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ON CALIFORNIA / Essays from the Golden State

After two decades, Zyzzyva magazine still has last word

The small literary journal has survived by changing with the times in content and form.

August 18, 2008|Pete King | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — And now, from the boats-against-the-current file, comes the improbable story of Howard Junker and his strangely named literary magazine, Zyzzyva -- a rare tale of success from that imperiled realm known as the printed word.

It begins in the early 1980s. Nuclear plant construction in the United States was becoming an endangered enterprise. Because of this trend, Bechtel Corp., the San Francisco-based construction behemoth, commenced a round of company downsizing.

Soon enough Dr. Layoff reached his long, cold finger into Bechtel's public relations department and put the touch on Junker, a fortysomething technical writer. His response then would be woefully familiar today in this, another epoch of job cuts.

"I was devastated," he recalled, sipping hot chocolate in a cafe called Bittersweet. "I needed a job."

What he had instead fell somewhere between an idea and an impulse.

Another cog in the Bechtel publicity department, an older fellow from Ohio, used to speak lovingly about a literary magazine he had published long ago in Columbus. Junker had been intrigued and now, out of work, decided to make a stab at starting up a litmag, as they are called, of his own.

"It was a redemptive gesture," he said. "Something that I thought I could do and that I could admire. It was like a midlife crisis."

He'd written for magazines and produced pamphlets for Bechtel. And he bore an uncanny resemblance to John Updike, whom he met once at a party. These were Junker's literary qualifications as he began to canvass San Francisco's vibrant literary scene, looking to scrape together money and manuscripts for a magazine he would name Zyzzyva, which rhymes with dizzy-va.

"Zyzzyva," as Junker explained in his initial editor's note, "is the last word, at least in the American Heritage Dictionary, which claims it's a tropical weevil. Unlike its namesake, Zyzzyva has no appetite for the wanton destruction of plants. It does aspire to be, if not the last word, at least an important vehicle for West Coast writers. . . ."

And so, in April 1985, the magazine was launched -- a 150-page paperback collection of short stories, memoirs, snatches of screenplays, excerpts from novels in progress, poems and artwork. The future was anything but certain, yet it was launched.

And now the pages flip forward.

On a gorgeous Wednesday morning last week, Junker arrived in the Fillmore District at his chosen meeting spot -- one of a long succession of cafes and restaurants in the bustling, gentrified district. He carried a copy of Zyzzyva under his arm. It was Volume 24, No. 2, to be circulated in the fall. As the numbers imply, Junker's still at it.

Four times a year, every year since 1985, he and his magazine have beaten on through all sorts of dire currents. They have survived earthquakes and dot-com booms and busts, the explosion of the Internet and the advent of Amazon and e-zines, of text messages and Twitter.

With changes in the landscape have come changes in the magazine, and also in the stories that would-be authors send Junker's way. Immigration, AIDS, war, economic uncertainty -- the full parade of social turmoil and personal crises have passed through Zyzzyva's pages, but at the odd angles and lagging pace of literature.

Junker doesn't do news or reviews, but picking through back copies of Zyzzyva it's possible to develop a pretty good sense of what has been happening in this part of the world. For example, Junker said, with the large influx of Spanish speakers into California, "we no longer consider Spanish a foreign language" in the magazine. "We don't italicize it in print. We just print it, like English. And that is a huge change."

In the beginning, Junker tried to publish established writers. Now he leans toward the works of the previously unpublished. Zyzzyva has provided a literary debut for writers as varied as the late F.X. Toole ("Million Dollar Baby"), Chitra Divakaruni ("Mistress of Spices") and Po Bronson ("Bombardiers").

"One of the things I have kind of specialized in," Junker said, "is discovering new writers, and what that really means is giving them their first time in print. In print! They can see it! That is the impact of the printed word."

He picked up the fall issue from the table and bounced it in his hand, as if weighing it: "This is real. It's physical. And it draws from the tradition of 500 years or, if you want to go way back, to the doodles on the caves. It is about making a mark in the world. And certainly the cyberworld has its own reality, but it is not a reality that yet feels substantial."

Junker's enthusiasms aside, it would be a mistake to classify him as some ink-stained dinosaur. "The digital revolution marches on," he concedes in his latest editor's note. He marvels at his college daughter's ability to touch-tap messages with her thumbs. Junker himself posts a daily blog on the Zyzzyva website and can be found on YouTube, dancing to the Rolling Stones.

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