Interview with Kirsty Allison, incoming editor of Ambit
Ambit magazine publishes poetry, stories, art and more. We sat down with the incoming editor, Kirsty Allison, who is set to take over the editorship this summer, and has been shadowing the current editor for the past year, to discuss how she became involved with the magazine, the effects of the pandemic, and about her own ventures alongside Ambit.
Could you tell us about how you became involved in Ambit?
I had been published by Ambit in 2007 as an author. I sent my stuff in anonymously because I had my own background in DJing with Irvine Welsh, and had previous works published as a journalist, so I wanted to send my work in anonymously and luckily Geoff Nicholson, the fiction editor at the time, decided to publish me. I then met Martin Bax, who founded Ambit in 1959, through a series of events that Ambit was hosting at the Chelsea Arts Club, which was quite psychedelic and alternative. That’s what I really liked about it, because it gave me a legitimisation of literature in a different way to the renegade, urban Welsh school that I’d been part of before.
That’s my history with Ambit. I met the current editor when I was doing poetry at a gallery in the centre of London, in a basement. I was actually just starting my own project called Cold Lips at that point, but I saw that she was advertising for a managing editor for two days a week and I thought that would work really well with my fiction. I didn’t realise that I was actually applying for the Editorship! It has been really full on over the past year with Ambit we have rebranded it, introduced a sister publication, Ambit Pop, and so on.
How has Ambit adjusted because of the pandemic?
Ambit chose to drop an edition, and instead they did this online project, inviting illustrators and artists to re-examine vintage editions. For example, Julia Footer, a brilliant illustrator, re-imagined an ancient classic edition in her own style. We did a whole re-imaging series off the back of this. We had to go more online this past year, so we’ve done online launches. I’ve been doing videos of every poet who is featured and inviting them to do online bits. I’ve only joined the Ambit team this year, and I am yet to meet anyone in person! But we’ve had to adjust and we’re ready for it and in some ways it just means that you become more focused on the direct consumer model within publishing.
To focus more on how a national magazine works, how do you filter through all the submissions you get?
My horror is that we have someone who is really good but is missed by us for some reason, so I try to look at every submission.
I also have to trust other people. I have to really trust the readers who are reading, who are working for the editors because there is a huge volume of fiction to get through. It’s really competitive. It’s really hard to get through. Once you’re through, however, that doesn’t ensure that you will get published again either. It really is about the quality of the work.
We have a system where we all vote; everybody reads everything, and we all vote on it. At the moment, because we’ve been doing a lot more such as redoing the website, rethinking our strategy, it’s been difficult to find the time to read all of the submissions. I’ve got a deadline to review 20 books by next Wednesday, and I haven’t read any yet!
How has Ambit evolved from its creation in 1959?
I think the important thing about Ambit is that it’s a charity. What the last editor has done is stop it being a movement. In some ways she’s democratised it, so anyone can potentially get published in Ambit. It wasn’t necessarily this way before, it would more be run via people who were vaguely known to the editors. So that’s the great thing about Ambit, but it’s also now the legit way of doing it – everyone is doing commissions that way.
We’re also starting an Ambit school, and I’m looking for places to host these classes, and ask people related to Ambit to host. Through doing this, we can give them a platform to host workshops and give them the freedom to do whatever they want. I don’t want it to lead to an exhibition, however, or any form of traditional showcase culture – I want to give people the opportunity to become part of the editorial board. I think that’s the natural thing to do: provide people with the training and the parameters that help.
Who would these classes be made available to?
That is the question… Should these classes be made available to those who have come through the submission process, or be made more widely available?
The question is also who do we invite to host these things, and there does need to be a link to Ambit in some sense, in some sense of understanding what Ambit is, what the tradition is, and what the legacy is.
I think the most important thing is that it shouldn’t be a creative writing course, or necessarily in an education institution. I think it should be held in libraries, in coffee shops. We need to find local people who know where those corners are to point us in that direction, and I think that’s the only way to make these events feel genuine.
