Blythe and Miriam from The Istanbul Review

This is the first in a new series called Objects of Affection – celebrating the physical in a digital world.

First up we find out the story behind The Istanbul Review, a new literary journal published by friends of CMC, including one of our previous Clear-Minded Creative Types, Hande Zapsu Watt.

I quizzed Miriam Johnson (MJ) and Blythe Robertson (BKR), who are also the team behind Edinburgh’s popular Lunchquest reviews site, on how The Istanbul Review came into existence and how you can submit your writing or art for the next edition.

BKR and MJ

Tell us a bit of background about yourself/selves.

BKR: I have a 9-5 in an area of work that’s not too different to where you used to work, Milo. On top of that, I run social media for The Istanbul Review.

Essentially, when I’m enthusiastic about something, I have a fairly deep well of energy to draw upon.

MJ and I have ended up forming a pretty formidable creative team, over the past year or so. I’ve grown to rely upon her good judgment entirely. When I pour forth with amazingly fat-headed pronouncements, I’m confident that she can find the essence of what I’m trying to say and shine the appropriate light on it.

MJ: There are five of us that make up the core team of The Istanbul Review. Our Editor-in-Chief, Hande Zapsu Watt; the Head of Administration, Patrick Watt; recently appointed Reviews Editor, Tracey Emerson; Social Media Manager, Blythe Robertson; and myself, the Managing Editor.

I’m originally from Alabama and I’ve been here for years studying, and I have a few regular roles within the world of academia and publishing that allow me to spend time doing what I love: writing, teaching and working on the Review.

My background is essentially in creative writing, with a specialty in poetry, and a few years ago I decided to learn about the publishing aspects of the literary world before embarking on even more studies in Edinburgh where I met our Editor, Hande, and the Review took shape.

Between Blythe and I, we level each other out quite well. He is a rock that makes sure we stay grounded, has a core sense of strategy and overarching aim and can tell me to calm down when I start to worry. Likewise, I often point out to him the logistics behind ideas that may or may not work from a publishing perspective.

Tell us a bit about the Istanbul Review, e.g. what’s the ethos/aim behind it, how did you both get involved, what’s the link with Edinburgh?

MJ: The Istanbul Review showcases world literature by combining established voices such as Paulo Coelho and Elif Shafak with up-and-coming new authors and artists.

Istanbul is an amazing place, bridging continents as it does, and we wanted to do the same with the journal, bridging East and West, merging and mixing until we had the best content to present to the world as a whole.

It was founded in Edinburgh in the beginning of 2011, when we had the initial idea to develop a literary journal. Istanbul’s place as a leading world city, which has historically bridged cultures and continents, fit well with our aims – and surprisingly there a printed literary journal hasn’t been based there until now.

We took some inspiration from successful, international literary journals and set up the framework for The Istanbul Review. Less than eighteen months later, we published the first issue appropriately themed, “The State of Literature.”

Each issue will have an overarching theme that the essays, interviews and reviews will address, but the creative content is judged solely on its merit, regardless of author or theme.

We not only wanted to create a platform for world literature, we also wanted to showcase works of art by up and coming and established artists. In the first issue, we were lucky enough to have two well-known Turkish artists, Oguz Demir and Sena, contribute art and Omer Zapsu designed our logo. And, with our choice to make each edition a high-quality, full-colour product, we hope to promote the arts more in subsequent editions.

BKR: We run things from two centres, Istanbul and Edinburgh (with increasing help from St Fillans, too), which can be challenging at times. But smartphones are wonderful things, so we just about manage to keep everybody apprised on all the latest developments.

I joined the team, formally, when the project was already quite well developed, and it was becoming clear that a couple of extra pairs of hands were needed to get Issue 1 across the finishing line.

I think we’ve been very lucky in that we all bring different skills to the party. A couple of us have a decade of experience inside big administrative organisations, so we’re pretty solid at running the day-to-day nonsense inherent in these type of things, thereby letting “the creatives” in the Editorial Team get on with ensuring that we have a quality product to sell.

A lot of credit goes to Hande and MJ for recognising that they needed help with more of this day-to-day stuff, and enlisting the appropriately enthusiastic people to assist.

How did you find the process of publishing the first issue? Do you have any advice for anyone else thinking of getting into publishing a print periodical?

BKR: MJ’s really the expert on this one. All I can reiterate is that you need to draw on expertise and “extra bodies” to share the burden. Finding the correct skills at the right time is really key to success, I think. We’ve worked this out as we’ve gone along, and we’re starting to see the benefits as we put together Issue 2. We have a way to go before things are running with slick efficiency, but we’re always looking to improve.

