A Collective Interview Wherein Writers We Like Discuss Topics Related to the Craft. Including the following:
Matt Bell, Paula Bomer, Steve Himmer, Lee Papa, Ethel Rohan, D. Harlan Wilson, & Joseph Young.
Questions by Laura Ellen Scott
For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 5.1, March 2011
Writers we love talk about working directly with publishers.
Paula Bomer, Baby & Other Stories (Word Riot Press, 2010): I've had a couple of agents—one I really liked and would work with again—but as I learned more about the small press world, it seemed to be the right way to go for me. For one, the indie scene embraced me and I'd never had that luck in mainstream publishing. I think it's possible my work is too rough for most mainstream venues. Although I actually don't have any disdain for mainstream publishing, I am grateful to have found the audience I have. Working with Jackie Corley at Word Riot has been amazing—she's so enthusiastic, so knowledgeable—she's done so much for me and my book. I feel blessed.
Lee Papa, The Rude Pundit’s Almanack (O/R Books, 2011): I went with O/R Books because I was afraid that the large publisher who we were talking to would lose the book in the shuffle of all the titles it was putting out, which has been the experience of a couple of authors I know. O/R Books is into heavily promoting a title or two a month. My editor is very hands-off, so I've been given a great deal of freedom. They work in a new model of publishing, with the first few months being e-book and direct publishing of ordered copies.
D. Harlan Wilson, They Had Goat Heads (Atlatl Press, 2010, reviewed in this issue) and Codename Prague (Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2011): It wasn’t really a decision. I’ve never solicited a literary agent to represent me and conceivably never will. Agents can be useful, but really only to authors who want to make their living writing, which is nearly unheard of, unless you can live on $5,000 per year, the average income of a “full-time” writer. I make a decent living as an English professor. Together with my wife, who’s also an English professor, we do quite well, so there’s no real impetus for me to find an agent who can sell my work for the biggest bucks. To do this would require that I significantly alter my writing anyway, making it accessible to wider readerships. But my writing is esoteric and literary and offbeat and metafictional and critifictional and experimental and acausal and gruesome and graphic and schizotheoretical and generally antiformulaic, and I’m a kind of gutter elitist and auteur – all of which adds up to poor sales, comparatively speaking. I’ve always written what I want to write, though. I suspect I always will.
That said, I didn’t consciously adopt this mindset at the beginning of my writing career. It evolved over time. I started working directly with publishers because I was contacted by one, Eraserhead Press. This was in 1998 or 1999. I had published a few stories and the editors of EHP had read and liked them. They wanted to publish a chapbook of my short fiction. There was no money involved, only “exposure.” I didn’t care – like many nascent writers, I was just excited about seeing my name in print. Ironically, despite what I said earlier about money, all of my stories, old and new, have price tags, with the exception of pieces I give to friends in the business and magazines that offer free advertising and promotions.
I called my chapbook Kafka-Breathing Sock Puppets. It contained 10 or so stories I had written in my early 20s. In retrospect I dislike the title, as I dislike most of my juvenilia. For those who might not know, chapbooks are cheaply produced, staple-bound manuscripts, and a year after KBSP came out, in 2000, EHP began publishing real books. I expanded the chapbook to 40,000 words worth of stories and called the final product The Kafka Effekt. It was published in 2001.
In 2003, I published another fiction collection with EHP, Stranger on the Loose. Then I started to branch out. I went to a lot of conventions to promote my books – still do – and made new contacts, namely publishers and editors and other writers. Since then I’ve published an average of one book per year with four different publishers: Raw Dog Screaming Press, Guide Dog Books, Shroud Books, and Atlatl Press. I have plans to continue working with all of these publishers in the future. I’m also writing a book of criticism on John Carpenter’s film They Live for Columbia University Press, but academic publishers are another story.
I prefer finding and working with publishers directly for several reasons. First, I want to make sure that our personalities gel and we are on similar pages aesthetically and, to some degree, ideologically. There’s no point writing something for somebody, no matter how much they pay you, only to discover that they have issues with your artistic vision or your ethics. I write unconventional, gritty stories, and I’m kind of unconventional and gritty as a person, so I want to work with people who share my tastes and character traits, or can at least tolerate them. Second, I like having creative control of my writing. All of my publishers have more or less allowed me to do what I want, barring a few copyright issues. I’ve even been able to work with the artists who have illustrated my book covers. In fact, I’ve had a vision for each one of my book covers, most of which have involved some kind of comic book sensibility, and the artists have all produced impressive, eclectic, and talented renderings. Third, I like the camaraderie that has evolved between me and my publishers, personally and professionally. The people who run them are good friends now. I enjoy their company. And I’m heavily invested in promoting them as best I can, as they are invested in promoting me. That’s the way it should be, I think, in good publisher-author relationships, although I understand the constraints of market forces. I’ve simply elected not to get involved with that. Granted, I have the luxury not to worry about paying bills, buying food, going to Hawaii, whatever, with royalties, and this is a luxury that most fiction writers don’t have. I recognize that and I’m thankful for it.
