The Subversive Creatives of ‘Astra Magazine’ Bring Print Back to Life, with Pleasure

Posted inDesigner Interviews

There’s no denying that creative professionals have had an especially rough decade. Years of crumbling infrastructure have pushed every kind of artist to the sidelines, and many have had to rely on paywalls and subscriptions to sustain themselves. As Substack and Patreon bills pile on top of fees for streaming platforms, it can feel prohibitively expensive to keep up with our favorite creatives. This forces many of us to be selective about the work we support, while limiting our exposure to everything else.

But once upon a time, it wasn’t quite so hard to find exciting creators working together under the same roof. For decades, magazines have provided readers with a one-stop-shop for a wide range of work from fresh, new voices, including essays, criticism, and fiction. You could find an eclectic range of publications in the racks of most bookstores, and choose any number that reflected your views or lifestyle. Readers could keep up with faraway creative communities, and even become a part of one themselves through subscribing to a given magazine.

Sadly, after a solid decade of folding publications, failed new media companies, and massive editorial layoffs, it’s been hard to avoid the lingering sense that magazines are dead. But don’t be fooled by disappearing newsstands and shuttered domain names— rabid print fans still lurk on eBay, social media, and even in quiet storefronts.

Writer Nadja Spiegelman has seen the rising tide for herself. “I go into the few specialized magazine shops that still exist in New York City, and see them consistently filled with young people who really, really want magazines,” she told me. “There’s sort of a resurgence of them, in part because they’re disappearing.”

As the chief collaborators behind Astra Magazine, Editor-in-Chief Spiegelman and Creative Director Shannon Jager are poised to ride the crest of this wave. In this bi-annual publication, readers can find exciting new work from creators around the world, all in one place. Within almost 200 gorgeous pages, you’ll find an eclectic range of prose, poetry, essays, comics, and art. In their first issue, “Ecstasy,” work from previously unpublished writers lives alongside exclusives from bestselling authors like Ottesa Moshfegh and Leslie Jamison. These stories are accented with rich visuals by prolific cartoonists like Evan M. Cohen, Diana Ejaita, and Nicole Rifkin. Design enthusiasts will delight in Jager’s bold color palettes and ambitious, yet accessible visual flourishes, all on elegantly embossed, high-quality paper.

The expansive feel of Astra goes beyond its diverse line-up and dynamic look. The publication provides a thoughtful approach to international literature by honoring the art of translation, engaging directly with global communities, and representing creators on their own terms. In order to accomplish this lofty goal, Spiegelman, Jager, and their expert team have combed through a century of visual references and a whole world of creative localities. You can find their editors in Europe, Asia, and Africa, and their most recent journeys have taken them from Manhattan high-rises to Canadian ice fishing shacks.

I recently sat down with Spiegelman and Jager to get their firsthand account on adventures in modern publishing. They discuss challenging the dry, western feel of literature, the importance of strong crediting, and the weird, secret trick to publishing magazines without newsstands.

(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

The masthead of “Ecstasy,” featuring a comic by Evan M. Cohen

How did you both end up at Astra?

Spiegelman: I’ve always dreamed of starting my own magazine, but I was waiting for an idea for something that doesn’t exist yet, that really would fill a space. So I started working with Astra Publishing House on creating a magazine that would align with their vision of international literature. They wanted to make a literary magazine that was genuinely cosmopolitan, and that didn’t ask any one writer to represent an entire country. It seemed really exciting, and like something that I wasn’t seeing done elsewhere.

Jager: I’ve always had a love of magazines. I’ve worked for places like Pentagram, T Magazine, and a few other Canadian editorial magazines. I also had my own magazine called Double Dot that’s now defunct, but at the time, it was celebrating the cultural differences between cities around the world. So when I got wind of Astra, this ideal of global collaboration really spoke to me.

It sounds like you both bring a solid amount of perspective and experience to the magazine. Is there anything specific that draws you to the medium of print?

Spiegelman: I grew up with parents who were incredibly interested in art for reproduction, something that can be endlessly reproduced and accessible. There’s this magic in being able to not just create an object, but create an object for reproduction on a large scale. I just grew up like feeling like that’s the coolest thing one could possibly do!

In our moment, all of the systems for magazines are falling apart, like the print advertising dollars that once made them possible. There are no longer newsstands; there are no longer easy distribution systems. That means it’s a really difficult time for magazines. But I think there will always be a desire for print magazines, because the internet is like this endless, flooding river. A magazine is a snapshot that’s less ephemeral, and that offers a really strict curation at a time when everybody has, like, 1000 tabs open on their screen. A magazine is something that is curated, that is inherently finite, that is also something that you can return to. You have a relationship that’s different from what you’d have with a book, in the sense that it’s a community, and it evolves issue after issue. That’s a really unique thing that a magazine can do, and I think it’s always going to be valuable.

