Interviewed by Roquela Fernandez
Chris Frey is the Editor-in-Chief of Hazlitt, an online magazine based in Toronto. He is also the director of digital publishing at Penguin Random House of Canada.
Once upon a time in Georgetown, Guyana, Frey was mugged, sort of. After a fairly lengthy tussle with his two potential muggers, Frey did what any rational person would do in this situation: dropped to his knees and feigned an asthma attack. Frey’s subsequent article Where Do You Think YOU’RE Going? (published at unlimited) won Gold at the 27th Annual Western Magazine Awards.
Frey has won many other awards besides, including five National Magazine Awards. One of which was for producing an online video, Pagelicker 01: Irvine Welsh.
Frey has contributed to the Globe and Mail, The Walrus, Azure, Maisonneuve, CBC Radio, and Canadian Geographic. He was the founding editor of the website Toronto Standard and the magazine Outpost, and is the Toronto correspondent for Monocle magazine. His forthcoming book Broken Atlas: The Secret Life of Globalization is a character-driven, multinational investigation into what it means to be modern in the twenty-first century.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew-up?
I didn’t have a clue. I was a bizarre, lonely child—for a long while I wanted to get into politics. I adored Pierre Trudeau. Basically I wanted to be an equally suave, Anglo Trudeau. Or Bobby Orr.
[Note: It’s difficult to imagine Frey as a bizarre or lonely even as a child. He looks like a way cooler, less uptight Clark Kent – more stripes, chunkier glasses. I bet he gets invited to a lot of parties, but then again maybe even Superman had some lost years.]
When did you realise: “Yes/Oh no! I’m going to be a writer.”?
I still wonder about that. Probably when I realized that I lacked the necessary commitment to be a punk rock singer.
What advice would you give to new writers?
Travel. Learn another language or two. Don’t move to New York. Move almost anywhere but New York. (Not that anyone listens to me on that one.)
Which books do you love? Which book would you carry around to impress people? If you had to, which books would you use as kindling on a cold, cold night?
There are the books I come back to again and again: The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus; Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon; Kapuscinski’s Shah of Shahs, Another Day of Life, The Soccer War; Victor Pelevin’s Omon Ra; Budapest by Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso’s autobiography Tropical Truth; Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicles; The Atlas by William T. Vollmann; anything by Aleksander Hemon, Ian Buruma and Rebecca Solnit; the poetry of Fernando Pessoa.
I have used various travel guides as both kindling on frigid nights and as TP.
What is the worst thing you’ve ever done for money?
Participate in drug trials/experiments hydrocodone, hyrdomorphone to raise money to make super-8 films while in university. It wasn’t so bad.
[Note: In medical terms, hydrocodone and hyrdomorphone are semi-synthetic analgesic drugs of the opioid class. They are also known as narcotics. Narcotics consumed in the noble pursuit of Art and Science. Huzzah!]
You’ve travelled and lived abroad. How has living abroad informed your writing? Where would you love to go back to visit? Where would you never, ever return to?
Living and working abroad as a journalist taught me the need to be adaptable, open and a good listener (as in knowing how to read a situation or what someone was saying more deeply). It also exposed me to the literature, music and movies of other countries—which made me aware of different ways of telling stories.
I most miss Turkey and Brazil, two of the emerging powers that will most shape our collective future. Both of which throw up a surfeit of great stories that demand telling.
There isn’t anywhere I wouldn’t return to. I manage to find almost any place interesting. Perhaps I am highly impressionable.
How did you get involved with Hazlitt?
I had just quit as the Editorial Director of the Toronto Standard, an online newspaper. A friend shared a Random House job posting on Facebook. I arrived at my first job interview not really clear on what they were looking for. But over the course of that meeting with the guy who would become my boss (props to Robert Wheaton) we more or less hatched the idea for Hazlitt.
Hazlitt publishes writing on everything: “politics, art, the environment, film, music, law, business, books and writers and their [sometimes terrible] ideas. It seems that the main criterion is that the writing is great. What are the benefits and challenges of publishing great writing on everything?
The truth is that my colleague Alexandra Molotkow and I simply wanted to create a magazine that would interest us—and our interests were pretty catholic. (That’s carried through with the addition of another Senior Editor, Jordan Ginsberg.)
Whenever a new launch is announced, especially in a place as media-saturated as Toronto, the response is typically “Why do we need another magazine about ____.” The thing is that a good publication creates its own space on the landscape.
The benefit of making Hazlitt is having the opportunity to work with writers we love, and to learn something new from them every day. So much so it constantly changes and challenges the way you look at the world.
At Hazlitt, you believe that “everyone should read a lot and not be boring.” William Hazlitt read a lot and was a non-boring person. He had a penchant for prostitutes, skipping out on his rent, and making Tory enemies. How did the great and cantankerous William Hazlitt inspire Hazlitt (the mag)? How does this inspiration manifest?
Hazlitt actually wasn’t our first choice—initially we had decided on another name. But then, only about two weeks before we launched, the lawyers expressed concerns about our likelihood of securing the trademark. Hazlitt had been floating around as an alternative, but admittedly I wasn’t crazy about it at first. I did like the fact that, at least in North America, he remained a bit of an obscure figure—his name something of an empty vessel we could instil with our own identity (not unlike McSweeney’s, a fictional persona).
With not much time to spare, I did a quick study of William Hazlitt’s life and writings. He represented all the right things: he was a difficult man with an interesting story; he was ahead of his time politically and morally, taking a very strong moral stand against slavery, for example, when it was unpopular to do so; and, inspired by Michel de Montaigne, he innovated a style of essay writing that we think of as a kind of precursor to blogging.
But it was only when I saw a draft design of the nameplate by our art director that I was completely sold.
How would you describe the voice of Hazlitt? Do you also think about consistency of voice when you select articles?
I’d describe the voice as writer-centric. We don’t have a strict house style or voice. We privilege our writers’ own distinct voices which I think is what works best on the web. Writers today cultivate their own constituencies via social media. Our core idea was to build a magazine around the writers we most wanted to work with, and give them the license to explore the things that interested them.
We don’t think so much about consistency of voice—other than that the writing be compelling, present a novel perspective, and not bore us.
Hazlitt is a platform for new forms of digital storytelling (from films and podcasts, to video games and apps). Is there something that Hazlitt hasn’t done that you’re excited to see happen?
We’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to publish comix, produce podcasts and short films. A video game would be fun one day.
Hazlitt is exclusively digital. I’m dead curious to know if Hazlitt has a headquarters, and if so what is it like?
First, Hazlitt is no longer exclusively digital. We recently published our first print edition. Which gives us one more way to connect with our audience—one that’s tactile and arguably even more immersive. You can read it in the bath, or sauna.
At Hazlitt we are a gang of six and we’re stationed within the offices of Random House Canada in Toronto—we have our own little corner. From my window I can see both the King Edward Hotel—where Leonard Cohen’s wonderfully weird I Am a Hotel TV-musical was shot—and the Georgian-inspired office building at 10 Toronto St. from which Conrad Black once oversaw his media empire… It tends to be a noisy little corner where we are.
Roquela Fernandez is a reader, writer, and MFA student of nonfiction in the Creative Writing program at UBC. Many years ago, she was mugged on a beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – fortunately they did not take her asthma inhaler! To learn more about Roquela please visit http://www.roquela.com.