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How to Run a Literary Magazine

An interview with Curtis John McRae, editor-in-chief of ‘yolk.’

On November 15, I sat down with Curtis John McRae, editor-in-chief of yolk, in the Mile End’s Café Olimpico. Yolk is a literary magazine, and we talked about its place in the Canadian literary sphere, its publishing process, its past issues, and its plans for the future.  

Yehia for The McGill Daily (MD): I would like to start with a question that might not seem relevant. As a writer, do you have strong opinions about fonts, software, stationery, etc.? 

Curtis John McRae (CJM): Hilarious. That’s a great opening question. Yes, I have strong opinions about many of those things. It’s actually funny you should ask. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to go through the yolk website, but we have submission guidelines, and we suggest submitting work in Garamond. I’m not quoting directly here, but if you don’t, you’ll be taking a side in a tireless, endless debate within yolk. I fall on the side of Garamond. So if anyone reading this is thinking about submitting, please do take Garamond. I’m a big fan of Garamond. Also Goudy Old Style. I don’t know if you know about it, but it’s got a bit more kick in it, a bit more pizzazz. 

MD: How did yolk come about, and how did you become involved in it? 

CJM: So yolk began about three years ago. I co-founded it with a couple of friends. It started between myself and my best friend, who is the current fiction editor, Alexandre Marceau. We had been trying to start writing workshops for a couple of months with no success. Eventually, Alex pivoted and said we should start a project and get a literary journal going  – gather a couple of friends, people we know who write, and just start this passion project. That’s how it began. Initially, we were five or six members, and we just met up on Sundays in a park and had discussions about our vision for the journal – what we wanted to add to the already rich literary scene in Montreal and Canada at large. We just found ourselves sort of falling into a rhythm and started assigning some tasks and roles and the next thing we knew we had our first print publication in our hands.

MD: Did you have a background in creative writing before yolk

CJM: The original members were just a group of friends. Alex, the fiction editor I just mentioned, and I have known each other since high school. Neither of us was studying creative writing, but we were big readers. I was working at Chapters, for instance, and was just constantly reading whatever and whenever I could. Alex was similar, so we always had that in common. Then we basically just brought on friends. The former editor-in-chief, Josh Quirion, was a friend of Alex’s. So he brought him on. I had brought on Sean Lee, the former social media manager, now social media projects. It was all very informal. We were passionate about literature, talking about it and writing it. But it was only later that we kind of in our own ways entered into [writing] programs. I had been studying English literature when I began yolk and then went on to complete my MA at Concordia. Josh was the only one who had graduated from a creative writing program when we began. Like I said, it was all very informal. Just a couple of friends with a shared passion for literature.

MD: What is yolk trying to do? 

CJM: That’s a big one. I would say that our project mandate is two-fold. The obvious one is the journal (the print and digital publication). For that, we’re just looking to cultivate a platform for both emerging and established writers to appear alongside each other in print and on our website. I guess, more broadly, we want to create a platform for good literature, for new writers and established ones, but also for experimental writers – perhaps for stories that might not find a home in a traditional journal. We’re looking for new, exciting, and fresh literature. We want to give a home for that. We’re also trying to keep the print journal alive. We’ve already seen some of our counterparts fold and transition exclusively to digital publications. So we find it very important to maintain that physical medium. We do this for many reasons, but one of the fundamental ones is that, for a writer, seeing their name in print is incredibly encouraging. To actually hold the journal in your hands and see your name on the page and see all the other pieces beside your piece.
 It’s very exciting. 

The second mandate is to create a sense of community. Beyond our publication, we’re very active in running and hosting events, curating spaces that aren’t exclusive to literature but welcoming to the art scene in general. So we’ve had performance art exhibitions, pop-up poetry events, readings. We’re just trying to curate a communal space for artists to gather in Montreal as well as publish their work.

MD: How different of an experience would it be for an artist to submit their work to yolk compared to a larger literary journal? 

CJM: As a newer literary journal in Canada, I think yolk can expose writers to a lot of unique elements and aspects of the editorial process. That’s just one way of looking at it, which is to say that writers work quite closely with our editors and get a lot of time and engagement with the editors. There is also a certain amount of care and attention we can afford because we’re dealing with a smaller pool of writers. We can champion them, create events for them, advertise for them, and bring them into a preexisting literary community. There are many advantages to small literary journals, but one of them is that sense of community and closeness that a writer may not feel while publishing in some of the bigger journals. 

MD: I wanted to talk about your last issue, “The Canadian Issue.” In the forward, written by the former editor-in-chief, you say that “there is a certain responsibility in defining what citizenship means” and that your “privilege is that you can try.” Why did you choose for this issue to be “The Canadian Issue,” and did you manage to define what it means to be Canadian? 

CJM: The short answer is no. But I think that’s a very long and ongoing project that we’re just trying to contribute a small footnote to. As to why we decided to do “The Canadian Issue,”, there were two reasons. It’s our fourth issue, so, of course, we’re still reinventing and experimenting with the model. Previously, we had been accepting international submissions, and we thought it would be interesting to see what it would be like to only accept submissions from Canadian artists. So it was also about giving a platform to elevate Canadian writers and their voices. That was the initial idea, but we recognized that “Canadian” can be a very troubled term. We wanted to be very loose about what “Canadian” meant, and we landed on the side of Canadian citizens abroad or anyone residing within Canada. Again, I don’t think we answered the question of what it means to be Canadian.
 But we’ve given a platform for Canadian artists, loosely defined, to publish their work.

