain, and get the Champagne and soda water from the fridge. Fill a highball glass with ice, then two shots of the St. Germain and three of the wine, before topping up with soda. Stir briefly and add a little twist of the lemon.
You’ll feel better in no time.
Illustrations by Kirsten Sims