MJ: Anytime one goes to set up a new publishing venture it is a worrying and exciting prospect. Luckily, I have a degree in publishing, which taught me most of the theoretical aspects of the publishing industry, while also allowing me to get my hands dirty creating fictional products. Translating this knowledge to the real world has been less straightforward, but it still went pretty smoothly.

One of the dangers of literary journals is that they generally have a life span of three years, with most of them shutting down in the first year. So one of the main concerns we had was finding a viable business strategy that would allow us the security of maintaining the Review while we got up and running.

We decided to steer away from immediate subscription services and chose to work with carefully selected advertisers with a definite upper limit per printed edition.

Another of the main challenges has been the web design. It is hard to work with a designer who is not a part of the core team, and we have had some exceptional help along the way from various people in London, Istanbul and the States who have made it possible for us to run the website ourselves.

The two major issues that often arise while putting together a project of this nature is sourcing original content that is of a high enough quality to be included, and the logistical aspects of the design, layout and printing of the Review itself.

Within our core team at the Review, we were able to create mailing lists that would reach some of the best creative writers in the English speaking world, and I was able to put together a layout that was expanded from a design sample, and heavily guided by our Editor, who has the real eye for design.

We currently print in Istanbul in full colour, soft back editions which are 235mm x 165mm.

The submission deadline for issue 2 is fast approaching. What would you say to any artists or writers considering sending something in, and what are the benefits of submitting for the artist/writer?

MJ: I say get your hands on a copy of the first edition to see the sort of stuff we like. Send something in. Follow the guidelines, please, follow the guidelines. The theme of issue two is “The Screen of Literature”.

In poetry, we ask for several poems, and if we like the writing, but not the particular poems, we work with the writer and ask for other works.

In art, we are looking for high quality, original work. We have eclectic tastes, but it must be good.  It could be as simple as a photo of a skyline, a circle on a blank page, or as intricate as you desire. You often never know what will strike you until you see it.

The benefits of submitting are many! We are committed to promoting our content across a range of media. We are always looking for content for the printed Review, but we are also looking for content for the Poem and Art of the month section of the website. If we are really taken by an artist or poet, we are looking into the possibilities of doing a small feature in our newsletter.

Plus, there is the added benefit of getting to be presented to the world of literature alongside the greats. Because, lets face it, where else outside of The Istanbul Review can you read up and coming authors: Rob Magnusson Smith and Andre Naffis-Sahely, alongside an original contribution from Sir Terry Pratchett and interviews with best-selling Turkish author Elif Shafak, and the current prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan?

In addition, all of our contributors are provided with copies of the issue in which they appear, so for Issue 2 contributors, you could have your artwork, poetry or short story read by children’s author, illustrator and Oscar-winner Shaun Tan.

BKR: there is a huge benefit in getting your work “out there” for people to consume and react to. The creative process can be lonely, isolated and full of self doubt, but the endgame is expression. What we’re offering is a platform for world writers to sit side-by-side with people from different continents or different literary and artistic traditions.

I got to send out a tweet, in the run-up to publication that read something like, “read issue 1, featuring Paulo Coelho, Terry Pratchett, (one of our less widely published contributors), Banana Yoshimoto and Elif Shafak.” For that lesser-known writer, it was the most hilarious thing they’d ever seen, and one of those “career” moments. But even for folks like Coelho, who’s the most translated writer writing in Portuguese in history, he doesn’t get published next to Terry Pratchett, too often.

With our ethos of bridging world literature, we can do things like that, spanning genres, continents, levels of experience and fame. For folks thinking of submitting, I’d love for them to be that Twitter user who gets to retweet the list of luminaries that they sit beside within the pages of our publication.

Submissions are currently open for the second edition of The Istanbul Review, which has the theme ʻThe Screen of Literatureʼ.

The closing date is 1st October 2012 so there isn’t a lot of time left – see the submission guidelines for Artists and Writers.

for more details and to buy the first edition, see The Istanbul Review’s website.

You can also keep up to date by following them on Facebook and Twitter.


North Edinburgh News – Social Media Workshops (#NENgage)

NENgage is “a new social media project which offers free training to community groups, local citizens and activists in how to use social media and online tools” in the Inverleith area of Edinburgh.

It’s being funded by local news publication The North Edinburgh News and lead by multimedia journalist Tom Allan and multi-talented writer/presenter Emily Dodd, both of whom regularly work for the BBC and a number of other organisations.

I’m volunteering at two of the sessions, and also helped Tom and Emily film four short videos to promote the events – you can see the first two of these below.

