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The prospect of breaking into the seemingly impenetrable fortress that is The New Yorker can make a writer contemplate crazy and desperate things. So it was for Mac Montandon, when, a couple years ago, he received an assignment to write an article on spec for the magazine's Talk of the Town section. To Montandon, who'd been trying, unsuccessfully, to break into the magazine, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But on the day he'd arranged to conduct the crucial interview, one that couldn't be postponed, his wife went into labor with the couple's first child. "I'll probably sound like the bastard of all time," the 35-year-old journalist says, "but I was a little conflicted."
On the day his daughter, Oona, was born, he was to meet Bob Pollard, the frontman of the band Guided by Voices, who, Montandon had learned, planned to announce the dissolution of the band to a capacity crowd at the Bowery Ballroom that evening. It promised to be one of those offbeat New York moments that Talk of the Town stories capture so well, and Pollard seemed the type of quirky, yet complex, persona that might intrigue New Yorker readers. Luckily, Oona was born in time for Montandon to meet Pollard that afternoon. And making trips back and forth from the venue to the hospital, he even caught one of Guided by Voices' final performances. Later, Montandon framed his story with the elegance, wit, and detail he believed were the ingredients of a successful Talk story. In the end, though, the magazine never published it. "I think that was the closest I've come to cracking into the golden tower," recalls Montandon, a senior editor at the soon-to-be-relaunched Radar magazine, who estimates he's pitched Talk of the Town 15 times over the past four years. (One of his most recent: a piece on the etiquette of holding subway and elevator doors open for other passengersdo you make a token effort with the "dainty one-toe" technique or take "the full-body approach"? In retrospect, he concedes, his pitch may have been a bit too "high-concept.")
Rejection, of course, is simply a rite of passage for most writers. For Montandon, though, it formed the seed of an idea. Since there was no shortage of writers like him who'd tried and failed to make The New Yorker's pages, he figured there was an abundance of unpublished Talk stories lying around New York City. About a year ago he set out to provide a home for the orphan submissions, quietly launching silenceofthecity.com, where he resurrects the unpublished contributions of Talk of the Town rejectees. Montandon insists the site is every bit a tribute to The New Yorker, not a parody of it. It maintains the look and feel of the magazine's signature section down to the font and, in the top left corner, the profile of Eustace Tilly, the aristocratic fellow who appeared on the cover of The New Yorker's first issue in February 1925 (and on many others since). On Silence, however, Tilly trades his monocle for an eye patch to reinforce the theme of the sitework that under other circumstances wouldn't have seen the light of day.
Though Montandon has yet to receive any feedback from The New Yorker about Silence of the City and was unsure whether anyone there had even come across it, staffers at the magazine have been aware of the site for some time. "We were flattered by it more than anything," says Lauren Collins, a 26-year-old New Yorker staffer who writes for Talk of the Town and assists in putting the section together. "I think it's good-humored and a fun spoof on what we do."
"I thought that the stories were pretty good and fun to read," adds Susan Morrison, who's edited Talk for the past 10 years, "so it's providing a service, I suppose, because we don't have that much space to run many stories."
Though Silence has yet to draw the expected avalanche of submissions (perhaps due to a minimalist approach to marketing), it has become a forum for a group of successful working journalists and writers who share both Montandon's dream of one day cracking the "golden tower" and the experience of being turned away by its gatekeepers. One of them is local author M.M. De Voe, whose Talk submission, rejected in 2001, profiles a college student who snuck onto the set of A Beautiful Mind and wound up becoming Russell Crowe's pet extraor as the crew called him, "Russell's kid."
"It's pretty hard to know what will tickle their fancy," says De Voe. But she, like other New Yorker rejectees, isn't particularly bothered by being rebuffed. Recently she received an e-mailed rejection from The New Yorker's fiction department telling her that despite the "evident merit" of her work, the magazine would not be publishing it, nor could they "reply more specifically" due to the volume of submissions the magazine receives. But instead of disappointment, she says, "the fact that they said in spite of its 'evident merit' made me say 'cool!' " In fact, whatever the outcome of her various attempts to interest the magazine in her work, De Voe finds the experience of submitting her stories to The New Yorker oddly exhilarating in itself. Perhaps it's like that feeling you get when you buy a lottery ticket.
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