May 2004

Michael Schaub

features

An Interview with Abram Shalom Himelstein



Abram Shalom Himelstein has lived in more places than most people have visited. Born and raised in Mississippi, Himelstein made his home in Washington, D.C.; Mexico; Costa Rica; Connecticut; and most of the major cities in Texas before settling in New Orleans to teach public school seven years ago. He first garnered attention for Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing, a novel about the punk zine culture in D.C. that he co-wrote with his friend Jamie Schweser. Himelstein and Schweser peddled the self-published novel on the streets for a long time, earning critical praise and widespread admiration from America's DIY communities. He followed it with What the Hell Am I Doing Here?: The 100 T-Shirt Project, a long-form photographic essay of sorts, which featured pictures of a hundred New Orleans residents wearing t-shirts they inscribed themselves with permanent marker. Abram Himelstein spoke to Bookslut by phone from his home in New Orleans's Seventh Ward, where he's working on a new collection of short stories, and on a community-building exercise called The Neighborhood Story Project.

Do you still teach?

I'm not teaching this semester. I'm going back. I'm doing this thing in the fall called the Neighborhood Story Project. I'm amping up for that right now. I'm getting all of that stuff lined up and ready to go.

How did it occur to you to do something like the Neighborhood Story Project?

I just think that people don't know enough about their neighbors, and I think there was a time that we used to spend on the porch telling stories and playing dominos, and that's largely been replaced by staying inside and watching television. So I thought of meaningful projects for my students to be involved in, and at the same time, the things I think are lacking from our lives now. Those things kind of came together as the Neighborhood Story Project. Basically, I'm going to pay fifteen high school seniors to write a book about the block on which they live, and then we're going to have a block party to release the book. We're looking for money still. There'll be photos, and the kids will be writing about the other people on their block. And I'm going to teach them to write vignettes, and oral histories, in ways that are interesting. I think it will be a way of reintroducing the neighborhood to itself. We still need money, though. And people can send donations to the Neighborhood Story Project (P.O. Box 19742, New Orleans, Louisiana, 70179-0742).

Which neighborhood? Are they all Ninth Ward students?

It's actually all Seventh Ward. I taught last semester at a school in the Seventh Ward.

Who's publishing the Project? Is it going to be Garrett County, or New Mouth?

I don't think it'll have a name. Maybe we'll just call it the Neighborhood Story Project. I see it as more as being by us and for us. The great thing about living in New Orleans is that's is so unique, and so many people are obsessed with it around the world, that a lot of stuff that we think we just do for us here ends up being hugely fascinating to the rest of the world. Our music and our culture in New Orleans is evidently fascinating to huge groups of people, which is good, because we have no industry. Seriously, if we weren't interesting, I don't know how this town would survive.

Are the kids pretty excited about it?

Yeah, they're into it. It's meant to be a departure from the norm. It's a bizarre project, and everyone at first is going to be cautious. But that's going to be part of what it's about, is breaking down these kind of fears we have within ourselves of getting to know people too closely, inviting them into our lives. People have a fear of opening up, you know, in print, and there all these kinds of boundaries that we've constructed with great care around ourselves so it's going to be a project about learning to transcend those boundaries in ways that make us feel like "Why do we have the boundaries in the first place?"' rather than "Oh, God, why did I let these people get so close to me?" We have these walls up around our living spaces for reasons. We live in houses, because we decided that communal living isn't exactly what we want to be engaged in. So it's going to be interesting, and scary, and hopefully wonderful to transcend these boundaries.

Why do you think people have become so scared of community, so isolated, lately?

It's scary. But I think it's scarier the more isolated we are. I think that all the problems in our society feel overwhelming at times, so it's a lot like, "Let me close this door and see if I can make what's in this house right, because Lord knows I can't fix everything outside of this house."