The other volunteers helping out include my pals Blythe and Miriam from Lunchquest/The Istanbul Review on the 6th, and Michael MacLeod from STV Local (and previously The Guardian Edinburgh) on the 13th.

I believe there are still places left for both of these workshops so if you’re based in North Edinburgh, particularly the Inverleith area, do come along!

Sharing Your Story – An Introduction to Blogging – 6th September 2012

Go here for more info and to sign up.

Video Blogging: Inverleith Flash Mob – 13th September 2012

Go here for more info and to sign up.

Hande Zapsu Watt

Clear-Minded Creative Types #6: Novelist/Editor Hande Zapsu Watt

Hande Zapsu Watt

Most writers dream of having a novel published; this week’s Clear-Minded Creative Type has achieved that goal and more besides. Now involved in an exciting new international literary project which has strong links to Scotland, Hande Zapsu Watt shares her story so far and how her habits and environment have shaped her life and work.

Please can you describe who you are and what you are up to at the moment?

I’m a writer/editor/translator/teacher/student, so in short, a little all over the place but I guess that’s what happens when you can’t sit still.

I’ll try that again with a little more clarity:

When I wake up, I’m never quite sure who I am. I dream a lot, almost every night, crazy vivid dreams that seem to go on for hours. I see grizzly bears taking over the world, snipers dropping out of the sky, machines looking for lost souls…so it usually takes a wee while to adjust.

After my first cup of coffee, I’m an editor. I edit my own work, other people’s work (sometimes as a favour, sometimes as a job) and recently I have become the editor of The Istanbul Review.

After my second cup of coffee I am a writer. I write paranormal/historical novels using the pen name Mina Hepsen ( Depending on the day and publisher deadlines, I also work on my (I hesitate to use the word ‘literary’ so I’ll say ‘non-genre’) novels.

There is Through the Dust for example, a novel I have been working on for about five years. It’s slow going. It’s not the lack of ideas or direction, but the fact that my main characters are so hopeless, so afraid… in order to write them, I need to put myself in their heads and I can’t keep it up for too long. It makes me mopey and pessimistic (I like to think of myself as an optimist) so I’ve been writing it bit by bit.

After my third cup of coffee I’m a student/tutor. I’m studying Creative Writing (final months of my PhD) at Edinburgh University and I also run English Literature tutorials there. It’s a continuous round of writing the thesis, preparing classes and grading papers. It takes up time but makes for a nice change and gives purpose to cup number three.

Later in the day, after an episode of House or Dexter or True Blood, I am whatever I need to be. Sometimes that means translator: I recently translated a book from Turkish into English called Black Milk* by Elif Shafak (out this April from Penguin). Sometimes that means more editing or writing. And sometimes it means trying hard to do nothing at all.

Did you always know what you wanted to do (creatively) or has it been a process of trial and error to get to the point you’re at now? If it’s the latter, how did you decide what to focus on?

No, not at all actually. I always knew I wanted to try and change the world, to help people in some way, but I never imagined myself as a writer.

When I was very young I wanted to be a lawyer. The idea was simple: to save innocent people and make lots of money while doing it which I could then spend on charities. I soon fell out of love with that idea.

Hande in Morocco

The desire to be a doctor hit me next. I was 14 and spending my weekends working as a volunteer at a hospital in Istanbul. It was going really well, I was imagining a future filled with saving lives. And then one day I was waiting for a lift next to a young girl in a wheel chair. It was obvious she was a cancer patient and not doing well. Her hands were pale and limp. She had lost all her hair. It took me a moment to notice that her oxygen tube had fallen away from her nose. She couldn’t breathe, but she wasn’t struggling. There was no panic in her eyes, only a plea. She didn’t want me to help her. I called out to her attendant who was gossiping with the guy behind the information desk. That was when the doctor dream ended.

I toyed with the idea of being a biologist next. The Human Genome Project wasn’t complete yet, and genetics looked like it could produce cures for the suffering. The summer I turned 16, I was at Smith College studying science, working on dissection skills and DNA gels. The next summer I was back to medicine, but this time it was psychology. A few months working at a mental institution cured me of that notion and fast.

Finally I decided politics was the way forward. If I couldn’t keep innocents out of jail, if I couldn’t cure their cancer or fix their mental states then I could work on world peace (surely that was a cure to all of the above?).  I studied Political Science and Philosophy at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

I’ve already carried on quite a bit, so I won’t get into my forays into the realm of politics. Safe to say I got a good look, saw a lot of grey and decided it was not for me. Then through some luck and a lost bet, I got a letter from a publisher saying they wanted to buy my book. I had been writing since before the first career dream; poems, stories and finally a novel written during Ancient Russian History and Politics in Modern Japan classes. I loved doing it, but I had never seen it as a career possibility. I was too realistic for that.

