[This is a reconstruction of an interview I did for Hipster Book Club in 2008. The original site is gone, and I couldn't find it in the wayback machine, but I have the questions and answers from my email archive. So the intro and whatnot is missing, but you get the idea...]
You started off doing zines, right? Back in the early 90s, the heyday of zine culture… What made you do that and how did you get the word out about your first zine, the death metal zine Xenocide?
My friend Ray Miller did a zine called Metal Curse, covering thrash and death metal, and starting in 1990, I wrote reviews and later a regular column for him. We also spent a lot of time planning, scheming, and answering mail. When I moved away to school, I still worked for Ray, but decided to start something myself, and did the first issue of my own zine in early 1992. I also DJed a death metal show at a shithole public access station in 1992, and got a lot of interviews and contacts that way.
When I was doing Xenocide, there were a lot of people into death metal who read usenet news on the internet, and it was easy for me to keep in touch with them for free. (This was when long distance still cost an insane amount, and way before cell phones.) There was also this “underground” of death metal fans that traded demo tapes and dubs of obscure vinyl and photocopied zines in the mail, and everyone traded everyone’s address. Whenever you mailed anything to another person, you would put a handful of these flyers into the envelope. Each flyer was a fraction of a photocopied page, with an ad for a zine or band or record, scrawled out in that sick drippy-blood font with a picture of a demon on it. The good news was that these things ended up all over, and you’d get mail from Norway or Japan or Alaska because of it. The bad news was that this was a trade-based economy, and everyone wanted free crap, so you never made any money, and often got stuck with some sub-par stuff. And this happened outside of death metal too, because zines were getting very big at that time. Thanks to Factsheet Five and Zine World, I got a lot of mail from non-metal people who were just into zines.
One interesting thing came out of Xenocide much later. This kid used from California used to send me record reviews and artwork, and we used to trade mails until I stopped the zine, then I never heard from him again… until a decade later. It turns out this kid was Adam Gadahn, aka Azzam the American, up-and-coming Taliban member that ended up on the FBI’s most wanted list. When that story broke, I ended up getting calls from the FBI and pretty much every major western news organization out there. I never thought reviewing Cannibal Corpse tapes would get me in the New Yorker, but it did.
At its biggest, what was your print run on Xenocide? And how were you making the zine? I have not so fond memories of using pagemaker on my PS-70, going to the copy shop, having folding and stapling parties…
The last issue, #5, had two runs of 100 issues, plus a few dozen more. I was photocopying at Kinko’s, and would pop in and run off a half-dozen copies if I was out and needed a few. It was photocopied on 11×17, or I would have printed a hundred thousand more in the campus computer labs.
The first three issues were actually more of an email newsletter or ezine, which in 1992, absolutely nobody understood, so I had to make printouts and photocopy those for the computer-impaired bands and labels. #4 was done in the Mac version of WordPerfect, and #5 was PageMaker. I never got to the volume where I offset printed, although the fifth issue had a “color” cover (printed on solid red paper). Every issue was (and still is) available as an ezine, which was way ahead of the curve.
Is it true that you started producing zines to get chicks and free CDs?
There were only like three women in the entire death metal community, so it was mostly for the music, and zines. No CDs though – this was still the era of the cassette tape.
At some point you dropped Xenocide and started doing the more literary-focused Air in the Paragraph Line. What happened?
After doing #5 in 1993, I ran out of money and ran out of steam, and realized I really needed to get my act together and graduate from college. Also, death metal was fragmenting and falling apart quickly. Major labels snapped up bands because they wanted the next Metallica, and when that failed, they moved on and tried to find the next Nirvana. I fretted over doing a sixth issue, but eventually let it go.
Air in the Paragraph Line was something I started in 1996. I missed publishing a zine, and coincidentally found a photocopier at my job that pretty much nobody knew existed, so I had to do something. I was trying to write fiction at the time, and I pieced together bits of email and book reviews and travel writing, and tacked on excerpts of current projects, like a personal newsletter sort of thing. Eventually, it became a place for me to publish other people’s writing, and after a long hiatus and a move across the country, it became a shiny printed book, as opposed to a photocopier zine.
You were the first person I knew who had an online journal. When I first met you in 99, you’d already been doing one for two years. I think you may have once explained to me how you wrote a script or an interface, but I was still completely baffled about how you updated without hand-coding everything each time you updated. Now, of course, even my cat blogs. What was it about the way the web worked that made you want to start keeping an online journal? How do you think it influenced your writing? Were there other people keeping online journals then? How do you feel about the blog explosion?
