DES MOINES, Iowa — Danny Judge stayed up all night at his wife’s bedside with his laptop open. Sarah was undergoing treatment at Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines. Her mouth was blistering from aggressive chemotherapy.
Her “pregnancy,” it turns out, was cancerous cells.
“He’d stay there, working all night, then go get our son who was three at the time and then go to class,” said Sarah Judge. “He had to worry about me and our son. If this wasn’t there, he would have made it through, but not as easily.”
“This” was Danny Judge’s far-fetched idea on that laptop.
The son of working-class Carlisle parents and a post-high school heating and cooling man, the gunner war veteran and plumber was sitting in the cancer ward trying to start a literary journal.
“Nothing against plumbers and machine gunners, of course, but you don’t meet a lot of them in the editorial ranks,” said Danny Judge, 30.
The book-size magazines of typically high-end short fiction and poetry carry titles that even to the average reader recall excellence, such as the Paris Review or Ploughshares. They introduce the world to the next great writers or nurture the new ideas of the established.
In an age of internet’s Ten Celebs With Great Bums and vampire novels, some people call a literary journal’s nurturing of literary writers and trust in the intelligence of readers practically heroic.
Judge’s quarterly The Indianola Review was born that summer of 2015 out of a cancer ward, The Des Moines Register reported. His wife survived, and the journal’s fourth edition will appear online in early February.
If that wasn’t enough of an underdog story, there’s this: Judge is still an undergrad, a senior majoring in English at Simpson College in Indianola. And unlike most other literary journals that survive past a few issues, his isn’t supported by university funding or grants.
“A lot of the literary journals that come out of someone’s basement are gone in a few issues when they realize they can’t sustain them,” said Lynne Nugent, managing editor of the Iowa Review, which gets funding from the University of Iowa English Department and maintains offices at the university. “Yet he has definitely gotten the word out. It’s hard to do that for a brand new literary journal.”
The nation’s oldest literary journal, North American Review, is out of Cedar Falls. One of its newest has a good start in Iowa.
Judge started writing as one of a two-person staff at his high school paper, free to experiment with any kind of writing, including satire, on its eight pages.
“I started messing with fiction. After that, it was always on my mind,” he said. “In Afghanistan, there was nothing to do but read. But it was always, ‘I’ll start writing tomorrow.’”
He never thought it could make a living. None of his family had ever gone to college.
Yet his life experiences were piling up. In his four-year stint with the Marines that included deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, he was clear of most of the worst dangers in the war, he said. But he saw the poverty and heard the explosions and observed the behaviors of soldiers spoiling for a fight.
It became context.
It wasn’t until he was married in 2012 and returned to Indianola with his military medic wife that his path became clear. Sarah Judge survived a childbirth complication while giving birth to son Jake, now 4.
“She was touch and go,” he said.
“If I didn’t do it now, I was never going to do it. Maybe I knew I had talent I was pissing away.”
He would use the GI Bill to go to college. He would write.
“When you are starting out you don’t know if you’ve got what it takes,” he said. “But I got into six publications in the first five months.”
Today, Judge has 15 stories published. Two were nominated for the Pushcart Prize, which honors the best literary work in small presses each year. His story “A Small Town Pastoral” is in the largest publication to date, the Boiler Journal. His piece “Harroon” in Litro is the only one of his published pieces that plays off his war experiences.
Some people process the war through writing. Judge says he has never done that. But he uses the events in his life to inform his writing.
“William Faulkner talks about that. Observation, imagination, experience,” he said. “It’s not really therapy, but you process certain events though fiction. The feelings. It happens in a way you are not aware of, parsing things.
“The biggest thing is the challenge, the focus on craft, writing to get better every day. Reading, reading, reading, writing, writing. But part of it comes from my experiences. Anytime you can relate truth in fiction, you impress on someone how something might feel.”
Nancy St. Clair, his mentor at Simpson, has taught English for 40 years.
“I’ve never had a student as motivated and hard-working as Danny,” she said. “He’s got all this raw talent, and he could glide by on that. But he keeps working.”
The process of getting published bugged him. The literary journals, where many writers try to make their start with short fiction, often charged submission fees. And inexperienced writers ended up in a “slush pile” on an editors’ desks, he said, their submission fees used to pay the more established writers they published.
So he did what a machine gunner might do. He loaded up and took it into his own hands.
Judge was aggressive. He wrote to people he had no business bothering, big names in fiction, as he launched his idea for a journal.
One big-time author wrote back. Joyce Carol Oates gave him a reading list. She told him his idea was very “idealistic,” and he chewed on that for a while. Was she saying he signed up for the near impossible or that he was brave to tackle a lofty goal to help keep literary fiction alive? Both, it turns out.
He worked nonstop and set a high bar, along with a couple dozen volunteer staff from across the country. He saved five percent of the writing submissions that came in, then chose only three percent to appear in his first issue in 2015. He didn’t charge a submission fee.
The way he breaks even, he says, is a small $7 fee writers can pay to get a 96-hour response on their submissions. Entry fees for writing contests and online workshops also help.
“Every day journals start and flare out,” he said. “I had to find a way to make it matter.”
After three issues, the print publication became too hard to sustain. This winter’s issue will be the first published only online. It’s free to read, and he’s hoping to grow what he says is 4,000 monthly visitors to the site.
“We weren’t selling. But we’d do an occasional online offering and they would get lots of traffic. Maybe 90 people were reading it in print, while thousands were giving feedback online.”
Three thousand submissions a month have poured in from all over the world, he said. He’s published writers from Great Britain, Australia and Canada.
St. Clair said local residents have asked her if the journal was named after their town but didn’t think it was produced there, because it’s so high end.
“It gives writers who are both established and unestablished a way to share their vision with people who love literature and culture and believe the human imagination is worth nurturing and fostering, especially in days like these,” St. Clair said. “To support the arts and young writers is a real act of courage and heroism.”
A break-even literary journal isn’t a living, even as the unique visitors to his site have grown. Sarah Judge works as an assistant nursing director at a care facility, while Danny considers graduate school for creative writing after his Simpson graduation in May.
He wants to keep the journal alive because he says it’s important. Maybe as important as fixing someone’s plumbing or protecting the country.
“We have ‘Twilight’ and ’50 Shades of Gray,’ short attention spans and net clickbait,” he said. “One literary journal isn’t going to save literary fiction. But when you stop trying, that’s when it goes away. Then all you have left is werewolves and vampires.
“David Foster Wallace famously said, rather bluntly, ‘Fiction is about what it is to be a f—– human being.’ ”