Sunday, November 14, 2010

Five Great Writers You've Never Heard Of

Welcome Back

As most of you who are on our e-mail list already know, IndieLitNow is back for good.  We’ve switched our address, due to a copyright discrepancy that we won’t go into, except to say that it involves an exclamation point!  That said, we’ve reposted most of our backlog, and are starting fresh here and now.  Printed issues of IndieLitNow will be available, same as always, during the months of January, April, and August.
More importantly, IndieLitNow correspondent Micah Loosen has compiled this year’s list of Five Great Writers You’ve Never Heard Of.  The idea this year is to alternate between writers of the past, and current authors.  Coming in at number five this year is 20th century prose stylist Andrei Platonov.

Andrei Platonov 

Andrei Platonov: Russia's greatest 20th-century prose stylist?

His writing 'works on many levels' ... The anti-Soviet author Andrei Platonov:

Stalin called him scum. Sholokhov, Gorky, Pasternak, and Bulgakov all thought he was the bee's knees. But when Andrei Platonov died in poverty, misery and obscurity in 1951, no one would have predicted that within half a century he would be a contender for the title as Russia's greatest 20th-century prose stylist. Indeed, his English translator Robert Chandler thinks Platonov's novel The Foundation Pit is so astonishingly good he translated it twice. Set against a backdrop of industrialisation and collectivisation, The Foundation Pit is fantastical yet realistic, funny yet tragic, profoundly moving and yet disturbing. Daniel Kalder caught up with Chandler to talk about why more people should be reading Platonov.
Why did you translate Platonov's Foundation Pit twice?
No other work of literature means so much to me. I translated it together with Geoffrey Smith in 1994 for the Harvill Press, and again in 2009, together with my wife Elizabeth and the American scholar Olga Meerson, for NYRB Classics. There were two reasons for retranslating it. First, the original text was never published in Platonov's lifetime, and the first posthumous publications – on which our Harvill translation was based – were severely bowdlerised. One crucial three-page passage, for example, is entirely missing.
Second, Platonov is hard to translate: in the early 1990s we were working in the dark. During the last 15 years, however, I have regularly attended Platonov seminars and conferences in Moscow and Petersburg. One indication of how deeply many Russian writers and critics admire him is the extent of their generosity to his translators; I now have a long list of people I can turn to for help. Above all, I have the good fortune to have my wife, who shares my love of Platonov, and the brilliant American scholar, Olga Meerson, as my closest collaborators. Olga was brought up in the Soviet Union; she has a fine ear, knows a great deal about Russian Orthodoxy, and has written an excellent book on Platonov. She has deepened my understanding of almost every sentence.
You've argued that Russians will eventually come to recognise Platonov as their greatest prose writer. Given that he's up against titans such as Gogol, Tolstoy and Chekhov this is quite a claim.
Well, it probably sounds less startling to Russians than it does to English and Americans. I've met a huge number of Russian writers and critics who look on Platonov as their greatest prose writer of the last century. In my personal judgment, it was confirmed for me during the last stages of my work on Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, an anthology of short stories I compiled for Penguin Classics. I worked on this for several years, did most of the translations myself and revised them many times. I read through the proofs with enjoyment – I was still happy with the choices I had made – but there were only two writers whom I was still able to read with real wonder: Pushkin and Platonov. Even at this late stage I was still able to find new and surprising perceptions in Pushkin's The Queen of Spades and Platonov's The Return. This didn't happen with any other writers.

Readers who encounter Platonov for the first time are often struck by his surreality: in the Foundation Pit, for example, a bear staggers through a village denouncing kulaks [supposedly wealthy peasants]. But you've said that almost everything he writes is drawn from reality.
Platonov's stories work on many levels. When I first read his account of the kulaks being sent off down the river on a raft, I thought of it simply as weird. Then I realised that it's one of many examples of Platonov's way of literally realising a metaphor or political cliché; the official directive is to "liquidate" the peasants – and this unfamiliar word is interpreted as meaning that they must be got rid of by means of water.
Many years later I found out that this scene is also entirely realistic. The Siberian Viktor Astafiev wrote in his memoir: "In spring 1932 all the dispossessed kulaks were collected together, placed on rafts and floated off to Krasnoyarsk, and from there to Igarka. When they started loading the rafts, the whole village gathered together. Everyone wept; it was their own kith and kin who were leaving. One person was carrying mittens, another a bread roll, another a lump of sugar." Any educated Russian reading these lines today would at once imagine that they were written by Platonov.
As for the bear, he's drawn from many sources. He is the generally helpful but somewhat dangerous bear of Russian folk tales; he is a representative of the proletariat – strong but inarticulate. As a hammer in a forge, he is linked both to Stalin, whose name means "man of steel" and to Molotov, whose name means "hammerer". He is the tame bear often employed by a village sorcerer. Platonov's bear "denounces" kulaks by stopping outside a hut and roaring; in the late 1920s an ethnographer working in the province of Kaluga recorded the belief that "a clean home, outside which a bear stops of his own accord, not going in but refusing to budge – that home is an unhappy home". And one of Platonov's brothers has written that there really was a tame bear who worked in a local blacksmith's.
Platonov started off as a committed communist, but was appalled by collectivisation and the excesses of Stalinism. Uniquely – unlike others who adopted an oppositional stance, or wrote critiques for the desk drawer – he tried to negotiate a space within Soviet culture in which he could write honestly about what was going on. Is it fair to say that he failed?
I don't think so. Some of the stories he managed to publish – The River Potudan, The Third Son and The Return – are as great, in their more compact and classical way, as the novels he was unable to publish. The Return was viciously criticised, but it was published in a journal with a huge circulation and may well have been read by hundreds of thousands of people. And there is no knowing how important Platonov's example was to younger writers. Vasily Grossman, for example, was a close friend. They met frequently during Platonov's last years and read their work out loud to each other. Grossman gave the main speech at Platonov's funeral. His last stories are very Platonov-like. And Platonov's very last work – the moving, witty versions of Russian folk tales he composed after the war – was included, without acknowledgment, in millions of school textbooks. Platonov was not widely known, but he was widely read. Here again he is in a similar position to Grossman, whose words are carved in granite, in huge letters, on the Stalingrad war memorial, without acknowledgment of his authorship.
Platonov's language is often extremely intimate yet also strange: alienated and alienating. Is he exceptionally difficult to translate? And does he sound more "normal" in the original than in translation?
He is certainly difficult to translate. On the other hand, I've sometimes been surprised by how much of him evidently survives even in a poor translation. I've met people who have been deeply moved after first encountering him in a very poor translation indeed. As for your second question, you need to ask someone who is entirely bilingual and not involved in the work. All I can say myself is that all languages have norms that can be infringed, and that we do our best to infringe English norms just as Platonov infringes Russian norms. It is for you and other readers to judge how much we have succeeded!

Sometimes I think you have a secret plan to steer readers away from familiar authors such as Chekhov towards more angular, difficult work such as Platonov, thus reshaping perceptions of 20th-century Russian literature.

Well, I'd put it at least a little differently! I love Chekhov's stories as much as anyone, and would especially love to translate The Steppe and A Boring Story. But then Chekhov isn't so very easy or smooth either, though many of his complexities and contradictions are smoothed over in translation. What's certainly true is that I think we have a distorted view of Soviet literature. For many decades it was impossible for a Soviet writer to achieve fame in the west except through a major international scandal. This is what happened with both Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn. Both are important writers, but they are not greater writers than Grossman, Platonov and Shalamov.
Things are changing, however. Grossman is far better known in the west now than he was 10 years ago. Platonov is at least beginning to be noticed – Penelope Fitzgerald and John Berger are two of the English writers who have been quickest to realise his genius. And there is a chance that the Yale University Press will soon be commissioning a complete translation of Shalamov's Kolyma Tales. One more point: we have found it easier in the west to learn to appreciate the 20th-century writers who wrote from outside the Soviet experience. Bulgakov reached adulthood long before the revolution. He was never taken in by it; he looks down on everything Soviet. Grossman, Platonov and Shalamov, however, belong to a generation 10 to 20 years younger. All of them, at least for a while and to some degree, shared the hopes of the revolution. They write from inside the Soviet experience. This perhaps gives them a greater depth and complexity; their work contains no ready-made answers.

Donora Hillard: The TNB Self Interview (From The Nervous Breakdown Self Interview Series).


