Zoetrope Was A Classic Literary Journal

zwacljLast May 2, a little-known literary quarterly knocked the New Yorker–not to mention a clutch of other magazines–off its perch when it took home the National Magazine Award for best fiction. Published in newsprint, the journal, Zoetrope: All Story, was launched less than five years ago by filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. In the insular world of New York media, the victory was a shocker, and came with a price.

As it turns Out, Adrienne Brodeur, editor in chief of Zoetrope, has a story with a fairy-tale quality all its own. After prep school and Columbia, the blond, willowy Brodeur moved to San Diego and married young. She worked in local government, rising to chief of staff for the county supervisor. “It was deeply satisfying in a way,” she says. “But I was not glued to political journals. I was glued to literary journals.” Approaching 30 and afraid she’d wind up a bureaucrat, Brodeur abruptly moved to New York in the summer of 1994, leaving behind her career and her husband (the two have since divorced amicably).

Brodeur, the daughter of longtime New Yorker writer Paul Brodeur and food and travel writer Malabar Homblower Brewster, took an internship at the Paris Review “like everyone does,” she says, “except instead of being 20, I was closer to 30.” After Robert Gottlieb, her father’s editor, mentioned that Coppola was interested in short fiction, Brodeur, in what she calls a “harebrained scheme,” took the bold step of writing the director a letter. Then she headed off to the well-regarded Radcliffe Publishing Program and tried to steel herself for the dreaded inevitability starting her career all over again as a lowly editorial assistant.

They began an e-mail correspondence, sharing their serendipitously similar ideas about fiction, and after a few months the director hired Brodeur, who still had virtually no publishing experience, to launch his magazine. “Adrienne seemed to catch what was then a contrarian vision of a literary magazine in everything from its physical format to its editorial policy (all short stories),” Coppola writes in an e-mail. “She created it–conceived of it with me and followed through on every detail.”

“Neither of us is drawn to very experimental works,” says Brodeur, now 35. “Both of us like classic, character-driven stories you can get lost in.”

The result is a journal of stories that is literate yet unpretentious. Pulitzer prize-winning writer Robert Olen Butler describes Zoetrope as “attentive to the classic fundamentals of storytelling, which tend to get lost in other literary fiction. The stories [in other publications] tend to be cool and distant and static.”

Now brand-name writers like Butler are happy to appear in Zoetrope, but initially Brodeur contacted obscure writers she’d admired in other journals. They’d make submissions and recommend others from their writing groups. Word spread fast, and now Zoetrope gets 50 to 100 submissions a day.

From the beginning, two innovations set Zoetrope apart: First, all writers had to sign over two-year movie options to Coppola, a stipulation that some writers viewed with suspicion and others with glee. (Brodeur, far from a film buff, stresses that the purpose of Zoetrope is not to serve as an arm of Coppola’s film company, funneling high-concept stories directly to development, but to promote a sometimes underappreciated art form.) Second, Zoetrope would commission some of its pieces, contracting writers to pen stories based on specified characters or themes. Coppola, who typically e-mails Brodeur a dozen times a day, conceives most of the commissions, and Brodeur chooses the writers. “He’s truly a Renaissance guy” she says. “I haven’t pursued every single story; I mean, the guy has a lot of ideas.”

The director came up with one concept after attending a charity auction at which Sharon Stone was the celebrity auctioneer: a story about a woman who could sell everything but herself. Brodeur, who’d been after Butler to write for Zoetrope, used the commission to finally woo him. He came up with “Fair Warning,” one of three stories that earned Zoetrope the National Magazine Award. Coppola’s film unit has “Fair Warning” in development; Butler, meanwhile, has turned the story into a novel, due out in February Another commission led to “The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing” by Melissa Bank, then an unknown–subsequently a best-selling–writer.

Recognition is flooding in, and, while Brodeur won’t reveal how much money Coppola has invested in Zoetrope–which was never intended to be a moneymaking venture–she does claim “we’ve been losing less and less money. I actually think breaking even is in the realm of possibility.” In addition to a circulation of 40,000 and modest advertising, Zoetrope’s revenue sources include an annual writers’ workshop held at Coppola’s lodge in Belize and this summer’s production-in a Times Square strip joint–of five one-act plays published in a special issue last year. Of course, one hit movie based on a Zoet rope story could pay for the whole shebang.

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