An etext interview by Michael Stutz.
``Although we'd all hated our parents, it seems like most of [Generation X] are set on a path to completely duplicate what the last generation did. It's going to be interesting, because the group that's after us are the next big boom, so we're going to be like some kind of lost generation.''
Conducted during the early summer months of 2000, just before publication of Summer Rain, his first book. A saturated roman à clef set in the college-town USA of the early 1990s, it's one of the very few novels about net.life in that period.
It's about a 21-year-old kid who decides to stay at his college campus for the summer instead of going back to his parents'. A bunch of horrible shit has hit the fan -- his girlfriend left, he got kicked out of school, and he's really not sure what he wants to do with life. So instead of working at a boring factory job and living in his mom's basement, he decides to starve in his shitty boardinghouse room and try to find out what's next in life.
The book takes place in Bloomington, Indiana, at the Indiana University campus, in 1992. There are a lot of different themes, but mostly this guy is swimming through a world of computer hacking, death metal, zines, radio DJing, and crawling through an underworld that's comfortable yet offers no real security. Conversely, he's struggling with school and money and he sees a path where he could learn more about computers, get some kick-ass job at the head of the Internet explosion, but live a hollow life of solitude. And of course, there's depression, and women, and a whole cast of characters that are anything but normal.
There's no Aesop's Tales theme to the book, although I've deliberately worked in conscious and unconscious themes through everything. The book is not plot-driven, either. I've tried to make it more like a summer where you just soak in everything, and float through a stream of different experiences and events that you'll later go back and add different meaning to.
Initially, I just wanted to write a book about *something* and I felt the only way to do it was to experience it and then write. I'd futzed around with some cyberpunk-type short stories and book outlines, and couldn't get anything off the ground. I knew for there to be any realism it had to be real, and it had to be something that would connect with others. I read everything of Bukowski's, and there's always Kerouac and On the Road, and I thought I needed to frame some part of my life and put it on paper, then change the names and bump up the dialogue a bit so people would keep interested.
The summer of 1992 for me was the perfect solution for this. So much weird shit happened to me in those three months, some funny and some really tragic. I felt there was enough raw material there to get started. And the summer meant I had the perfect framework to segment everything. It's not exactly plot driven, but I had a hard time thinking about other ideas from my life without having to pull in huge chunks of my past to explain everything. This would stand on its own.
There are other reasons, too. I wanted to write a book about depression, because I read all of the Kay Redfield Jamison bullshit out there, and as a person suffering from depression, it offends me. I wanted something much more real, and although I don't think I entirely accomplished it, I didn't write a made-for-TV movie, either. I wanted to write about Bloomington, because I love the place. It's so beautiful, and people can never believe that such a diverse pocket of culture could exist in the Midwest. I also wanted to write about old-school computers and death metal. When I started in 1995, neither of these were hot topics, but now everyone is talking about old computers, and death metal is probably bigger now than it was in 1992. So I guess I hit the mark there.
I grew up on old-school computers. They were something that gave me a great sense of belonging in the early 1990s. I spent a great deal of time downloading Phrack magazines, talking on mars.msstate.edu, hacking Vax Pascal games with my friends, and learning a hell of a lot of Unix with the rest of the geeks at IU. Not only did I learn a lot more about computers, but I met some of the best friends of my life.
As far as death metal -- if you want to learn about anything, start a zine about it. Between my five issues of Xenocide and contributing regularly to Metal Curse, I met tons of bands, went to insane shows, and got a mountain of demo and promo tapes and CDs sent to my house. Being in such a small niche of music meant I had total immersion.
So the point is that both of these things created unique worlds for me where I had a much larger presence than the real world. They were almost like microcosms of culture that meant greater involvement, and stronger associations and memories. And when I write about them, it resonates with readers, so everybody wins.
The book originally started as a short story for a creative writing class in the fall of 1994. I workshopped this 5000-word narrative about a guy DJing death metal in a decrepit radio station, and having a conflict about this hoity-toity chick he was trying to date. Half of the class loved it and the other half were repulsed -- so it did its job, and was filed away to be forgotten at the end of the semester.
