Interview

Interview: Alex Citrin Talks Coming of Age and Her Magazine, “Until Now”


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Have ya’ll heard of Until Now? If not, then you’re in for a treat. It’s a pub­li­ca­tion start­ed by illustrator/art direc­tor Alex Cit­rin and fea­tures sto­ries about com­ing of age (AKA the tran­si­tion from child­hood to adult­hood). Per­son­al­ly, I love these types of tales — they are by far my favorite sub­ject to con­sume. So, need­less to say that when I heard Alex was pro­duc­ing this for her grad­u­ate the­sis, I was excit­ed.

Alex was a cohort of mine in MICA’s MFA Illus­tra­tion Prac­tice pro­gram, where we’re encour­aged to think about illus­tra­tion dif­fer­ent­ly and push the field to new places. As a result, the first issue of Until Now fea­tures a ton of great illus­tra­tion show­cased in gor­geous, large spreads.

I had the plea­sure of inter­view­ing her about being an art direc­tor and her love of com­ing of age tales. This is a long-form inter­view, but stick with it. Alex is hilar­i­ous and has some great things to say.

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So, I’ll spare you answer­ing a lot of ques­tions that you’ve already cov­ered, but for those that aren’t famil­iar with Until Now, how would you describe it? How long had you been think­ing about putting a pub­li­ca­tion like this togeth­er?

Until Now is a mag­a­zine about com­ing of age, although I envi­sion the read­er­ship to be broad­er than just those cur­rent­ly com­ing of age them­selves. I sup­pose I’d been think­ing about pro­duc­ing a col­lec­tion of sto­ries relat­ed to this top­ic for a while, though in dif­fer­ent forms — col­lages, pho­to essays, a graph­ic novel…those ideas were reflec­tive of my focus­es at the time (a col­lege art major, band pho­tog­ra­ph­er, and illus­tra­tor, respec­tive­ly).

I’ve always been obsessed with doc­u­men­ta­tion and I am also a believ­er in the tra­di­tion­al print mag­a­zine as a medi­um for com­mu­ni­ca­tion as well as a kind of art object. Basi­cal­ly, I’m a com­plete lud­dite. Con­sid­er­ing the vast cul­tur­al reach of your aver­age main­stream mag­a­zine, though, there’s still some­thing not quite seri­ous about the for­mat. I think there’s room to play with that con­tra­dic­tion. Sim­i­lar­ly, com­ing of age sto­ries are typ­i­cal­ly rel­e­gat­ed to the “less seri­ous” YA sec­tion of the library or with­in mag­a­zines aimed exclu­sive­ly at teens. I’m still fas­ci­nat­ed by com­ing of age sto­ries at age 27.

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I am some­one who LOVES com­ing-of-aged themed things, so I was real­ly enthralled by the whole thing. I think my fas­ci­na­tion comes from being a “nerd” in high school (no par­ties, no late cur­fews, no noth­ing!), and by absorb­ing these sto­ries I make up for lost time. What draws you to this par­tic­u­lar genre, and what keeps you com­ing back for more?

It’s not just me! I was also a nerd in high school, although per­haps I fell more off the grid social­ly because I was very qui­et and the minute my par­ents began allow­ing me to take the train into New York City by myself (I grew up in sub­ur­ban Con­necti­cut) my inter­est in the social goings ons of my peers basi­cal­ly evap­o­rat­ed. In ret­ro­spect, I think this gave me a chance to be an impar­tial observ­er more than any­thing. Even when I would go to these mati­nee hard­core shows on my solo trips into the city, I still took on the role of observ­er, as I nev­er quite fit in there either. I think my over­all inter­est in the top­ic is a com­bi­na­tion of hav­ing spent so much time just watch­ing oth­er peo­ple as a teenag­er, plus nev­er find­ing a real sense of belong­ing at that age. I’m biased, but I feel like there’s some­thing a bit sin­is­ter about peo­ple who felt they real­ly belonged any­where at that age.

I also relate to your con­cept of com­pen­sat­ing for “lost time”, which I feel plays a part in why some adults do become drawn to this top­ic — it’s not a mat­ter of want­i­ng to relive it, but to view these always vague­ly famil­iar sto­ries through wis­er eyes, gain some kind of under­stand­ing whether or not we expe­ri­enced the spe­cif­ic events of the sto­ry itself. Grow­ing up is not a par­tic­u­lar­ly life affirm­ing expe­ri­ence as it’s hap­pen­ing, but in reeval­u­at­ing those times after the fact there is a sense of accom­plish­ment mixed with a lit­tle sad­ness, maybe. Nos­tal­gia, in a word, plays a pret­ty huge part.