Jager: I’ve always loved the medium just because of the slight resistance to single authorship, and just how no magazine can be put together by one person. And the quick turnaround is what makes it so temporal and of the moment.

Spiegelman’s “Editor’s Note” from “Ecstasy”

This first issue features literature and art inspired by the theme of “Ecstasy.” What inspired that, and what goal do you hope the magazine accomplishes?

Spiegelman: This one is “Ecstasy,” the next one will be “Filth,” the one after that will be “Lust.” It’s intentional that we’re countering a preconception that literature in translation is going to be inherently medicinal or boring, or like an anthropological approach for a very foreign other. So instead, we wanted to focus on these universal, and somewhat transgressive and subversive emotions, and just think about what it is that we all have in common.

For the root word of “ecstasy,” you stand outside yourself and a god enters you. It’s like the moment of transcendence when you are outside your own being, and you are sort of becoming a god, and that, for me, is what reading is about. Engaging with art is like standing outside yourself, and letting someone else in, and being able to see the world through their eyes. The best moments of reading for me are the moments when I’m literally transported to the point where I don’t see the room around me anymore, or the train car around me, and I’m just living inside the story, and my physical body disappears. That’s the feeling that we wanted this issue to evoke.

How do you know when you’ve found something that works for the magazine?

Spiegelman: When I worked as an online editor at The Paris Review, I had a lot of space to actually publish what felt really moving, or that really spoke to me. Or I found myself wanting to send something to a friend, because she’s going through something similar, and I’m going through something similar, and this writer really captured it so beautifully. There’s a piece called “The Crane Wife” that went really viral that was about a bad relationship, but it was beautifully written. I never would have read that piece and been like, This piece is gonna go viral. It just spoke to people, and that is so much more satisfying.

We didn’t put any very timely nonfiction in here. Instead, it’s like much more like lyrical writing that you could return to at any moment. Some of the stories are more explicitly ecstatic than others. The theme is more of like a guide, and then we also just want to highlight the very best writing we can find.

Jager: The concept that Nadja and her team have built Astra around is not limiting, and there’s just so many exciting opportunities and possibilities for future operations. And even with having thematic issues, there’s this excitement for the next issue, and what that means. How do we share different sides of the same story, and give dimension to these dramatic words in the form of literature, illustrations, photography, so all these different components come together?

What kind of images did you use to communicate this?

Jager: For each cover, based on the theme, we wanted to have an image that ties closely to it. This photographer, Isabelle Wenzel, opened up her portfolio to us, and we were able to put together a story that I think it worked for the theme in a very expressive and abstract way.

Spiegelman: This photographer takes herself as her own subject. She’s trained as an acrobat, and so all of these are self-portraits where she holds these impossible poses for really long time until she gets exactly the shot she wanted. But there’s also an intentionality in her work as well, and an anonymity for the body. It’s her, but it could be anybody. It’s the body as a form, and that is part of the ethos of what we’re interested in. It’s also what we’re interested in editorially, is the feeling of like, “What is it that we all share? What is the body?”

Jager: There’s something really nice in the black and white photography, and I think it also helped visually open up the conversation about what ecstasy could mean. We could have done an ecstasy pill, or we could have done something like a little bit more like over the head, but this one really felt like it was like a feeling that was really emotive.

Tell me more about the look of “Ecstasy.”

Spiegelman: “Timeless and of the moment” was the inherent contradiction that I first gave to Shannon. How do you do it? And even thinking through a design perspective: what does timeless mean? Because nothing is ever truly timeless. Like, when I think timeless, I’m thinking the ’20s, which is a very specific time.

We looked at a lot of references, like the old Gallimard covers, and even Fitzcarraldo books now, and ’20s modernism. And I think Shannon did a really good job of pulling inspiration from there, and from the ’70s at the same time, in a way that really does feel like every time and right now, especially because of the modular color scheme. So we’ll have different, contrasting colors, and every issue and our website will also update with those colors. But I think that having something that’s so classic, with colors that are so right now, really hits that nail on the head.

Jager: I think, to speak on the colors too, that decision was just to show the emotional spectrum that literature can have, and how that can play a part and elevate stories in new ways. So we were very thoughtful with the color selections, and continue to be excited about like the system that can be built in this harmonious color wave that a subscriber would have across the shelf.

Can you point to any favorite design choices within the issue?

Spiegelman: One of my favorites is this story “Wisteria,” which is one of our longer pieces. With every turn of the page, there’s ever so slightly more of a purple gradient. You only really notice that it’s turning purple by the end, and hopefully you’ve been so pulled into the story that you’re not even really noticing that it’s turning purple.

