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


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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 realized that it was the perfect way for us to begin making art together regularly again.


That batch of short plays we did for Breadcrumbs was a test for what we wanted to do with Rogue Dialogue, which was to eventually produce a full-cast scripted fiction podcast that I would write and Adam would sound design and score. The funny thing is that, even though Adam was pestering me to come up with something long-running for years, my work on the magazine kept me from being able to focus on a project of that size. There was one idea for something set in a church confessional, but that came from a different friend’s pitch who didn’t have the bandwidth to collaborate at the time, and it didn’t feel right to work on that story without him.


Enter Windfall, which is based off a series of interconnected characters and microfictions I’d been coming back to over and over again, all the way stretching back to Breadcrumbs #5 and #11. Adam, Sam, and I were driving to Brooklyn brainstorming the project when Sam asked: Why not Argus? At that point in time, I’d envisioned those stories eventually going to a more visual medium, like an ongoing comic book or standalone graphic novel, but the second she said that, everything clicked into place. And because I’d already been writing these characters for years, it only took six months to have a rough 10-episode draft of a season after that.


What makes it even more inextricably linked to Breadcrumbs is the ways in which Adam and I immediately grew that team. Sam, of course, designed our logo, and Josh Rubino, a voice actor who worked on most of our radio plays, was the first actor we cast. Then, Christie Donato, another friend from undergrad who’d published with Breadcrumbs and whose microfiction inspired the story that would serve as the basis of our season one finale, came on as a co-writer and co-creator as we tore apart that first draft and wrote what would eventually become our first show.


What I’ve realized, first in working on Breadcrumbs and later still for Rogue Dialogue, is that writing does not have to be (and in fact, for me, shouldn’t) be a solitary practice. I thrive when I’m a part of a community of like-minded individuals who bring out the best in one another, with the express goal of making art. We continued using that mentality as the cast of Windfall ballooned into a group of almost 50 actors from around NYC, Florida, and upstate New York where we produced our first season. And we used it again when I approached my other friend from undergrad, Jack Marone, about finally producing that Catholic confessional sitcom, Forgive Me!, which we finally released in the summer of 2020 after years of coming back to that idea every time our minds were blank.



RT: Could you say more about why everything clicked into place when Sam suggested Argus? What is it about scripted fiction via podcasting that drew you to it for this series of stories?


BR: On a practical level, the reason it first clicked into place was simply because we already had the people that had the skills to make it happen. While the stories were always really visual in my head, I don’t have a relationship with any visual artists that are specifically interested in working for comics, so shifting the story to an auditory medium in order to collaborate with my brother again just worked. Aside from that, it immediately gave us a jumping off point with a relatively big cast of characters and established timeline to expound upon, so getting started would be more like adaptation than creating from scratch, so the first draft flowed out pretty quickly from there.


As far as what’s drawn us into the medium as a whole—it sort of feels like being able to have our cake and eat it too. So much of what I love about writing prose is that it’s up to audience interpretation. I can have my headcanon for what a character might look or dress like, and that can utterly diverge from someone else’s experience of the same story, even though we’re both still consuming the same thing. As much as I love (and dream to someday work in) film and television, those mediums offer less room for interpretation. Being able to provide an audience with an experience that relies on audience imagination, while also being able to allow our actors to bring the characters to life in a three-dimensional way, has been incredible.


What I love about fiction podcasting is how boundless it has proven to be for me, both as a listener and as a creator. There is a show out there for everyone if you just seek it out. Love shows like Fleabag and Catastrophe that find the dark humor in the depressing slog of life? Let me introduce you to Seen and Not Heard. Prefer a thrilling socio-political thriller starring celebrities you know and love? Check out Passenger List. Looking for something that will scare the crap out of you? Listen to Archive 81 or The Black Tapes. We were able to leverage that freedom offered by working strictly in audio to create two shows that are so disparate—one a big, sprawling, Game of Thrones/Battlestar Galactica-esque fantasy epic, and the other a weird mishmash of High Maintenance and Parks & Recreation—and still totally able to find an audience who would gravitate toward each.



RT: What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of the podcast form versus the lit mag?


BR: First and foremost: the biggest advantage of working in scripted audio is being able to take the collaboration we thrived on with Breadcrumbs and turn it up to 11. After my co-writer Christie came in and helped me tear apart and rewrite the first draft of Windfall several times, we edited the season even further after casting our actors and letting their performance dictate where the story went. One character initially written as a gruff general became a snivelling beaurocrat because Josh Rubino, one of our longtime Breadcrumbs audio contributors, and now a star in the indie podcast community in his own right, sent us a voice memo of what he wanted the character to sound like and completely threw off the course of the season as we knew it.