By Donora Hillard

Donora HillardDONORA HILLARD's poetry collection Theology of the Body, a feminist response to the teachings of Jason Evert, Pope John Paul II, St. Paul, Christopher West, and other religious figures, was recently released in print by Gold Wake Press and was a bestseller in Women's Studies at She is also the author of Exhibition (Gold Wake Press, 2008), Bone Cages: A Lyric Memoir (BlazeVox [books], 2007), and Parapherna (dancing girl press, 2006). Her creative nonfiction, fiction, photography, and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Best of the Web 2010 (Dzanc Books, 2010), diode, FRiGG, Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer (W.W. Norton & Company, 2010), Night Train, PANK, Segue, and Spork, among others. She has taught writing at King’s College, Penn State University, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry / Creative Nonfiction) from Wilkes University and is a PhD candidate in English (Rhetoric and Composition / Film and Media) at Wayne State University in Detroit, where she is composing a dissertation on the intersection of writing with other art forms, specifically contemporary dance and the work of Billy Bell. She is presently at work on both a poetry manuscript entitled Extraordinary Question and a collaboration with Sean Kilpatrick entitled who else is here and why.

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The poem featured here is from your collection Theology of the Body, which was recently released by Gold Wake Press. Care to talk about it?

As part of a teaching position I once held, I was forced to attend a lecture by Christopher West, who’s considered an authority on Pope John Paul II’s teachings on adultery, contraception, marriage, virginity, and other matters of the body. At one point he said, "Ladies, your bodies don’t make much sense on their own, do they?" I knew I had to respond to that question in some capacity. As such, Theology of the Body contains quotes from the Pope and West along with other religious figures juxtaposed against poems that are unorthodox in nature. It’s my way of saying to those men, Look, what you’re forcing upon people just doesn’t function in reality, especially where women are concerned.

What are you working on now?

I’d like to read from Theology of the Body anywhere, so interested parties should contact me. I promise to wear something nice. I’m completing a poetry manuscript entitled Extraordinary Question and a collaboration with Sean Kilpatrick entitled who else is here and why. I’m coordinating a feminist poetry press with Molly Gaudry and drafting memoir notes about the aforementioned teaching position. Finally, as part of my PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, I’m researching for what I hope will be my dissertation.

Dissertation? I thought that was only for smart people.

Yes, but I’m trying. I was originally going to write my dissertation on aphasic text, fragmentation, and the (in)accessibility of memory after assisting an Alzheimer’s-afflicted individual with piecing together his memoir. However, I’ve been focusing more on movement in my work, especially contemporary dance. I recently discovered Billy Bell, who moves in a way that’s almost inhuman (he’s the child character in the Mia Michaels-choreographed group piece, and he choreographed the solo piece on his own) and concluded that such movement is profoundly poetic. I’m attempting to exemplify a similar freedom of movement in the language of the manuscripts I’m finishing.
My research emphasizes the intersection of writing with other art forms and the conviction that writers can glean as much if not more material from observing and practicing dance (specifically contemporary, which breaks genre boundaries) as they can from reading. After all, what does strong writing do but have a sense of musicality and rhythm? I’ve also noticed a distinct sense of revision across various dance pieces.

Do you have anything else to say regarding academia?

Transitioning from completing my MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Poetry into a PhD that’s critical in scope has been troubling for me at times. If there’s someone reading this in similar circumstances and perhaps you’ve published a book and none of your classmates know what it is and you believe you’ve been labeled the “crazy artist” or the “dumb blonde” (even though my hair’s now blue / black) and all you can do is scowl and scribble while your colleagues speak with conviction and skill, come to Detroit and I’ll buy you a whiskey sour and there will be smoke and a jukebox and we’ll sway in unison.

Well then. What else?

Cleaning the house, dancing, learning to cut my own bangs and dye my hair with some success, reading Avital Ronell’s body of work, and running.

What’s on the nightstand?

Anne Carson’s Nox, black lacquer, a Civil War-era glass eye, a sickly vintage-looking lamp, and Sephora cosmetics such as NARS blush in Orgasm.

