Interview: Sean Preston of Open Pen

Access to the written word, we forget, is a fairly new historical phenomenon. After all, up until recently, literacy was a luxury. Leather bound books with locks stayed in pearlescent laps of silk frocks. Books were rare, expensive to produce, kept away in castles and cathedrals. Modernity, with all it’s advantages of mass education only brought new difficulties to the desk. More readers meant more writers, which equalled extra competition and now, in the digital age, total oversaturation. Slush piles, binned submissions and unsolicited manuscripts are the lurking motifs of the aspiring writer today. To young hopefuls, the published life still resides firmly behind a closed door.

Open Pen Magazine then, is a just antithesis. If you’ve missed it so far, Open Pen is a print publication distributed in independent bookshops, cafes and campuses nationwide; pioneering the short stories of new writers. It is free to submit; it is free to pick up. It is that rare thing, a torch in the dark for creative arts!

Now if we’re going to talk about stories, we might as well tell a story. Let’s set the scene: London. East London to be precise. Enter the main protagonist: Sean Preston. Immediately he demonstrated himself to be that wonderful, multi-dimensional thing; the flawed hero, as he cites wrestling, internet-trolling and shame as the boiled down components in the recipe to his success.

But let’s go back to the beginning. “In my mid-twenties I decided I wanted to work in music, freelance for certain websites, basically just doing it for the love of doing it… or for the chance of a free gig… or even better one of those beer tokens,” He retells laughing. “I think that really helped cultivate my writing. Around about that time I got into being on the internet a lot, I think it took me to the next level. Being an argumentative person meant that I was spending so much time online arguing with people about meaningless things… There’s a kind of craft in that, learning to be selective with your words. It teaches you to cover your back all the time because you know there’s going to be a counter-argument.” After warming up in the ring and cutting his teeth with online commentary, he began to write fiction himself, working from the foundation of an adolescence spent immersed in the likes of Hemingway and Proust.

It is 5 years later; and Open Pen has come so far that it released it’s first Anthology earlier this month, published by Limehouse. As N Quentin Woolf puts far more eloquently in the Foreword than I ever could; “London is the story of single individuals starting with modest means and big ambitions, getting on and making things happen. Sean Preston, the Harris-rocking founder and editor of Open Pen literary magazine, is someone who gets on and makes things happen.” True enough, Open Pen’s story clinches on the tireless effort of one man. Or rather, tireless at best, “tricky”, Sean says himself, at worst. Bookshops, even the independent ones, fulfil age-old stereotypes. Suspicious, brooding and buried alive by the works within.

“I had this idea that I’d go in and say ‘you’ve never heard of this before!’ and obviously that’s not the case. They get a student every week coming in saying ‘I’ve got this journal!’ Then you think well, it’s free, so they’re definitely going to be into it, right? But the other side to that is, what do they get out of it? And more than anything it’s a space issue. Most bookshops are quite small, and they struggle as it is to get all the books they want in, so if you ask them for counter space it’s tough. It was slow at first, but then they kind of realise, which we hoped would be the case all along, that people come in for the magazine, and whether through shame or through, you know, genuine interest, they buy something whilst they’re there. That’s a real part of our business model; shame!”

There are other difficulties to launching a project of this kind with limited experience, and doggedly refusing to let it nosedive. Funding; “I actually hate spending my time chasing adverts!” The details of printing; “We printed way too many copies (of Issue 1), we went out in parks and that sort of thing, giving it away!” and the latest curse, though really a blessing and testament of success; the sheer amount of submissions.

The writers however, and the community Sean has built up through events and the Open Pen team, are surely the most rewarding, and indeed rewarded, elements. He’s still in touch with many of the writers, who stoically support Open Pen, thinking of it as the first platform for their voice. It seems contemporary fiction writers are an adaptable lot, given to gratitude and re-trained to run in packs. No longer are the isolated, pipe-smoking, daylight-fearing, scribblers of yore.

The Open Pen Anthology is as much the accidental story of all it’s authors, as it is the accidental story of Open Pen itself. “I should have a blurb, but I’m awful at marketing!” Sean grins. “Originally it was just going to be a collection, an anthology of the best fiction we’d published over time. But then I thought, being a free magazine, it’s a bit much to suddenly turn around to your readership and say, oh, you know all this stuff you had for free? Erm, you need to pay £9.99 for it now! So I thought, what we’ll do is we’ll take 12 – 14 old stories and from those authors we’ll commission new writing.”

The Anthology really is everything you’d want. Unpretentious, well-written, gripping at times and exquisitely varied. You’ll find within a romance fuelled by ketamine, a fairy tale about fog; characters ranging from Auburn-haired teenage rebels to genetically modified elephants; with topics running from homelessness to hurricanes. I’m not going to tell you which is which, you’ll have to read them all and pick them out.

“From my work to being at home, everything is cut up into really small segments,” Sean muses, as we talk about people’s lifestyle and reading habits. We’re always busy, yes, but to me all those stops and stations, the lunch-breaks and the fag-breaks and the moments between getting into bed and falling asleep are there to be filled, to be brightened by this book. The bite-size stories feel custom-tailored for speedy city life. Ultimately they’re a journey, a world with many countries and customs to discover, pulled together by Sean and his very genuine love of storytelling. He may be an unlikely character, but then don’t they say the truth is always stranger than fiction?

The Open Pen Anthology can be purchased at independent stockists, selected Waterstones and Foyles, or online.

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