The next spring, I was itching to write some kind of book. I'd been pulling bits and pieces of dialogue out of memories of the summer of 1992, and writing them in journals. During spring break 1995 (spent sleeping on my friend Tom Sample's couch in Indianapolis), it all made sense that I should write an entire book about that summer, and I started working on the initial structure.
When I left Indiana for Seattle in the summer of '95, I had maybe half of a workable draft. And since I knew almost nobody in Washington and had no money to go out, I wrote like a fiend and turned out the first draft by September.
The rest of the writing is a blur, because I started work on my second book, Rumored to Exist, in December, and switched off between the two. I was also working full-time and trying to figure out life in a new city. But I'd have a strong interest in one book, and then after a few months when I'd hit the wall, I'd switch to the other. It's not a method I'd recommend, but it worked for me.
The summer of 1996 brought the division into three books, something inspired partially by Steinbeck's East of Eden. The beginning of 1998 was a big getting-my-shit-together period. And in the spring and summer of 1999, at the end of my Seattle experience and the beginning of my New York residence, I wasn't working a day job, and wrote pretty much full time. I finished the third draft in June 1999. The fourth draft, which involved a big overhaul of book three, started that summer, and continued in spring of 2000.
As I write this [May 2000], I'm finishing what I hope will be final edits before the book goes to print. I hope I didn't jinx anything by saying that!
Yes and no. Technically, it's fiction. If I mentioned you, please don't sue me! Really, maybe 80% of the book happened in some sense. It's all coming through my eyes, and I've had a few sharp readers tell me how reality differs from my stories. There's not much I can do about that, though -- I wasn't writing a documentary.
There were a few things I took great pains to change. The biggest piece of fiction was all of the suicide stuff. Although I wasn't feeling great that summer, I didn't have access to a gun. That was invented to make the situation a bit more concrete to the reader. The next biggest change was the Amy character. In the fourth draft, I completely gutted the last third of the book, because she was just too unbelievable, even though she was based on a real person. The new Amy was a product of my imagination -- more of a fantasy, of who I really did want to meet back then. There were also rampant errors of omission made to compress the time frame a bit, and keep things rolling.
With that said, I did a lot to keep the book rooted in reality. I did a lot of research on Bloomington after I'd left, from flying back there with a camcorder to getting a complete recapitulation of my Bursar's accounts to see how much things really cost and when bills were due. I bought a ton of death metal from the era, read a lot of old zines, and got a lot of help musically from my pal Ray Miller. I also pored over old email, check registers, receipts, VMS code, and anything else that could connect me to my past on the IU campus. There are some gaffes, and I've purposely hid easter eggs in some of the facts about Bloomington, but I think the book is fairly accurate in its depiction.
Bloomington has really changed since 1995. I manage to get back about once a year. Initially, I'm very excited, but after a few hours in town, I'm saddened.
On one hand, many parts of campus are the same. If I shot a movie for Summer Rain today, there would only be a few parts that would have to be jogged around because of major changes. For example, if you walk from Ballantine Hall or Lindley Hall to the 414 Mitchell House, maybe 95% of the scenery is the same. I was there in April of last year, and went into the Village Pantry on Third and Jordan, and it was like a fucking time capsule -- it looked the same as 1992.
But, a lot of the town is physically different. Borders and Barnes and Noble came into town in 1995 and destroyed Morgenstern's, my favorite book store. Garcia's, my favorite pizza place, got shut down by the university. They also tore down Spaceport, the cool arcade on Kirkwood and Indiana, and put in a fucking Urban Outfitters and some kind of University visitor's center. I just heard 25th Century Five and Dime, this cool comic store, also went under. The mall got a huge make-over, and looks even more plastic and fake. So things have changed, just like with the rest of the country.
