November 2005

Beth Dugan


An Interview with Joe Meno

Joe Meno, Chicago wunderkind, has three novels, two plays, and a new book of short stories to his credit, and more of everything in the works. His third novel, Hairstyles of the Damned, was the debut novel for Akashic Book's new imprint, Punk Planet Books, and was selected for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program (Nov. 2004 - Jan. 2005 season). His short fiction has been published in TriQuarterly, Bridge, Other Voices, Washington Square, Gulf Coast, Alaska Quarterly Review, and broadcast on National Public Radio. He is the winner of the 2003 Nelson Algren Literary Award.

A former musician and current music journalist for Punk Planet, all of Meno’s work vibrates with the energy of the music that has influenced his life. Meno revels in keeping his hands in every medium available to him and his latest effort is a love song to his favorite, the short story. It’s called Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir, and is an odd, romantic, and compelling group of tales. Meno talked with Bookslut about his fierce belief that indie publishing will rise up and crush the Goliaths like Random House and Harper Collins and his fight to keep control of the creative process of making a book.

Do you read Bookslut?

Yeah, totally. I’ve been so impressed with the whole literary blog thing. It’s just come up recently.

Like in the last two years.

Literally. And what’s great about it is its populist, and democratic, and it’s not something that a major publishing house can exert a lot of control over. All they can do is send books to different people but they can’t force people to select those books on their web site. It’s kinda like indie radio. It’s interesting how popular [blogs] are. There is here in Chicago. I think in the last couple of years I’ve been more and more hopeful at how independent publishing has kind of risen to the challenge, and filling the void that most big presses are only beginning to deal with. Likewise all these other agencies like indie bookstores and indie websites or blogs have nothing to do with money. These people are doing it because they love books. That’s the complete opposite reason why Harper Collins or Random House puts a book out. They put a book out purely because they think it’s going to make money. It’s been really amazing to see how supportive the indie community has been and powerful it’s gotten really, really quick.

In your acknowledgements for Hairstyles, you have words for Judith Regan, “You suck it: Judith Regan. Badly. And all you other bad publishing corporations. Be ready, the end is nigh.”

That’s right. My first two books came out on very corporate presses, St. Martin’s and then Regan Books, which is part of HarperCollins. Judith Regan is notoriously one of the most narrow-minded publishers in terms of publishing books purely to make money without any kind of social or political meaning behind them. The books that she has put out are from biographies of professional wrestlers to porn stars to a book written by an Oklahoma City bomber. I mean the whole reason she puts books out is to make money, and she was selected specifically by Rupert Murdoch who owns Fox, to head this publishing company, this imprint of HarperCollins.

She got her start in publishing in the National Enquirer and that is exactly what she has brought to mainstream publishing. She has single-handedly worked to move book publishing one step closer to magazine publishing; less about the content of the book and more about aiming at the lowest common denominator, and looking at books as products instead of what they are. Because her influence has been so wildly successful, because she sells tons and tons of books, then other publishing companies had to compete and started putting out books that 10 or 15 years ago they would have never put out because they know they are going to sell. Before they might have been a magazine article in Cosmo, now they are books.

I don’t have a problem with a professional wrestler putting a book out. The problem is that because all these book publishers have become consolidated, they are all owned by the same companies now, that there is no variety. When you go into Barnes & Noble or Borders or you look at a catalog put out by these separate presses, there is a complete sameness to the kind of books they put out. They are not risky or challenging in any way.

They literally look like tampon commercials. You know, there’s like a high heel, or a wedding ring on the cover. If I was a woman, I would be insulted to think that the only think I would be interested in was some man to complete me. That’s like the plot of all these books now and they sell. They sell because they are being marketed to an audience that in the past bought magazines. So they cut into that magazine market and the books are smaller with bigger print.

Again, I don’t have a problem with those books getting published. In some ways I think it’s great that, in a weird way, they have expanded that book audience. The problem I have is the sameness. No variety. It has to be safe. How can you have something of merit? How can you do anything that is beautiful by watering it down or dumbing it down? So it’s been amazing to see this void that in the '90s was created by the consolidating of all of these publishing houses and a kind of lack of willingness to take risks and to see presses like Akashic and Soft Skull, McSweeney’s, all these great indie publishers, put out challenging, interesting, meaningful work. They know they are not going to sell a million copies of it but they are out to make a profit. They are putting it out there because they believe it.

I don’t sit down and write a story to make money off of it. I write a story because there is something on my mind or I am upset or I come up with an idea about something. In some ways it’s very similar to what happened in the '80s with pop music and the rise of independent music labels. So it’s great to see chain book stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders get on board and be reactive to the independent press.

