Pipe Wrench, from soup to nuts, with Catherine Cusick
9 min read

Pipe Wrench, from soup to nuts, with Catherine Cusick

The cofounder of the experimental literary magazine wants to channel the controlled chaos of a dinner party conversation into your inbox.
Pipe Wrench, from soup to nuts, with Catherine Cusick

A song to read by: “Recharge & Revolt,” by The Raveonettes

What I’m reading: “The Sympathizer,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Pipe Wrench of the system

In a March 9 newsletter from the forthcoming literary magazine Pipe Wrench, titled “What if we were just super honest?,” editor-in-chief Michelle Weber did just that.

“So in the name of sustainability — that is, our personal abilities to sustain ourselves as semi-functional humans who remember to brush our teeth — I declare: fuck this week’s newsletter,” Weber wrote.

“The core activities of putting issue 1 together continue, but this newsletter isn't one of them this week,” she said. “You planned to spend a few minutes reading this; I regift you those minutes. I’m sorry it’s not enough time to take a nap, so maybe go have a snack.”

The admission, delivered in a familiar spirit of exhausted determination, captures the kind of survivalist mentality that many creators have adopted to help them cope with the stresses of the last year. Like the vaccine, bandwidth is a scarce commodity nowadays that must be parceled out in order of highest priority.

Catherine Cusick, who created Pipe Wrench alongside Weber, shares not only her cofounder’s grit — she also shares her sense of humor. Together, the two launched an editorial project in the depths of quarantine, an undertaking that all but requires a penchant for light masochism.

Both alumni of Longreads, Cusick and Weber have envisioned a magazine whose structure, in addition to its subject matter, will eschew conventionality. The experimental publication will release one longform piece of writing every other month, surrounded by “a constellation of other pieces interpreting or reacting or springboarding off it.”

In a given month, a 7,000-word story could be accompanied by a playlist, a photo essay, a piece of film criticism, a work of visual art, and an anthropological hypothesis. The goal, Cusick and Weber said, is to recreate the kinds of conversations that spring from dinner parties, with tangents colliding into one another like atomic particles and careening off in unexpected directions. All manner of writer and artist can contribute, and one gets the sense that Cusick and Weber really would welcome any idea, the weirder the better.

The wit of Cusick and Weber runs through the site like a current, turning copy into comedy and electrifying even the most mundane elements of running a publication, such as providing information on their submissions process. The result is a style so distinct that it is instantly recognizable, whether in newsletter, tweet, or interview response (!), an impressive feat in this our age of peak content saturation.

The publication aims to pay salaries to its founders in the distant future and wages to its freelancers in the immediate present, and as such is actively encouraging supporters to consider a subscription, with options starting at $11 per month or $89 per year.

There have been many victims of the belt-tightening in the media ecosystem, but chief among them is artistry. Executives in the industry and journalists like myself, too often blinkered by the myopia of desperation, extol primarily the virtues of subscriber value, frictionless payment pipelines, and vanity metrics. While important, these concepts concern only the most quantitative throughlines of writing; they answer the how but not the why.

The grand experiment of Pipe Wrench, then, will be to bring serendipity to digital literature. Through juxtaposition and association, its writing hopes to connect disparate dots, electrifying long-dormant synapses and snapping new ideas into existence.

Below is my conversation, which occurred via email, with Cusick. If you want to support the mission of Pipe Wrench or even just follow along, I would encourage you to do so. A critical part of returning to normal life in the next few months will be supporting the kind of creativity that helps make it enjoyable in the first place.

Name: Catherine Cusick

Publication: Pipe Wrench

Twitter: Catherine, Pipe Wrench

Pipe Wrench will publish every other month starting next month. Do you have a specific date set for the launch? And could you tell my very nosy readers what the inaugural longform story will be about?

Welcome, snoops! Our launch date is April 13. Details are under lock and key until April 2, a magical day when surprises can happen without triggering suspicion that those surprises are pranks. I can confirm that the inaugural longform story is written by someone who doesn’t have a Twitter account.

How many distinct pieces of writing — poems, playlists, personal essays, criticism, etc. — will accompany the primary piece of longform narrative, on average?

The first issue has eleven contributors. We were aiming for eight and missed.

This seems like something that could have a very entertaining in-person analog, like a book reading but with reactions, extensions, and analysis read aloud right after. Are there any plans for bringing Pipe Wrench into the real world?

Yes! Plenty! Our fantastic, spectacular dreams! But I’m the bad cop, so I’m always bringing focus back to keeping our heads down in the magazine. I love a good daydream, but if we don’t make a magazine that people love and pay to support, there is no future where we diversify into events.

I also hope this right here is real! This chat we’re having, and sharing with folks through this incredibly helpful screen.

To distill Pipe Wrench down to one word, it seems rooted in the idea of conversation: pieces speaking to each other, people speaking through them, the primary narrative a prism through which the other voices and ideas refract.

Did the idea for Pipe Wrench stem from a perceived lack of conversation occurring in the literary, or normal, world?

One of the inspirations for Pipe Wrench is a dinner party, so the quality of conversation between guests should say something about how we measure up as hosts. Pipe Wrench’s editor-in-chief, Michelle Weber, first came up with the idea for Pipe Wrench last summer.

She lives in Italy, which had been in quarantine for months by then. The communal loss of conversation at that stage in the pandemic was an international crisis that we’d all been experiencing in isolation.