All told, and to reroute to your original question – my experience working directly with publishers has been great. It can and should be that way with any author. But you need to manage your expectations.
Ethel Rohan, Cut Through the Bone (Dark Sky Boooks, 2010): I'm fortunate enough to have received two contracts from two indie publishers for my debut story collection, Cut Through the Bone. The other indie publishers I'd submitted a partial to also requested the full manuscript. However, at that point I'd already made the difficult decision between two indies and signed with Dark Sky Books.
Thanks to Matt Bell's generous advice, I knew what to weigh-up when considering a publisher for my book, largely: book design and distribution, who the press had already published/had lined-up to publish, royalties and contract terms and conditions, and my gut sense of how well the publisher and I would work together.
Kevin Murphy, editor of Dark Sky Books, and I work very well together. We're both ambitious and committed to excellence. We both want to see how far we can take this book, how far we can both further our careers and everything indie.
My idea of success has changed greatly and I've become passionate about the independents. Ultimately, I'm interested in working with a publisher willing to take risks, invest in new voices, and widen writers' readership and the independent literary base.
Matt Bell, How They Were Found (Keyhole Press): I assume you mean working directly with a publisher, as opposed to using an agent as an intermediary? For How They Were Found, I'm not sure I ever seriously considered any other option. I wanted to publish with an independent publisher, and I had a list of publishers who I thought might be interested in my book and in me. By the time I was finishing the manuscript, I had come to like Peter Cole and Keyhole quite a bit, and I was very excited by the writers he had picked for his first few books, especially William Walsh, whose books and short fictions I'd been impressed with and inspired by. I sent the book to Keyhole first, and Peter accepted, and so there wasn't exactly a lot of time spent trying different things.
The experience has been great. I'm two months out from the release date, and have been working with Peter for around a year and a half, since he took the book in May 2009. I've been able to be a part of the process at every step, and my opinion on issues like the cover and the interior design and so on has carried a lot of weight. I'm lucky to have a publisher who puts so much trust in the author. For me, the best part is the feeling that we're doing something together: Peter and I spent a lot of time working on my first book, during his own first years as a publisher, and when we look back on this time later there's no doubt in my mind that these beginnings will be linked in our memories. It's been great getting to go through this with him, and I hope that all of my publishing experiences are so positive.
Joseph Young, Easter Rabbit (Publishing Genius, 2009 & 2011): Working with the publisher of my book Easter Rabbit, Publishing Genius, was and is awesome. As you know, Publishing Genius is the creation of publishing visionary Adam Robinson. What makes Adam so great as a publisher is that he never stops thinking about the books he puts out or their authors, and constantly tries new ways to produce, sell, publicize, and bring excitement to the books. He never stops innovating and he never stops working; as Adam says, producing the book is only the beginning stage in getting it out to the world. Working directly with him is rewarding as well because he encourages you to bring your ideas to the table too, and we spend a lot of time talking or e-mailing about various publishing strategies. I also got to choose my cover artist for Easter Rabbit, Christine Sajecki, and work closely with her, as well as with book designer Justin Sirois. Putting out Easter Rabbit last December was a really fun team effort, with Adam guiding the venture. The second printing of Easter Rabbit was January 2011, and includes the addition of some new stories and a new cover by Christine, so the experience is very much ongoing.
Writers we love suggest the dream cast for the movie version of their work.
Paula Bomer: I love the idea of a bunch of the stories from Baby being made into a movie similar to the movie Magnolia, made around a bunch of Aimee Mann songs, a collage or back and forth between the stories, a weaving from one to another. I think I would cast Chloe Sevigny, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Marky Mark...maybe Mark Ruffalo and Naomi Watts.
Joseph Young: This is a hard question for me because I really don’t know actors at all. People are always saying they like this and that actor and I’m always asking, Who is she? What was he in? I watch a good number of movies but I’m not good at keeping the names straight. Because NAME is about a group of quite young vampires, maybe 19 or 20 years old, it makes it even harder. Who are the really good actors that age right now? I’ve seen them but I have no clue as to their names.