Lit Week in New York

An Interview with the Creators of Barrelhouse

Barrelhouse is a new literary journal whose stated purpose is to bridge the gap between high and low culture. Founded this year in Washington, D.C. by Mike Ingram, Joe Killiany, Dave Housley and Aaron Pease, Barrelhouse features short fiction nestled comfortably alongside material like an essay comparing Beverly Hills 90210 and The OC. The online version of Barrelhouse, debuted in late May and the first issue of the print version is expected in November. Although Ingram does most of the talking in the interview below, he wants to make it clear that the four founding editors are equal partners in the magazine. Ingram, Killiany, Housley and Pease come from varied backgrounds and fields, but share a passion for good writing and the apparent desire to bring F. Scott Fitzgerald and Seth Cohen just a little closer together. Sometimes, it seems that a gap between high and low culture no longer exists… do you feel that literary journals & magazines, until now, have been an exception from the trend that finds high and low culture constantly merging?
MIKE INGRAM: Well, first of all I think you’re right in saying that the worlds of high and low culture are constantly merging. But there’s also a certain “I don’t own a TV and therefore I’m better than you” attitude that’s out there, and it’s always irritated the hell out of me. It’s certainly not exclusive to the literary world, but I think Barrelhouse is in some ways trying to answer that. This attitude that says TV or comic books or movies without subtitles are just a big waste of time, and we should all be having Serious Thoughts about Serious Issues, reading only Serious Books and admiring only Serious Art.
We’re a generation that has been raised on a steady diet of pop culture, and so we’re choosing to embrace that, rather than be embarrassed by it or make apologies for it. I think it’s telling that the first time the four of us got together, we started out talking about fiction and poetry and pretty soon we were discussing Snoop Dogg and The OC. There’s no reason those things can’t exist side by side, and we think some interesting things can happen when writers and artists start talking about their pop culture obsessions.
Which isn’t to say that the fiction we like is light in tone or subject matter. But we think there is a class of people out there like us, people who like complex, character-driven fiction, but who also aren’t afraid to admit that when Duran Duran’s "Rio" comes on the car stereo, they don’t change the channel. Or who sometimes blow their entire Saturday afternoon on a Real World marathon. It works both ways, I think -- the supposedly low-brow is sometimes smarter and more interesting than it’s given credit for, and the supposedly high-brow can be fun and entertaining. Unfortunately, people often start with a misconception that whatever is good in art will by necessity not appeal to a broad audience. So that you’ll hear a comment like, “Oh, that book is very subtle and nuanced, and it will win prestigious awards, but no one is going to buy it.” Which, unfortunately, turns out to be true more often than not. But I wonder how much of that is just a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you package something as turnip greens, and market it as turnip greens, you can’t really complain when people take one look, turn up their noses and say “Yuck. I hate turnip greens.”
JOE KILLIANY: I half agree and half disagree with Mike. I honestly don’t think high and low culture merge that much in most of America, especially in the fairly rural areas like where I was raised. In fact, I would say the gap is wider now than it's ever been. When you look at artists and writers from the twenties, thirties, and forties, even up to the sixties -- I'm thinking here of people like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Miller (Arthur), Pollack, or Warhol -- their level of celebrity was equal to today's movie stars. I'm not saying we should judge a writer, artist or musician by the level of his or her success, but the high level of notoriety these people attained implies that people in those eras were perhaps more engaged with the literary and artistic world, that they read more fiction, saw more plays, went to more galleries, etc. Now, for an author to get acknowledged by the majority of the mainstream press he has to diss Oprah in a fairly public way.
One of the two reasons I hesitated with Barrelhouse in the beginning -- the other being fear of a train wreck -- was that I worried literary journals, or at least a lot of them, helped widen that gulf between high and low culture. A lot of journals seem to be written and designed for people who have that "I don't own a TV" mentality. Or, I’m not sure the people behind the journals design them that way on purpose, but that’s a common perception about literary journals. I was petrified of helping to send modern fiction to the same place that modern art has gone, which is out of the awareness of most people. The fact that the guys working on Barrelhouse have such diverse interests keeps that from happening. I view the magazine and the web site as venues to illustrate that fiction, and the arts in general, are fun and accessible. And not only that, I hope it illustrates to people who generally read "high-brow stuff" that the stuff they tend to avoid -- pop music, reality TV, etc. -- is fun and interesting and can spark some worthwhile discussions.
DAVE HOUSLEY: I’d like to note that the “high and low culture” thing was my second choice for a tagline. My first choice was “Barrelhouse: for smart people who don’t have a stick up their ass.” That was a little too harsh, apparently.
Do you think there’s a level of elitism unique to the world of literary journals? Do you think you’ll face any stigma trying to combine pop culture with “literature”?
MIKE: There’s elitism all over; it’s not restricted to literary journals. What you sometimes get in the writing world, and I’m sure this happens in the other arts as well, is this constant credential sniffing. We’ve already been exposed to that a little bit. We’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from people, but one comment that’s surfaced a few times is: "Who are you guys?" Now, maybe we could put a staff box on the web site and that would end the discussion entirely. But I think what people are after when they ask that question is not just, literally, who we are, but: "Where have you published?" "Where did you go to school?" "What makes you an appropriate arbiter of quality?"
And while those are all legitimate questions, one of the things we wanted to do with Barrelhouse was avoid that kind of mentality, the kind of self-referential and self-contained thing that the writing world sometimes is. So to people who ask that question, all we can really say is that we’re avid readers, we love stories, and here is some writing that we think you’ll enjoy.
DAVE: I also think there’s less of that literary snobbishness online. There’s a lot of smart, entertaining writing -- fiction and nonfiction, high and low culture, whatever you want to call it -- on the web right now, and there seems to be plenty of room for web sites like Television Without Pity, Nerve, the Onion, Oyster Boy Review, The Morning News, and a million others. Although we’re not strictly a web journal, that’s an important part of what we’re doing. Unfortunately, there’s still a divide among writers between those who have gotten on-board with the online thing, and those who still think the web is just a receptacle for porn and Live Journal diaries of 15-year-old girls. But there are some online publications that I’d stack up against anything in print. And I’d also note that there are web sites with much bigger audiences than even the most widely read print journals.
So, where did you guys go to sch…um, OK, forget that one. What are some of the difficulties you’re running into starting a new magazine?
MIKE: You know, this will come off as completely corny, but I have to say it. When I was younger, my dad always said that when you found a job you loved, it wouldn’t feel like work. And I always thought that was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. Work was work; it was just something you had to do. But this thing has been so much fun. Don’t get me wrong -- it’s a ton of work, and none of us are making any money from it. But I’ve loved every minute of it, and I think the other three guys have too. We all enjoy spending time together, and we all love writing. So it feels like a privilege to be able to sit around and talk shop, to read the submissions we get, to talk with writers, to essentially start with nothing and bring something that’s hopefully unique and interesting into the world.
There are all kinds of problems and issues and challenges, though. One of the challenges for me, personally, has been self-promotion. I’m not a natural marketer, and I tend to make self-deprecating comments when people ask me what I’m up to. But you have to put that aside, and go out and tell the world about what you’re doing if you want it to succeed.
Are there any writers in your upcoming first issue you’re particularly excited about showcasing?
MIKE: There are, but I’m not sure we’re ready to throw out names just yet, only because we don’t want to count our chickens before they hatch. There are some writers we really like who have agreed to submit a story, or else write an essay about pop culture. And we recently got the thumbs up for an interview with a musician we really admire. But until those things are firmly in hand, I feel like I might jinx myself by mentioning them in public. I should also say that we’ve gotten some unsolicited submissions that have just completely blown our doors off. Which tells me there is indeed room for another journal in the world, and that there’s a lot of great writing being done right now and only a limited number of places to put it.
DAVE: We’ve also had great luck getting talented people to contribute shorter pieces to the website. Claire Zulkey and Carrie Hill Wilner have pieces on right now, and those were people we actually sought out and said, “Hey, we really like your work, would you think about contributing?” And so we were really excited when they agreed. Darby Larson also has a piece up there right now that’s fantastic. And, of course, Mike worked out some of his private demons regarding Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows.
Are there any magazines or journals currently out there that you really admire, or consider a major influence on Barrelhouse?
MIKE: There are too many to name, I’m sure, but I’ll try to list a few. Zoetrope is one of my favorite journals, just great all around. In terms of fiction and poetry, The Gettysburg Review and Ploughshares are both consistently good. I’ve also admired the fiction in The Missouri Review over the years. McSweeney’s deserves a mention if only because they’re sort of the elephant in the room when you talk about starting a new journal. The success they’ve had, particularly in how they’ve reached a broader audience and what they’ve done with the web site, is really impressive. I was also a big fan of Story magazine, before it folded. That was the first journal I ever subscribed to. And Tin House is beautifully designed.