The state of computing at IU is pretty horrid. They signed a huge deal with Microsoft a few years back, and there have been more and more policy and systems changes that have isolated the individual users. You used to be able to log into the VMS computers, play around, read some cool stuff on the BBS, chat with your friends, and learn by doing. Now, you go to your Windows NT computer, type your paper, and leave. It's very sad, and this is the trend everywhere. There used to be a time when you could email a stranger and get a welcome reply. Now, if you even get a reply, it's a cease and desist or something.
Death metal, like I mentioned, has gone full circle. The big peak was in 1992; after that, some bands got picked up by major labels and tried to cross over with mainstream. All of this failed miserably. I guess Type O Negative got into the gothic thing at the right time, and Biohazard is still enjoying their career after great success on the hardcore circuit, despite their asinine rap crossover experiment. Most of my favorite bands either broke up or got really stupid by 1994 or so. And by then, labels that didn't go under dropped most of their bands. Purists got into black metal, but when people got bored of the fake posturing and poor production, death and thrash elements resurfaced. Now, there are probably more death metal bands out there than there were during the 1992 peak. And CDs have become the default format, now that you can buy a CD-R burner for less than $200 and get CDs pro-copied for less than a buck each. So all of these small bands are putting out high-quality demos that look better than big studio albums used to. And with all of the new digital recording stuff that's just getting cheaper and cheaper, they sound better, too. Unfortunately, I don't do a zine or a radio show anymore, so I'm not getting free copies of all the new stuff in my mailbox every day, but I buy what I can.
I'm sure it's all relative. I don't want to be one of those whining Andy Rooney types that says the world is going to hell, like "why can't I find a place that has VAX computers anymore" or whatever. I think when I moved and saw a different part of the country, it made me see how backwards some parts of Indiana were. When it wasn't the center of the universe anymore, I saw more problems. And when I go back, sometimes all I see are problems. So in that sense, Bloomington isn't a better place for me now, as compared to the early '90s.
Sure, I know previous generations did. The area by Garcia's used to be called The Book Nook, and was a big student hangout before World War II. Hoagy Carmichael wrote the song "Stardust" there, and I've seen lots of old pictures of students having parties and hanging out in that area. And I've done a lot of reading about the old Indiana University, in the 1800s, and kids always went to saloons or speakeasies or whatever, and did their thing.
I don't know where people go now, though. Spaceport, the old video arcade on the corner of Indiana and Kirkwood, got torn down, and right now, People's Park has been a giant mud hole because of construction. Maybe people go to bars, but if you are under 21 in Indiana, you can't get in. Maybe there's something new going on, but I haven't been there in a year, and haven't heard of anything. Cool spots tend to come and go quickly in a college town.
I think that new things are great, if they improve upon the old or fill a need. For example, in Bloomington, the same restaurants seem to change hands every year or two. One time a Chinese restaurant about a block from my old house folded, and quickly became an Indian restaurant. That's great -- Indian food rules, and there were no other Indian restaurants at the time. Plus, it was a block from my house. Then the Indian place went under, and it became a soft-serve yogurt place. These things are all over like the plague, and I don't really care for the stuff. So replacing the old with the new wasn't progress.
It's the same when a small bookstore gets replaced with a Borders or something. I don't need access to 50 copies of every Harry Potter book at high prices with a cold, impersonal feel to the store. I'd rather have the small place, where they know me by name and stock that obscure Bukowski stuff and have every Henry Miller book on the shelves. To me, shutting that stuff down to build a huge megastore is not progress, and that's the problem.
It's strange that so many people are on the Internet, and technology has improved so much in the last few decades, but in many ways, I'm not sure social computing has improved. The computing model has moved away from huge, centralized machines and to less powerful distributed schemes. The Web is great for providing information, but it seems to isolate people in some ways. No matter how many AOL-type wizards are invented for homepage creation, there is still this hurdle that prevents people from putting themselves out on the Web. A lot of this seems to be mental, not the programming aspect. People are just reluctant to share themselves with others. There are millions of people with homepages, but there are tens of millions of people who have been online for years, and don't have homepages. Why?
