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The Small Stuff: A Summer Internship at McSweeney’s

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The Small Stuff: A Summer Internship at McSweeney’s

By Kenna O'Rourke

After this summer, I will never buy anything from Amazon ever again.

Three months at McSweeney’s, Dave Eggers’s small publishing house in San Francisco, made this decision an easy one. If the employees’ cringes at the mention of Amazon’s name (or the recent Colbert Report clip revealing Amazon’s monopoly on bookselling, or the purported full-page New York Times ad purchased by authors against Amazon’s practices) weren’t enough to convince me against buying slightly cheaper books from the Internet giant, a quick look around the McSweeney’s office would have done the trick: the quality of the books ringing the office walls was something that no self-respecting English major could resist supporting. After all, who wouldn’t prefer buying literature from a place with a giant gaping sloth-head piñata in their basement over a drab white webpage that probably links to a grim and impersonal warehouse somewhere, a place filled with resentful and gloomy workers (OK, that last bit is an imaginative leap, but still)?

The sloth-head piñata — likely related to McSweeney’s McMullens’s Lost Sloth, a children’s book by J. Otto Seibold (who once wandered sloth-like into the office to deconstruct a pop-up shop) — was just the start of the office’s strange finds: also adorning the walls and shelves of the exposed-brick space were editions of Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, made to look like junk mail, a sweaty human head, etc; an original drawing (once a Quarterly cover) of a bird with planks for feet by Dave Eggers; and a propaganda-style portrait of workers harvesting books under the benevolent gaze of someone who looked a lot like former Quarterly editor Eli Horowitz. With hard-earned street cred amongst quirky/indie/lit-nerd populations, McSweeney’s certainly looks the part. And as a bookseller in the extraordinarily literary city of San Francisco (the city’s authorial pedigree: Allen Ginsberg at City Lights Bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, even Mark Twain), McSweeney’s is remarkable in its ability to stand out — or, for that matter, survive at all. It’s a small press that seems more preoccupied with creative freedom, meticulous design, and quality reading than anything else, lofty goals in the underfunded realm of contemporary print media. Still, while I’m sure the staff didn’t reveal to the interns the true financial burden of keeping such a project alive, this model seems more sustainable than many digital media theorists and literary cynics would allege; if sure signs of success exist in the publishing world, probably one of them is having Isabel Allende’s grateful signature on your basement wall, steps away from Beck’s signed Song Reader. Content-wise, it’s a pretty mixed bag at McSweeney’s, but a bag held together by the signature desire to do books right.

The mystique of McSweeney’s — as perpetuated by the fact that you have to go through the understated storefront of Eggers-supported-high-school-to-college program ScholarMatch to reach the McSweeney’s office, and the strange but wonderful international/Beyoncé music drifting mysteriously from within (courtesy of Customer Service guru Jordan Karnes and Believer editor Casey Jarman) — is balanced by the genuine friendliness of everyone who works there, most of whom were former interns. Fellow Real Arts intern Brenda Wang and I once went for coffee with the two-person design department — a bare-bones but genius operation consisting of Sunra Thompson and Dan McKinley — to casually reflect on their philosophies regarding books as objects. This sort of behavior was encouraged by all of the McSweeney’s staff, who seemed to love their jobs enough to take interns — as potential colleagues, perhaps, should McSweeney’s ever be hiring — seriously. As the majority of us had little to no experience with a publishing company at the start of the summer, the encouragement tendered by the staff regarding intern work was much appreciated, not to mention pretty necessary, since sorting through the submissions slush pile (one of the interns’ shared tasks) can at times be an exhausting experience. (Insider tip for hopeful McSweeney’s writers: stories about break-ups, cancer, and generalized ennui are in good company and probably won’t make the cut.)


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But even when the sappy poetry manuscripts seemed endless, or the fact-checks detailed and daunting, or the sheer quantity of stories about relationships in the Quarterly’s Submittable queue astounding, I couldn’t imagine a better way to have spent the summer; in the end, if my worst complaint in life has to do with sentence structure, things are remarkably good. Some of the interns had hesitations about the prospect of working in publishing long-term, unwilling to commit to a desk job, but personally, I suspect that the travel-writer and artist-about-town quotas are pretty filled these days. A glance at the sheer variety of undertakings happening at McSweeney’s alone — books in all genres, the impeccably designed Quarterly, the meticulous nonfiction of the Believer magazine, the oral histories published by McSweeney’s human rights branch Voice of Witness, and countless special projects — convinces me, at least, that small publishing would never be boring if the vision was right. Sitting at the intern table this summer, I couldn’t help but feel that each person I met, intern or employee, was basically 1) an extremely intelligent visionary, 2) a fashion icon, and 3) a friend. The minds behind McSweeney’s (authors, interns, and employees) are diverse in race, gender, orientation, and background; the print objects they produce appeal to both artist and writer; and they are a constant wellspring of new ideas. “Innovative” seems a pretty hackneyed term these days, but I think it applies here, despite the ancient connotations of print.

Plus I got to meet Dave Eggers once or twice. Not bad for a summer job.


Kenna O'Rourke is a senior majoring in English with a concentration in Creative Writing and minoring in Hispanic Studies. She works as a Jacket2 editorial assistant at the Kelly Writers House as well as an editor for this very blog. After her summer at McSweeney's, she's pretty convinced that she would like to work with small presses in her future editing/writing endeavors. Contact: 

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