[Interview] Ivor W. Hartmann, author and editor-in-chief of StoryTime

Ivor W. Hartmann is a Zimbabwean writer, visual artist and literary activist. He is also editor-in-chief of StoryTime, an ezine that seeks to showcase new African writing.

In this email interview, Hartmann talks about the ezine and about how it is being received by emerging African writers.

What is StoryTime all about?

To quote the StoryTime About page mission statement if I may, since I put the effort into re-writing it recently:

The StoryTime African New Fiction FreEzine is all about new African fiction reading and writing. For our readers we provide a free weekly ezine showcasing the works of some of the hottest new African fiction writers. For our writers we endeavour to find them, and then encourage free online fiction publication at ST, as a multi-purpose means to improve writing ability and their exposure.

For the ST readers, my aim is to publish at least one great fiction story every week from an African writer, usually early morning Sunday (+2GMT).

I also do the occasional special edition on days like Valentines, or like the last one on President Robert Mugabe's Birthday. ST featured a cutting edge farcical story written for the occasion by Zimbabwean author Masimba Musodza ("Robin Hood & The President's Birthday Bash").

Also in the works is an annual ST Book Anthology called African Roar, which is set to be published by The Lion Press in early August 2009. It will then be launched at a new Zimbabwean Writers Festival in that same month being organised by The Lion Press.

For the writers, I actively look for new and established talented fiction writers to showcase at ST, and welcome all fiction submissions within the ST guidelines. Once the authors are accepted into ST, I then provide an interactive online home for them and their stories. Firstly, we showcase their stories by publishing them in the ST ezine.

In addition to that, for each ST author, I create a special author bio page that showcases them specifically. This includes an autobiography with their picture, all their stories at ST, and as many related links (I updated them monthly) to good content about the authors and/or their works. It includes, extra to the main ST feed, a specific feed only about them from ST.

The author page also gives them a space and the freedom to communicate with their readers in personal posts at their page, and in comments on the story itself. Taken all together, ST hopes to serve as a promotional interactive conglomerate of their online authorial presence and work.

How did StoryTime come about?

Like most ideas, this one grew out of necessity, or the dearth of good fiction-only magazines, coming out of South Africa and understandably, Zimbabwe. Not that there aren’t any, but they are fewer and far between in comparison to the rest of the world.

Frustrated as a new fiction writer madly writing with so few local outlets for my work, I started thinking about how I could remedy this dire situation.

Being strapped for cash back then (as a new-ish dedicated full-time writer and living in a new country), basically made me realise that a proper print magazine was out of the question to start with. So I took a look at online publishing which led me to Google's Blogger framework, and so the first incarnation of StoryTime was born.

Right from the outset my intention was to use the Blogger framework to publish a real ezine. I also definitely wanted to avoid personal blogging in the ezine and feature only fiction works, even if they were only mine to start with.

How long have you been working on the project?

I published the first ST ezine in June 2007.

Initially, I wanted to create a fiction ezine that would consist of an eclectic collection of world fiction, run directly by its authors for their readers, and create an online home for all the authors involved.

Over time and after gaining a bit of experience in this new field of online publishing, I came to realise what I wanted ST to be. That being, primarily a focus on the poorly represented and yet amazingly rich and diverse, fictional literature coming out of Africa and from the far flung African Diaspora. So I changed the ST emphasis to African writers only and the rest was history.

How do you find contributors?

I actively seek out talented writers and invite them to ST, and constantly look for free ways to promote ST and all our authors by all means at my disposal, on and offline. Then there's the relatively new development of the ST book anthology, African Roar, something I have wanted to do since the very beginning. In this regard I have just put out the call for ST fiction submissions to be published first in the ezine, and thereby gain entry into the selection process for the printed anthology. This came about thanks in no small way to Sarudzayi Barnes at The Lion Press, who secured us the funding to print publish with LP, from the U.K. Arts Council. Though in the long run I'd like the anthology to not only pay for itself, but also offer a decent percentage return for all the authors published in it.

Which writers are you currently working with?

