Writing Doesn't Have to Be Solitary: A Conversation with Bob Raymonda

Bob Raymonda founded Breadcrumbs in 2015 in Queens, New York in the aftermath of a panic attack. It's a familiar story: After completing his bachelor's in creative writing at SUNY Purchase, he spent some years in the full-time workforce, in which he struggled to see how writing could remain a big part of his life. He and his friends missed the structure of writing for the classroom, where deadlines and feedback can create a sense of accountability and community for many writers. He wanted to find a way to mimic the collaborative, generative, and fun spirit of Exquisite Corpse in a new venue that could be all their own.

Enter Breadcrumbs, a literary journal in which each new piece is written after a previously published piece in a follow-the-breadcrumbs trail of poetry, short fiction, creative nonfiction, and visual art. Six years later, the journal is home to nearly 700 crumbs and countless trails—really a web of choose-your-own alternate universes. And in addition to inspiring 685-and-counting works of art and literature, the origin of Rogue Dialogue, Bob's new fiction podcasting company, can also be traced back to Breadcrumbs.

Apart from the fiction he's written for Breadcrumbs and Rogue Dialogue, I've gotten to know Bob's writing by publishing his short story "Chekhov's Beard" during Season 2 of Peach Mag, which we later republished in Peach Mag: Season 2 Yearbook. His work has also appeared in Luna Luna Magazine, Bello Collective, Discover Pods, and elsewhere.

I interviewed Bob over email to find out more about his experience working on Breadcrumbs, including the moment he knew it was time to pass the torch, the path it's paved for Rogue Dialogue, the way some lit mags function by motivating writers to generate new work, and more. –Rachelle Toarmino


RT: Okay, time for a confession: We’ve met! (Well, sort of.) In the spring of 2016, we tabled next to each other at the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair. I was manning the table for Talking Leaves...Books, the independent bookstore in Buffalo that I worked for, and you were there promoting Breadcrumbs. I must have heard you give the Breadcrumbs pitch a hundred times! At the time, I was in the brainstorming and researching stage of developing Peach Mag with my cofounders Matthew Bookin and Bre Kiblin, so the uniqueness of your concept really stuck with me.

To borrow from Breadcrumbs, tell me about the journal’s own “trail.” What were some of the moments that brought you to the concept for a literary journal in which each new piece must be inspired by a previously published piece?

BR: That is wild! It’s always funny to realize how small the world is, and this community especially embodies that fact. I lost my voice that day, repeating that pitch over and over again, hoping it might stick and we’d get a few new submissions out of the trip. It was such a fun event, and the first of its kind we’d ever done for our magazine. I had no idea what to expect, but had a blast that weekend and was so glad to have made the trip.

As far as our “trail” is concerned, it all sort of hit me at once, to be honest. I had graduated from SUNY Purchase with a degree in creative writing in 2012 and told myself I could take a year off from writing. That year quickly turned into three, as I’d just moved to Queens and most of my time was spent trying to pay the bills and keep my head above water. I was working for an ad agency with very little work/life balance, and had been passed over for a promotion before being suddenly given a lot more responsibility without the compensation to show for it.

I was, frankly, incredibly depressed and had no clue how to get myself out of the situation. I knew I needed to quit my job, and figure out a way to build a writing portfolio so I could (hopefully) one day start my career. It all came to a head in December 2014 when I was mid-panic attack, sitting in my partner Sam’s bed, mulling it all over, and groaning about the fact that no one (least of all myself) would have any interest in a personal blog about whatever I was doing at that point in time. But then I got to thinking about all of my other friends from undergrad who were in a similar situation: needing to find an outlet for these artistic skills we’d spent years developing and had little practical use for anymore.

I had the idea for the name and the basic concept for the magazine that day, on the spot. We’d all work together in a quasi-Exquisite Corpse-style manner, in order to both hold everybody accountable and simultaneously create living and breathing organism that you could always trace back to its roots.

RT: What were some of the challenges of getting such a specific kind of lit mag off the ground?

BR: Honestly, at first, the biggest hurdle was just wrapping people’s heads around the concept without having a functional website to demonstrate it with. I started a shared Google Doc and split my free time between writing a bunch of microfictions and reaching out to everyone I knew to see if they were interested in collaborating. And for the first few months, that doc was all Breadcrumbs was, but once I left that job, I was able to put a lot more time and energy into growing it. We actually held off our public launch until March of 2015, so that when people found it, they’d be able to see it in action. There were only a few trails at that point, but at least it worked, you know?

From there, it was all about figuring out how to move beyond my personal circle and keep a consistent publishing schedule. In the beginning, I did a lot of the writing myself. In fact, for a while, I even challenged myself to write a piece in response to every submission we got. Fortunately for us, that task eventually became too overwhelming, but initially it was necessary to fill the gaps in submissions. Once I’d exhausted my email and Facebook contact list, I spent a lot of time going to open mics in New York City, and then later in New Rochelle where I live now, to try and spread the word.

It took a while, but once we got rolling, everything happened naturally from there, and for the last six years we’ve published twice a week with barely a dip in sight, and even had one year where we bumped that up to three times before realizing that was too much for us to keep up with. My proudest moment is still back at the end of December 2017, when I made the decision to stop publishing any of my own work, because we’d finally built up a big enough submission pipeline that we didn’t need it anymore.

RT: There must be hundreds of Breadcrumbs trails at this point. Do you have any favorites? any leaps that really surprised you?

