While it is common to find blog interview of writers and bloggers, this one is of someone who doesn't write but provides a sanctuary for those who write. This is my second blog interview, after I did one for dear friend and a great writer, Marta Moran Bishop ( Marta's Interview ). Julie Larson, born in 1960, put together a website called StoryStar.com which she has been running for last three years. The site has propagated over the years through word of mouth and gets close to 60000 returning visitor each month. It isn't an impersonal techie venture, but the site finds true involvement from the lady who has been running it all by her own. Julie’s venture set up to provide a venue to writers to showcase their short-stories on the internet for many people to read for free. Julie runs the website on her own, a one-woman army with the zeal and dedication of a missionary. She picks the stories, reads and approves them, interacts with the writer and encourages them to write more and write better. The biggest satisfaction for a man is to discover a cause to which one can surrender his (or her, in this case) being. Storystar.com is one such thing with Julie, so much so that Julie, in refuses to share her photograph. She insists that Storystar is all about stories and those who write them. I urged but then, having failed could only bow in reverence to her selfless submission to the cause she has taken up. The sense of mission, the selflessness, gives one an almost religious sense when one meets her and this was a strange thing for me, whose religious position borders on atheism. Julie lives in Florence and works from home at a desk placed next to a large window overlooking the forest outside. It is a magical place where intellect meets humility and we begin our interview here.
Me: Hi Julie, thanks for taking time for this interview. It isn’t only me and writers like me who place our stories on your site, there is a multitude of readers who would like to meet the force that works tirelessly to bring these stories for them. Can we start with trying to understand what makes Julie, the person?
Julie, looking alarmed, with hesitation responds in feeble word: Well, yes, since you so desire.
Me, ignoring her hesitation to talk about anything apart from their work, continue: Hi Julie, I understand, you had a remarkable childhood of a closely-knit family. Do you think that has helped you understand, tolerate and even love the idiosyncrasies and whims of writers who being rank narcissists and a pain in the wrong place at times demand a lot of pampering? In that sense do you think your small family makes you a better citizen of a wide expanding literary universe that you have created with StoryStar?
Julie, staring outside the window, responds:
I don’t know if being raised in a small close-knit family gave me any extra insights into writers whims and idiosyncrasies, but it perhaps made the loss of my brother when he was age 19 and I was age 20, and the loss of my father more recently after a long battle with early onset of Alzheimers, more difficult to bear, and perhaps therefore gave me a greater understanding of loss and a glimpse into the depths of human suffering. I think that to be able to better understand and appreciate a wide variety of writing and perspectives it is necessary to also know both the heights and depths of joy and sorrow. My family also traveled quite a bit and I myself have traveled a lot on my own, and lived in a variety of cultures. I think experiencing other cultures and ways of living gives one a broader perspective and a greater acceptance of different styles of writing and points of view.
Me: A trauma of your own early childhood brought you closer to God, and another trauma of losing your brother pushed you away from him? Where do you stand in terms of faith as on date? Do you believe faith is an important aspect of writing, and when I say faith, I do not believe in faith in God, it could also at the same time mean, non-existence of God?
Julie: It is interesting that you use the word faith to describe both belief in God and belief in no God, because I have come to believe it takes the same amount of faith to believe either way. It is equally beyond the capacity of our human brains to comprehend the idea that a supreme eternal being created the universe, and us, as to believe that we and the universe magically came into being from nothing. When one contemplates the origins of everything, these are the only two possible conclusions. Both scenarios can neither be proven nor disproven, so both are a matter of faith in things beyond our knowledge and understanding. Therefore it is each individual’s choice as to which scenario to believe. Either way, life, and this world and the universe beyond, are miraculous and amazing to me. I have come to realize that there are forces at work in the world which defy science and explanation and can only be described as spiritual. There very clearly seems to me to be a battle in each mind and heart, and throughout the world, between love and hate, good and evil, right and wrong. I choose to believe that there is a supreme being, who I call God, who wishes for us to choose love over hate, and to do what is good and right. When we seek Him, His will and His guidance, He helps us on our path to become the best that we can be as human beings.