JOE: I like Granta a lot, the fact that while it’s based in the UK, it publishes work from all over the world. I don't think enough American journals do that on a regular basis. It's good to see what other countries are doing in the world of fiction. To me it feels like the rest of the world's writing, especially the British, is a bit more raw than American writing, more instinctual and less workshopped. I kind of like that; it leaves more room for innovation and risk taking.
DAVE: I was in Portland last year, doing the pilgrimage to Powells, and came across all these great lit mags I hadn’t seen before. Some of those -- west coast independent journals like Little Engines, Monkeybicycle, and Kitchen Sink — kind of provided a spark for Barrelhouse in that they really made me think: “Shit, why aren’t there any of these cool, smart, funky little lit mags in DC?”
Conversely, are there any journals you would cringe if compared to?
MIKE: Oh, God yes. But I feel sort of mean-spirited to name them. That would be like posting the worst submission we get each week on our web site, wouldn’t it?
We definitely did not want to be considered a “’zine,” which is why we’ve invested time and effort into the production side of things -- to give our journal a professional feel, even if the four of us are basically well-trained monkeys surviving on a steady diet of booze and cocktail wieners. We also didn’t want our aesthetic to be “weird for the sake of being weird,” which is, unfortunately, a rather popular aesthetic at the moment. I do think some experimental fiction works really, really well, and I don’t mean to come off as curmudgeonly. But some stories feel organically weird, if that makes sense -- the structure and language exist in a way that fits -- and then some just seem too cute or too clever, like they’re trying too hard to be original. Like you’ll read a submission and think: You know, you’ve got an interesting story to tell, but I’m not sure why you told it backwards, or through the eyes of the family dog.
DAVE: And we won’t be running baby pictures of our contributors in the journal.
Your site mentions several times that you are simply looking for great writing, as opposed to a particular aesthetic. Are there any exceptions to this? Anything you won’t publish?
MIKE: Well, we probably won’t be publishing any stories about anal probing space mutants, or time travel. Then again, as soon as I say that, someone will submit a story about anal probing space mutants and time travel that is just spectacular and that somehow renders those subjects in a way that is human and complicated and interesting, and I’ll have to recant. I can’t imagine what that story would look like, but it seems that as soon as you make a hard-and-fast rule, someone comes along and breaks it. I was in a writing group once and the teacher was saying how it’s nearly impossible to write a short story from the perspective of a young child that doesn’t come off as precious and cloying. And so of course one of the writers in the group wrote a story told from the perspective of a young child, and it was wonderful.
What I think we’re trying to do in saying that we’re looking only for quality writing is to leave the door open to possibility. Sure there are some things we like better than others. I, for one, initially advocated a statement saying we were not interested in genre work, or erotica. But then the other editors, who thankfully are less snotty than I am, piped up and said “Well, what if someone writes a detective story that breaks the conventions of that genre, or a story about sex that’s not clichéd and overwrought?” And I had to admit they were right.
I should also note that we’re publishing poetry, but we have a separate poetry editor, Gwydion Suilebhan (one of the few people in the world who can say he had John Popper open for one of his poetry readings). I really like poetry, but I’m one of those people who takes a poetry workshop and never knows what to say except “Yes” or “Oh God, no.” And Dave, Aaron and Joe are basically the same way. So we thought we should find someone a little better suited to judge those submissions. I can say, though, that the idea of accessibility is also important to us in the poetry we’ll publish.
DAVE: I have trouble understanding poetry that doesn’t begin “She was a fast machine…”
What is your primary reason for starting this journal? Is it to showcase writers? Make a statement? Just fun?
MIKE: The idea for the journal actually came from a night of drinking. To back up a bit and start from the beginning, the four of us were all in a writing workshop here in D.C. After the class ended, we kept getting together informally every couple weeks. The idea was that we’d read each others’ stories and provide some feedback -- which we did, sort of, but we also spent a lot of time talking about books and music and movies and horrible reality TV shows. One night, after way too many Brooklyn Browns, Dave asked if any of us would be interested in starting a journal. We talked about it a bit that night, but I for one didn’t hold out much hope that it would become an actual project. People talk about all kinds of things when they’re drinking -- starting a band, breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, quitting their jobs and moving to Borneo. But the next time we met, Dave was still on this whole journal kick, so I thought: well, let’s hear him out. And once we started tossing ideas around, we realized this was something we really wanted to do, and a plan started to take shape.
We’re all writers and we’re all readers and we just love short stories. You know, we’re the kinds of people who can (and do) talk for hours about our favorite story collections, or our favorite authors, or something we read last month in Tin House that we really loved or hated. So in some ways its selfish, I guess, because starting a journal to us is really fun and exciting and we get to meet and talk with some of our favorite authors and discover new work and do all these things that, if you’re total writer geeks like we are, is just incredibly cool. But the larger, less selfish goal is to provide another outlet for good writing. I think this is an incredibly rich time for the short story in America and in other parts of the world. People can say what they want about the proliferation of MFA programs and the homogenization of writing styles, but I just don’t buy it. I don’t think there has ever been a bigger group of talented writers working in the short form. Unfortunately, stories still don’t get as much attention as novels, but I’m hoping the tide may be turning ever so slightly. I mean, look at someone like Lorrie Moore, who writes these incredibly funny and heartbreaking short stories, and is doing very well in terms of recognition. And you’ve got Zoetrope coming out and really celebrating the short story and trying to push it on a larger audience, even going so far as to say that stories are the things films should be based on, rather than novels or original screenplays. And Adam Haslett’s first collection was a Today Show book club selection, for God’s sakes.
DAVE: As a married guy, I’d like to add that “starting a journal” is a fantastic and, apparently, perfectly acceptable reason to go to bars on Wednesday nights and stay out way too late talking about AC/DC and George Saunders and 90210 and Aimee Bender and, uh, the journal. Yeah, the journal. Sometimes until last call, with all the drinking and the talking … about the journal. (Honey, if you’re reading this, I’m totally kidding!)
What are your ultimate goals for Barrelhouse?
MIKE: Total world domination. Anything short of that is failure, and we’ll be forced to commit ritual suicide. Obviously, I’m the type of person who deflects questions about my long-term plans and dreams with sarcasm. I do the same thing when asked about my own writing. “Oh yeah, you know, I dabble a bit. Everyone needs a hobby.” When in truth I spend a lot of time writing stories and revising them and trying to get them published. But it’s easier to make a joke than admit you’re trying to make a living at something so few people actually make a living at.
To answer your question, though, we’ve been so focused on each individual task that there hasn’t been a lot of time to dream about the big picture. The first goal was to get the web site up, so we did that and put a check in that box. And then to start procuring some quality work for the site, which we’ve done and continue to do. And then to get writers for the print journal, do a mock-up of what it will look like, check and check. So if we can just get this first issue out to people without any major bumps in the road, I’ll consider that a huge victory.
Of course we want this project to be viable in the long term, and we believe it will be. Another thing my dad used to say (quite the idealist, my father) was that if you do something you’re passionate about, and that you enjoy, the money part will take care of itself. And while I’m not sure that’s absolutely true, I hope it’s at least kind of true. We’ve researched some different funding options, and we’re confident we can secure at least enough money to keep this thing afloat through advertising or grants or a combination of the two. But for now we’re just focused on Issue #1, which we have money for, and then we’ll have a few months to come up with longer-term funding. That seems to be the magic word for any new journal: money.
OK, finally, Mike, can you really even argue that 90210 is in the same league as The OC? Are you on drugs?
MIKE: Well, I’m going to plead the fifth on your second question. As for your first question, yes and no. I mean, can you argue that the Model T is in the same league as a Porsche 911? Probably not, but the Porsche has the benefit of coming further down the line. That’s a horrible analogy, but I think you get my drift.
I think the two shows are an interesting reflection of bigger things going on in the world of pop culture. 90210 was a show that was almost painfully earnest. Whereas The OC is like this postmodern take on the whole teen genre, which is what makes it really interesting. It has all the familiar plot points and moral dilemmas -- Girl With Drinking Problem, Boy From Wrong Side of Tracks, etc. etc. But then it also makes fun of those clichés and twists them around. Perhaps the greatest OC convention is the show-within-a-show, The Valley. Which gives the writers this great mechanism by which to make fun of their own show, and the whole genre of teen shows.
Teenagers seem to be getting gradually smarter -- not necessarily in terms of IQ or book smarts, but smarter at taking apart media and stories and all the messages they’re inundated with. Look at those after-school specials they used to show when we were kids. They seem so campy and corny and of course if you showed one to a 16 year old today, they’d laugh in your face. But until I was 17 or 18, I thought if you did drugs you would literally jump out of a third story window and try to fly. So today’s kids are a little savvier, I think, and a show like 90210 looks cornier in hindsight than it did even in 1990. I was in 9th grade when 90210 first came on, and I remember watching every single episode, even when I was in college. Toward the end, the show was entertaining mostly because of its moments of unintentional comedy, and just how ridiculous it had become. I mean, you have this cheesy nightclub attached to a diner. Huh? And Steve Sanders celebrating his 21st birthday when he’s so obviously in his mid-30s. But in the beginning I think people -- well, at least teen people -- were legitimately interested in the characters and what would happen to them each week.
DAVE: Donna Martin graduates! Donna Martin graduates!