We do also perceive ongoing frustration with the greater Media Discourse, which is more of an aggravated debate than a conversation. One of Pipe Wrench’s strengths is its fidelity to conversation as a collaboration. Magazines often have theme issues, but it’s unusual for every contributor in an issue to respond to an embargoed draft of the same cover story. It’s unusual to incorporate listening to someone else’s idea first as a key step in the production process.

We also talk about silos, and how working in one medium, industry, language, or country creates barriers to following or understanding conversations in another. If hosts introduce guests with enough care, personal connections should help bridge initial gaps between strangers’ divergent interests and life experiences.

If establishing a shared baseline is a prerequisite for addressing each other at all, upgrading our working knowledge of each others’ lanes is a pressing global project. Debating in silos limits which problems we can even define, let alone solve.

The voice of Pipe Wrench is immediately apparent and very funny. Will the published material adopt a similarly self-aware, wry tone, or will the tenor of the writing change with every published edition?

The issues themselves will always shift with each new set of contributors, so even we won’t know what to expect from the full roster in advance. I imagine voices will take tonal cues from the core story, the way we all attempt to read the room whenever we’re in good company.

That said, I doubt Michelle or I would ever publish a humorless edition of the Pipe Wrench newsletter without becoming very, very bored with our own writing. If you’d like to receive regular dispatches from bighearted comedians, the newsletter comes out on Tuesdays.

The founding members of Pipe Wrench and four-fifths of its Masthead are women. You have also declared your intention to highlight historically marginalized voices and treat freelancers with humanity (!).

Why is it so hard for other publications — especially new ones, who presumably get to build their team and business in whatever way they want — to make equity and inclusion a central tenet of their operation?

Plenty of new publications make equity a central tenet of their operation. Sole proprietors do. Worker collectives do. Small businesses do. They’re often focused on a specific beat, identity, or local audience. They may or may not start out with funding that garners press. They have to reach a differentiated audience segment in order to survive. You may never hear about them if you’re not in that segment.

Legacy publications struggle the most with equity, inclusion, diversity, and culture change. Nearly every new publication I’m aware of is trying not to recreate the unsustainable, inhumane, or unsafe work environments its creators experienced at cultural juggernauts.

Meanwhile, building a team and building a business both require at least some ability, however temporary or jury-rigged, to front investments. People who can front investments tend not to have been minoritized for several generations.

It is easier to found new publications that prioritize inclusion when the publications’ founders have some lived experience with systems that were built to exclude them. It is easier to fund new publications that prioritize the short-term viability of the business.

At Pipe Wrench, our values are in it from the start and we have no competing interests to satisfy.

No one needs to recoup an investment. No one needs to evade taxation. When funders emphasize profit, growth, or scale over sustainability, whatever tenets founders profess to have are optional.

We’re motivated by the fact that subscribers tend to support businesses that try to “restore what feels broken.” We want to answer to people who share our values, at whatever tier they can afford. Subscribers to Pipe Wrench shouldn’t support us if we don’t do what we say we’re going to do, publish the voices we say we’re going to publish, or treat contributors the way they deserve to be treated.

Is it the hope that Pipe Wrench will become a full-time job for its members? What kind of financial and audience goals have you set internally?

We expect the business to sustain itself. Michelle and I both work second jobs that we intend to bequeath to successors when the time comes. There are break-even numbers.

But to quote Margarita Noriega, “Metrics are not goals. And goals are not values.”

Many new products, even editorial ones, are built nowadays using an “iterative” model: trotting out a baby idea, gathering feedback, then retooling it. This way, when it launches, its creators know, to some degree, that there is an audience out there that wants it.

Pipe Wrench doesn’t seem it was built in a lab; it feels like an experimental publishing project. What has given your team confidence that it will be well-received?

Experiments are iterative.

Iterating is all about testing your vision. Eric Reis phrased it as “creating something new under conditions of extreme uncertainty.” Continuous experimentation validates learning, and the point is to learn quickly. If the first iteration fails, try the next. If the second iteration wavers, incorporate the next round of feedback. And so on.

You do this in public for real live people, offering a functional prototype to early adopters who can’t wait to tell you all about its million flaws. You only fix the flaws real human people mention. You do this so you don’t found Quibi.

Our soft launch website is a minimum viable product — you’ve written about newsletters functioning as MVPs. Our newsletter is something of a pretotype, a word I can’t read without thinking about pterodactyls. Before this, the Pipe Wrench team produced, distributed, and built audiences for enough digital longform nonfiction to permanently alter a grown adult’s vision. Collectively, our team has co-produced millions of words for millions of readers.

We’ve flipped a lotta flapjacks! Sometimes the batter bubbles and sometimes the batter burns.

It becomes second nature to sift for this long, stir for that long, one Mississippi, two Mississippi. You start to keep track of what people are asking for when they say “the usual.”

And then if you work in a kitchen long enough, someone will ask you to burn theirs. And you’ll laugh. And you’ll know how.

Some good readin’

— If Helen Rosner says it is good, it is good. (The New Yorker)

— A sharp interview from my new colleague Scott Nover, featuring a Friend of Medialyte. (Adweek)

— Do I smell a budding discourse? First Bari Weiss, now Caitlin Flanagan: Private school politics are under the microscope, and for good reason. (The Atlantic)

— Casey Newton, clear-eyed as usual, paywalled as always. (Performer)

— The Ur-piece that set off the latest Substack meltdown. (Doyles)