What was really fascinating was my last book Hairstyles of the Damned was put out by a small press and now there are 25,000 copies in print and most of those were sold at a chain bookstore, which is a bizarre paradox almost. So they see that the public has an appetite for this kind of writing. They want stuff that is going to challenge them so they are going to promote it or sell those kinds of books. It’s kind of being in the middle of a turning point.

So in my dedication or my “fuck off” or whatever, to Judith Regan, I felt really strongly that this is it. This is the end. There is no way that people are going to tolerate buying the same kind of books over and over. Slowly, it’s starting to happen. I would have looked like a real jerk, I think, if I put that in the dedication and the book like bombed and there wasn’t this kind of great renaissance in our culture going on. But it is, and I feel real confident.

That’s the reason for this short story collection. For my new book I decided to go with another indie publisher because my experience was so great.

So you are done with corporations forever?

No, I won’t make that statement but I won’t go to a publisher where I can’t have control over the book that I write. I don’t want interference from sales and marketing deciding what the book cover should look like, or what the font should look like, or what my picture should look like, or how it should be promoted. I want to have complete involvement in those aspects. Sales and marketing people don’t read your book. They read a blurb written by your editor and they design a cover based on that blurb. That’s really problematic to me. Not only that, but their goal is to sell as many copies of the book as possible, even if that means misrepresenting the book.

That’s exactly what happened with my second book [How the Hula Girl Sings]. I wrote a noir kinda pulpy novel and I designed a cover for it that really matched that, and passed it to the sales and marketing department. They said this is never gonna work. They put this picture on it that was like bright blue that had nothing to do with the book. "Hula girl" is in the title but there is no hula girl in the book. It’s totally misrepresenting what the book is. Instead of letting the book be its own thing, they watered it down, dumbed it down to make it as accessible to as many people as possible. I think that is a disservice. I feel like the book is good on its own, it can be its own thing.

How the Hula Girl Sings was recently re-released.

That’s right. At Akashic and I got to pick the cover and have a lot of input for the cover. I got to go back and re-edit. I wrote the book when I was 25 and I am 31 now and I know I am a better writer now than I was six years ago, so my one caveat was when Johnny Temple said, "Will you re-release it," was I have to go back and re-edit this thing. There is no way I can put it out like I want to and feel comfortable and proud of it. So I went back and cut like 20 percent of the book. It was great! I was a young writer and I did what a lot of young writers do. They want to prove that they are really writing, and that they are serious. So, instead of just saying something once I would say it like three times. Lots and lots of repetition.

So it was cut and not a real re-write.

There were a couple of things that I did, a couple of characters that I took in different directions. I felt like in the original that was put out in 2001, they were too shallow and there wasn’t enough depth to certain characters so I went in and tweaked them. There’s two scenes that I was re-editing that I wondered why they were in the book. They don’t move the story forward. They are good, they are well written but they’re not adding anything to the story. I know why they were in there. Because I wrote them and I liked what I wrote, but that’s always a good enough reason for them to stay. I ended up cutting out two whole chapters and it moves along much better now.

I feel like as a writer, nothing I wrote will ever be done. I feel like you can always go back and say, especially as you grow as a writer, you get better and more refined. I know I could go back… I don’t even look at my first book. I had a cool opportunity to redo some work and hopefully re-see and re-edit it to where I am comfortable with it now. It was great. It came out this summer, and Entertainment Weekly gave it a good review and the response has been really good. It’s a very very different tone than the first book or this last book has been. That’s what I’m more interested in as a writer is with each book trying something a little bit different.

Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir is your first collection of short stories. Is it something that you have been working on all along?

Definitely. Publishing a collection of short stories is like publishing poison. No one wants to touch them. The reason is that it’s really hard to market because they can’t distill it into a plot line. This is a book about a guy who finds out that his wife is a thief and they go to Paris, or whatever. And that’s what marketing departments do. They distill everything and since a collection of stories is a bunch of different stories or ideas or tones or whatever, they don’t want to touch it. Over the last couple of years the short story market for collections has totally dwindled to the point where even the Atlantic Monthly, which is this amazing magazine, has eliminated their short fiction altogether. It’s ridiculous to me because it’s one of my favorite forms as a reader and as a writer. What I do a lot of times is I’ll write a short story and then experiment with it and maybe try it out as a script and then it might ultimately become a novel. It’s a huge part of my process as a writer. And then I’ll write another short story and think, oh, these are really similar and connected in some way. Even how I construct a book is usually based on a couple short stories ideas. They are like the building blocks to me.

