- Love Letter for a Magazine
As Ecotone approaches a landmark birthday, I thought it time for a love letter. I have known this magazine for fifteen years now, only one year less than I’ve known my daughter, and as with my daughter I’ve watched it change and grow dramatically. What began as a passion project, borne on the backs of already overworked graduate students, is now fully fledged, a consistently ambitious and vibrant magazine that regularly wins national attention and prizes. For that very first volume we solicited our famous writer friends, calling in favors so that we could fill the issue. Now, a decade and half later, submissions pour in from all over the country and beyond. And while the magazine has stayed true to its commitment to place, it has grown and changed in ways that we could not have imagined.
It is important that Ecotone, a magazine of place, also grew out of displacement. During the years before it was created I was living on Cape Cod, and if a pot of money, or a bestseller, had fallen out of the sky, I might have happily stayed there forever. Cape Cod, where the sound of the ocean is never far, is a place that has been written about as much as any in this country, and I was steeped in the place, its nature and its literature. From Henry David Thoreau to Henry Beston to John Hay (all white guys from Harvard), the land had been tramped and celebrated by a brigade of nature writers, and I might have been content to tramp and celebrate along with them had not certain realities interfered. Those realities included paying off a student loan debt as big as a mortgage, and the birth of my child. Before I knew it, I found myself staring out at the same ocean from a different beach, this one in the South, where I was suddenly teaching at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Tossed up on an unfamiliar shore, more Robinson Crusoe than Thoreau, I felt certain of nothing. Finding myself in a place that had chosen me, not one I had chosen, I had to build from what I discovered on that shore. Ecotone was one of the things I built.
Or, more accurately, helped build. When I came down to interview at UNCW, I had the good fortune of going [End Page 9] out to lunch with two graduate students in the creative writing program, Heather Wilson and Kimi Faxon. They were already envisioning a magazine, and place was already central to their vision. A year later we were working on that first issue, joined by a team of committed grad students that included Emily Louise Smith, whose artistic vision would come to guide the magazine, and by my wife, Nina de Gramont, who was our first fiction editor. It wasn’t easy launching a new magazine, and perhaps I was not always the most equanimous and generous of leaders. When Nina finally quit her post two years later, she did so with these words: “I ain’t gonna work on Gessner’s farm no more.”
Central to those first years was the idea that an ecotone was a transition zone between communities, a place in between, and that the tone part of the name derived from the Greek tonos, meaning tension. The cliché of writing that focuses on place is that it is placid and pastoral, from shepherds tending their sheep to Wordsworth’s intimations of immortality. But what we were interested in was something more dynamic, the creative tension that emanates from those places that aren’t one thing or another, and the sort of writing that refuses to stay still. This applied to our evolving ideas about place and to the way these ideas were presented. We were hungry for the new, the quirky, the strange. New forms were particularly appealing; new voices too. I should add that we were obsessed with maps. A secret driving concept was the semi-crazy notion that if we collected enough stories from enough watersheds, we could present a literary map of the entire country...