An Interview with Jay Kirk

I was first introduced to Jay Kirk at the home of poet Tom Devaney in Philadelphia. Recognizing that our theories of nonfiction rhymed, Tom had invited both of us to the same party, and I've never sufficiently thanked him for the introduction.
As I recall it, Jay had just returned from a magazine-piece trip to England to meet a jester. Like, a real, official court jester. It was good party chat, and I tried to counter with a story about a Satanic ritual I'd attended recently, but Jay can be pretty intimidating with his range of knowledge. We quickly gravitated toward a bed of common belief about how nonfiction is being practiced these days.
And that's something you need to know about Jay's new book, Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals. It's one of those books that's bound to be misshelved in bookstores, if for no other reason than that a shelf for non-memoir nonfiction that truly aspires to art has yet to be built. It's about safari, yes, and a marriage, and the history of conservation, and biography, and art, too -- and because of all that you might have to go on a bit of safari to find it. But you should.
Jay himself was easier to find. He is at home, where he answers e-mails. And sometimes he even returns calls.

You've written magazine articles on subjects ranging from bizarre fetishes, to peculiar crimes, to The Vidocq Society. How did you first stumble across Carl Akeley, and how did you know his story could sustain a book-length work?
I first ran across the name Carl Akeley while working on a story for Harper’s. It was a piece about all of these inexplicable sightings of mountain lions in the eastern U.S. -- inexplicable because the eastern mountain lion (aka cougar, puma) has been extinct since 1888. It was the first story that got me into the whole natural history thing, and it was in the midst of spending a lot of time roaming mountainsides in Appalachia with game wardens and amateur cougar experts, and reading a lot of natural history, that I read this bit in passing about the “famous taxidermist” who had once Strangled a Leopard with His Bare Hands. That grabbed my attention and I started poking around. There was never any question that Akeley’s story could sustain a book-length project -- I mean, once I dug in, it was just overwhelming how much story was there.
The first scene -- Akeley killing and slaughtering a mountain gorilla -- sets the book's grisly tone and establishes that you intend to blend a scholar's rigorous devotion to demonstrable fact with a novelist's license to enter at length into a character's mind. Akeley is sometimes a hard guy to like -- particularly when he's carving up gorillas. Yet you seem to identify with him. Is this because he thinks of himself as an artist?  Does "creative nonfiction" have some of Akeley's same problem in hovering between utilitarian function and beauty?
It’s true, I do identify with Akeley, even occasionally when he’s being a monster. I mean here’s a guy who’s creating three-dimensional nonfiction tableaux who’s literally killing his subjects to reinvent them. There’s definitely something exploitative about writing nonfiction, where you take your subjects out of the chaotic wilderness of real life and then rearrange their corpses. It’s fun work, but sometimes you feel like you’re engaging in something that ought to be illegal. In a way, Akeley’s own work often seemed to me to be a metaphor for the work of writing narrative nonfiction -- before you fully resurrect your subject, there’s a little bloodshed involved. Even if, in my case, the blood was usually a result of a paper cut.
Kingdom Under Glass is preoccupied with ideas of preservation, both literal and figurative. Assuming you didn't make the connection between preservation and history right off the bat, can you pinpoint the moment when you realized that preservation was, in a sense, both the book's subject and its strategy?
The idea of preservation began to be a real motif after I became aware of some of the underlying ideas that belonged to Akeley’s boss, Henry Fairfield Osborn, the president of the American Museum of Natural History, and how Osborn's fears and ideas about eugenics partly embodied the anxieties of the nativist upper classes. Your JP Morgans, Rockefellers, and so on, many of whom were trustees of the AMNH, by the way, feared that they would be unable to preserve the “purity of their race plasm.” The idea of the diorama as membrane between us and them seemed an apt metaphor, especially when you consider how Osborn intentionally developed some of his exhibits to “educate” the lower classes who were crowding the lower east end of his beloved Manhattan. Basically, he felt like he could inspire them to know their place by showing how, look, animals don’t mix races, nature knows its place, there’s no jumping diorama compartments!  These were not thoughts commonly shared at the museum -- Franz Boas, for instance, thought Osborn was a total ass. And Akeley certainly was not creating his own dioramas with that kind of garbage in mind. But the notion was there, and it served as one of the over-arching societal metaphors for my book, along with shrinking wilderness, the shrinking sense of self, and other modern era anxieties. As well as, yes, a commentary on the act of writing history itself.
History itself is diorama-like -- old, dead facts brought to life with a new organization and arrangement. Yet you don't have to be a creative writer to be a historian. What does a creative writer bring to the task of history that a historian won't or can't?
Well, for one, I guess I don’t have the same responsibility to account for everything that a proper historian does. Since my own main objective, or ultimate purpose, is story, not analysis, I have more license, not to invent, but perhaps arrange, or play around with, the material. The material, of course, being the same as that used by the historian -- the primary sources, diaries, books, newspaper articles, correspondence, the photographic archives, etc. As a creative writer, however, I’m thinking in terms of character, and scenes, mood -- I’m thinking about what is most compelling, what’s most entertaining. What the historian would probably not do is omit “important” things because he or she finds them boring, where I have no hang-ups about doing that at all. Part of the reason I used the Eric Foner epigraph -- “Works of history are first and foremost acts of the imagination” -- was to signal to my reader right away what they’re getting themselves into. That the vehicle I’ll be using to take them on this safari is not an objectivist’s dray, but more of a recreational vehicle -- in the sense that I am trying to recreate the experiences of my subjects.
Did you have a particular model for this? Were there particular writers -- either fiction or nonfiction -- you were taking in regularly as you worked?
For me the word “regular” could never be used to describe my reading habits. I am, and my wife Julie will verify this, a completely neurotic reader. It’s something I actually get upset about, choosing what to read. On a bad night I might start to dig into four or five books, read ten pages of each, dislike them all equally, and then end up pouting and watching TV instead. I never feel any guilt whatsoever about ditching a book if I’m not totally captivated. I have the proverbial eclectic stack of twenty books by my bedside, with the current pile including Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart, which is currently getting my most sincere attention; Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish; a book about improving your handwriting (my own looks like that of a left-handed walrus), and, coincidentally enough, and with no intention of brown-nosing, but your book In Utopia, which is really amazing by the way. But, no, to answer your question, I can’t really say I had any models, per se, for Kingdom Under Glass.
You use multiple points of view. What criteria did you use for deciding the point of view of particular scenes? Were these decisions dictated by aesthetic concern, or the materials available to you?
Good question. All choices, of course, in nonfiction are dictated by the materials available and in my case the available sources were voluminous enough that much of the work was really deciding what not to use. Every writer should be so lucky. But the criteria for choosing point of view changed constantly. I rewrote scenes that were originally from Carl’s point of view, then changed them back to Mickie’s point of view, and then back again. Sometimes, oddly enough, and I know this might not make sense, but I think one of my strategies -- at least for certain scenes that had a kind of overly sensational quality -- was to try and create greater credibility via distance. To conceal, or summarize, or in some cases just abbreviate the most sensational moments. Therefore, when Carl was attacked by the elephant, and jumped up and grabbed both tusks, and all this Errol Flynn stuff, it always felt way too far-fetched, even though it’s completely true, and so I decided to kind of remove it a bit by focusing more on where Mickie was during the elephant attack. To opt for the domestic angle, if that makes any sense. I guess that also contributed to creating more suspense, by holding off what had happened to Carl, and letting the reader find out along with Mickie, who’s thinking he’s dead for sure. As a practical matter, however, it was usually easier to write from Mickie’s point of view, since she was always more forthcoming in her diaries and books, whereas to create Carl’s point of view. I relied a lot more on what I’ve been calling “collage,” where I imported stuff to create a more emotional internal dimension. He was always great at describing the basic manly action of what he was doing -- chopping up a gorilla, leaping on an elephant’s face -- but I found I had to rely on juxtaposing some of the more emotional things that would come up in correspondence with his friends, for instance.
You fairly often blaze into the unknowable, assigning stray thoughts and gestures to characters inside moments that wouldn't have seemed particularly momentous at the time (and so aren't likely to have wound up in safari memoirs). Given that all these small decisions are based either wholly or in part on research, did you ever have a moment when you pulled back from applying a creative process to a body of fact, a moment when an impulse crossed your own personal line between fiction and fact?
I disagree that these things are unknowable. Any thoughts directly assigned to a character, stray or otherwise, are grounded in source. I don’t need a diary entry to tell me that my character flicked a fly buzzing near his face. I feel like common sense adequately covers a lot of that stuff. And when common sense isn’t enough, there is always basic inference: if they’re hiking, they wipe sweat from their brow, etc. As for having the impulse to fudge things here and there, yes, that is a constant thing to keep in check. It’s hard to stop the imagination from wanting to interject, especially when the primary documents go thin, or something doesn’t really go the way you kind of hoped it would go, where you feel a very palatable sense of frustration, an itch that you could easily scratch if the medium were fiction instead of nonfiction. But that itch often just forces you to attend even closer to the materials at hand, to look deeper, to think harder on what you have, until the right detail, the right arrangement, or the right omission, solves the problem and pleases the story. I should say it is often at those moments of greatest frustration -- where the writer has a bona fide artistic “problem” -- that often leads to the greatest innovations. It forces you out of cliché.
Just about all of your magazine work includes you, either as an active presence that interferes with whatever story you are reporting on, or a more passive presence that lurks in the background, yet is palpable. Here you're entirely absent. Why?
I originally planned to put myself in the story. I had this somewhat convoluted plan where it would these interpolated chapters, going back and forth between the historical third person Akeley, and chapters where I would be hanging out with this taxidermist I met from New Jersey named John Janelli, who was going to educate me in the Akeley Method -- ideally with something more interesting than a deer. On one occasion Janelli arranged to euthanize a terminally ill elephant from some roadside attraction in Florida. He was going to bring back the body on a flatbed to a barn somewhere in rural Jersey, where he assured me I would get the chance to help him skin and then mount it exactly as Akeley had done with the rotting corpse of Jumbo. I’d be less than honest if I said I wasn’t a little relieved when this opportunity failed to materialize. But I guess, in the end, I realized the book had enough narrative with adding any journalistic hijinks. So I left myself out of the book -- except for one small role. It’s kind of my Hitchcock moment. I don’t know if you noticed or not, but on page 278, I’m actually one of the actors in a gorilla suit. If you look carefully, you can see me give a little of wink at the reader. It’s a pretty subtle act of postmodernism, but it’s there.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Interviews From The Underground

Blake Butler and Shane Jones, combined under the banner YEAR OF THE LIQUIDATOR, present…ONE HOUR OF TELEVISION by Kristina Born — a novel of the highest order, which for me means that it is a question raiser rather than a question answerer. It opens. It suggests. It fans the flames inside your head and chest. It begs the question who are the we and I? Why the loud soft cracks of tiny prose? And where to hide? Where to shelter? When will the words burst? When will the solve of the mystery? And who remains when the cards are played? Who remains the who in the middle? And what does Erin Brockovich have to do with it? What does annihilation have to do with it? What is the why and the how of the who and the when of the what and behold the grotesquery of commodity fetishism! Don’t change the channel. Don’t look away. I, myself, could not. I, myself, wanted answers. Not all, not many, just some, just few. Just a quick dip into the mind of its creator. A brief chance to glimpse another angle. A way to hold the book differently. A way to deepen the trench of my understanding. So here you have it…a brief quick glimpse dip chance at better understanding.  — Christopher Higgs.

THE FASTER TIMES: First, I’d be interested to learn more about you. I know you’re 21, 5’3”, 120 lbs., and that you live in Toronto, Ontario. But I want to know about the kind of stuff that makes you the writer you are, maybe stuff like: what magazines do you look at, what music do you listen to, what television shows do you watch, what books do you cherish, what relationships are most important to you, and/or what occupation pays your bills?

KRISTINA BORN: Actually, I just turned 22, I’m now closer to 100 lbs due to mysterious digestive ailments, and my boyfriend measured me against a wall and forced me to admit that I’m really only 5’2”. Such flux. Good TV for me is stuff like Carnivale, The Wire, Twin Peaks, Deadwood. New York Tyrant is the best lit mag out there period, but also Unsaid, DIAGRAM, Hobart, No Colony, Tin House. Good books are so many, but for now I will always pick out [David Foster Wallace's] Brief Interviews With Hideous Men as the most important. It changed me the most. Good music is Diamanda Galas, Neutral Milk Hotel, Fugazi, Nirvana, Radiohead, The Fugs, Nina Simone, Scout Niblett, Xiu Xiu, Erik Satie. I have an incredible group of smart, funny, pretty friends. I can’t imagine doing without them and when we play music together, it’s magic.

TFT: When you say that DFW’s Brief Interviews… changed you the most, could you say more about that? How? In what ways?

BORN: I mean that it completely destroyed the way I looked at literature, and my writing was never the same after I read it. It shook me up. Coming out of high school, I had read lots of books that I admired and that inspired me, but Brief Interviews, I think, was the first to really kick me in the head and make me go, “This is better work than I’ll ever do. I’m not a writer yet,” which I needed. Plus I had it taught to me by an amazing professor, Kim Michasiw, who I daresay is as fiercely brilliant as Foster Wallace was. So I came to realize that you can do all these fucked things with form and voice and Brief Interviews was the first thing that started showing me how.

