By the time you read this, Glimmer Train will be dead.
For many, that name won't mean much. In its 29-year run, the Portland-based short-story journal didn't penetrate the wider literary scene as much as its younger contemporary, Tin House. But for a small, well-read crowd, the loss is crushing. For three decades, it was the source of the kind of compelling, kick-you-in-the-teeth fiction that stays with you, and a crucial resource for undiscovered authors looking to see their name in print for the first time.
"We loved well-told stories that were emotionally significant, which did not seem to be much embraced at the time," says Linda Swanson-Davies, who co-founded Glimmer Train in 1990 with her sister, Susan Burmeister-Brown. "Big names had a far better chance at finding homes for their work than talented but unknown writers, which seemed, well, unfair."
Both avid readers since childhood, Swanson-Davies and Burmeister-Brown started Glimmer Train shortly after moving to Portland from Medford in their early 20s, and made a point of reading every story that crossed their desks—tens of thousands each year. From its first issue through its last, published this month, the magazine has prided itself on not just championing new writers but discovering them. It is responsible for publishing the early work of writers like National Book Award finalist Lauren Groff and Story Prize-winning author Claire Vaye Watkins. Many of the stories first published in its pages appeared in Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories and other anthologies.
"Glimmer Train was my first paid gig," says Oregon Book Award finalist Aaron Gilbreath. "That experience helped demystify publishing for me—seeing how human editors could be. Editors were like mythical beasts to a person like me, and they showed me how to be professional and personable at once. I really respect them for this, too. It left its mark on me."
While there were no paint-by-numbers criteria to a Glimmer Train story, recurring themes included family conflicts, illness and "big moments." Silas Dent Zobal's "The Hospital," which was first published in the magazine in 2013, deals with a husband and soon-to-be father whose wife is both pregnant and in a coma, and ends with the main character leaving the hospital as both a new father and a widower. The story had such an effect on novelist Pete Fromm that it formed the basis of his latest novel, A Job You Mostly Won't Know How to Do.
"I thought, 'Man, that's the beginning of a huge story,'" Fromm says, "and I started working on it the next day."
Glimmer Train was always an anomaly as a literary institution. For one thing, the magazine didn't have institutional support or a publisher like a number of other prominent journals—Swanson-Davies and Burmeister-Brown, who initially funded it after the latter sister and her husband sold their software company, did everything themselves. And while other local publishers work to build community connections through workshops and readings, Glimmer Train hardly ever held public events.
"We're both pretty reclusive," Swanson-Davies says. "You wouldn't call us social people or networkers."
Perhaps that's why Glimmer Train never became a more recognized part of the Portland literary scene. Still, the journal's end leaves a void for short-story writers whose work focuses on realist, family dramas.
"We are extraordinarily fortunate to have had the resources to start up Glimmer Train and to have had the great honor of working with so many wonderful writers and readers over the years," Swanson-Davies says. "A lot of people have moved away from reading and writing, which is a terrible loss, particularly in such harrowing times, but I hope there will be a hardy reversal of that trend as we realize how much is at stake and how much we need each other."
MORE: See glimmertrain.com to order the final issue or back issues.