Mostly I want to celebrate New Orleans as the most open city I've ever been to. That's why I live here. I'm just agitating for more. This is a very open and inviting city. I mean, you can see people's sexual fantasies played out on Mardi Gras. We'll invite you into our houses for food. It's way more open. But I think it's less open than it has been, and I think that's because the world's pretty frightening. And I don't want to discount the realness of the crap out there, but I think the best way to counter that crap is to know each other better and work with each other more.

You wrote, in the introduction to The 100 T-Shirt Project, about the aftermath of 9-11 in New Orleans. I guess you just finished the project on September 10. Did 9-11, even for a little while, change the community dynamic there?

I didn't feel a real shift in the city. I think that the president's actions since been have been the most polarizing, definitely, of my lifetime. I think in that sense New Orleans has remained tight in spite of our deepening political differences. The bar I hang out at -- everyone thinks their bar is diverse, but this bar is just… it's got flaming liberals and hardcore Republicans, along with a huge mixture of other people.

And they manage to be civil?

Beyond that, they manage to be family. That's one of New Orleans's greatest strengths is our bars and our music clubs and those sorts of things. On good days, they're more than just the place you watch the Saints at, on good days, you can kind of feel a sense of family in a good New Orleans bar. On bad days, it's just the jerks you've been drinking next to for a couple of years, but that's true for your family also.

The bar really is, especially in New Orleans, one of the last great meeting places.

Definitely. And I think that's why we seek them out. I mean, in recent years I've quit drinking nearly as much and I still find I spend a lot of time in bars. And it's not for the liquor that I'm going. [Laughs.] Liquor, some nights, is just the tax I pay to be in the bar.

Do you consider New Orleans your home? You've lived all over Texas, Louisiana, L.A'.?

Oh, yeah, New Orleans is my home. It's the first place I ever have been -- I mean, a little bit in Mexico -- but where I just was like, "I could live here forever," and I felt a deep sense of belonging. When I was living in Mexico, I'd be in all these bars, and everyone would start singing the same songs -- there were maybe a hundred corridos, all these Mexican drinking songs, and patriotic songs, all these different kinds of songs. And everyone would just burst into song, and start singing together. And I was like, "This is so superior to the way that I live in America." And then I got to New Orleans, and we don't have a hundred, but we've got like twenty-five songs that are just ours, and if you start singing them in a bar on a good night -- on a bad night, they'll throw rotten apples at you -- but on a good night, you'll get the whole bar singing it. My dad says, "so beautiful and so close to America" -- that's the way he describes New Orleans.

It's pretty amazing, the way the high school kids (in the 100 T-Shirts Project) opened up. Did any of these students have any reservations about it?

There were only like two people the whole time who weren't into it. I was kind of expecting more people to be standoffish. But people were really just so into doing it. I mean, the high school students especially, because, shit, they got to mark up a shirt.

Was it hard, going up to strangers and asking them to do this?

No, but you know, I sold books on the streets for two years. [Laughs.] So I'm well geared towards talking to people on the street. My rules were that I had to go in places I would regularly be. I didn't go out to do it as anthropology. I did it as an experience in the world in which I live, so I did it where I lived, and I did it in my neighborhood bars, and places I would regularly go. For a month, or more than that, I just carried a backpack full of t-shirts and markers and cameras.

How long has it been since Punk Rock Nothing was published?

We published it for the first time in '98.

Have you ever considered collaborating again, you and Jamie Schweser?

Well, we've run that publishing company together for five years. I mean, he's like my brother now. So much of our lives has been collaboration. We ran a radio station together. We did a lot of graffiti and postering together, a long time ago. We ran this thing called Factory Direct, which is an art envelope full of zines. So I'm sure we'll do something together again in the future, but I don't know what that could be. It's just been like a lifelong partnership.

Was the experience of writing a book with a collaborator difficult?

No, I don't think I could have become a writer any other way. It just started out with this idea. It was late one night, and we'd been drinking, and we were telling stories about D.C. We were like, "We should write a book about this." We thought it would take a month. But it took almost two years to finish Tales.

Did you envision writing Punk Rock Nothing as a straight-ahead novel, or did you know it was going to be kind of esoteric?