Me: Is your choice of stories affected by your own faith? For instance, if you were an atheist (which I have just discovered you are not, in the strictest sense), would you allow a deeply religious story to be put on Storystar.com and vice-versa?
Julie: I allow ALL types of stories to be posted on Storystar, whether atheist or Christian or Islamic, etc… My personal faith causes me to accept everyone, even if I do not particularly like nor agree with their point of view. However, pornographic, overtly racist, and gratuitously violent stories I generally remove in order to keep Storystar ‘family friendly’. Thankfully there have been very few such stories posted. I suppose it is impossible not to allow some form of bias to affect my choices for which stories to highlight on Facebook and Twitter, and which stories to feature on the front page of Storystar. But if a story is well-written, thought provoking, and of obvious interest to readers, I am happy to feature it even if I do not personally agree with the perspective of the writer or like the story.
Me: You grew up in many places. Did it result in a sense of loss of roots which one compensates by creating one’s own ecosystem of existence- something a writer does in inventing a world in his writing, you did by creating a world in Storystar?
Julie: My family did move around a lot when I was growing up, and since leaving ‘home’ I have also moved around a lot and lived in many places. I guess that there was not a place which ever became ‘home’ for me, but rather wherever my family was. Since my family has always been my ‘home’, now that my mother is my only remaining family, my home is wherever she is. I suppose that I have felt a bit ‘rootless’ during my life, and perhaps finally settling here in Florence and building Storystar I have now put down roots and created a place to call home.
Me: And a corollary to that question, does it compensate?
Julie: Not really. I don’t think anything can compensate for the loss of family or those you love.
The weather goes heavy and the sky over the forest looks slightly gray at the moment. We together stare out at the forest which spreads to soak the sudden emptiness and as I resist temptation to point out to Julie a larger family that she has single-handedly created, we proceed further with the interview.
Me: When did you launch Storystar.com? Julie: Late June of 2010.
Me: What prompted the idea of Storystar.com?
Julie Larson: It stands differentiated from various sites which act as aggregator of blogs in the sense that it is focused on the niche of Short Stories? Only other such site I came across on the web was Storylane, which has since closed down and all the stories were shifted to Facebook as FB notes. Speaking of Storylane, were you aware of Storylane or other such exclusively story sites and inspired by one such? Basically, the question is how did you come out with this idea about a site exclusively for Short stories?
Julie: I first had the idea for a free online site, where everyone everywhere could tell their stories, sometime in 2004. I don’t remember the exact month or day, I just remember that the idea suddenly came to me. I had not ever read stories online, and didn’t know if other similar sites existed, so I searched for other storytelling sites and could not find anything like what I had in mind anywhere on the web. (I never saw Storylane) So I decided to make my idea a reality and hired a coder to help me create it. I like to believe the idea was divinely inspired, because I had not previously been ‘into’ reading or writing stories. I know I enjoyed reading the occasional short story since I generally did not have the time or patience for a whole novel. I had probably read fewer than a dozen whole books/novels solely for my own interest and enjoyment since grad school. But I’ve always believed that stories of personal growth, of triumph over adversity, and of life experience, have the power to transform minds and hearts. At some point it occurred to me that everyone has moving and powerful personal stories to tell, and there should be a free place where they can share those stories. I suppose the idea was germinating somewhere inside me for a while before it suddenly occurred to me that I should be the one to create such a place.
Me: Was it a conscious decision of yours to keep the site limited to one form of writing, as a differentiator and positioning statement?
(I sheepishly look at her as I know it is my MBA and my day job in sales talking; she, ever so kind, ignores my attempt to look wise and answers)
Julie: No. I decided to limit the length of stories because I did not have the time and patience to read long stories, and believed that other readers might feel the same way.
Me: Is it a free-for-all platform or is there some filtering, some process of selection in place to decide on the stories which make it to Storystar.com?
Julie: It is indeed a free-for-all platform, although, as mentioned earlier, a few stories have been removed due to explicit adult and/or offensive content. There is a ‘foul language’ filter which catches most porn and prevents it from being posted. But there is no ‘selection process’. Anyone anywhere can post a story at any time.