Before Ambit, what other projects had you worked on that lead you to where you are now?
Interestingly, I’ve gotten smaller and smaller in terms of the publications that I’ve worked on. I started off as a journalist on Dazed and Confused, Loaded, and X Magazine. That was where I began in the 90s. I then went really big and worked for the BBC and the Guardian, and did more corporate editorships for fashion brands. I then did a degree and started lecturing, whilst also developing my own work as an artist which led me to start writing a novel.
How exciting! Could you tell me more about your novel?
The novel made me need to practice poetry to try and break up the style of everything that I had been worked on within the media, which is how I had always written.
How was the jump from your background in journalism to getting involved with fiction writing, and fiction editing?
That was quite a complicated transition. I felt it most when I became part of Ambit, because my background is more media with harder deadlines, whereas if you’re working with poets, they’re more generally… sensitive! But that’s why we write poetry, to express ourselves and to find the deeper truth within. I did upset a few poets initially by just asking them to do things a certain way by a certain day. That was the main difference.
You mentioned that you began another publication, Cold Lips. What’s the story behind this?
It was actually that I had an interview with Danielle de Picciotto, who started the Love Parade in Berlin and she also worked in multi-media, so she paints, she makes music, and she does fashion. I was given her book, a brilliant book called The Beauty of Transgression, which is all about Berlin changing in the late 80s, and it’s her journey through the Bad Seeds through to acid house. I loved it and I really identified with it.
I was running a literary night at the time – anti-literary I used to call it – that was looking at poems and media and the space in between. I’ve always been fascinated by the connection between the arts and industry – how industry corrupts but also enables art and creativity. So I was running a night called the Sylvia Plath Fan Club, and I wanted to translate the atmosphere of this, alongside de Picciotto’s book, into a publication, Cold Lips.
Club culture for me is part of what I am, and it was the only way that I knew how to do things and the way that I’ve always found it inspiring is being able to meet people and have a space for people to get together. It’s how we used to meet. We didn’t meet online – we had to know what club was happening on what night to get to know people who were cool, and it was the only way you could do it. That’s my culture, so to speak.
Club culture is a great thing to continue.
Yes, I agree. People like coming out and being able to perform, to experiment, and to be, and then go off to do their own thing. I think it’s a healthy thing to preserve.
I wanted to ask you more about your novel, Psychomachia, coming out 5th July, what is it about?
It’s about how this woman’s lifestyle has led her to be very drunk, and that’s the whole point of the book: to question what came first, her lifestyle or her drunkenness? The book is very MeToo, but before mobiles. It explores how women operate and overcome the difficulties in a world of the music industry and the patriarchy – it’s a feminist text. It’s exploring the internalisation of trauma through drug-taking, in many ways. It’s pretty rock and roll! It’s like being out all night for several years.
The narrative is set in the 90s, in the music industry, where there were a lot of victims but little acknowledgement of this.
I agree, many of those victims were overshadowed by the glamour of the industry.
Exactly. It’s funny, how do you make all that something that you want to read? And that’s the difficult part of it. I try to capture it through my writing, and in this novel. It’s taken a long time to formulate this story – almost 20 years! I knew, when I was DJing and living in warehouses in the 90s, that I always knew that that time period was special in its own way – and being part of it was incredible. I always knew that I wanted to document it at some point, and I was writing through experience. I’ve formed a story around those experiences that I’ve had – I’ve tried to capture the essence of that time of my life, and the energy of it. The character follows a similar line to me; she DJs in Ibiza, lives in Shoreditch, goes on a world tour, is part of fashion shows, and is generally part of the craziness of it all.
I want to ask about the technical side of getting a story published. How do you get from writing the first word to a book launch?