Thus, let’s assume that time isn’t a factor, that we could go back to pluck a certain actor out of time at the correct age, and let’s assume Hollywood is limited to that handful of actors I can remember the names of: Robert, my schlumpy, confused protagonist, is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman; Lena, Robert’s fierce and independent love interest, is played by Courtney Love; and Daniel, aka “the rabbit,” Robert’s psychotically violent nemesis, is played by Robert DeNiro.
Ethel Rohan: Oh now that's a difficult question, but one delicious to consider. I hope James Franco is reading.
Several stories rush into my head, but if I have to choose one, it would be the first story in Cut Through the Bone , “More Than Gone.” It's a story about an older woman coping with loss and grief in the wake of her husband's death, he a war veteran and amputee. About how what's missing can become huge, haunt. Dame Judi Dench would give an Oscar-winning performance and older women everywhere would applaud her, applaud such rare visibility of their selves and their stories.
Lee Papa: The Rude Pundit’s Almanack includes a lot of memoir, so I would like to be played by Punjabi actor Akshay Kumar in a giant Bollywood production where I battle demons and thugs to finish a blog post that rescues leading lady Lara Dutta from a fiery doom. Of course, we dance. Probably, though, the flick would be Jack Black as the lovable but clumsy misanthrope named "Rudy" who learns to be happy with the world through the power of a vagina.
D. Harlan Wilson: Dr. Identity, the first installment in the Scikungfi trilogy, has actually been optioned for a feature-length film. It probably won’t come to fruition – these things rarely do. I’m a former model and actor, and the yin-yang protagonists of Dr. Identity are awry manifestations of me. Two of my “fleeting-improvised” personalities anyway. So I’d like to play the main roles, but this would doubtless turn out like Kramer being cast as himself in that meta-Seinfeld show-within-the-show. Let’s be realistic, then, assuming there’s a world in which my books might become films . . . Ideally, in all three novels, I’d have Crispin Glover play all the roles, men and women, aliens and androids, and in Codename Prague, “unclassifiable players,” too. That would be great. I’ve actually corresponded with Crispin via e-mail before on a few occasions in an attempt to get him to make an appearance at my university. It didn’t work out. He’s made a few experimental short films and does performance-based readings from his novels (check out www.crispinglover.com). But again, considering a film in which he plays everybody – we’re dwelling in the realm of fantasy . . . I’ll stick to the protagonists. In Dr. Identity, Crispin as Dr. Blah Blah Blah and his android doppelganger Dr. Identity. In Codename Prague, the protagonist is “Afrikan-American,” and I’d like to see Dave Chappelle do it. But Vincent Prague is 6’8”, so we’d need somebody taller, even if we populate the rest of the film with state-of-the-art movie stars, most of whom are Tom Cruise-like miniatures . . . The Kyoto Man is a tough call. The chronically nameless protagonist’s identity relentlessly shifts as he acclimatizes physically and psychologically to the different histories and contexts he’s thrown back and forth into via “timecrashes” and “zoneshifts,” which, in the diegesis of the novel, have pathologized the fabric of reality and psyche. Much of the time he exists as the actual city of Kyoto, though, metamorphosing back and forth between man and metropolis. So maybe we could just cast the city itself, and hope things work themselves out?
Steve Himmer, The Bee-Loud Glade (Atticus Books, 2011): Believe it or not, this isn't something I've thought about before. I guess some people daydream about films of their books, but I mostly daydream about having it translated. Like imagining my novel gets published in Norway and becomes popular, so I get to visit Norway a lot.
But, here's my answer: Finch I would like to see played by Jacques Tati in his Monsieur Hulot mode, and Mr. Crane could be played by Brubaker-era Robert Redford.
Read Steve Himmer's interview in this issue.
About the Interviewer: Laura Ellen Scott teaches fiction writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Her short fiction has been selected for Wigleaf’s Top Fifty, Short Story Month, Eclectica Best Fiction, Gravity Dancers: More Fiction by Washington Area Women, and Barellhouse’s “Futures.” She was nominated twice for Dzanc’s Best of the Web and has made the StorySouth Million Writers notable stories list three times. Most of her published work is linked at her blog, Probably just a story. Laura is also the curator of VIPs on vsf, where editors and writers of very short fiction express very brief thoughts on form and craft.
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