So much for realism. I’ve published four novels and two children’s books since.

Hande, drawn by Oguz Demir

Have you organised your life in a certain way/made sacrifices in order to continue to be creative?

I think I touched on the ‘organized your life’ bit with the answer to your first question. I’m not kidding about the cups of coffee. I find I can’t write well if I fall out of routine, so I try to stick to it as strictly as possible.

There are, of course, grieving periods. Those days following the end of a novel after the elation has dimmed at having produced something complete. The world feels wrong during those days. I like to travel if I can, to exchange ‘wrong’ for ‘new’.

How do you define success?

Giving love, being loved and doing what I love. If I have all three and am managing to survive, I’ve succeeded.

What in your opinion are the positives and negatives of technology when it comes to both creating and promoting your work?

Togo, Africa

Technology is both brilliant and utterly frustrating. It is absolutely brilliant in terms of having knowledge at your fingertips. I recently had to describe dead bodies being pulled out of a river and had no clue how to do it. Would they be blue, black, bloated, rotten…what would happen to the eyes, the mouth, the hair? I keep lots of text books at home for research, but some things are just not covered in basic Anatomy books. Online, I can find the information I need in minutes…it’s all there.

Technology is also great to connect with readers. I love the letters I get through my website, love to browse pages where people I’ve never met are discussing characters I made up. I even like reading criticisms, if it’s not just a random rant they can be very useful to take things on board, to see your own flaws.

But the internet can also make things a little difficult. More and more, publishers rely on e-books and online selling which means they can spend less money on print runs, and very little money promoting your work. You need to promote yourself online, to stand out somehow amidst the millions of texts available. You need a website, a blog, a Facebook page…you need to tweet. And if you don’t, well you might be lucky and reach the readers anyway.

Maybe your publisher will spend the cash and rent one of those neat window spots for your book in Waterstones, or maybe you’ll get a fabulous review and people will flock to the stores making Blackwell’s want to order a whole load of copies. But in general it’s hard to stand out without jumping on the technology wagon. And jumping on that wagon means Time.

For me it also means frustration. I love writing back to emails, but tweeting? I’m terrible at it. I can’t fit any of my thoughts into that word limit so I end up talking about the weather. Literally.

Do you collaborate with others or prefer to work alone, and why?

Collaboration is great with people who work the same way that you do. I like getting things done. Everything on time, everything in order (I grew up in Germany and often feel that that part of myself comes from my time in Munich).

Unfortunately, not many creative people I know like to work that way. That’s why I was so lucky to find Oguz Demir, who I did the children’s books with. Not only is he a brilliant artist, but he sets due dates and keeps them. And it’s been the same for The Istanbul Review.

My partners Miriam Johnson and Victoria Harben are not only hard working, but they are fast too. We had our website up and running in three days and now, only two weeks after the project begun in earnest we’ve already had contributions from Paulo Coelho, Elif Shafak and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (We are taking submissions at the moment for our inaugural review, so for all you creatives out there do have a look!)


Namibian Sand Dunes

Is community important to you – either local or online – and if so, why?

Community is definitely important. Not only the people and their tendencies but also the architecture, the weather, all of it put together. It’s hard to explain, but there are places in the world where I can write, and other places where I turn into a sponge. Nothing comes out.

I know that sounds a bit strange, and I’m still not sure what exactly accounts for this odd phenomenon but I’ve been able to narrow it down a little. I can’t write at all in New York, Amsterdam or Paris. I can write for a few hours a day in Istanbul, Boston and Miami. But Edinburgh is where I am most efficient and I am sure it has something to do with the community here. Maybe it’s the gothic architecture, but I rather think it’s the duality of the city and the people in it. Active and passive, hopeful and pessimistic, rainy and sunny: the city of walking rainbows.

Oh, and I can’t write on a cruise ship. Pretty random I know. Sorry, I don’t think I’ve answered your question very well.

I’ve always found consistency difficult in terms of learning a craft and then practicing it regularly – is this something you’ve mastered and do you have any advice on how to maintain this?

I can’t claim to have mastered anything really. As for advice, for those who hope to make a living through their creative work I would say: know the truth (the odds, the process, the reality behind getting your work out there), work hard and don’t give up.

And writers? Find creative things to do with rejection letters. Origami swans is one way to go.

Thanks Hande for the extremely interesting insights and excellent advice. What do you think? Share your thoughts  in the comments.

*affiliate link