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What are some of your favorite com­ing-of-age sto­ries (writ­ten, spo­ken, books, movies, etc.)?

Cer­tain com­ing of age movies in par­tic­u­lar have real­ly stuck with me, but they change slight­ly with each view­ing — I think that sen­sa­tion is indica­tive of the genre in gen­er­al. Trust, which is one of Hal Hartley’s ear­ly films, is one I come back to a lot. It’s filled with a lot of strange­ness and dark humor cen­ter­ing around a sub­ur­ban Long Island teenag­er who becomes preg­nant and starts hang­ing out with a young genius social pari­ah who always car­ries a grenade around with him. They wan­der around being out­casts togeth­er, she wears a let­ter­man jack­et, he wears a trench coat. Out­casts band­ing togeth­er is a pret­ty clas­sic trope in com­ing of age films, and despite it’s idio­syn­crat­ic char­ac­ters I always felt this movie cap­tured that sen­sa­tion best.

On the oth­er end of the spec­trum, I con­sid­er Can’t Hard­ly Wait a com­plete­ly amaz­ing un-iron­ic clas­sic as far as com­ing of age movies are con­cerned. I don’t care that every­one is a teenag­er being played by a 30 year old, there’s some­thing huge­ly mag­net­ic about it. It’s not real­i­ty and it’s not sup­posed to be, it’s like a retelling of a high school par­ty by some­one who has only read the text­book def­i­n­i­tion of what an Amer­i­can high school is like, which makes it kind of fan­tas­ti­cal and awe­some in its own way. The nerd who becomes a rock star for a night? The child­hood best friends in dif­fer­ent cliques who lose their vir­gini­ties to each oth­er? I love it.

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Was Until Now your first time in an art direct­ing role? How did you decide on what illus­tra­tors and writ­ers to hire? Which was eas­i­er to work with — pic­tures or text?

Until Now was tech­ni­cal­ly my first time in an art direct­ing role, yes. As for hir­ing, I real­ly let my per­son­al taste dic­tate the con­tent, although I was wary of bring­ing on artists with too-sim­i­lar styles to one anoth­er. For the first issue I def­i­nite­ly called in a few favors; I’m lucky enough to have some incred­i­bly gift­ed writer and illus­tra­tor friends, all of whom I reached out to. I’d say I knew about a third of the con­trib­u­tors for issue one in per­son, the oth­er two thirds came from the ether, which is to say, artists and writ­ers whose work I’d been fol­low­ing or had recent­ly become aware of.

I was a bit more broad with my require­ments for the writ­ers, the only real con­sid­er­a­tion I took was that they all be prac­tic­ing pro­fes­sion­al writ­ers; being famil­iar with the typ­i­cal day to day of an illus­tra­tor, being one myself, I fig­ured I’d feel com­fort­able hir­ing and work­ing with them imme­di­ate­ly, and for the most part I did. But writ­ers are a dif­fer­ent thing entire­ly. I’ve had some writ­ing pub­lished myself, but I don’t con­sid­er it a pro­fes­sion­al prac­tice. It was fas­ci­nat­ing, though, to work with these writ­ers and edit for them as well. That said, I gave the writ­ers fair­ly free reign, as it was all per­son­al sto­ries (save for a love­ly piece of fic­tion and two poems), and I felt that a fair­ly hands-off approach was cru­cial to the integri­ty of the mag­a­zine. The illus­tra­tors had it a bit tougher, since I’m stretch­ing my new baby art direc­tor legs. Being able to work with illus­tra­tors who I think are huge­ly tal­ent­ed, some of whom I believe will even­tu­al­ly make a seri­ous impact in the field, was hum­bling.

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There’s a lot of exper­i­ment­ing in this pub­li­ca­tion, espe­cial­ly in terms of the dif­fer­ent lay­outs. I like it because it seems to give each piece its own spe­cial voice and doesn’t feel cook­ie cut­ter. Was this a con­scious choice? And, if so, one you think that you’ll con­tin­ue? 