I don’t remember the exact moment I decided to keep a journal online, except I’d been doing it on paper for years, and thought it would be a good way to crack out some writing every day at lunch. I think the biggest influence for me was that it forced me to practice every day, even if I was writing dumb shit about how the grocery store was out of frozen corn dogs again.
Back when I started in ’97, there were a few people keeping online journals, and some web rings (remember those?) of people who wrote in journals. The half-dozen I read in the mid-nineties were all very spectacular, and either had solid writing or strange adventures, or both. I remember one by this Canadian guy who was riding his bike across China from Europe and then down into Vietnam. He would write offline almost every night, and then when he found an internet cafe to upload, you’d get this burst of updates, truly incredible tales.
I think I’m done bitching about the quality of new blogs versus old stuff, because there’s good stuff out there now. I guess what pisses me off about blogs are that people think the entire format of the blog was invented in like 2003, which is a lot like saying that all forms of acting were invented when RCA sold the first color TV. Most people didn’t know the internet even existed before 1997. It makes me wonder if, in the 1920s, there were people bitching about cars saying, “I was driving an Arrol ten years before that Henry Ford prick even came out with his Model T!”
You were also the first “real” writer I knew who went the self-publishing route, beginning with your first book, the memoir of spending the summer in your college town of Bloomington, Indiana, Summer Rain. What influenced your decision to self-publish? And how was that experience for you?
Summer Rain was a very typical first novel, and I mean that in a bad way. I love the book to death, but it was completely unmarketable, and I was certain that if I spent the $47 to mail the 800-page manuscript to an agent or publisher, the only possible response would be “christ, not another one of these.” And in the old days, a writer would finish a book like that, throw it in the fireplace, and start their first “real” work. But I felt that some of the people who were in the book or knew me in that timeframe might dig reading it, and print-on-demand was perfect for that. I would make a minimal investment (actually I think I didn’t pay anything up front) and people could buy it if they wanted it, but if not, no big deal. It was cheaper than photocopying a thousand of them, and I wouldn’t have them rotting in my attic for the next fifty years.
I published at first with iUniverse, and the experience was okay, and then gradually tapered off. They completely fucked up the front cover, and they used a really padded layout that made the book 200 pages too long. Fulfillment and orders and all of that were fine, though. They eventually became too involved in hand-holding and offering expensive packages with services I had no use for, so I later switched to Lulu, which was much more bare-bones and ala carte. The big thing with PoD is to check your expectations. The PoD publishers won’t market your book, or get you a book tour, or put your book in Borders, or get you on Oprah. They will print the books, and keep your from having to warehouse in your kitchen, but don’t expect miracles.
Then you self-published your second book, Rumored to Exist. Rumored is a very different book from Summer Rain. Why did you decide to self-publish that one, and not try to go the traditional route?
Rumored was a tough sell, based on its content. It was non-linear, experimental, and mentioned sex with sheep and vomitophilia probably too many times for a traditional publisher. I thought it was destined to be, at best, a cult classic, and decided if a publisher would be disgusted with it, that publisher should be me. It also took me about seven years to write it, and I think less than 5% of the first draft was in the final draft. I’d get sick of it, chop off parts, write more, and keep that cycle going. I almost needed to find someone to physically take the book away from me and publish it.
How do you get the word out about self-published books? And how many copies do you bring to readings and stuff? Do you keep a stash around to hand sell? What about bookstores?
I’ve found online networking to be the best way to tell people about books. One of the ideas of having different writers in AITPL is to have each writer tell their own fanbase that they are in the book, so those people buy it and maybe get turned onto one of the other writers. Aside from email, there are the usual suspects: myspace, facebook, usenet (when it was still around), and I’ve been doing more cross-pollination with other small press publishers and journals. Sending out print review copies has been completely worthless. I would love to get reviews from PDF copies, but reviewers want print copies.