I really hate the terms “novella” and “novelette” because they don’t mean anything.

TFT: What was your writing process like for One Hour of Television? Where was it written, under what conditions, and how much revision has it gone through since its initial creation?

BORN: I wrote the majority of OHT during the summer after my second year of university. I came home and worked a 10-hour graveyard shift at a local gas station. I was alone from 8pm-6am and since no one came in after about 11 or so, I had very little actual work to do. I wanted to give myself a writing project for the summer, so I decided that I would write a small story based on every element in the periodic table. I looked up each element on Wikipedia and took down a few facts that jumped at me, and wrote them in no particular order. After 11 at the gas station, the rule was that I had to write three sections, and then I was allowed to read Infinite Jest until around 3, when I mopped and started making coffee for the truckers. After about three weeks, some themes started to emerge and I realized it was a book.

It really hadn’t undergone significant revision until Blake [Butler] and Shane [Jones] got a hold of it. I knew that the ending had to be redone, but I hadn’t been able do it. I really think the whole thing would have failed utterly if it weren’t for their suggestions.

TFT: I’m interested in how you went about getting it published. Had you sent it out to other places? Were you looking for a publisher in Canada or the US or both or does that distinction even matter? How did you get hooked up with Blake and Shane?

BORN: I’ve never been published in Canada, and I don’t particularly think I ever will, which is fine. I don’t feel much of a connection with the literature that’s being published here right now, but I’ll talk more about that later.

I sent Blake WHAT IS ALLOWED for consideration for NO COLONY, and ended up having to withdraw it a few months later because Unsaid took it. He emailed me that day and apologized for not grabbing it first, and asked if I had anything else I could send. I didn’t have a working computer at the time, and the only things I had on my work computer were THE DELIVERY ROOM, which he did end up publishing in NO COLONY, and a draft of OHT. I sent him the draft too and shortly after, he said that he and Shane wanted to put it out.

I’m interested in a different solution: a complete monopoly of mood.

TFT: One of the many excellent things about your book is the way it resists genre classification. Is it a group of prose poems, is it a collection of short-shorts, is it a novella, is it…? (To me, it’s all those things and more.) I wonder how you see it in terms of genre. Do you even think about genre distinctions?

BORN: To me, it’s a novel. I really hate the terms “novella” and “novelette” because they don’t mean anything. It’s a short novel, that’s all. I’m not a poet and I would never describe my writing as prose poetry – which also doesn’t mean anything – and if I read something like Anne Carson’s DECREATION, which is a lot of different things, it seems pointless to me to try to classify it as plays or essays or poetry. It’s a book and it’s good.

TFT: I’m wondering about the page layout. It’s so sparse; there’s so much white space. For me, it evokes an eerie kind of silence, which plays an interesting counterpoint to the sharpness of language. Could you say a little something about that choice?

BORN: I wanted it to be suffocating. Gertrude Stein thought (mostly in reference to her plays, I believe) that you can’t write emotional arcs, because if the reader is not in the exact right emotional state at the right stage in the arc, you’ll lose him. Her solution was to put everything on the page immediately, like a painting, and allow the reader to pick out what resonated with him at the time. I’m interested in a different solution: a complete monopoly of mood. I want to try to write in a way where the reader can pick up the book, read any sentence, and be immediately crunched down into the mood he should be in.

That doesn’t mean that there is only one mood throughout the book; there are funny parts and sad parts and what have you. What it means is, throughout all these different moods, I try to use diction to create an underlying tone that deadens the moods. So the reader, while he experiences the variable moods of the book, is simultaneously experiencing this monotonous tone, which will hopefully anchor him.

I’ve probably explained this badly.

TFT: No, that makes sense. I especially like what you say about wanting “a complete monopoly of mood.” But now this has got me thinking about your choice to write the narrative “I” from the male perspective. Did it just come out that way or was it a conscious decision/challenge?

BORN: I almost always write from the male perspective when I’m writing in first person, whether gender is specified in the piece or not. I think I’m always trying to get as far away from autobiography as possible. I tend to get into a pretty dark headspace when I think about myself in any real way, so I avoid too much introspection when I write. Despite popular theory, it’s terribly hard to be creative when you’re bummed out. I’m trying to work around this problem with my next project, though, so we’ll see if that stays true.

I think it’s worth noting that even Anne Carson, who’s one of the few continuing to fuck language, is first a classicist.

TFT: There’s also the narrative voice of “we,” which almost seems to function as the voice of the collective consciousness of the community. Do you envision these narrative voices as separate from each other or somehow interconnected?

BORN: Well, the collective unconscious of the community, really. The two–the conscious “I” and the unconscious “we”–are separate, but tenuously. We all have this store of weird, half-remembered information in our heads, information about who we are and how the world is, and I think that you can only break away from that so much. In the book, one of the functions of the narrative “we” is to establish the kinds of voices that the “I” might be hearing.

TFT: How do you think about this book in terms of how it fits or doesn’t fit within the world of literature? Do you feel like this book is in conversation with any other books–if so, which ones?

BORN: OHT was written partly as protest against current Canadian literature, so it’s necessarily in conversation with the short-lived era of Canadian experimental literature from about 1965-1985. Since 1985, Canadian literature has been predominantly historical and familial, and I find it painful that no one seems to want to look forward or even attempt to address the present climate of the country. There are exceptions, of course (Christian Bök’s Xenotext Experiment, for example), but I think it’s worth noting that even Anne Carson, who’s one of the few continuing to fuck language, is first a classicist.

I don’t consider myself an especially political person, but this chronic passivity, particularly among young Canadian artists, is what allowed Stephen Harper to cut $45 million in arts funding and then be swiftly re-elected.

TFT: Call me crazy, but I get a sense that there are at least two kinds of writers who are writing prose right now: writers who consider themselves story-centric and writers who consider themselves sentence-centric. What is your take on that split? Do you consider yourself one of those two kinds of writers?

BORN: This split seems pretty ridiculous to me. I mean, I think most writers considered to be story-centric are just linear-narrative-centric and most writers considered to be sentence-centric are just non-linear-narrative-centric, so why not say that? That actually means something. And anyone who calls himself a non-narrative writer is probably a little crazy. I don’t care if you have three dots on a page; three dots is expression, expression is a telling, a telling is narrative.

A Classic Re-Hashing

1984 By George Orwell

Orwell's final novel, 1984, is the story of one man's struggle against the ubiquitous, menacing state power (“Big Brother”) that tries to dictate nearly every aspect of human life. The novel is a classic in anti-utopian fiction, and a trenchant political satire that remains as relevant today as when it was first published.

Alan Baxter is the author of the supernatural thrillers RealmShift and MageSign, and also a regular contributor to Publetariat.

Why have you elected to go indie with your books?

My first book was almost published traditionally but fell over at the eleventh hour. Rather than go through the whole submission process again I decided to self-publish it and see what happened while I got on with the next book. I therefore discovered the joys of indie publishing and haven’t looked back.

You’re very active in terms of author platform; which strategies do you feel have paid off, and which have not?

By far the most important thing is to have a website that acts as a hub of all my online and promotional activity. My website is both a blog and a place where people can read all kinds of examples of my writing – I have short stories, flash fiction and a serial novella there, as well as the first three chapters of both novels, RealmShift and MageSign. That gives people something to do there, and I regularly update the fiction pages. When I get anything published in magazines or online I post links and reprint the stories on my site when the publishing rights expire. I blog as often as possible about all things writing and publishing related, not just my own writing. All these things give people a reason to come back and learn more.

That website then becomes the central station of my online presence and all the other things like Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads and so on are linked to it. That’s what works for me.

Many indie authors view corporate giant Amazon with a mixture of suspicion and contempt, but you’ve been a very outspoken supporter. Why?

Amazon gives indie authors something they’ve never had before – the chance to put their books in the same place as every other book from every other publisher. That’s unprecedented exposure. Amazon certainly have their quirks and there’s a lot about them that I’d change given the chance, but there’s simply no denying that the opportunities that Amazon presents to indies far outweigh any niggles in their professional practices.

Having published both in print and ebook editions, do you find your ebooks selling more, less, or in about the same numbers as your print editions?

Currently my books are selling better on Kindle than any other format, but it fluctuates. I think ebooks are certainly going to become mainstream very soon (if they aren’t already!) and will probably begin to account for the bulk of indie author sales. But there will always be people that love the physical book and POD means that the physical book will always be available. I’ve already had readers that have told me that they originally read my books as ebooks, but then went and bought trade paperbacks to have them on the shelves at home. One format holds up the other it seems.