No, we knew it needed to have zines. Everything about that project felt so organic. It's more or less Animal Farm told through punk rock. I just felt that so much of that story was about DIY. I felt that was the thing that was most interesting to us while we were doing it -- control of art and those things had a lot of currency for me. They still do. But I thought about that 90% of the time back then, and I think about it 30% of the time now. It felt very organic to tell it through zines and let all those characters speak and critique. That's mostly what punk rock is -- critique.

Do you think zine publishing has declined with the Internet, or is it still going strong?

I don't know. I feel like -- I don't know what the demographics of zine publishing have become. I don't know what to think. Some of the most inspiring things I read are still zines. There's still good stuff being published in zines, like the Evil Twin stuff -- that's some of my favorite literature is the stuff they're doing. I still consider that zines, I don't know if it really is. And Found Magazine. There's just all this stuff that I find totally inspiring that's coming out in the self-published format.

Do you think people are still going to be willing to take these risks, and self-publish?

I think it's the people who don't have choices who usually take those risks. I think that if my favorite publishers had called me up and said, "We really believe in you, and we're going to promote you, and we're into it," I'd have been like, "Hell, yeah!" [Laughs.] I think self-publishing is usually an act of desperation. Sometimes, you're like, "Well, I understand why they were desperate, because this is crap, and they can't write," but sometimes, you're like, "Holy shit." I mean, American letters is littered with writers who began as self-publishers, and who I'm proud to be in the same paragraph as. Walt Whitman, Anais Nin, were self-publishers.

What do you read now? Is it mostly fiction, nonfiction?

I read almost all fiction. I'm really into (John Edgar) Wideman, he's probably my favorite. I'm really into Wendell Berry and Chester Himes.

New Orleans has such a strong literary heritage. Are there any New Orleans or Louisiana writers who have had an influence on you?

I've been thinking about that a little bit. I don't think the writers from Louisiana or Mississippi have -- well, there was A Confederacy Of Dunces. That's from another planet of funny; it's just so good. That's one of the great things about books, though, is that they take you out of your region, and I definitely used them as an escape when I was growing up in Mississippi.

You know who else is a big influence is Damon Runyon. My new book is more or less a tribute to Runyon. The Decatur Street Stories -- I'm essentially writing a series of Damon Runyon stories that all take place on Decatur Street in New Orleans. I love his writing. I actually think that this book is an ode to Chester Himes and Damon Runyon. But I'm very into Wendell Berry right now, and I couldn't be more different from him as a writer. He's slow and methodical and beautiful, and I'm just so, you know, not. [Laughs.] I'm amazed that Wendell Berry has written more than one of his books. They just all seem like they're steeped and aged in oak barrels. These prolific American writers like Vonnegut and Twain -- you just wonder, like, when? How? I mean, you look at the beginning of a Vonnegut book and it's got twenty-five books by the same writer, and you're just, like, Really?

Was it weird writing short stories, after having written a novel?

No, because everything I write is tiny. The joke about Tales is that it's five trips to the bathroom long. That's what Jamie used to say when he'd sell it on the street. The longest continued piece of writing in that book is like four pages, and it's a letter. So it actually seems like stretching out to me to write a twenty-page short story. [Laughs.]

Tales is pretty famous. Everyone seems to know this book.

It's had its own little life. It made sense that it kept selling while we were on tour, but it's really gratifying that it's selling now that we're not promoting it.

Was that a surprise?

You alternate when you're doing any creative project, you're like, "I'm a genius, I'm an idiot, I'm a genius, I'm an idiot." And during the height of your manic "I'm a genius" phase, you're like, "This book's going to sell fifty million copies! I need to put it in a safety deposit box so it's not stolen!" And it's those moments that keep you going through the moments where you're like, "This is absolute shit. I'm a loser idiot working in Jamie's father's office in a business building in Iowa. I'm 27 years old, collecting unemployment checks." I experience both of those things fully when I'm doing any creative project. In my more sane moments, I'm just happy that anyone liked (Tales) ever. That's really the way I feel about it all the time now.