It’s an electric feeling—being in a cramped room with 7 other people and hearing them perform your work and turn it into something all their own. And it’s helped motivate me to keep working on the project for our second season, which we’ll be crowdfunding later this summer, because we have such a clear idea of what these people sound like in our heads. Sometimes writing and publishing for the magazine can feel really insular, even though it involves a lot of networking and befriending other writers in the same situation. The end goal (at least until you get a book deal) can still be very lonely. With this process, we’ve got a whole family right there along with us.


The biggest disadvantage, though, is the time that goes into it. While it’s a joyful experience, there were almost 40 hours of takes from our first season of Windfall alone which then had to be edited down to the four and a half hours of the finished product—on top of the addition of crafting sound design and my brother composing a fully original score. It allows the finished product to be a bit more flashy than a story or essay or poem on Breadcrumbs, but the time it takes to be ready to finally publish is massive. We spend dozens, if not hundreds, of hours crafting each individual installment of each of our series in the hopes that someone will want to keep coming back to us for 20-30 minutes at a time.



RT: What piece of advice would you give to someone thinking about launching their own lit mag?


BR: Find yourself a team of people that believe in the vision as much as you do—a community you can lean on, both when it feels like you’re on the top of the world, fielding a massive amount of submissions, and when it seems like you’re just screaming into the void. The whole point of this is to lift each other up, right? The work that we all believe deserves a place in the world, even if we aren’t all ready to go for those bigger, flashier publications just yet. You’ll thank yourself, if you keep your mind open to the ideas of others, because it’s so much better than trying to wade through getting other people’s attention on the internet alone. You may feel uncomfortable ceding control of your initial idea at first, but it’s a lot more gratifying (and fun) to celebrate those milestones together.


On a more practical level, especially at the beginning: build yourself a regular publishing schedule and stick to it. And, even more than that, be practical about it. Take a look at the amount of submissions you’ve gotten, or that you think you may realistically be able to get when you’re first starting, and try to stretch that out over as much time as possible to give yourself extra time to find more. The fact that a writer may have to wait two, or three, or even eight months before their work goes into the world isn’t a bad thing, even if they are impatient about it. You’ll find that consistency is better than excitedly burning through everything you have before you have any idea when you’ll have enough to do it again. And it keeps people coming back more in the long run.



RT: What would you like to see more of in the indie lit scene?


BR: I hazard myself for even saying this because I only have my own very limited, privileged view of things: but, I want folks to generally not be afraid of trying new things. Of course, it’s a wonderful feeling to build yourself up as a reliable institution that people know they’d like to be published by or associated with. But it’s equally as exciting to try—and maybe even fail—at something you have no idea is going to work. We had years where we put all our energy into making a podcast, and others where we made zines and tried tabling at festivals in order to tap into new audiences. Some of those ideas worked better or stuck around longer than others, but I don’t regret a single one of them. They were all an integral part of the process of building Breadcrumbs into exactly what it is.


Another thing that I love to see, whenever it happens, is when publishers give new and inexperienced writers a chance to share their work. Because sure, while it feels incredible getting submissions from other published writers that you admire, it’s often those folks who aren’t as connected to the scene that benefit the most from their introduction into it. Some of the poets and writers who I’ve grown closest to in my time with Breadcrumbs had never even dreamed of publishing a thing, but were so excited by the chance to do so, that they’ve opened themselves up to opportunities they might not have otherwise. And look, I’m not here to litigate the entire MFA vs. no MFA debate, because I really believe that people can find value in whatever works for them in pursuing their writing career. But please, don’t sleep on folks who don’t follow a traditional path, because you’ll never know how much they’ll surprise you unless you give them the time of day.


<3


Bob Raymonda is the founding editor of Breadcrumbs Magazine. In 2018 he cofounded the production company Rogue Dialogue, which released its first podcast, the science-fiction audio drama Windfall, in February of 2019, and second, the Catholic confessional sitcom, Forgive Me! in August of 2020. Their work has been featured in Luna Luna Magazine, Bello Collective, Peach Mag, and Discover Pods, among others. Learn more at bobraymonda.co.


"Writing Doesn't Have to Be Solitary" is part of our new interview series spotlighting the creative, experimental, often brief, often shoestring, and always underreported-upon projects of indie lit. Read previous conversations in this series here.