As for IU, every method of social computing has vanished, except for Usenet newsgroups, and they are so difficult for the average user to play with that you have 40,000 potential users and the same dozen people posting the same dumb jokes in iu.gripe and iu.general. The FORUM BBS died in 1994, and the University plays this stupid game of introducing a new central system every year, and then obsoleting it the next year, so there's no real way to just hang out and talk to people anymore. There are Web servers, but once again, few people have home pages. It's a very different beast than what we had back in 1992.
I can't speak for other writers, because I know a lot of people still think very linearly and can sit down with a Brother typewriter and a ream of paper and blow straight through a book from page one to page 1000. I don't work like that, and I use a computer to develop an outline, slowly expand bits and pieces, and then fill in the rest. I am very lazy, and I only write on the pieces of a book that strike my mood. So I'm all over the place, and that requires a lot of movement and cutting and pasting, and if I was working on paper, I'd go completely apeshit.
I think what you really mean are things like multimedia, hypermedia, collaborative events, and so on. I don't know much about that, mostly because I'm not a musician or artist, and because I don't get along with other people that well. I have hopes that a new avenue of very non-traditional work will arise from the computer revolution, just like how film and recorded music arose as respected art forms in the last century. There are so many possibilities for hypertext meshing of visual, spoken, and written art, and I hope to get involved with it all someday. But I have tons of ideas and no time, and I don't want to spend a lot of time doing something like, say, a CD-ROM version of Summer Rain and then after I spend a year of my life and $40,000 of my money doing it, I find out it only works on 3 peoples' computers or the whole CD-ROM thing goes the way of the Betamax in favor of something else. It's still very dicey in that sense.
I'm a big Linux nut, and I have been ever since I first booted version .33 back in 1992. I was a Unix nut even before that, and was dying to find a way to run it from home. I tried Minix with little luck, but I built up my own Linux machine in the spring of 1993, and I've been running it since. For a long time, my machine had *only* Linux, but recently I had to break down and install an NT partition, just to run Word for some contract gigs. But I stay booted in Linux about 99% of the time, except for Combat Flight Simulator and Family Tree Pro.
So the book was entirely written in Emacs, the Editor of the
Gods. I also use Emacs for mail, news, and almost everything else I do
in Unix. So the book was written as flat text files, one per chapter,
just simple ASCII. This made it easy to use Unix text tools like
wc to search for words and
determine word counts. I couldn't imagine maintaining a work this
large in Word or any other WYSIWYG editor.
At the last minute, I did have to bring all of the documents into
Word and insert them into a template for the designer, which was a
minor nightmare. I spend all day at my job in Word, so I'm not
deathly afraid of it, but it's not my package of choice. Aside from
that, I used RCS and then CVS for version control, and tools like
cut, and some home-grown scripts to do things like
monitor growth of the text and build archives to give to friends who
reviewed stuff. The system worked great, and I'm still using it for
my next book.
The big thing it offers is no price tag! If you want to go out and buy a copy of Word 2000, it's going to set you back a few hundred bucks. I don't know about you, but that's a month or two of my entertainment budget, and I'd rather not hand it over to Microsoft so I can write. There's still a cost of ownership with free software -- you have to learn the stuff, and configure it, and you might have to go buy a Red Hat CD or a couple of books to get started. But I feel that the developers of free software can benefit from another user more than Bill can benefit from my $300. The free software community needs writers and artists to try their software, to use it for things besides programming and HTML, and to show others that it really is great stuff.
Free software offers a lack of proprietary formats -- that's refreshing to a writer. Every other office suite out there uses some kind of fucked-up document format that's incompatible with everything else. Sure, you might be able to import something from WordPerfect into Word, but if you make revisions, you can't send it back to the person. Or if you put something on the Web, you either have to export it to HTML and screw up all of your tables and tabs, or you have to post it in 19 different formats for the Mac, for Windows 3.1, for WordPerfect 4.2, in RTF, blah blah. It's nuts, and it is nice to be able to say "it's all in text files. Your computer can read it."