It was a really nice collaboration between Shannon and I. So I was like, “Can you just make wisteria petals fall on the page?” And she was like, “No, you’re making a literary magazine; you want people to read it. This is too literal, and also people won’t actually be able to read the story if there are petals all over the words.” So we found something that is just a more subtle expression of exactly that feeling through this accumulating purple.

It’s smart that you’ve figured out how to make it look both nuanced and accessible. I feel like it’s much more common that innovation in art or literature obscures meaning, instead of making it clearer.

Spiegelman: What made me want to work with Shannon from the start was her clarity. “Okay, I’m making a literary magazine, so people have to be able to read it, and it has to look really nice, and make you want to read it.” And I think that’s something that really comes through. You pick this up, and you can see that it’s like a very thought-through object, but you actually want to sit down and read the stories, and that never got lost.

Jager: We did numerous type tests, grid tests, baseline tests. We went through all the typefaces, and we just really wanted to build this really strong foundation for the magazine, so there could be a place where adding illustration or color would just be the icing on the cake. Just to that point that we would have something so robust that we could take it from issue to issue and then still have flexibility within it.

The visual language was something that you don’t usually see with literary magazines. That came about through conversations about translation, and different ways of storytelling, and how visuals could elevate each of the pieces, or be a language in itself.

An excerpt from the essay “Pain Like a Philosphy,” written by Chinelo Okparanta with an illustration by Diana Ejaita

How involved are both of you in the printing process, and what is that like?

Jager: The printer that we ended up choosing is called Prolific, and they’re in Winnipeg. I think that the opportunity for us to be involved in the process was after restrictions had been lifted. That enabled Nadja to fly to Canada and actually be on press with the issue, which is always like a really important part of the process, especially when it’s a first issue. It’s so key, especially just with the amount of illustration and artwork that we had, to do it properly like that

Spiegelman: It was really fun to actually go to the printer and get to see it come off the presses. That was especially after like a whirlwind year of making this thing, but also after a lot of the work that I’ve done in the past, being an online editor, where you just sort of like, click “Send” on WordPress, and like it’s in the world.

They’re really wonderful printers. They like have a real artistry in what they do. And they’ve worked with a lot of cartoonists who I really admire, and that was so nice to hear when I arrived. Cartoonists are artists whose medium is reproductions, so they care really deeply about how it’s being printed, and how it’s going to look, and so that like made me feel really safe. I was like, “Oh, great, you printed Chris Ware!” Very few people in this world can print Chris Ware.

I got to just watch it come off the presses, and do the press checks, and also see their ice fishing shack, which was really nice. Just the smell of ink and the feeling of like paper, the sound of it. It’s printed on this $8 million Japanese printer that like takes up an entire, huge warehouse. And because it’s a piece of Japanese technology, every time it finishes a printing job, it plays “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” and the charm of knowing that is really nice! And it’s nice to have a good relationship with a printer, because through getting to know them, that also allows us to know what kinds of things we can do in the future. I got to have conversations about like, “What if for the ‘Filth’ issue, we want scratch and sniff inks?”

An excerpt from “Rites of Spring” by María Medem

You’ve both mentioned wanting Astra to have a genuinely international feel. How do you bring the feeling of a global community into the magazine?

Spiegelman: I think that a lot of times, for a writer’s work to make its way into English and translation, they often have to be at quite an advanced point in their careers. And a publisher is going to take, like, their fourth or fifth book, once they’re very established in their home country. And often a publisher in America is asking this sort of ridiculous question of like, “Is this the best writer in Uruguay? Because we only want to publish one, so is this the best one?” And like if someone asked me who the best writer in America was, I would have no idea. I could tell you my favorite writer, but I don’t know who the best writer in America is.

So what we wanted to do is a magazine where people are really excited about the lineup— writers like Mieko Kawakami, or Fernanda Melchor. Mieko’s from Japan, and Fernanda Melchor’s from Mexico, but she lives in Berlin, and these writers have achieved a certain amount of notoriety. But they appear alongside writers where their work hasn’t even been published by their publishing house in their home country. We worked with publishers in Brazil and in Mexico to find this work, but it’s their debut, and it hasn’t even come out yet there, and it’s going to come out here in English at the same time. And that’s really exciting, to not have to already be at this level of your career before anyone will translate you into English, and your work will live alongside all these writers who are very established. Our hope is that then, what we would define as successful and exciting for the magazine, is if American publishers or UK publishers then read this and are like, “I want to get the author’s whole book, and make it available here,” and it can be a starting point for their careers.

The title page of the essay “Wadden Sea Suite,” written by Dorthe Nors and translated by Caroline Waight, with visuals by Trine Sondergaard, Aaron Reiss, & Larry Buchanan

I noticed you’re making translators’ names very visible throughout the magazine. It highlights that translation is a genuine, yet underappreciated artform that requires a lot of thought and intention. In any translation, somebody made a choice to use the word they printed.