You’re an Englishman who’s now settled in Australia; are the two cultures very different in terms of writing and writer communities?

English and Australian culture is very similar. If anything, Australia is more influenced by American culture than Britain is, but otherwise they’re pretty interchangeable. The same applies to writers and writing communities. Sadly, Australia suffers from one of the things that makes it so great. There are only around 20 million people in Australia, which is why we have so much space and so much natural beauty, but it also makes us a bit of a backwater when it comes to publishing and sales. Compared to somewhere like the US with around 300 million people, no one is really interested in building up their presence in Australia – we don’t even have an for example. As an indie author, that causes problems, but time is slowly seeing some changes and I’m optimistic for the future. And I also love our wide open land, so I’m not in a hurry to see us have a population like the US or Europe!

In a nutshell, what are your books, RealmShift and MageSign, about?

RealmShift follows the trials of a powerful immortal by the name of Isiah. Isiah is tasked with trying to keep some level of balance between all the gods and beliefs of people. In this instance he has to track down a murdering blood mage by the name of Samuel Harrigan. Isiah needs Samuel to complete a task he began – if Samuel fails to fulfill his destiny it will have ramifications on a global scale. The trouble is, Sam has reneged on a deal with Devil and has gone into hiding, so Isiah has to keep the Devil at bay while he tracks down Samuel and convinces him to finish what he started.

MageSign is the sequel to RealmShift and sees Isiah trying to find and bring down Samuel Harrigan’s mentor, a man known only as the Sorcerer. Isiah is keen to make sure that no new prodigies like Samuel are moulded, but his investigations lead him to discover that the Sorcerer has far more followers than he ever expected and an audacious plan that will change the world if Isiah can’t stop it.

Both books are rollicking dark fantasy thrillers with lots of magic and action, demons, gods, monsters and all that good stuff. You can learn a lot more about them, as well as read reviews and excerpts on my website.

The covers for the books are very attractive. Did you design them yourself, or hire a cover artist?

I’m lucky that I have some ability with Photoshop and a decent eye for design, so I did them myself. I heartily recommend hiring a cover artist if you don’t have the skills though – people really do judge a book by its cover. I’m glad you think my covers are good!

Do you have plans to continue the series? Why or why not?

I originally wrote RealmShift as a standalone novel. During the writing I came up with the idea for MageSign and it was something that I really wanted to explore, so I wrote that too. It turned out to be better than RealmShift in many ways and I’m very proud of both books. I don’t really have any plans to continue with another Isiah book, but a lot of people have asked me if I am. In fact, several people have insisted that I do! I’ll only write another one if a really good idea comes to me – I won’t just churn out another for the sake of it. In the meantime I’m working on a new novel, completely unrelated to RealmShift or MageSign. There may be an occasional cameo or two though.

You’re also a Kung Fu instructor. How does the discipline instilled by this martial art inform your work, or work habits, as an author?

Well, I write good fight scenes! I’ve often been complimented on the fight scenes in my writing and have been invited to present a workshop on writing and the martial arts at Conflux this year (Australia’s biggest speculative fiction convention) which is very exciting. Otherwise, I suppose that I see the path of martial arts and the path of writing as very similar in one particular way – when you study martial arts for a long time (nearly 30 years in my case) you realise that the more you learn, the more you have to learn. No matter how good you get, you’ll never stop learning or improving. The same can be said of writing – the more I write, the more I realise how much better a writer I can become. And just like martial arts, where you have to practice every day to maintain and improve your skills, a writer has to write every day for the same reasons.

Alan Baxter is the author of the dark fantasy thrillers RealmShift and MageSign. Both books are available from indie publisher Blade Red Press through (print & Kindle editions), (print editions), and (multiple ebook formats). Learn more about the author, read Alan’s blog and read lots of free short fiction, a novella and the first three chapters of both RealmShift and MageSign at Alan’s website.

News, News, News...

Redirected News and Author Interviews (More Soon)
Chicago plays host to first festival for individual creativity
Chicago was once one of the printing capitals of the nation, with top magazines and newspapers published right in the city. Today, Chicago is still home to popular print publications, but a type of paper is becoming more popular in the city, and it isn’t produced by any media conglomerate. The popular publications, called zines are self-made and are a locally produced print media with low circulation, but every page is filled with personality.

On March 12, Chicago will have its first Zine Fest, where more than 95 local, small magazine exhibitors will come together to gain new ideas and showcase their personal productions. The community will be able to see the work of self-motivated individuals first hand with events at Columbia’s Conaway Center, 1104 S. Wabash Ave.; Quimby’s Bookstore, 1854 W. North Ave.; and Johalla Projects, 1561 N. Milwaukee Ave.

“The organizers shared a table at the Milwaukee Zine Fest this past November and we realized half the people there were from Chicago,” said Neil Brideau, an organizer for the Chicago Zine Fest. “We thought it was crazy that they had to leave Chicago to come to a Zine Fest in Milwaukee. We started planning a Chicago Zine Fest that night while driving back to Chicago.”

The overall purpose, Brideau said, is to celebrate self-publishing and create a social networking-style event where zinesters can meet. Brideau said with the harsh Chicago winter and spread out neighborhoods, most zinesters don’t collaborate and end up “publishing their work in their own bedroom.” The festival will allow them to come out and display their work to the community and other creators.

“The idea of self-generating content is becoming more mainstream and not such a crazy idea,” Brideau said. “People now can say ‘Oh, I have something. I guess I can just say it and not wait for someone else to say it is OK.’”

When Brideau and the other organizers started openly recruiting zines to join the festival, the rapid responses were staggering, he said. Their first participant was a zine in Toronto, causing the festival to go international, Brideau said.

The Fiction Writing Department at Columbia joined the Zine Fest to help students see what they can do while in school and past graduation. The department has worked alongside festival organizers to reserve tables so students can showcase their own literature and see fellow students’ creations. The tables are on a first-come, first-serve basis with a maximum of 10 tables.

Jon Wawrzaszek, recycling manager at Columbia, is helping the event on March 13 at the Conaway Center by managing the facilities that the Zine Fest will use at Columbia.
Wawrzaszek said the festival is coming to Columbia not just because it’s a well-known institution with a strong Fiction Writing Department, but because there are students with their own personal zines and some who want to learn more about individually made literature.

Throughout the festival, the community and fellow zinesters will bear witness to the ever-expanding trend of self-publishing through speakers, galleries and meetings

“We like the idea of connecting with students at Columbia because we love to see more people make zines,” Brideau said. “We are excited to have students and young writers involved. It will be a good fit.”

Great Review by J. Crispin

Sex, Scotland And Socrates In 'Old Men In Love'

by Jessa Crispin

Old Men in Love: John Tunnock's Posthumous Papers
By Alasdair Gray
Hardcover, 312 pages
Small Beer Press
List price: $24

Read An Excerpt
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June 2, 2010
Scottish schoolmaster John Tunnock could not finish writing a book. He'd begin a manuscript on the trial of Socrates, only to become frustrated with details and get distracted with an idea he had about the Italian Renaissance. At the time of his death in 2007, at age 67 (foul play is suspected), he had a handful of such half-finished manuscripts about topics ranging from ancient Athens to 2003 Glasgow, along with a few diaries, and reminisces of his childhood after his mother was killed in the London Blitz. His heir Lady Sara Sim-Jaeger sought to find a suitable home for them. They have no real publishing value on their own, she thought, but perhaps a writer like Alasdair Gray, "who clearly has a high opinion of his own talents," could bring some form to the miscellanea and cobble it into a manuscript.

Like the best of Gray's work, Old Men in Love is funny and profane, but with a shuddering anger to the politics. Despite its swinging widely through time and space to portray men in power, their vulnerabilities and the perils of unchecked desire, perhaps the novel's best section is its most mundane and personal: Gray's portrayal of John Tunnock as a young boy trying to find his (lonely) place in working-class Glasgow. With a dead mother and a father he never knew, he's left to two plucky maiden aunts. His coming of age includes sherry, comic book superheroines in very tight costumes, his discovery of pornography and being discovered with pornography by his schoolmaster.

Enlarge Alasdair Gray
Self-Portrait: "Alasdair Gray, 24 July 1995, photographed by himself in a mood of exceptional gaiety."

Alasdair Gray
Self-Portrait: "Alasdair Gray, 24 July 1995, photographed by himself in a mood of exceptional gaiety."

Tunnock does not exist, of course. The lines between the real and fictional, human beings and characters, have always been a little blurry in Gray's work. In his 1981 debut novel Lanark, he created fictional literary critic Sidney Workman to limn that book's and Gray's failings and disappointments. Workman reappears at the end of Old Men in Love, insisting that he's not a fictional creation (he is) and reasserting his belief that Gray is a middling talent. Fantastical Gray works like Lanark and 1982, Janine (1984) include baldly autobiographical passages hidden behind the dragons and S&M role playing.