This is a great question and maybe I can also explain something of how ST works. Firstly let me do the honour roll for everyone ST is actively working with:

Igoni Barrett, Adesola Orimalade, Ayesha Attah, Ayodele Morocco-Clarke, Beaven Tapureta, Chris Mlalazi, Colin Meier, Esi Cleland, Emmanuel Sigauke, Masimba Musodza, Nigel Jack and Sarudzayi Barnes.

It is these authors who have made ST what it is by joining, contributing and working with ST. Two members of prime contribution are Emmanuel, who is co-editing the upcoming ST anthology with me, and Sarudzayi, whom I mentioned earlier.

Now when I say our authors work with ST, what I mean is unlike traditional publishing, ST runs under a Creative Commons 3.0 licence (Attribution, Non-derivative, and Non-commercial). This means that in effect, the author joins ST and then together we showcase their work in the ezine, directly under their own names and copyrights. The authors then, forever, have complete access to all their works at ST and can edit them or remove them entirely if they so choose. This I feel is an important part of the capabilities of online publishing, giving the authors direct control over their work.

Hindsight can also be very illuminating, especially as one improves as a writer with each new work. At ST as the author you may make changes, normally reserved for a second revised edition in the print world. So the ST authors are their own editors, and I approve their works for publishing in the ezine as editor-in-chief of ST.

What challenges do you meet and how do you deal with them?

ST always presents many daily challenges which I try and deal with as swiftly as humanly possible. But I suppose the prime challenge from the beginning, has been my choice of the Blogger framework to publish ST for free. In doing so I have had to constantly search for ways to present ST as an ezine and not a generic blog. Luckily though, I am also a visual artist and have tried to make ST on the whole look as un-blog-like as possible. Not to mention the utter helplessness when faced with problems beyond my control, because it’s a free service. However, that's also the good thing about ST in its current form, apart from my own time and that of the authors; it's totally free for us and therefore our readers. This might change in the future, if we can ever afford a dedicated .com domain name and full website etc., which will bring its own set of new challenges no doubt. Though, unless we start printing a magazine solely, I'd like to keep the ST ezine free for the authors and all our readers.

There is also an inherent challenge in letting your authors have complete access to their works. One only has too view MySpace to see how out of hand this can get if left unsupervised. So behind each story I work a bit of hard-learned but simple HTML magic to make sure it complies with the ST layout standards, and doesn't jam the feed readers.

In general though, I have found the ST authors more than willing to help solve any problems that may arise, which makes life a lot easier.

How would you describe the standard of writing at ST?

So far, I think we have maintained a fairly good standard of writing at ST, but I can only believe that this will become even better as ST grows. It is also my intention with the first anthology to raise the bar significantly, by only print publishing the 'eclectic' or very best, of all the works published in the ezine since our beginnings. Subsequent to the first anthology it will be the best of that year.

Who is your target audience?

On the whole I'd say we already have enough variety to satisfy nearly every fiction genre taste, and so this would put us squarely in the fairly broad realm of all those who read fiction/literature magazines and ezines.

Furthermore, with our solid presence on Facebook and by using the Blogger framework, we are introducing ST and our authors to whole new generations of online fiction readers.

Which aspects of the work do you enjoy most?

There are quite a few reasons why I was motivated to start ST, but one of the big ones was to start communicating with my fellow Zimbabwean writing peers in Zimbabwe and those spread throughout the world. I had the idea that together we could do what artists are at least in-part meant to do, and that is being a voice for the voiceless; to bring to the world light, the very real catastrophe of our Zimbabwean situation through our arts, in this case, writing. Therefore, I have slowly but surely opened the lines of communication between several Zimbabwean writers and myself, and together we have achieved some measure of real progress. This is surely what I enjoy most, seeing and being a part of something greater than myself, which actually does cause positive change.

Ultimately, like most Zimbabweans, I have a great desire to return home permanently from what is effectively an economic exile.

What sets ST apart from the other ezines and literary magazines?

It would have to be the complete control the authors have over their work, and the strong sense of close community that ST engenders in both its authors and readers. We like to help each other out where we can, and most of us bring an existing entourage of readers to ST when we join. I believe it is this spirit of openness and community, tempered with real authorial control, which draws readers and serious writers to ST. This, therefore, raises the bar with the addition of each new talented writer, and our growing experience in online and print publishing.

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