BR: Oh wow, yeah, there really are so so many of them at this point. Really, I could pick any of them, because I can’t tell you how grateful I am for how many people have truly embraced this concept of creating work that is inspired by one another, but I’d love to highlight one specifically for how perfectly it encapsulates the whole project. I’ll hyperlink them here for you in reverse chronological order: #381 > #352 > #291 > #241 > #196 > #119 > #42 > #21 > #9 > #6 > #2 > #1.

This trail speaks to me because of the breadth it covers from the mediums used, to the people who contributed to it, and the fact that it can always be traced back to those first sloppy few microfictions I wrote post-panic attack. If you follow this trail you’ll find poetry and fiction and illustration from people who’d never published anything in their life to others who already had several books under their belt. I got to highlight the work of some of my best friends from college, to poets like Devin Kelly and Lisa Marie Basille whose work I’d admired for years, to others who I had never encountered before.

But most of all, what I’ve loved about this project from the very beginning was how it’s motivated people to create in times of their life when they had no other reason to. For every established writer or artist who’s taken the time to submit, there were two others that were exposing themselves to that kind of vulnerability for the very first time. And through all of it, everyone was supportive, both of each other, and of the project as a whole. I never could have imagined it’d have grown as much as it has, and I couldn’t have asked for a greater gift than that.

RT: Your website calls Breadcrumbs an exercise in “shared inspiration.” Can you tell me about the people you work with and how you came to work together? As the founding editor, why did you originally choose to invite them to work on Breadcrumbs with you?

BR: At the very start, Breadcrumbs was simply the people who were closest to me. My partner Sam created our logo, created fun gifs explaining how the site worked, and helped build our website. My best friend, Dan Toy, took on the role of copy editor and built up our style guide, as well as co-hosting many of our Brooklyn-based live readings with me over the years. Eventually my brother, Adam, who’d already been producing many of our short form radio play pieces over the years hosted our podcast. And another one of our best friends, Christina Manolatos, helped design our booth for that Small Press Book Fair, as well as co-hosting all of our events in Westchester. They were all people who believed in me, even at a time when I didn’t fully believe in myself.

As the years went on and each of us started spinning off into more projects of our own, the team grew. For the last few in my tenure as editor in chief, we took to bringing on a new batch of guest editors every quarter. This accomplished two things: first, it allowed me to take a more administrative role in the management of the magazine as I focused on other aspects of my life, but second, it also greatly expanded our submission pool. By reaching out to both previous contributors, as well as other writers whose work I simply appreciated (including yourself), and empowering them to solicit submissions from their own networks, we were able to reach and publish writers I never would found have on my own.

And now, I’ve handed the reigns of editor in chief over to QM Hall, a writer I met after attending a summer seminar at Sarah Lawrence College with Melissa Febos. While QM wasn’t in my class that week, she was one of the current crop of fiction MFA students I was introduced to after my time there, whose work I quickly grew to admire. When I announced that I no longer had the bandwidth to keep running Breadcrumbs at the capacity I had for the last few years, but was interested in hearing from anyone who might want to take over, she reached out immediately. And after a few conversations about her vision for the future of the magazine, I was confident that I could step down and it’d be in good hands for years to come.

RT: What was that realization—that you were ready to hand over the reigns—like for you? What was it about QM and her vision for Breadcrumbs that made you think, Okay, this feels right, I’m ready?

BR: It was a weird moment because I simultaneously felt like I should have done it a year before I did, and that I wasn’t ready to do it at all. But the fact was that I was feeling incredibly burnt out from trying to work on Breadcrumbs, my day job, and Rogue Dialogue all at the same time. Something had to go, and as much as I’d loved my years running the magazine and what it had done for me both personally and professionally, something in me realized that it was no longer the shiny new thing that felt exciting to me. And that I was doing it a disservice by only giving it a fraction of what I had when we first started.

I understood that, at that point in time, I was just running through the motions, so I made the decision to suspend submissions indefinitely and just finish pushing the nearly eight months of backlog we still had to publish. I had no intention of letting it go away for good, and I would have been happy to just keep paying the yearly hosting fees so that it could continue to exist in perpetuity, but a small part of me hoped I could find someone to breathe new life into it. I put the call out at the same time as making my initial announcement, unsure if anything would come of it, but still hopeful.

A few other offers did come through in the beginning, but for some reason they just didn’t feel quite right. They were all folks I’d worked with in the past in some small capacity, who I immensely respected, but QM’s email was the only one that excited me. I could tell, from that very first pitch, that she really understood the spirit of what our team had been doing for the past five years, and intended to honor that. Her initial goal was to start small: reopen submissions with a fresh batch of guest editors and get publishing again. But we both understood, as we talked about what had worked in the past and what could have been done better, that there were things she could do and try to turn Breadcrumbs 2.0 into something all her own, and I’m extremely excited to see what that looks like over the next few years. Her new team just finished their first round of submissions, and I can’t tell you how much of a relief it is that I finally get to consume them simply: as an interested reader and fan.

RT: Tell me about your new company, Rogue Dialogue. What led you to launch this new project? How do you see it relating to your work with Breadcrumbs?

BR: Starting Rogue Dialogue was the culmination of so many of my different hopes and dreams. As I already mentioned, my brother Adam had come on board Breadcrumbs by producing short form radio plays for us stretching all the way back to year one for #25. We’d tried and failed at being in a band together before, and were happy to find a new way to collaborate using our different talents. At that time of our lives, we’d come across other fiction podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale, We’re Alive, Limetown, and The Bright Sessions and r