Gray is telling the truth about one thing: Old Men in Love is a hodgepodge of older material, "a collection of scraps from a tired writer's bottom drawer," as Workman puts it. But it's Gray's bottom drawer we're scraping, not Tunnock's. Some bits are reworked from newspaper articles, others from discarded stories and plays. The surprising thing is that it holds together as a cohesive novel. This may be the dregs, but with a writer like Alasdair Gray, it's worth the trip all the way to the bottom.

Excerpt: 'Old Men In Love'

by Alasdair Gray

Old Men in Love: John Tunnock's Posthumous Papers
By Alasdair Gray
Hardcover, 312 pages
Small Beer Press
List price: $24

One boy in my class was as friendless as myself. His clothing indicated a poorer home than most of us. His face was pitted by acne scars and his movements were awkward and jerky, maybe from an early attack of infantile paralysis. There was a rumour that he should have gone to the Junior Secondary School, but had only passed the qualifying exam to the Senior Secondary because the examiners pitied him. Unlike me, who was mocked, Stewart Doig (nicknamed Stoory Doig) was simply avoided. Nobody sat beside him in class if there was an empty seat elsewhere. When there was not I had to sit beside him, at which times he would try to start conversations which I discouraged, because like most outcasts who long to be accepted by a majority I disliked others in my situation. When I said this boy was my school friend Nell and Nan, who often spoke simultaneously, cried, "Bring him home to tea!"

I hid my horror of the idea by saying sadly, "Impossible. He has a widowed mother who keeps him on a very short leash. She frets a lot if he doesn't eat with her — she's a bit of an invalid who has very little company — and he's a very devoted son."

Nell cried, "O poor woman!" and Nan, "And poor boy! We must do something to help. Perhaps we should visit them?" "No," I said, shaking my head, "His mother may be poor but she's very proud and would hate anything like condescension.”

"You've met his mother?" said Nan, surprized.

"No, but he talks a lot about her, and that’s the impression I get."

This sounded inconclusive and unconvincing so I added, "I've been invited to their house for a meal once or twice, but honestly, I prefer eating with you."

"But you must go!" they cried and, "The poor woman will be glad to see her son has got at least one good friend," said Nell, and Nan said, "It will be a rare social occasion for her. I will bake a cake for them and you must also take a bunch of flowers."

This conversation left me astonished by the ready stream of lies I had smoothly told, but depressed by the consequences. From now on my aunts wanted reports about Doig and his mother, who really was a widow but not (as far as I knew) an invalid. Nell and Nan were so pleased with this fiction of my new friend that I had no heart to destroy it by telling the truth or inventing a quarrel with Stoory that would make reconciliation impossible. A time came when I could not postpone a visit to his home so set off one Saturday after lunch with a bouquet of chrysanthemums in one hand, in the other the briefcase containing a bottle of dry sherry and rich dark fruit cake in a cardboard box. When out of sight of the house I turned north instead of south, went quickly through Botanic Gardens to the Ha’penny Bridge, chucked the flowers into the river as I crossed and then turned upstream along a path that is now the start of the West Highland Walkway. It was a grey day and thin rain began to fall. I passed the great weir serving the west bank paper mill and under an arch of Kelvingrove Aqueduct sat down on a lump of rubble and took out cake-box and bottle. Even on bright summer days this is a dank, dreary place but few folk pass that way and that Saturday it suited my mood. I opened the box, broke off handfuls of cake and stolidly ate them between swigs from the neck of the bottle. My previous experiences of alcohol had been small glasses of hot toddy brought to me in bed with an aspirin pill when a cold looked like coming on. I had never before drunk at one sitting a whole bottle of anything. As the sherry went down my gloom gave way to foolish, light-headed cheer. I flung the bottle away, stood up and everything seemed spinning and tilting round me. By an effort of will I stopped that happening, which added a sensation of power to my strange cheerfulness. Leaving most of the cake for birds and rodents I strode up to the Maryhill Road and along the busy pavement, amazed that nobody seemed to see how drunk I was. Either my self control was super-human or other folk had also secretly drunk too much and were too busy disguising the fact to notice my condition. This last explanation seemed most probable and enhanced my sense of total freedom.

Books We Don't Hate

Anna In-Between
a novel by
Elizabeth Nunez
A HARDCOVER Original l ISBN: 978-1-933354-84-2
320 pages | $22.95
Forthcoming: September 2009

"A psychologically and emotionally astute family portrait, with dark themes like racism, cancer and the bittersweet longing of the immigrant."
--New York Times Book Review (Editors Choice)
"Nunez has created a moving and insightful character study while delving into the complexities of identity politics. Highly recommended."
--Library Journal (*starred review*)

"Nunez deftly explores family strife and immigrant identity in her vivid latest . . . with expressive prose and convincing characters that immediately hook the reader."
--Publishers Weekly (*starred review*)

"Nunez offers an intimate portrait of the unknowable secrets and indelible ties that bind husbands and wives, mothers and daughters."

"The award-winning author of Prosperos Daughter has written a novel more intimate than her usual big-picture work; this moving exploration of immigrant identity has a protagonist caught between race, class and a mothers love."
--Ms. Magazine

"A new book by Elizabeth Nunez is always excellent news. Probing and lyrical, this fantastic novel is one of her best yet. Fall into her prose. Immerse yourself in her world. You will not be disappointed."
--Edwidge Danticat, author of Brother, I'm Dying

"Anna In-Between is Elizabeth Nunez's best novel. Nunez proves that a great writer, armed with intellect, talent, and very little equipment, can challenge a multibillion-dollar media operation. As long as she writes her magnificent books, characters like the Sinclairs, characters with depth and integrity, will not be hidden from us."
--Ishmael Reed, author of Mumbo Jumbo

"In crisp, clear, and beautifully turned prose, Elizabeth Nunez has written a fascinating novel that will profoundly affect the way in which many readers now view the Caribbean. We welcome the voice of the infinitely wise narrator, Anna, who is an expert witness to the seismic changes that take place within and without. A wonderful read."
--Lorna Goodison, author of From Harvey River

"Elizabeth Nunez has written a contemplative, lush, and measured examination of how a family history can reflect the social history of an island, and how twined together, like fragrant vines, the two can remain."
--Susan Straight, author of A Million Nightingales

"Gripping and richly imagined . . . Nunez is a master at pacing and plotting."
--New York Times (Editors' Choice), on Prospero's Daughter

"Nunez's fiction, with its lush, lyric cadences and whirlwind narrative, casts a seductive spell."
--O, The Oprah Magazine

"[An] exquisite retelling of The Tempest . . . Masterful."
--Kirkus Reviews

"[An] honest and superbly written book."
--Miami Herald, on Prospero's Daughter

Anna In-Between is Elizabeth Nunez's finest literary achievement to date. In spare prose, with laserlike attention to every word and the juxtaposition of words to each other, Nunez returns to her themes of emotional alienation, within the context of class and color discrimination, so richly developed in her earlier novels.

Anna, the novel's main character, who has a successful publishing career in the U.S., is the daughter of an upper-class Caribbean family. While on vacation in the island home of her birth she discovers that her mother, Beatrice, has breast cancer. Beatrice categorically rejects all efforts to persuade her to go to the U.S. for treatment, even though it is, perhaps, her only chance of survival. Anna and her father, who tries to remain respectful of his wife's wishes, must convince her to change her mind.

In a convergence of craftsmanship, unflinching honesty, and the ability to universalize the lives of her characters, Nunez tells a story that explores our longing for belonging to a community, the age-old love-repulsion relationship between mother and daughter, the Freudian overtones in the love between daughter and father, and the mutual respect that is essential for a successful marriage. One of the crowning achievements of this novel is that it shines a harsh light on the ambiguous situation of this ruling-class family who rose from the constraints of colonialism to employ their own servants. It is a strength of the novel that it understands that the political truth is not distinct from the truth of the family or the truth of love relationships; they are integrated into a unity in this novel constituting one unbroken reality as they are in real life.

Elizabeth Nunez is a Distinguished Professor at Hunter College in New York City, and the award-winning author of seven novels, including Prosperos Daughter (New York Times Editors' Choice; 2006 Novel of the Year, Black Issues Book Review) and Bruised Hibiscus (American Book Award). She is coeditor with Jennifer Sparrow of the anthology Stories from Blue Latitudes: Caribbean Women Writers at Home and Abroad. Nunez is executive producer of the 2004 NY Emmy-nominated CUNY TV series Black Writers in America. She divides her time between Amityville, New York and Brooklyn.