The Rumpus establishes home base in Asheville

APPALACHIAN AUGMENTATION: The Rumpus' Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn, left, and Alyson Sinclair envision numerous ways their literary magazine can enhance Asheville's already vibrant writing scene. Photo by Eric William Carroll

The leadership team at The Rumpus says happenstance landed them both in Asheville within the last two years. But now that they’re both here, Publisher Alyson Sinclair and Editor-in-Chief Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn are ready to engage more thoroughly with their Western North Carolina readership.

Founded in 2009 in San Francisco, The Rumpus is one of the longest-running independent online literary and culture magazines. Volunteer-run with editors all over the United States and a few abroad, the online entity publishes original fiction, essays, poetry, book reviews, comics and author interviews by contributors from across the globe.

Among the founding and early contributors who helped establish its reputation are Roxane Gay, Cheryl Strayed, Samantha Irby and Isaac Fitzgerald. But for numerous up-and-coming authors, The Rumpus is their first notable publication.

“For a lot of writers, the idea that they have a home and their writing shares a space with some of these prolific, famous people is really important and interesting,” Sawchyn says.

And now that the publication’s two leaders share a home base and coworking space, they feel The Rumpus can be more strategic as it plans for the future. The magazine is a labor of love as both Sinclair and Sawchyn work full-time jobs elsewhere, but change may be on the horizon. One of the team’s major goals is to convert its business model from a for-profit into a nonprofit. Yet even with this concerted focus and renewed energy, the two are realistic about the challenges they face in an ever-evolving industry.

But if they go down, they’ll do so fighting.

Blue Ridge base

In addition to their similar names, the colleagues also have overlapping ties to the Asheville area.

Originally from Lancaster, S.C., Sinclair wanted to live closer to her family and relocated to Asheville from Minneapolis in January 2021. She’s been visiting the area since she was a baby and has made lasting connections with Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe and Firestorm Books & Coffee through her work as a publicist.

Meanwhile, Sawchyn has had several friends attend Warren Wilson College and became fond of the area during visits. In July 2022, she moved from northern Virginia outside Washington to Asheville for a job with Warren Wilson’s undergraduate creative writing program.

Once the two arrived, they soon discovered additional perks their new home had to offer the publication.

“While Asheville is small in terms of population, it punches above its weight in a lot of areas like music, as well as in the literary world,” Sinclair says. “Having people willing to travel here and do events, and then already having a good network of people to read with them, and spaces that we can utilize and partners we can tap into makes it pretty special.”

She adds that in New York City, San Francisco and even Minneapolis, it can feel more disparate getting a critical mass of people to come out to literary events. By contrast, she’s already seen Asheville’s literary community prove itself as eager and willing to support each other.

Part of the city’s firm literary foundation, adds Sinclair, comes from existing businesses and programs. She points to the aforementioned Malaprop’s and Firestorm, plus Bagatelle Books as some examples. Meanwhile, UNC Asheville, Warren Wilson College and Western Carolina University also excel at offering writing workshops and literary festivals. She and Sawchyn are tapping into these and other resources — including Story Parlor, where they hosted a reading in mid-February. But the pair is conscious of not intruding on others’ work.

“I’m really cautious about any space I come into,” Sinclair says. “I don’t come in and go, ‘I’m going to rip everything apart. I have the answer.’ I definitely want to be like, ‘What is already here that I can support in some way and add to?’”

Operating outside of a metropolis, they say, is also more in line with The Rumpus’ ethos. While both women have lived in big cities and are fond of the New York City literary scene, they recognize how difficult it is to break into that sector of the industry. The Rumpus seeks to be an alternative to the establishment and does so with the help of nontraditional collaborators. Many of these editors and readers are teachers or work at nonprofits, yet Sinclair notes that a surprisingly high number have business degrees.

“It’s cool to see what people outside of that MFA-program, New York publishing bubble bring to the table and how they read in a different way and find people, especially from our slush pile,” Sinclair says. “Almost everything we publish comes unsolicited, so we get a lot of first-time authors that way and are able to nurture them.”

The Rumpus also prioritizes underrepresented and marginalized voices and runs four regular columns to highlight them. They include: “We Are More,” stories by Southwest Asian and North African writers; “Voices on Addiction,” a column devoted to personal narratives of addiction; “Enough,” a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics and artwork by women and nonbinary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault and domestic violence; and the humor feature “Funny Women.”

Risky business

Keeping all of those offerings going, however, isn’t easy. Sinclair’s “crazy project” only exists thanks to reader support, with over 90% of its funds coming from monthly subscription programs (Rumpus Book Club, Poetry Book Club and the author-submitted Letters in the Mail) and memberships (with monthly and annual perks).

Donations are also increasingly beneficial, and that avenue was given a boost in September when The Rumpus received fiscal sponsorship through arts service organization Fractured Atlas, allowing the publication to accept tax-deductible donations and apply for grants for the first time in the magazine’s 13-year history.

“We did get our first grant recently, which is going to help us with our website redesign — which is really critically needed,” Sinclair says. “It was designed 13 years ago on WordPress and has just been patched together.”

Adds Sawchyn, “It’s all duct tape back there. And not even duct tape, but generic duct tape.”

The support from Fractured Atlas is a major step toward The Rumpus becoming a nonprofit and achieving financial stability. Despite the publication’s solid reputation and modest overhead costs, it barely breaks even, and its industry is far from stable. In particular, Sinclair and Sawchyn are troubled by the recent end of Catapult, the online literary magazine founded by Elizabeth Koch — daughter of Koch Industries CEO Charles Koch — which has The Rumpus leadership asking deep questions.

“If an actual billionaire can’t figure it out, how are two people and many other people who are volunteers and have other full-time jobs and do not come from money or have access to that going to make it work?” Sinclair posits. “So, we might be partly delusional here, but we are strong-willed and willing to be flexible and scrappy and stubborn.”

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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