Most people will talk about how the Linux community is supportive and helpful, but that's a crock. They are just as condescending and vapid as the Microsoft junkies when you've got a problem. There's a lot of stuff that is either undocumented, or only documented for gearheads. I've had some serious Linux problems that have shut me down for days, that involved doing everything short of throwing my fucking computer into the East River and starting over. So make backups, and remember that you get what you pay for. And don't ask me questions, for Christ's sake -- I've been booting off of a floppy for the last year because I still can't figure out LILO.
It's hard for me to say, since I'm very out of touch with "the business." I'm not an academic, and honestly, I don't read as much as most writers. I'm always working on a book, but half the time, it's nonfiction or documentation or something. Right now, I'm reading Bryan Burrough's Dragonfly, an excellent book on the disasters aboard the Mir space station. But I'm not one of those people who follows all of the new releases and knows about current authors like kids know about baseball players.
I do keep up with the technology, though. And I try to keep up with the business end in the sense that I wonder how e-books and the Internet and hypertext and other innovations will affect the way that fiction is presented to the reader. I study this in my day job as a tech writer -- how hyperlinks and Acrobat and dynamic content and wizards and assistants help users figure out how to use a software product. So it's natural for me to work with this stuff and think of a practical application in literature.
I think certain things will, and have, revolutionized the way a book is seen. Online stores were the first big revolution. I think chain stores and Wal-Marts hamper great literature -- you can only buy Harlequin romances and Tom Clancy novels, and whatever is popular, because that's what the store needs to keep on their shelves. But with Amazon, you can buy that obscure Raymond Federman novel that the Barnes and Noble isn't stocking because they'd only sell one copy a year. Even though a lot of people think that Americans simply don't read anymore, Amazon and ilk are selling millions of dollars of books. The majors like Random House seem to be doing okay, and I see more and more small publishers like FC2 and Incommunicado putting out quality stuff, too. I think the playing field has been significantly widened by the online booksellers.
And then there's on-demand printing. I feel like I'm jerking my own chain by talking about this, but iUniverse.com has been one of the greatest revelations in my writing career. Okay, I haven't published with them yet, and I hope this doesn't cause some kind of disaster, but I can't believe the deal they give people. Any author anywhere can get their work seen in a viable format. It's like Web publishing was five or seven years ago, when anyone could put anything out there for the world to see. Except now, it's a nice trade paperback, with an ISBN, a UPC, a spot in the Ingram database, and it kicks you back money every time someone buys it. And yet, it's almost as direct as a Web page -- from word processor to printing plate, it's 100% digital. You don't have to live in New York or get an MFA or know an agent or anything else. This is going to open the floodgates for many great works that were previously stifled by the old-school system of who blows who.
As far as e-text, I simply don't know. I love books, I love paper, and I love holding a novel in my hands when I'm on the subway or in bed. I know flatscreen technology is getting better, but that just doesn't cut it. There are great advantages to e-text in some situations: I love searching through help text to find answers, and I read drafts of my books on the train with my Palm Pilot. But the tactile sensation of dead trees is too hypnotizing. I love my shelves of books, and I couldn't imagine trading them for a hard drive full of information.
I don't know -- I think it will open the floodgates for more bad writing, just like AOL put another 20 million idiots online. But I think it will mean more quality stuff will get out there that otherwise wouldn't. And the big presses will have to compete with all of this new reading material. I hope that means more quality stuff from the majors, but it could also mean total shit. The music industry is being revolutionized by MP3 and CD-Rs and the Internet, and how have the majors reacted? Brittany Spears, N'Sync -- they have massively targeted the most ignorant fans. So maybe it will just mean more Harry Potter-type crap. Who knows.
Sure, it can. I mean, the Bible is writing, and it's left a mark. I think the difference now is that the printed word used to be the only method of mass-communication, and now it is just a leisure to a segment among the population, and even then, it's usually competing with TV, movies, the Internet, music, etc. I guess my logic is flawed in that many of these things also utilize writing, and I'm talking about writing as literature -- I mean, sitcoms are written, USA Today is written, but I don't consider them writing per se. I think you see where I'm going though.