So this is a first collection. The oldest story in it is about five years old and that’s called “In the Arms of Someone You Love.” I wrote that when I was in grad school at Columbia College and I got a Columbia award for that. The newest is about a year old and that’s called "Our Neck of the Woods," about a deer factory. So it’s an anthology in some ways of the writing that I have been doing over the last five years. The story “Midway” that I got the [Nelson] Algren award for and as I was writing it, it helped me think about this book that I was writing, which was Hairstyles. So parts of that short story connect to the book like the part talking about how his mom always wins the pumpkin carving contest for him. That’s actually in Hairstyles and it’s based on something from when I was a kid. I thought, if I am going to do this book right and documenting a lot of the things that happened to me in high school, I gotta have that in there. So actually I used that scene in the novel.

There’s another one like that. The story “The Use of Medicine” is like something in Hula Girl. The part where they dress the animals up…

Exactly. That story is probably almost five years old and I was probably working on Hula Girl at the time and then and the idea started in the short story. That’s just kind of how I work ideas out and take this and connect it to this other thing. But that’s just the way I work. I grew up and got into writing having been a musician for a while. I was playing music way before I ever thought about being a writer and I think the way a lot of musicians work ideas out and then return to them again and again in their careers, that’s what I do as a writer.

The writers I really love like Faulkner or Toni Morrison do that as well. Like Faulkner will write a short story, an event will happen, or a character will get introduced and that same event will appear in a novel. He has this great sense of experimentation and play where he’s not like, well I wrote that over there. I can’t go back to that idea. So after reading them or some Sherwood Anderson, I realized it's way more interesting and exciting to expand on this idea in a lot of different ways instead of saying, oh I’ve done that so I can’t do it as a play script or as a novel.

That’s another form that you are working in these days. You have a play that just came out, correct?

I have one that was out in September, that was again based on a short story and then it became a play. I was working on that and I thought, wow this would be great as a graphic novel so I am re-writing the script as a graphic novel. And then I have another play coming out in May which is called “The Boy Detective Fails” and it’s about this guy in his thirties who was a former child detective, like Encyclopedia Brown. When he was a kid he and his sister and his buddy from next door went around solving crimes. And when he turned 18 he went off to college to become a criminologist and his little sister got really depressed and she commits suicide. He doesn’t really know why but it kind of sends him into this depression that lasts for 10 years. So the book begins with him being released from a rest home. He’s 30-years-old and he is reentering the world and it’s about him ultimately trying to figure out what happened to his sister. It’s really surreal and sad but funny at the same time. There are hidden clues and you have to tear out the last page of the book to make a decoder ring because there are all these codes you can decode while you are reading it.

In the playbill?

No, not in the playbill. This is actually in the novel. In the play, the audience will get decoder rings and there will be like codes that come up that you can solve to help the boy detective. So he’s 30 but he still thinks of himself as the boy detective. He falls for this girl who’s like a pickpocket and he sees her on the bus and he can’t stop himself from grabbing her and being like, I saw you steal. He’s obsessive-compulsive. If he sees a shoe untied he has to tie it. He always has to solve. He always has to find the answer.

When you read those books as a kid, they are so amazing because you get to solve the problem and there is always closure. When you grow up, you realize how rare it is that you actually figure out the answer to the mysteries that occur. So taking this character whose whole goal is to solve every riddle and introduce him to the world of adults who understand how impossible that is. So it’s funny and sad and it comes out in September and the play comes out in May.

Was that what you were trying to do with Bluebirds?

I think as a musician I always go back to music for inspiration, not so much lyrically but the sounds and tones of songs. A lot of times I’ll think oh, I want to write a story that has the feeling that this band has or this song has. Hula Girl was dedicated to Johnny Cash and I wanted to write a book that sounded like him. And Bluebirds, each story is like the sound on a record album. Like here is the dreamy one, and this one is more contemporary and there is this Cuban thing.

The book is very about music in that way. There are a lot of song references in a lot of the stories. Having been a musician and now a music journalist for Punk Planet it’s just a huge part of my life. That was the reason why when we sat down to design the book, I had this idea. I wanted it to look like an old jazz album and so I said you have to make this square, like a record album. We had to convince the publisher to make it square and they were like what are you talking about, you can’t do a book as a square. But as soon as they saw it they said, oh this is gonna be great. It’s not exactly the size of a 7” record. They couldn’t do that. So it’s 6.5” by 6.5”. And that’s my wife on the cover, Koren. And it’s her hands holding the bird for the new Hula Girl cover. On Hairstyles it’s my friend Meg.

The Bluebird book in a lot of ways is very connected to my relationship with my wife. I’ve been married to her for five years and she’s part of my life that she reads everything, whether she wants to or not. She goes to all these plays… her favorite stuff is the short stories that I write. So I always have her in the back of my mind. In a lot of ways I am still trying to woo her. I dedicated the book to her, to her really specific sense of humor and sense of wonder. I wanted to stay connected to that. Ultimately all of the stories are connected to the idea of love. All of the characters are losing or gaining or being destroyed by love in different ways. That was kind of the album idea, that these are love songs.