Spiegelman: Yeah, a translation doesn’t have a single author, in a way. It’s being mediated through someone, changing your experience of how you read it. Then it also has a particular illustration, and the illustrators are also very clearly credited. A magazine isn’t done by a single person, and thinking through how all three of these people might have come together to create the reading experience is really exciting to us.

We have these insane last few pages of the magazine that are just bios for every single illustrator, translator, and writer, which means that it’s very long, but that’s part of what’s exciting. And these people are from everywhere, and they’re all collaborating together, and in conversation with each other, and that is really part of what’s so exciting about making a magazine at all.

It sounds like you’re approaching this from a very anti-colonial perspective that meets everyone at the exact same level. It allows writers and artists from around the world to create on their own terms, instead of filtering their perspectives through a westernized lens.

Spiegelman: Yeah, and I think a lot of the writers who we’re publishing wouldn’t necessarily think of themselves as like a writer of this country. They’re just writers who are writing about what they’re living.

It was a very intentional design decision to not have what country these people live in, or are from. We do say the language their work is translated from, but that’s different than saying, “This writer is from this place.” Most of the writers who we’re publishing are often born in one place, grew up in another place, moved to another place, and are actually writing through all of those places.

Jager: There are new voices from around the world that haven’t been heard, and haven’t been accessible to people, because not everyone is looking for specific pieces from different countries. I think that also the editorial team at Astra and their thoughts, like the pagination, and the rhythm of the magazine, is also quite unique.

Spiegelman: We have editors at large who are in Paris and Berlin, and Beijing and Cairo, who are in very frequent communication with about what’s happening there, and what the literary scene looks like there. We’re not trying to make something that’s only going to speak to these 20 people in New York City. We’re trying to make something that will have international distribution. The New Yorker does sort of evoke, “Here’s everything you’re missing in New York City,” and we’re instead like, “Here’s a lot of people living their lives, that can also speak to your life.” And I’ve just been corresponding with, like, 1000 different bookstores, so people will really be able to read it everywhere.

An excerpt from the short story “This is Heaven,” written by Nada Alic with an illustration by Franz Lang

A lot of the infrastructure for magazines has deteriorated, but it sounds like you have ambitious plans for distribution. How are you getting Astra out there?

Spiegelman: We’re actually going to need to reprint our first issue already, which is really exciting. But one of the things that’s hard for magazines is that there are few newsstands, or distributors, or bookstores that carry magazines anymore, especially after the pandemic. Most of them stopped because people don’t preorder them in curbside pickup.

McNally Jackson in New York is one of the few bookstores that carries magazines, and when we asked them how they did it, they introduced us to a member of their staff whose sole job is to maintain individual subscriptions for every magazine. Whereas with books, you go through a distributor like Penguin Random House, or like Ingram, and you can just order books and get them, and that is a lot easier. That used to be true for magazines, but newsstand distribution has been monopolized and consolidated to a point where the few companies that do it, do it very unreliably.

And so from the get go, we’re like, “Okay, we’ll make a magazine, but it’s going to also be a book,” because one of the things that’s still working is book distribution. And because Astra Magazine is part of Astra Publishing House, which is distributed by PRH, bookstores love working with them, because they are very, very efficient. And every morning, a box from PRH comes and goes for every bookstore, and it’s very easy for them to just try a book or send it back if they don’t want it.

PRH doesn’t distribute magazines, so we had to have a whole call with them where we were like, “It’s a book that comes out twice a year; don’t worry about it.” And that work, and getting to be both, has really meant that we’re going to be able to like be an independent bookstore. If a bookstore in Athens or Copenhagen wants it, we don’t have to individually figure out how we ship books there. That goes through PRH’s global distribution system, and that gets to them very easily. They don’t have to pay shipping and like that’s an enormous, enormous gift. So that’s part of what we’re really excited about, is having the actual reach that is rare for a magazine to have.

Jager: There’s other elements or systems that we’re looking forward to exploring, like doing book tours or book fairs, or events. I think there’s like a lot of potential after this first issue for us to grow and also create a community, which is very exciting.

Spiegelman: I’m not sure if it’ll be possible, but I really hope that, for future issues, we’ll do launch events in different cities for each one. So, to launch the next issue in Mexico City, and launch the one after that in Singapore. It’s not impossible! And to do it in collaboration with the editors that we know at local publishing houses there, and the writers we know, and the bookstores. Because the magazine is fundamentally a place—it’s a very physical and localized thing, and I think part of that is really connecting to local communities in different places.

You can subscribe to Astra and read selections from the magazine at their official website. If you’re in New York City, you can RSVP for their launch party at McNally Jackson Seaport tonight (4/14) at 7 PM.