I had a chance to catch up with the uber-busy Coach Culbertson of Relief: A Christian Literary Expression as well as, of special interest to me as a horror writer, Coach’s Midnight Diner.

What is Relief and how does it relate to the Midnight Diner?

Relief: A Christian Literary Expression (often just called Relief Journal) is currently a bi-annual literary journal that publishes literary fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. In our first reading submission period back in 2006, we received a lot of great genre submissions, but the editorial team thought that Relief should remain literary in scope. So instead, we decided to launch Coach’s Midnight Diner, a genre anthology made up of hardboiled genre works with a Christian slant. Both publications have an uncensored edge.

What do you see as your mission? How would you describe it?

We started Relief and the Diner after my wife and I both left the inner city where we taught high school. Kimberly wanted to be able to write about our experiences at the high school, but the question quickly became, “Where would it get published?” There were way too many amazing interactions with God for her stuff to be published in the secular markets, and way too much reality that shouldn’t be censored as it would diminish the power of God’s interactions with the students we took care of. So we ended up creating a venue for writing that falls in the gap between the Christian publishing markets and secular publishing markets.

Christian writing has long since been criticized as being too censored, too fluffy, lacking in artistic excellence, and way too preachy. We wanted to create an outlet where authors can have the freedom just write the damn story–to practice excellent craft, use authentic dialog (not – “gee whiz, Beav, what are we going to do with all this swell crack? Oh fiddlesticks, they just busted a cap in my rear end.” ) have characters talk about and have sex (and yes, Song of Solomon is not just symbolic–it really is about sex), wrestle with doubts and huge questions, interact with God, all in an authentic and real fashion.

Life is messy, rough, and difficult. It’s also wondrous, amazing, and sublime. Our writing should reflect reality, not sugarcoat it. No one lives in a “perfect” world, and neither should our words. We bridge the gap for writers who want to write real stories, poems, and creative nonfiction about real characters in real situations with a real God, without compromising the work’s integrity.

How hard is it living in the tension between ministry, art, and commerce?

Overall, the Relief and Diner projects have met with a very warm reception. So many authors and readers have said, “Oh wow, what a relief,” (pun intended, once they discover what we’re about. We find that overall Christians and non-Christians find a sense of understanding and acceptance when they read our books. They feel like they can breathe again.

We have yet to be condemned to hell or called the whore of Babylon, so I guess that’s good. Issues of Relief and the Diner have been known to show up in church libraries occasionally. Every once in a while we’ll get a standard “Oh, Christians shouldn’t write like the world,” or “All Christians should only write so the lost can get saved” argument, but not very often. We publish the kind of stuff that hits people where they really live, and that’s the artistic impact we’re out to make.

The commerce side is a little more difficult. Most people don’t know what a literary journal is, and many Christians think that a Christian horror story is an oxymoron. So we have a small, loyal audience at this point in time who appreciates what we’re doing, but I still have to reach into my own pocket every once in a while to pay the tab when sales are sucking. The economic downturn doesn’t help, but we’re making it through anyway.

We’re a 501c3 nonprofit, and part of the reason we can continue to exist is that the Relief and Diner communities pony up dollars to make these projects possible. Nobody’s making any money on this deal, our staff is completely volunteer, including me, which does make it a little easier to stretch the dollars way further than they might stretch in a different company.

Where do you see yourself in the genre/marketplace?

I see the Diner and Relief as a launching pad for authors (and editors and cover artists, etc.) who write brilliant unrelenting works who have very few (if any) outlets for it. We’re in the small press/micropress segment. But an interesting bit of trivia: we have editors from both big Christian publishing houses and big secular publishing houses on our customer and subscriber lists.

What sort of stories are you looking for?

I’ve actually hung up my spatula and retired from my position as Head Fry Cook of the Diner. Michelle Pendergrass now has the keys to the Diner as the new Editor-In-Chief (or Midnight Waitress, if you will), so that question might be better asked to her and the team for the 3rd Diner. But I can tell you that the team will be looking for stories of horror, crime, and the paranormal that do not suck. Michelle just posted up the specs for the next Diner up on http://www.themidnightdiner.com, so go take a look.

Who would you like to see submit to you? Beginning writers? Pro/name writers?

Ummm, I’d say Michelle and the Diner team will looking for (italics)good(italics) writers. Name recognition doesn’t mean much when it comes to what we publish. It’s nice when we get a well-known name on the menu, but as a company, writers who are starting out have just as much of a chance to get published as the “big names.” It’s about writing a great story.

Writers who think that every word they write are drops of God’s holy grace to the world, however, need not submit. We’re looking for authors who are easy to work with, and understand that “the relationship between editor and author is sacrosanct” (thanks to Relief author Anthony Connelly for that statement).

Some might see the midnight diner as somewhere between a 4theluv type market (paying writers in exposure) and a semi-pro (with 5 cents/word being the demarcation between pro and semi-pro). Could you explain the thought process behind your policy of paying a few writers vs. giving all an equal, if only token, payment?

It’s not so much a thought process as it is a matter of economics. Hell, I’d love to pay every author a hundred bucks or more for their work, but that’s not a feasible option with our current financial situation. The Horror Writers Association requires a paid publication of at least $70, so great authors like Kevin Lucia who are just starting out can get their foot in the door, so we can at least help a couple folks take another step in their careers per issue. I didn’t really plan that initially, I just wanted to get people to write Jesus Vs. Cthulhu stories, but it was a nice side effect.

How do you see yourself growing
in the market place and building your base audience? Where would you like to be 5 years from now?

5 years from now, I’d like to be sipping margaritas in Cancun on a beach for a living, but seeing that’s probably not going to be the case, I’d like to see the Diner be the go-to publication for new talent and fresh writing, an almost sure-fire ticket to furthering an author’s career.

But largely, the future of the Diner will be in the hands of the new team. I’ve built the sandbox, with the help of Vennessa Ng, Mike Duran, Melody Graves, Adrian Rivero (the cover artist for the 2nd Diner), Robert Garbacz, Matt Mikalatos, and of course Relief’s Editor-In-Chief (who also happens to be my lovely wife) Kimberly Culbertson, but now it’s time for other folks to play in it. The Diner’s in good hands with Michelle at the grill.

What story have you put out that you’re the most proud of?

Damn, that’s a good question. Just the fact that we’ve put out the Diner at all is a miracle, and the fact that the quality has been so high has been due to the fact that there’s Christian and non-Christian authors who have been willing to go to that place of tough symbolic reality with me. So I’m going to cop out and say all of them.

When can we expect the next volume?

Michelle and her new crew (which is also made of some of the old Kitchen Staff as well) plan on getting the next one out sometime next year, I think. Watch http://themidnightdiner.com and http://www.reliefjournal.com for news about it.