Sensible people would write a few chapters of it, have their agent, and pitch it and then get an advance on it. But with me, I felt that I needed to write this story and that’s what matters. It’s taken me three agents to get this book out, and in the end I didn’t even have an agent and decided to go straight to Wrecking Ball Press, because I like their books. One of my agents told me to change the beginning of the book because they said it would put editors off their breakfast.
It’s a patriarchal publishing system – how many women are there who write about hard core drugs and abuse? There are so few. The beginning is brutal, and psychedelic, and why aren’t women allowed to do that?
Due to the nature of your book, and the reception from your agents, did you consider only using initials as your authors name?
I totally thought about not including Kirsty as my author’s name. But then I thought, No, I want to own the story. In the same way that I want to own my age, and own that I don’t have children, because that is all the truth. It is what it is.
So, yes, I totally thought about changing it. With Ambit, for example, I sent in my first publication anonymously. Although that was also because I had been writing as a journalist, and I had been working as a DJ. I wanted my fiction to be recognised as being good fiction.
To move onto the cover for Psychomachia, illustrated by Siena Barnes and designed by Stephen Barret, talk us through the process that takes place in creating a cover for an upcoming novel.
I love working directly with designers. I love collaborating with different people. Siena Barnes came first. I really like her work – she’s fun and original, and I found her on Instagram. I like that circle of collaboration, and she got what the book was about. She got it intuitively. So it wasn’t a direct commission, it was me saying, ‘You might be interested in this,’ and I think that’s a nice way to collaborate. Instead of telling her that we should work together. I like having a genuine relationship.
I already had a relationship with Stephen Barret, as he was the one who worked on Ambit Pop, Ambit’s little sister, and on Ambit’s website. Stephen does typography and so I thought that he would be sympathetic with the cover, and I knew that he would be able to work with someone else. A lot of designers that I’ve worked with are more art-based, and used to making their own art, whereas Stephen can adapt, and I really admire what he does.
We did experiment with placing old photographs of people in the scene at the time on the inside cover of the book, but it was too factual and too descriptive. In the book the characters are far more fantastical. You need to dream these people and you don’t want to see replicas of them on the cover.
What three things would you say to young writers who are wanting to get their own work published?
Work hard. Work hard and beyond expectation. For me, that is what it’s really about. It’s great to make it look easy but I know why I’ve done well. It’s because I work hard and I put in the hours, that is ultimately what writing is. There’s a lot of romance about writing, but you need to work hard and also be nice to people. You also need to be honest, which is the same as writing. Try to see that it’s a long journey, and don’t rush.
Any future plans in the pipeline?
It’s weird because if it wasn’t for Corona, I would be doing a lot more gigs and shows, but I’ve put my music on hold for a while and I’m just getting some tracks finished as a part of Vagrant Lovers, which is a collaboration with Gil De Ray. But there doesn’t feel like there is much of a rush.
I do have a record coming out on double vinyl in Berlin later this year, with a couple other artists. It’s called Berlin: Volumes 1 & 2, brought out by Das Wasteland, coming out very soon. It’s a new label, and with great people, and should be really exciting. Once that happens it becomes real again, but then again, what’s real?
Finally, to return to Ambit, which has seen many great artists and authors published, including David Hockney and Linton Kwesi Johnson, are there any other lesser known artists who we should look out for?
I’m looking forward to exploring the feminist angle within Ambit, and so I would say Helen Chadwick. She’s cool. She’s a real pop artist and was part of that Richard Hamilton, Royal College of Art, scene.
I’m interested in exploring the female lens a bit more. I want to get to grips with women. The current editor has made Ambit a lot more feminist, because it was all guys before, with girls coming in and being editorial assistants. I’m quite excited to explore the feminist angle a lot more.
Thank you Kirsty Allison for sitting down with us!
To find out more about Ambit, you can visit their website: https://ambitmagazine.co.uk/
To purchase Kirsty’s book: https://wreckingballpress.com/product/psychomachia/