January 2009

Geoffrey H. Goodwin


An Interview with Benjamin Parzybok

Benjamin Parzybok has it going on. Whether it's Gumball Poetry, which was about what it sounds like if you think it sounds like poetry in gumball dispensers, or the Black Magic Insurance Agency, which was a mysterious treasure hunt based online and in Portland, Oregon, Benjamin Parzybok's been up to interesting things. "Reality hacker" would sound cheesy if it weren't so apt. Picture him walking down the street with some friends and an SUV made out of cardboard (or check out a picture) and you start to get it. And now that mix of activism and creativity has led to Couch, has first published novel.

Small Beer Press is one of the most wonderful presses in the world today. They've brought back classics, discovered new voices and championed short fiction in books and in their zine Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. Now Small Beer Press has put out Couch, the first book to be pulled out of their slush pile. Paul Di Filippo called Couch a "gonzo odyssey" and presented an origin myth that claimed: "Once upon a time, Donald Barthelme, Jonathan Lethem, and Umberto Eco attended a film festival together. The featured flicks were Kiss Me Deadly, Fitzcarraldo, and Repo Man. Inspired by this odd bill of fare, the trio set out to collaborate on a novel."

Parzybok's Couch may not have happened that way, but it'd be wrong to rule out the possibility. His computer hacker, bewildered seer and fast-talking two-bit con start in Portland, Oregon but end up following their orange couch farther than one would've guessed a couch could go. Along the way, it's a madcap and philosophical story about what happens when moving a piece of furniture goes more than a little awry. It's a stranger quest than this description makes is sound and it's available everywhere, including through Small Beer Press.

So you came out of the slushpile? The first ever for Small Beer Press?

I came out of the slushpile. From what they say, it sounds like their slush pile is large and slushy.

How long did Couch take you to write?

I did the first draft in six months. I'm a binge writer. I was living in Ecaudor at the time and wrote five or six hours everyday. I followed that up with several years of rewrites at a much slower pace, which is an essential process for me.

You were moving a couch?

We went to buy a couch at a second-hand store. We'd just moved to Portland, Oregon, from Taiwan and we felt like outsiders in the neighborhood. The experience of moving this couch through a posh shopping district was weird. It was too heavy to carry more than half a block and when we put it down, we'd sit on the couch and everybody thought we were performance art. People were interacting with us, they wanted to sit on the couch or know what we were doing. I began to think how the phenomenon of a collective act -- in this case moving a couch -- would change someone who felt like an outcast. How would that change how they fit into the neighborhood? That was the genesis of the novel and then I moved to a place that felt magical and that affected the book too. Originally, I though I was going to write a straight literary book and then it went weird.

The two shouldn't be that separate.

I know.

You had been in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet?

It was a story about a programmer who had gone mad, but he was invaluable to the company at which he was employed. He lived on the roof of the company and a person was appointed to be his disciple, of sorts. To bring him meals and to bring back the code. Until one day the coder disappeared and there was an ascension of the disciple to the role of the code god.

What, pray tell, was Gumball Poetry?

It was another big project. At one point in my life I wrote a lot of poetry. There was also a time that poetry had saved my life. Gumball Poetry was a literary journal that I ran with my partner for about 8 years.

How did poetry save your life?

I read a series of poems by Jim Harrison called Letters to Yesenin. He was writing to a dead poet who had committed suicide and, in the process, managed to talk himself out of committing suicide. It was so lovely, a fantastic series of poems. I travel with decently literate friends and it seemed like poetry was merely something they'd been tortured with in high school; they didn't read it. So we thought we'd do something to humble the genre. Make it whimsical, cheapen it and bring it off the dusty tomes. We'd have a gumball machine in a café and hope a four-year-old goes up and says, "Mommy, I want a piece of…" because we did serve it with a piece of gum inside. Then they'd bring it back to the table and it would be a decent, serious, not-kid poem. Our motto was: Rot your teeth, not your mind. We had great fun with it and did it for eight years.

Any other ideas that weird?

Gazillions of little web projects. One that I did recently that I'm proud of was called Project Hamad. We wanted to tell the story of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner, a political project, from the first person story angle. If you look at Fox News and all those, they're obsessed with narrative stories as opposed to actual news events. We thought that people were sick of the word Guantanamo, almost allergic to it, it was a national embarrassment. So we figured we'd personalize a story with the wider goal to bring attention to habeas corpus. We had great success getting attention for this particular prisoner whose life we'd researched, who had been a hospital charity worker in Pakistan as a foreign laborer. He was supporting his family in Sudan. He was a fantastic ping-pong player, had a great sense of humor and had hundreds of alibis. He spent six years in Guantanmo without ever knowing what he was even charged with. We got his story placed in newspapers all over the world. So that was a fantastic thing. He was released six months later. With the government you never know whether you had anything to do with it or not. Suddenly, his case came up; they never released any evidence against him and just let him go. We think it was a mistaken name case. That's at projecthamad.org. Another project is Walker Tracker -- a step tracking community for people with pedometers. I like measurement and stats -- I want devices to measure all parts of my existence, I find it fascinating.

Who are some of your favorites to read?

Haruki Murakami was an influence on this book. He was the first to allow me to bridge the literary and fantasy worlds. I used to read exclusively fantasy fiction for years. I loved Ursula LeGuin, the Earthsea Trilogy, The Sword of Shanara -- David Eddings was a grocery checker at a local grocery store in Spokane where I grew up. I remember reading the Belgariad and then going to visit him in the store where he still checked groceries and being so amazed that this man had written those books (and that he was still checking groceries!) It was a humbling and inspiring experience. I believe David Eddings went on to do rather well -- but at the same time it was a nice introduction to the writer's life.  I fucking loved those books. At some point, my father and grandmother told me it was time to start reading real books, and I remember wonder: 'What these aren't real books?' That sucked -- but I branched out and really didn't read anything in the fantasy genre for twenty years. Haruki Murakami helped me realize that there was a wonderful way to bridge multiple genres in a book. Besides that -- I don't stick to any genre. I just ordered a bunch of scientific books on the water cycle, as I think I'm going to play with that a bit.