Me: Is there a group of a few wise men (and women) who sit around the table at night, as lights are dim with print outs of stories received during the day, reading and shaking their wise heads with disapprovals at junk coming in and occasionally, nodding in approval and looking at each other with a sense of satisfaction, throwing satisfactory smile in the air, heavy with smell of coffee?
Me: Nope. Just me. I only occasionally remove problematic stories, and I select stories to feature based on the ratings they receive from readers, and my own opinion as to the quality of the story and appropriateness to the category. I also try hard to feature stories from all different countries. I would be open to someone helping me choose which stories to feature, and even choosing the Story of the Day and writing about it, but thus far I haven’t had anyone volunteer their time, and cannot afford to hire anyone at this point.
Me: What are the kinds of stories you like most?
Julie: I remember loving books and stories as a child, and still fondly remember many of those I read, but as an adult I have mostly always been too busy with other things to find the time to read for leisure. When I do have time to relax, I generally prefer watching a good movie to reading a good book, I suppose because it is more immediate gratification. The whole story is told much more quickly in a movie than in a book. I guess it is also this desire for more immediate gratification that has led me to a preference for short stories, since they can be read and fully enjoyed without a big investment of time. I did do a lot of reading and writing in college and university, but it was always assigned and required reading and writing, done for a grade rather than for leisure or pleasure. So I am sorry to say that I have not developed any ‘favorite’ authors among ‘the greats’. Of course, since launching Storystar, I have become a very big reader and fan of short stories, since I have read nearly every single story that has been posted on Storystar, sometimes more than once, and have developed a number of favorite writers and stories on Storystar.I tend to most love stories that inspire me or move me, but I have enjoyed tragedies and dark mysteries and horror stories too, as well as stories in many other genres. I think it is the skill of the writer and the quality of the story that makes it a favorite for me, rather than the particular type of story.
Me: I have personally felt social media not being much of use unless you are connecting to people you knew beforehand. There have, of course, been rare exceptions to this, for instance yourself and Marta Moran Bishop. Marta has been very encouraging to my writing efforts, and your views have always touched upon my writing in its own benign way. But in general, I believe, you have leaned strongly on Facebook for building promotional framework for Storystar. How useful has it been? How did you come to using it?
Julie: I was initially uninterested in Facebook or other social media sites, but one of my coders convinced me that it was necessary to join Facebook and Twitter to promote Storystar. In order to set up a page for Storystar I was forced to set up a personal page as well. At first I didn’t do much with the personal page, other than build ‘friends’ from lists of writers and readers who were strangers to me. But as I began to make connections with those who found their way from Facebook to Storystar.com and then posted or read stories there, it became more ‘personal’ for me, and over the past few years I have built several lasting friendships with people I’ve met on Facebook. Based on an analysis of the statistics regarding traffic to Storystar.com, approximately 15-20% of monthly users are coming from Facebook links. I think that’s significant. However, I have recently become discouraged because Facebook has changed the ‘reach’ of their users pages (all those other than ‘personal’) so that if you want any posts actually seen you have to pay for it. I have over 10,300 ‘likes’ on my page at www.facebook.com/storystar, but when I make a post only about 100 people actually see it, unless I pay to ‘boost’ it, and the minimum cost of boosting a post is $5. for 24 hours of ‘extra’ promotion. Even then, the post is only seen by half the number of those who have ‘liked’ Storystar. To me it seems like a scam. I cannot afford to spend $5 per day just to have my posts shown to those who have already liked my page, meaning the cost does not help me reach new people who have not yet ‘liked’ my page or discovered Storystar. But if I don’t pay, then only a handful of people see it at all, so it seems quite pointless to me now. However, I feel I owe it to those who are both facebook and storystar users to continue posting stories daily, even though I can only afford to promote one or two a week.
Me: Are you using other Social media platforms like Twitter and Google+ to promote Storystar.com?
Julie: I post the equivalent of a story per day on Twitter. I used to advertise on Google but stopped doing so when I started advertising on Facebook instead. I have a very small adveristing budget so don’t have enough to spread around. I will pay for Google advertising again when the new and improved Storystar site is launched. Even without Google advertising, the majority of monthly visitors to Storystar are coming from Google searches for short stories and related.
