Remembering Jay Walljasper

Take a walk down memory lane to remember Jay Walljasper, a long-time Utne editor while honoring his written words.

Editing a magazine is hard. It requires the skills of a coach, cop, rabbi, judge, nurse, and executioner. It also requires good instincts, because editors have to make decisions quickly. You don’t get paid much, either. But some magazine editors stick with it because they have a chance to unite communities, start important conversations, and help writers grow. That’s what Jay Walljasper did for me.

In September 1985, I had recently acquired a liberal arts degree and was looking for a job in a small town in Upstate New York. I wanted to stay there and write nonfiction, but I didn’t know how I was going to make a living. I had been a newspaper reporter, but the world of professional writers was almost completely unknown to me.

Photo courtesy of Julie Ristau

I wrote a short piece for a local “alternative” weekly paper about a festival in the Town of Hamburg, New York. The local Chamber of Commerce was celebrating their claim that hamburgers had been invented there (which was probably not true) by cooking the world’s largest hamburger and then not eating it. The burger was the size of a children’s swimming pool and fully realized, with a bun and pickles and everything. That night, after all the drunken Hamburgers had gone home, I discovered the 200-pound monster and its cart in the pool shed of the Holiday Inn. Ah, the joys of investigative journalism.

I had heard about a new magazine called Utne Reader: The Best of the Alternative Press. I didn’t know how to break into the magazine business, so I mailed the clip to its editor and got a note back from Jay. He didn’t take the piece, but I remember him saying, “This is weird, and that’s good. Please send more.” His invitation was all I needed. I started sending things to Jay and then taking his assignments. I wrote a lot of short pieces and several cover stories for Utne in the 1980s and 90s. One of them, “Remaking a Living” (#46/1991), might be the most widely-read article I ever published.

We didn’t know how lucky we were. Those were the last years before the internet, when print magazines were still fat with ads and subscribers. Like Jay, I was fortunate to have an editing job at a magazine that was briefly considered “hot.” The luckiest part was that my publisher didn’t know or care how editorial work got done, which gave me lots of time to talk to Jay on the phone. Those conversations would reliably produce good ideas for both of our magazines.

3/20/2021 5:36:47 PM

A beautiful paean to one of the main forces behind my all-time favorite magazine. Thanks! But please... "...he and Julie visited my spouse, Tania, and I one summer afternoon..."?? He visited I? I expect people who get published in my beloved Utne to know that no one "visits I." They visit me. The object form of the first person singular pronoun is "me."

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