I personally disagree with a lot of things in culture, but on the other hand, I try not to get up on my soapbox about any of these things. I don't know if it is some kind of latent Libertarianism, or if I'm just lazy, but I'd rather focus on making changes in my life and doing what I need to do to be happy. Sometimes that involves standing up and fighting for what you believe in, but I also have a pretty good track record of getting sick of my surroundings and moving across the country to escape them.
I guess I've avoided answering this question. The short of it is that I do think writing can change a culture, but I don't personally think I'm the writer that will change this culture. I might make you laugh or think back to your past, but I'm a much more introspective artist.
Mark Leyner is my biggest, although it started as an unconscious thing. After I was in the middle of my second book, I'd realized that I read and promptly forgot about an except from his book Et Tu, Babe that was in Penthouse in 1992. It turns out that it was very similar to some of the stuff I wrote for Rumored to Exist, and maybe I subliminally ripped him off, I'm not sure. But I really love his work.
I wish I could find more stuff like Leyner, but I haven't. Raymond Federman is one, and his almost random, nonlinear work like Double or Nothing and Take it or Leave it are excellent. They both gave me the confidence to realize that Rumored wouldn't fail just because it didn't have a Tom Clancy-esque linear plot.
Of course, you've gotta love Hunter S. Thompson. His total gonzo over-the-top shit has pushed me to the limit. And his mostly traditional Rum Diary reminds me a lot of Summer Rain, too.
Although I love Summer Rain dearly, I wouldn't say it's my voice. My newer work, like Rumored to Exist, is much more tightly compressed, random, perverse, and funny. You drift through pages and pages of Summer Rain as you read it, but Rumored is like a 25 caliber heavy machine gun firing a thousand rounds a minute. It hits you from a quarter mile away before you even hear the explosions. When you read even a paragraph of Rumored, it has "Konrath" written all over it. I hope I can keep going like this in the future.
Although we'd all hated our parents, it seems like most of us are set on a path to completely duplicate what the last generation did, although we're a much smaller population group. It's going to be interesting, because the group that's after us, the 0-17 year old kids, are the next big boom, so we're going to be like some kind of lost generation. Also, I think the bombardment of media and relatively short shelf-life of popular culture is getting narrower and narrower. In the 70s, people were nostalgic for the 50s, about 20 years before. In the 80s, people were nostalgic for the 60s. In the 90s, it was the 70s, then it was the 80s, and by 1999, people were nostalgic for early 90s music. Pretty soon, K-Tel is going to be selling "Hey -- Remember Five Minutes Ago?" albums. The culture of our childhood will quickly become forgotten, except for the big bullet points. Can you name a movie from 1983 that wasn't ET or Star Trek II? There were hundreds of them made, but why do we forget all of them, even though I can name at least a dozen films made in 1969?
This second, I'm working on putting this book behind me, which is hard to do because I have interviews, the Web page, sales stuff, etc. etc. to deal with. My next big project will be Rumored to Exist, and I have another book called The Device that's up on blocks and waiting for my attention. I've also thrown around the idea of a collection of stories, journal entries, and other fluff in some kind of demented Jon Konrath reader. There are way more ideas than time at this point, which is a good thing.
And until Rumored starts, which could be in a week or a month, there are a lot of sanity-related projects. I'm always looking for good books, good zines, good movies, and lots of CDs. I'm writing a column for Metal Curse zine. I'm updating my Web site. I'm trying to avoid the heat in the damned New York City summer. I'm thinking about taking a vacation to somewhere like Iceland or Vietnam or Norway or Hungary or somewhere I can get new and weird ideas.
Thank you Michael for giving me a chance to babble, and thanks to
everyone who read this. Drop a line anytime here (my contact page) and don't
forget to visit my page at www.rumored.com and check out the
book when it's published this fall!
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