Me: What is the business model for Storystar.com? How does it sustain, in terms of finances? Do you intend to grow it on Wikipedia model of volunteer funding or hedge it with business framework for selling books, advertising etc.?
Julie: From the start I never had a business model for Storystar. Since I never envisioned selling anything I never thought of it as a business. I guess I was naive enough to believe that it would pay for itself through the pay-per-click advertising that is currently in place. When I first had the idea there was no other free site anywhere online where people everywhere could go to tell their stories, and a lot of people were making good money from pay-per-click ads on their websites. So I believed that Storystar would become immediately popular and grow rapidly through word-of-mouth advertising, and that the ads I placed on the site would bring in the revenue needed to cover my expenses. That did not turn out to be the case. In the nearly 7 years it took me to get the site built and ready for public use a lot changed. Facebook was born, and blogs were born, where writers could have their own web pages and post their stories and promote themselves. And numerous other short story sites cropped up, so I ended up having a lot more competition than I imagined, and therefore growth has been slower than I had anticipated, although Storystar is adding hundreds of new users per month. Also, by the time I finished and launched Storystar people were no longer clicking on ads and buying things from advertisers. I have hope for the future. The new improved Storystar, which I have been working on with a coder in India for a couple of years now, will allow for more active participation from visitors, the ability for readers to comment on and review stories, a classified ads section for buying and selling new and used books, the ability for readers and writers to earn points they can spend like cash, etc…. And I am also hoping to compile anthologies of the Best of Storystar that readers can purchase with points or cash. All these changes will hopefully make Storystar better for everyone, and will hopefully begin to bring in a regular income that will allow me to continue to sustain and grow it long term.
Me: Is it a single-woman venture, or you have more people working with you as your immediate and extended teams as Storystar now reaches close to 60000 monthly visitors? Do you have plans of integrating it with other sites like Flipboard for instance, bringing in even more audience?
Me: It’s just me, plus whoever I hire to work on the code. I’ve been through about 7 coders over the 10 years since I first had the idea. Either they get bored with the work and move on, or they stop doing the work I need done and I move on. I am unfamiliar with Flipboard, can you tell me more about it? At this point I have no plans to integrate Storystar with any other site, but if I become aware of something that will benefit Storystar writers and readers then I am open to considering it.
Me: Helping and mentoring a lot of closet-writers (Like me for instance, please ignore the blush on my face - it is always like that), do you sometimes check your shoulders when you wake up in the morning for some wings that might have grown there? Do you smile to yourself on the sly sometimes, happy in the awareness of how you are supporting the conspiratorial writing of moonlighting writers?
Julie: For me, Storystar is about the writers. Without great writers and their stories, Storystar would cease to exist. That is why I try to do what I can to encourage writers and promote their stories. I wish I had more time and energy to do much more for them, and I wish I had lots of money so that I could pay them for their work, and afford to promote their great stories more. I do what I can, but I feel that I fall very short of what I’d like to be able to do, so often find myself feeling very inadequate.
We end the interview here. I rise from the chair with a silent prayer for sending across this lovely lady to this earth, so disarmingly honest and committed to the cause she has chosen for herself. I know, I know, some would have started falling in love with this princess of short stories. For them, I have been asked to limit the information to the fact that this lovely lady landed on this earth, in Minnesota in 1960 and as she tells, with a hole in heart to fill all the love that she was going to get from the people around with. She was born to an Assembly of God Minister and had a two year younger baby brother who she adored and lost quite early. When eight she moved to Alberta Canada. She lives in Florence, Oregon right now, working on the new version of StoryStar to come by. The interview goes out without Julie's picture, though I did insist, since she maintains that the venture is bigger than the individual. Even citing Ayn Rand wouldn't persuade her. I could only bow to this near-religious humility. We readers and writers wait in anticipation together with her for the new Storystar to arrive. As I leave the room, I feel inspired and humbled by her honest and dedication and mutter between my breath, “Long live Julie Larson, Long live the storystar.”
I love to read Storystar and once did write a short story for it. I will have to do so again.
As usual Saket, your talent is enormous. I am honored to call you friend.
Will Neill of Ireland