Since its first issue debuted, I’ve been a fan of the work done by the magazine Howler, which contains some of the best writing about soccer you’re likely to read. Articles in Howler have covered everything from the evolution of midfielder Michael Bradley to the reminiscences of goalkeeper Justin Bryant about playing in a host of domestic leagues over the years to the wrenching story of an international match played in the horrific aftermath of the 1973 Chilean coup d’état. To learn more about the process of assembling Howler, I talked with founder/editor George Quraishi via email over the course of a few weeks, between the release of the magazine’s fourth and fifth issues.
There are now four issues of Howler out in the world. How has the magazine evolved over that time?
We’re able to be a little pickier about the stories we run. In the first issue, more than three quarters of the stories we ran were ideas that we came to the writers with. Now that people know us a little more, and now that writers know what we’re looking for, we get lots of pitches. We still go to writers with story ideas, but we have the luxury of fielding more pitches and choosing our favorites.
The illustrations on each issue are distinctive and have given the magazine a unified look and feel. What is the process like for coming up with a concept and getting the illustration together?
Our writers tend to be soccer fans—not so much with the illustrators. We almost always go to the illustrators with ideas. For instance, the latest cover with Messi and Neymar was just something that I had been daydreaming about. We didn’t have a story to hang it on. But we assigned the illustration and then I found two writers to do a point-counterpoint on the subject of whether Neymar and Messi could play together. Sometimes there’s a story first and we illustrate to fit its needs; often times we’ll come up with an idea and then assign it as a standalone piece of art or build a story around it. And our art director Joel Speasmaker is really good at working with the artists to reach the final product.
How did Overlap come about?
Overlap was a chance for us to apply our editorial sensibility to Major League Soccer, who hired us to create it. It was a lot of fun to get to focus just on the league, since Howler covers the global game. And it was nice to be able to give some of our Howler writers a little extra work.
How have you gone about finding writers for the magazine? Some–I’m thinking of Robert Andrew Powell and Aleksander Hemon–seem like natural choices; do you have a wishlist of writers you’d like to work with in future issues?
Mark (Howler’s co-founder) and I both have publishing backgrounds. We worked as editors in magazines and books. So we knew a lot of writers and we knew a lot of people who knew writers. We also spent quite a bit of time talking to soccer bloggers, trying to sell them on our vision and get them to do something for the mag. So we’ve been able to develop a pretty big network of very talented and creative people, and it just seems to keep growing. My wishlist includes Bill Buford, who wrote one of the best soccer books of all time, Among the Thugs. I’ve sent him copies of the mag and asked him to write for us, but it hasn’t worked out yet. I wish I could give Brian Phillips the back page of each issue but he’s tied up with Grantland. Joe McGinnis, who wrote another great soccer book called The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, passed away earlier this month from cancer; not so long ago he sent me an email joking that he’d love to write for the mag but that I couldn’t afford him, which was definitely true. Finally, a good friend of mine, Karl Taro Greenfeld, has been promising to write something since we started. I’m naming him here publicly so that all his Brooklyn writer friends will see it and shame him: Karl, you lousy guy, write something for us!
Howler has covered club and national teams, men’s and women’s leagues, and stories historical and contemporary. How do you find the balance between all of them?
We do think a bit about the mix of stories going into each issue, but really we assign the stories that we find most interesting. And the ones we can get good access to. I’d rather assign a profile about someone with whom the writer can get in and spend some time than run a boring Q&A with, I don’t know, Mario Balotelli. On second though, I’m sure a Q&A with Mario wouldn’t be boring. I’d take that.
When assembling an issue, how do you factor in historical pieces? I’m thinking of “Game of Ghosts” in the latest issue in particular; will you sometimes move something that isn’t tied to current events to a later (or earlier) issue for thematic reasons?
We run an essay about history in every issue, and the piece you’re referring to was our straight-up historical piece for issue four. That one didn’t really have anything to do with the other stories in the issue, but in issue five, our “Back Heel” column is about an alleged plot by Bin Laden and Al Qaeda to attach the 1998 World Cup, and that’s in keeping with the issue’s larger theme, which is the World Cup.
How did Justin Bryant’s piece come about? Was it a case where you were aware of him and sought out that particular reminiscence?
That piece was actually adapted from Justin’s book. He pitched it and we thought it was a fun episode from his career. It was also a weird transitional period for pro soccer in America, so that was interesting.
In your introduction to issue four, you discuss the ways in which Howler’s coverage has expanded; are there other areas that you’d like to move into?
I’d like to do more fiction. I have a friend writing a story now that, if it’s anything like the team emails he sends to the HarperCollins soccer team, will be very very funny. I’d like to do more on women’s soccer. We just don’t get all that many pitches in that direction. And I did some short films about soccer in Greece that were so much fun to make. I really want to figure out a way to do that again.