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The Jernigan effect: the long-time New Quarterly editor steps down

Kim Jernigan

When Kim Jernigan joined The New Quarterly in 1981, she was eight months pregnant, newly arrived from Boston (her husband, Ed, had just joined the engineering faculty at the University of Waterloo), and a master’s student in Canadian literature. TNQ was a mimeographed upstart on its second issue, a project begun by then writer-in-residence Harold Horwood, the Newfoundland-born author and novelist. Never mind her swollen belly, Jernigan’s task that issue was collating the magazine’s pages on her hands and knees.

Horwood and others came and went, but Jernigan stayed through three decades, quietly building one of the best literary magazines in the country. This year, the baby who hung above that second edition (poet Amanda Jernigan) is about to have a child of her own, and Kim Jernigan is stepping down.

These days, when many literary magazines are struggling just to stay afloat, TNQ stands out for the quality of its writing, its high production values, and even its shape (Alexander MacLeod describes it as “a perfectly square magazine making its way in a rectangular world”). It also has an impressive history of publishing early work by many acclaimed Canadian writers – Michael Winter, Michael Crummey, Annabel Lyon, Zsuzsi Gartner, Alison Pick, and Steven Heighton, to name a few – proving Jernigan’s success in being what she describes as a “literary gambler.”

These were certainly factors when I decided a few years ago that TNQ was the publishing credit I most wanted to earn. But as I learned more about the magazine’s stewardship, I realized it was really Jernigan’s approval and encouragement I was seeking. Last spring, my story “Rise: A Requiem (with Parts for Voice and Wing)” was accepted for publication. Since then, like countless other writers in what Jernigan calls “the TNQ family,” I have been the grateful recipient of a generous mix of editorial attention, invitations to speaking events, personal cheering, and homemade food that might be called the Jernigan Effect.

In the literary world, in which a form letter or silence is the usual response to story submissions, Jernigan’s editorial notes are legendary. MacLeod points to an extended email debate on a single line in the closing section of his story “Good Kids,” which was eventually published in his collection, Light Lifting. Though MacLeod prevailed (“like a fool,” he says now), Jernigan’s investment in his work left a lasting impression. That exchange was like a dream experience for any writer, he says.

Sarah Selecky, who has published with the magazine on three occasions, says Jernigan’s guidance even for rejected stories has been vital to her growth as an author. “She encourages and challenges new writers,” Selecky says. “We have better writers in this country because of her attention and care.”

Though TNQ can publish only 6 per cent of submissions (the journal receives about 350 unsolicited stories per year, in addition to commissioned pieces and contest entries), Jernigan says, “We want to build a relationship with writers. We want to help people to publish.”

Jernigan often solicits work from writers the magazine discovered early in their careers. Caroline Adderson has been published in TNQ nine times over 16 years, but has met Jernigan only twice. Still, “Kim will send me a handwritten note to say what she’s thought about my latest book,” says Adderson.

Jernigan’s attention to detail and to a writer’s development is all the more impressive since, for all but a few months of her tenure at the magazine, she has been doing the work for free. And there have been practical matters to tend to: lost office space, the demands of family and other (paid) work, developing TNQ’s online presence, and the ever-present challenge of funding.

St. Jerome’s University* contributes office space and access to student employment subsidies, but the magazine’s main funding comes from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council, and it looks to the new Canada Periodical Fund for marketing support. TNQ also has an annual fundraising campaign and runs a charity bingo, as well as realizing some revenue from selling subscriptions and single issues. “Though you can’t, alas, sell a magazine for what it costs to produce,” says Jernigan.

Still, a paid staff has grown up, a board of directors has matured, and the magazine has flourished. In advance of Jernigan’s retirement, the TNQ board has found funding for a small editor’s stipend for each issue. I realized I’d created an unsustainable model, says Jernigan.

Looking back at the highlights of her tenure, Jernigan points to collaborations with other magazines, including last summer’s QuArc issue, which focused on writing and science and was published in partnership with Arc Poetry Magazine. And then there is the somewhat infamous Salon des Refusés issue, a joint effort by TNQ and Canadian Notes & Queries, which questioned why certain authors were left out of 2007’s The Penguin Book of Best Canadian Short Stories.

Jernigan is glad to have highlighted those missing writers, but she shies away from the sharply critical tone that crept into the issue’s pages. She’s more comfortable encouraging and celebrating. Spend just a little time with her, and you’ll understand that she has put up with the challenges of her position because she is passionate about Canadian writing, and about bringing it a little closer to readers.

“I think I just fell in love,” Jernigan says, thinking back to what pulled her to TNQ, and kept her there. “Coming from the United States, so much of the work at that time was by men who seemed so removed. But when I arrived in Canada, it was the age of the Margarets and early Alice Munro. It seemed much more accessible.”

With its newly anointed charitable status, Jernigan is hopeful about TNQ’s prospects after she retires. She plans to maintain ties to the magazine, at least for a while, acting in an advisory capacity. Pamela Mulloy, a writer and current member of the TNQ fiction editorial board, will step into the editor’s position beginning with the fall 2012 issue.

“The lesson I am taking away from Kim’s example is that careful attention to writers enriches the experience of the writer and the editor,” says Mulloy. And though she is inspired by Jernigan’s legacy, Mulloy says she isn’t daunted: “[Kim] makes you feel like you can do it.”

“Pamela is going to be great,” Jernigan says. “She’ll give people the opportunity to do creative things. Jernigan feels that she and Mulloy share a profound sense of commitment to the magazine, and the job of making it great.”

In fact, Jernigan believes that might have been what Horwood saw in her, more than 30 years ago. “He recognized a responsibility junkie,” Jernigan says. “That’s the story of The New Quarterly: persistence, as much as anything.”

CORRECTION, Aug. 9: The print version of this article states that University of Waterloo provides space for the magazine.