MD: I wanted to learn more about the process of producing yolk. After the submission deadline has passed and you have acquired all this material, what happens next?

CJM: Every time I finish a new print issue, it feels like I’m reflecting on a fever dream. Then I need a month of just going to the spa. Kidding, but it’s quite intensive. Once the submission deadline has closed and we enter the stage where we’re selecting the work, we have genre pods. What that means is that our genre editors spearhead their own pods of readers. Those readers are both internal, like from the yolk masthead, and external. It’s within those pods that the selection is made. The genre editor, alongside the editor-in-chief, has the final and ultimate say over what makes it from the shortlist to the journal. By bringing in new minds and new readers, we keep it fresh while maintaining a consistency of style.

MD: What about the order in which pieces appear in the issue? How do you decide that?  

CJM: That’s a great question. You asked the right person because that’s always been my job. This is a question I’ve been trying to answer myself for all four of these issues because there’s no strict formula that I’m following. It’s very intuitive. I actually print everything out and spread it all out across this large wooden table I have at home. I read through everything two, three, four times. I start to mark recurring themes or subject matters in a notepad, and then I’ll start to arrange the pieces based on that. Then I’ll ask myself some questions: What progression do I want to show in the journal? What kind of art do I want to show? Or do I want it to be anti-art and sporadic? Based on that, I’ll start arranging the journal into a progression of themes. I’m always moving
 things around.

MD: How do you pick the cover design? 

CJM: For the first volume, we used the artwork of Marion Dale Scott, who was a Canadian painter. The original project was to begin to trace a trajectory of Canadian literature and art through the cover art, which we haven’t abandoned. For volume two, we selected work from what was submitted by artists to the journal. We thought it might be cool to juxtapose an artistic timeline of Canadian art with the contemporary art
 being submitted.

MJ: Did any of you have publishing experience before working on yolk

CJM: That’s a great question. None of us had experience. We figured it out by “faking it till you make it.” Honestly, I think what really helped us along was that we were always fuelled by a passionate group of volunteers who felt that there was nothing that couldn’t be surmounted. When the time to print came around, we asked, what do we have to do to do this? We just kept moving forward, asking lots of questions, and now it’s just a sort of a repeat process. There’s a lot of plug-and-play that goes on, and then we send the documents to the printing press we have a partnership with. A couple of weeks later, we get a bunch of boxes on our front doorsteps with the print issues.

MD: Do you foresee any funding coming soon? 

CJM: Yes. Since I began as editor-in-chief, I’ve assembled a funding committee who are exclusively working toward that. We’ve finally managed to check off a lot of boxes that make us eligible for a lot of the funding. But it takes money to get money. Most funding bodies want you to prove to them that you have passed the test of time. A lot of them require you to already pay your contributors, to be running for at least two years, and to have a certain amount of copies in circulation – something like 750. It’s expensive to finally qualify, but after three years running, we’ve just about got there. 

MD: What do you look for in an art submission? 

CJM: I’m not looking for anything particular in the work besides being stopped – being arrested. That can happen in many ways. It can be a fresh and exciting voice or a surprising turn within a piece. There are many sorts of elements of craft, style, and voice that can elicit that reaction. But the truth of the matter is, I want originality in style, content, and voice – something that, after I read it, I’m going to be thinking about for the rest of the day. I think that can only be achieved through originality. I think that’s what excites readers in general – when they come across something ever so subtle that it stops them in their tracks. 

MD: Everyone working at yolk is a volunteer, and you invest a lot of time and effort into this. Why do you do it? 

CJM: I ask myself that question all the time. Sometimes with high energy and sometimes with defeat. I think that people are thirsty for community spaces and for a place to publish their work. I know there are already other journals, but I think there’s room for more. I think that yolk has a unique tone and energy that people are excited about, and we want to keep that. I think, too, that the idea of a literary journal is incredibly important in the greater literary sphere. It’s important for platforming emerging writers. It’s democratic and egalitarian in a sense; you have emerging and established writers alongside each other. So it’s a useful tool for writers from all walks of life and at all levels
 of experience.

As an aspiring writer myself, I love the idea that the literary journal is not a dying medium but one that’s seeing a new surge of energy. If I can have any way to contribute to that, then I consider myself lucky.

MD: What’s your vision for yolk’s future? 

CJM: My dream is that the journal acquires funding. With that funding, we’ll be able to focus on establishing ourselves as at least a biannual print journal, and we’ll be able to maintain a very active online presence through more digital publications. But, most importantly, I think that yolk wants to embed itself not only in the Canadian literary sphere but in the Montreal one. One way we are hoping to do that is to procure a venue space where we can host events more frequently. If not in our own space, we’d like to continue to have events in Montreal. So to have a bigger, more consistent, and more frequent presence within the literary landscape is what we’re hoping to do.


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