Olivia Spring

Olivia Spring (she/her)  is the founder and editor of SICK. She writes about illness, trauma, and disability, with work appearing in It’s Nice That, the Guardian, rekto:verso, and Ache, among others. She lives in Maine with her dog, Black Bean .

SICK is an independent, thoughtful magazine by chronically ill & disabled people, founded & edited by Olivia Spring and designed by Kaiya Waerea. Founded in Norwich, UK in 2019, we are currently based out of Maine, USA and London, UK.

SICK is committed to elevating the voices of sick & disabled people by publishing essays, features, poetry, visual art, interviews, and more. Our aim is to increase representation of sick & disabled people in publishing and the arts, and to challenge the harmful stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding disability. We work in and with our slowness, pausing and resting when we need to. We believe, listen to, and support each other. We reject productivity as means of value, and celebrate our sick & disabled bodies.

What was your experience with the publishing world before you started SICK

I had an internship at Marie Claire while I was in second year. I really enjoyed it and at the time I was more into popular, mainstream magazines. I learnt a lot just from being a fly on the wall there, I would listen to every single thing anyone around me said, and who talked to who, the way the editor walked in the room – just everything about the environment. It’s interesting because early on that’s what I was framing SICK around, even though it’s so different to any kind of publication that would have a huge fancy office in central London. 

I also was the editor of Smiths Magazine, the student magazine at Goldsmiths University, when I was in my third year, which was when I started to just really enjoy the editing process. 

I thought I had no right to do it without the experience, that it was almost embarrassing, that I wasn’t worthy. 

You mentioned earlier that there was a couple of years between having the idea for SICK and starting to action it. Could you talk a bit about what the process was like from having the idea to it being on bookshelves? 

Yeah, so when I first had the idea I was really brainstorming and making little physical things and having all these ideas. I feel like I was constantly thinking about it. But I initially thought I was going to graduate, get a full time job –an editorial entry level job – gain as much insight as I can and really understand the industry, then go launch my magazine. I thought I had no right to do it without the experience, that it was almost embarrassing, that I wasn’t worthy. I also really didn’t want it to be something that was only two issues, or felt half-assed. 

I went to – do you know the magazine Delayed Gratification? It’s all about slow journalism, so it reports news but like a few months after the fact. They did a whole starting-your-own-magazine event so I was trying to go to things like that. 

After I finished uni I was actually feeling relatively well which had a lot to do with it. I was working 16hrs, it felt doable, I was okay with money, I was able to pay my rent. I had moved to Norwich, and living in a quieter city felt nice. And so I just decided it was the perfect time to do it. The few months after that were quite brutal, so much fucking boring work and doubting myself. That’s also part of the process – do you know the book So You Want to Publish a Magazine? That was my little bible – and I would read it constantly and take so many notes, I’d look at so many resources online it was overwhelming, but even that was all framed towards yes, independent magazines, but independent magazines that have money.

A lot of information I framed SICK around I slowly moved away from because I realised I didn’t have to do these things if they weren’t really fit for SICK

Could you say something about how you started to gather the content and what editing looks like and what getting a designer looked like? 

So the editing and submissions were the least of my worries – I felt like with social media I had the ability to just follow a bunch of other sick people and make long lists. Constantly being online and finding new people and either reaching out to them or just following them and usually they’d follow me back if they were interested and so I built an audience that way. 

Finding a designer was my biggest problem. My biggest issues were website and design because I could do everything else myself but the two things I really couldn’t figure out how to do myself were those two things. Finding a designer was so hard that I did consider doing it myself – I have these hilarious mockups of issue 1, really really early, I think it would be so funny to show them one day in exhibition form, like the earliest version of SICK. It’s so cute and bad and I am 100% sure there wouldn’t have been an issue two if I’d had to design it on my own. 