We haven’t done a lot of readings, but I usually have some amount of books at home to hand sell, maybe a dozen or two of each title, and will unload those at a reading at a discount. Stores are a hard nut to crack for PoD, because they typically want a big discount up front, and the ability to do returns on the back-end, and both of those are cost-prohibitive with PoD books, at least going through a third-party publisher like Lulu. Back in the zine days, there was a huge list of independent book stores and newsstands that would do consignment or work with individuals instead of distributors. Pretty much every address on that list is now a parking lot or a Starbucks, and the remaining few are hanging on by a thread and aren’t going to pay you in advance for copies of your shitty poetry book about how you can’t get laid. I almost accidentally got books in a Borders store, but I knew the manager. I wish I knew more managers, but until then, my only hope is to find a real distributor.
Now you’re not self-publishing–you have your own publishing company called Paragraph Line, and are publishing the lit journal Air in the Paragraph Line and have just come out with John Sheppard’s book Tales of the Peacetime Army. How different is it publishing someone else’s work? Are you doing any publicity? I saw the book trailer and I loved it, but I haven’t read the book yet.
It’s a lot different working on someone else’s stuff. I can trash entire chapters of my own work or mess around with the layout, without giving it a second thought. But when I work on someone else’s pride and joy, I’m always worried that I will change something that I think is little, but that’s really a major deal. Also, a big thing that John and I talked about as we started working on his book is that this publishing company should not “own” manuscripts like a traditional publisher, and then have a heavy-handed editor mangle them to conform better or sell more or whatever else. It’s better to offer ideas on edits, and constructive criticism, and to have the writer polish things up.
We did an initial round of publicity and sent out copies of Tales earlier this year, and John did the two trailers. Everyone loves the trailer idea (which we stole from Luca Dipierro) but the conversion rate on reviews was fairly pathetic. I was hoping to figure out some campaign to spam a bunch of military sites, since they have pretty devout readerships, but I’m not sure all of them would appreciate Tales. We did put it online recently though, so it’s available free for people who want to read it.
I bet a lot of the great literary writers would have a hard time getting published in today’s marketplace. Would Pynchon or Wallace get a book deal now? Or Carver, Sukenick, Gaddis? Don’t you think that the next Mark Leyner is probably self-publishing?
I think any writer that’s a strong member of the academic-industrial complex is going to get a crack at a book on a university press, and if its sales fall into line with whatever mainstream publishers want, they’ll get the bump to a bigger deal. Leyner is an example of that: he kicked around in the Fiction Collective and did well. Right around then, that 90s pomo rock star trend started, and all of a sudden Random House is shilling him out to Details readers, and he’s in a full-page spread in Vanity Fair, lifting weights. (Maybe that didn’t actually happen.) If 1990 would have been the year of the transgendered drug addict literature secretly written by housewives trend, Leyner would never have published anything outside of magazine work and short story collections.
And yeah, then maybe he would be self-published. My big thing is I never wanted to follow the trends and read Writer’s Digest and say “oh, gay detective stories set in 17th century Ireland is going to be big next fall, I better write one of those.” I want to write what I want to write, and publish it when it’s done. And I want to read stuff produced the same way.
Rumored to Exist, the lit mag AITPL, and Tales of the Peacetime Army all have a brash grungy punk feel to them, but without typos. It seems like most of you were raised during the Reagan-era in flyover states and you all have a sense of cynical detachment that also has a thread of hopefulness. There’s a definite Clerks/Slacker feel, but less goofy, more sharply ironic, but still yearning for something more. No one is ready to give up. Do you consider the people you chose for AITPL and Paragraph Line Books to be part of a movement of any sort?
I think one of the biggest difficulties in doing what I do is that none of this writing does fall into a category or movement. If this was 1991, I could say “slacker lit” and people would instantly know what it is. That’s an obstacle, and it’s something I tried to address by having this “greatest hits” sort of collection in AITPL. You don’t need to know what genre Dan Crocker or Dege Legg write; if they are in the zine, you know they are similar in some way, or at least might be interesting to you.
There are essentially two kinds of writing I like. One is the more modernist, outsider, or “slacker” writing, like a younger Bukowski, or the kind of essay stuff that Aaron from Cometbus zine usually lays down. The other would be the more experimental, Leyner-esque stuff. If I were smart, I’d create two imprints and publish stuff in each of them, but I’m too lazy to handle that.
What are your new projects? And where do you go from here?
The thirteenth issue of Air in the Paragraph Line is getting scraped together right now, and will be a themed issue about bad luck. I’ve also recently switched to using Ingram’s Lightning Source to print and fulfill books, which will require a little more work and cash up front, but will be about half as cheap, and enable me to drop list prices a bit, send out more review copies, and eat the cost of returned copies a little easier.