Thank you! And yes, this was a con­scious choice — I want­ed to keep the design as clean as pos­si­ble to real­ly let the illus­tra­tion shine. I’ll be the first to admit, illus­tra­tion is tough to work with in a way that does not com­pete with flashy, cool-kid design. Those two things do not always live well togeth­er. It was def­i­nite­ly a chal­lenge to design a mag­a­zine that respect­ed that bound­ary with­out being bor­ing. Because I was in grad­u­ate school at the time, I also had a whole gang of diverse, high­ly attuned illus­tra­tors and design­ers will­ing to give me feed­back, which was a giant bless­ing. I def­i­nite­ly plan to con­tin­ue on in this vein, but since then I’ve also start­ed work­ing as a design­er at a large week­ly mag­a­zine in New York; every­one in the art depart­ment there has taught me so much more about pub­li­ca­tion design and art direc­tion than I knew when I start­ed Until Now, the kind of things you can only learn from expe­ri­ence.

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What’s your favorite part of this issue?

I feel con­nect­ed to all of the con­tent in the mag­a­zine! I will say that some of my favorite illus­tra­tions were the ones that I knew chal­lenged the illus­tra­tor, when he or she said “hmm ok well I haven’t done that before real­ly but let’s try!” Lisa Per­rin was one of those peo­ple, and she came up with some hilar­i­ous illus­tra­tions in her trade­mark gor­geous style. Sarah Jaco­by, who actu­al­ly illus­trat­ed two of the essays, includ­ing one fic­tion piece, real­ly pushed her­self out of her com­fort zone for some of those illus­tra­tions, which dealt with imagery she doesn’t typ­i­cal­ly incor­po­rate in her work. She nailed it, though.

It was a huge deal for me per­son­al­ly to work with Greg Klet­sel, Rand Ren­frow, and Lau­ra Callaghan, all three of whose work I’d admired from afar and was very excit­ed to have them on board. I was also blown away by Dave Sin­gley — if we have to use labels, he qual­i­fies more as a “fine artist” than a tra­di­tion­al edi­to­r­i­al illus­tra­tor, but to me images are images. He told the sto­ry at hand while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly pro­ject­ing a kind of sen­su­al, moody, ever so slight­ly sil­ly vibe to the essay it illus­trat­ed, which was per­fect.

To be per­fect­ly hon­est, though, I did not run one word or one image in Until Now that I didn’t per­son­al­ly love, that I wouldn’t defend if need be.

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Final­ly, you men­tioned that issue #2 is in the works. When is that slat­ed for release (or even spec­u­la­tive at this point)? What things are you going to keep the same, and what do you think you’ll change?

Issue #2! This one is going to be a lit­tle dif­fer­ent, but real­ly just a nat­ur­al evo­lu­tion from the first, which incor­po­rates both the things I’ve learned from the first issue as well as not being teth­ered to cer­tain dead­lines and writ­ten eval­u­a­tions that come with hav­ing pro­duced Issue #1 as my grad­u­ate the­sis (although those restric­tions were, admit­ted­ly, mild to say the least). The lat­ter means I’m plan­ning to incor­po­rate a lit­tle pho­tog­ra­phy into the next issue. My taste in pho­tog­ra­phy is much nar­row­er than my taste in illus­tra­tion, so while I’m excit­ed at the prospect of includ­ing pho­tog­ra­phy this time around, Until Now will remain a pre­dom­i­nant­ly illus­tra­tion-heavy pub­li­ca­tion.

I’m con­sid­er­ing expand­ing into fea­ture and inter­view ter­ri­to­ry, so I may end up look­ing into doing inter­views should it become appro­pri­ate. I’m still decid­ing. I’ll also be pro­duc­ing Issue #2 under a sub-cat­e­go­ry this time around; while the first issue was gen­er­al sto­ries about com­ing of age, #2 will be sto­ries about com­ing of age in regards to a cer­tain top­ic. I’m call­ing this one Until Now: Spaces + Places, with the con­tent cen­tered around those par­tic­u­lar places that real­ly meant some­thing to you as you were grow­ing up — a bed­room, a car, a field, a base­ment, a classroom…I still feel that this could go any­where! I’m very excit­ed about see­ing where it goes, and I’m plan­ning to release it in March 2015.

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Thanks, Alex! You can find Until Now in these places.