I couldn’t think of anyone, I couldn’t find anyone. Then I met Kirstie Millar, the editor of Ache Magazine. A friend told me about Ache and when I looked them up I saw they were based in Norwich and I emailed Kirstie and we went for coffee. She was super helpful about sharing things she had learned and her resources. She put me in touch with someone, and we had a meeting and they were really nice but they quoted me £8000 for issue one. I was just super confused, I just didn’t have that kind of money. Those were the moments where I had a lot of doubt and just thought that it just wasn’t doable. So when Kirstie then recommended you I was really stoked, and thought this could be awesome. It felt really good that it could be part of your own practice and I felt like I could just really trust you with doing everything. I had no experience and have no eye for design so if I had had to be more involved I think it would have been difficult. 

When you are working with artists and writers who are all sick and disabled, everyone is coming with their own experiences and impairments. I wonder if you have any examples of ways you have worked with people successfully to best support each other’s access requirements and maybe examples where it has been unsuccessful?

Honestly there haven’t been as many situations like that as I thought there would be, but I hope that is because I try to make it as un-stressful as possible. 

There have been times where I’ve helped people rewrite their bio’s and small things like that. Some people find that kind of thing confusing or they might not have done it before. One contributor was finding a bit of writing difficult and kept sending me different things with notes and questions, and so I took the multiple versions they sent and put them all together into something that worked for them. Just being helpful with things like that. 

There was a time with a previous contributor where we set a soft deadline and I wasn’t receiving anything from them. I didn’t hear anything from them when I tried to reach out and have light check-ins. I always try to phrase my concern as like, hey is everything okay? instead of where is the work? Because that is the most important thing. Work is not the most important thing. But we pushed forward the soft deadline three times, until the rest of the issue was basically done. They asked if they could just publish what they had, which was a short draft,, and that was the first time I felt like I couldn’t give anyone more time. What I felt was best was to offer them a kill fee, and to just make sure they knew it was fine and that it wasn’t like I wasn’t ever going to consider their work again or anything like that.

There was another time where someone said of their own accord that they’d get me something in a week and I was like oh okay wow that’s cool! and then when the week came they were like, I am so so sorry, I understand if you have to pull it! and it felt to me like I was communicating with someone who was so used to communicating with non-disabled editors that they were scared of losing the commission. So when they were like, can I have another week? I was like have another month! Like, this is fine, you don’t need to turn this around so quickly. Their response was really nice because it felt like I was showing them a new way of working and it just felt good to give them that experience! 

This is what our loud, colourful and bold visual language means – it is refusing to be pitied, looked down upon, infantilised. 

Why is SICK only a print magazine and not a digital or audio platform? 

I like the idea of something permanent, something that takes up physical space, and something that never becomes old in a way – even an old issue, if someone hasn’t seen it before, it’s a new issue to them. I feel so much more seen and validated by things I read in print then online – I personally hate reading things online and I don’t think SICK would be successful at all online and I don’t know now I would afford to pay people if it was all online. It just feels like a completely different world to me. I wanted it to be in stores too, and just seeing that word ‘SICK’ in such a bold way. 

I have a sliding scale to try and address access to purchasing the mag. We live in a world of money, I try to get away from that as much as I can but sometimes I can’t. I also always provide free PDFs on request. 

I did have a thought of doing a podcast which is an audiobook of the publication. I think this would be awesome for accessibility reasons, but I really struggle with audio work and I don’t like audio as a form. It’s something which is ongoing that I’m thinking about and I’m not sure how it would all work out. My budget is very much focused on the print issue and anything outside of that is really difficult to make work.

What do you think the visual style says about disability?

Often disabled people aren’t allowed to be the cool kids, aren’t wearing the cool clothes – the world of ‘fashion’ is one that often disabled people aren’t invited to. Invisibility is such a big part of illness and a big theme in all the issues. Even if people’s disabilities are visible, they’re made to feel like they have to blend in. I could talk about this forever – how silenced we are, how gross the places we often have to visit are. The visual style of disability generally is not like this, like what we do at SICK. You know, its navy blue and white, it has to do with old people suffering. Even if the articles in SICK are sad, they’re still like, I am a person who is alive and experiencing this sadness. We are still here and living. This is what our loud, colourful and bold visual language means – it is refusing to be pitied, looked down upon, infantilised.