The four guys who created Barrelhouse would hate to give the impression that they founded the publication while sober. “We wanted it to have a pop-culture, rock ’n’ roll vibe,” says Dave Housley, who conceived of the D.C.-based lit journal with Mike Ingram, Joe Killiany, and Aaron Pease late one night in a booth at Dupont Circle dive the Big Hunt.
The founders met through fiction workshops at the Writer’s Center two years ago but found that some of their discussions were better suited to the bar, where topics ranged from Snoop Dogg and this week’s episode of The O.C. to their authorial frustrations. “After a certain number of beers, writers start talking about submitting work,” Housley notes, “and rejection’s a big part of that.” A lot of good fiction was going unpublished, they believed, simply because it wasn’t right for “the academic journals that just appeal to other writers.” The four threw around the idea of starting their own journal, and after a few more Brooklyn Browns, Housley remembers, “we started saying, ‘We can do this.’”
The primary reason academic journals dominate the literary-journal business is, of course, that there’s no money in it. The four writers launched Barrelhouse as an online publication, but, according to Pease, wanted a print product “to hang on the wall in lieu of a moose head.”
“Your usual D.C. writing and communications jobs” financed the printing, says Housley, a 37-year-old Wheaton resident, noting that without the volunteer help of photographer and graphic-designer friends, “we wouldn’t have got past the front cover.” In January, after 10 months of night and weekend work, the first copies of Barrelhouse came back from the printer.
The collection gets off to a raucous start: “We worship power chords” is the opening line of the first story, Matthew Kirkpatrick’s “Metal Church.” “The first issue is a little guy-heavy,” admits Pease, 31, who lives in Arlington. Housley adds: “First-person, slightly-fucked-up guy-heavy.” Besides its five short fiction pieces, Issue No. 1 features a memoir about the unfulfilled promises of hard-edged ’70s rock ’n’ roll, an essay on the personal significance of Magnum P.I., an interview with Emmylou Harris, and a small array of poems.
Sifting through the hundreds of submissions the new magazine received was a new experience for the four friends, who are more accustomed to plying other journals with their own work. “I still send stuff out and get rejected, just like everybody else,” says Housley.
But making the cuts left them a little savvier about which literary themes are overplayed. “There was a point at which if Flannery O’Connor came back from the dead and wrote a relationship story we would have rejected it,” Housley says. “I was so sick of relationship stories.”
The Barrelhouse editors are currently reviewing submissions for Issue No. 2, which they hope to put out in July. Their drinking sessions are a man down, having lost Ingram to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop—“the fancy-pants fiction program,” Pease says—but the remaining three still meet at the Big Hunt, where they’ll be holding a combination reading, party, and fundraiser for their next issue on April 9. Meanwhile, they’re looking for distributors and advertisers for the $9-a-copy journal. It’s tough. “We are obviously not entrepreneurs,” says Pease. Housley agrees: “We’d open up a Subway if we weren’t so fucking stupid.”—Jeff Horwitz