100 Issues: A Correspondence Between Michael Schaub and Jessa Crispin (Mostly Incredulous)
I am writing from this little cafe in Odessa. I have been ordering a little randomly from the menu -- I can make out certain words, but no details. So I can point to one of the teas and hope for the best, something with chicken, a salad of some sort. I think I had liver for breakfast, but that was my only option...
And in a couple days, it's going to be the 100th issue of Bookslut.
I've been wondering how the fuck this happened, you know? Not just how
I got to Odessa, although that is a bit of a mystery, too. But how did
I get to move to Europe, which I shouldn't have been able to,
considering how little money I have. They should have sent me away at
the border. Or how I got to stay at home (or random seashore cities)
and write full time. Etc. Etc.
All I remember is that one night at Magnolia Cafe in South Austin, I drunkenly started writing my plans for a literary magazine on a napkin, and instead of telling me I was crazy, I believe you said, "You should totally do that." And while we had just met, you were fully aware of how crazy I am at that point. Given that the first night we hung out I made you go see a Gene Hackman, Owen Wilson, slow motion action film.
And now it's another thing entirely. But you were there from the beginning. You tell me: how did this happen?
How did this happen? I was following you! Are you trying to tell me you were leading us into the catacombs with no map?
I remember Magnolia Cafe, when you told me about Bookslut for the first time. I was sold. I mean, I'd written things on napkins before, but only when I was very drunk, and I'd wake up the next morning trying to figure out what "ALL ALONG WATCHTOWER = 88/x NEBSKA???" meant. And I had friends -- many, many friends -- who had let me in on their grand plans, which were more along the lines like "I am totally going to write a seven-hour rock opera about the Polk administration and train French bulldogs to perform it" or "Someone should totally make, like, a whiskey with, like, weed in it." That last one might have been mine, but whatever.
So I remember that. I remember the stacks of books in your apartment off East Oltorf, in that complex that I can only hope has been condemned by now. I remember talking about Salman Rushdie for hours; I remember you and I drinking and making plans at Opal Divine's; I remember us going to a show at Emo's; I remember you moving to Chicago. And I remember that in that time, everything changed. We started being taken seriously. People stopped laughing at the name. You became a rock star, and I thought, simultaneously, I knew it, and Holy fucking shit, she actually pulled this off.
How did we get here? I don't remember. I just remember asking you for advice, every day, all the time, and everything you said somehow turned out to be right. I mean, we were bored one night and you suggested the Gene Hackman-Owen Wilson movie, which was fucking magical. You were right even then.
It's midnight in Portland. I'm being interviewed for a local television station at a time I am not normally awake. And you know me; I have stage fright and an occasional stutter. And all I can think of is the first time I had to do this, and your advice, which I quote verbatim and in its entirety, if only from memory: "If it's regular TV, just remember not to say 'cocksucker.'"
So how did it happen? I've thought about it all day. And all I can remember is meeting a friend who had cats named after Lloyd Dobler and Kathy Acker; and then... this. Where we are now. And I can't help but think you knew this was going to happen.
You did, didn't you? How did you know?
I just remember being profoundly disappointed with the Internet. Here is this land of infinite space, yes? No restrictions, absolutely limitless. And yet no one was doing anything. Except Dennis (Loy Johnson). Can we pause for a moment and sing the praises of Dennis, who kept me sane through various Internet calamities? Dennis should be elected king of the Internet, I think. But anyway, boredom is the mother, no, wait, maybe the creepy uncle of invention. If I had a day job where all I had to do was tap away on a keyboard, make them think this spreadsheet was totally complicated and took a really long time, then what else could I do? Catching up on the news only took like an hour. That left seven. This is why people comment (and thereby becoming insane) or become Facebook addicts. There is nothing to fucking do at your day job on the Internet.
But okay, so if there is all this space, and it is basically free, what do you want to do with it? And I'm still profoundly disappointed with the Internet, but at least I have my own thing to keep me company. And no one was writing about the weirdo books I was reading at the time, I remember trying to find anything interesting about Kathy Acker online, and I think there was one webpage that was set up and stopped updating in 1994. And the only stuff I could find on the comic books I was reading at the time was super nerdy, because this was when it was still weird to go into a comic book store when you had a vagina. Their lonely man eyes would follow you around everywhere. And I wasn't even hot then, I was still cutting my own hair.
It still surprises me that this thing worked. I mean, I took off my shirt for the Chicago Reader, because I was like, "They are never going to print this, why would they?" Then they put it on the motherfucking cover, and going out in Chicago was awkward for like a year.
But maybe the thinking it was never going to work was the key to its
success. If no one is ever going to read it, you can do whatever the
hell you wanted. And all of us did. You, me, Roohi, Karin, my
sister... I think that was it starting out. And it was a conversation
where you are sure you will never be overheard, so you can talk shit
about anyone you like. I think it still has that energy, and that's
something I still like about it. It's not spiteful (although we have
slipped there in the past), but just kind of joyous. Like when you
used to show up on my doorstep with a bottle of vodka. Those were some
of my favorite evenings I have ever spent.
In two days I am getting on a train back to Berlin, which makes me a little sad. I am staying in a sanatorium next to a place called "Magnolia," my room number is my birthday reversed, and the whole thing seems profoundly odd. Very good for reminiscing and wondering just what in the world the past eight years of our lives have been about.
But let's talk books. Because eight years ago I hardly read any nonfiction, and now it is almost all I read. What are you reading, Michael Schaub?
Dennis is the godfather of Bookslut. And I mean that in both senses. He kept us going; he encouraged us; he gave us advice. And he also would kiss our enemies on the cheek, tell them he knew it was them, and then [redacted by Bookslut's attorney]. OK, not that last one (plus, I'm pretty sure I just conflated two totally different scenes in The Godfather, but whatever), but I've always kind of thought of him as our patron saint, our best friend, our awesome uncle. I'm all for him being elected king of the Internet. As long as he makes me a viscount or something.
I can barely remember what the Internet was like back then. I have purchased and consumed a lot of whiskey since then (there's a reason Johnnie Walker is listed as "editor of Mike not going crazy" on our masthead). I was barely employed then, working a series of awful temp jobs. I killed time looking for better jobs, trying to figure out what the hell Friendster did, and downloading mopey suicide music. I'd become depressed about literature. If there was a literary site that could have spoken to me back then, I didn't know about it. I just knew about Amazon customer comments, which is where intelligent criticism goes to be violently murdered with power tools.
I think I did know it was going to work, but I don't know why. My predictions are usually hilariously awful. I once lost $500 betting on the Sacramento Kings to win the Super Bowl. (I have learned that if there is one thing Bookslut readers appreciate, it's a lame professional sports joke.) It seemed like the site really took off when you moved to Chicago; they couldn't get enough Bookslut up there. We were like the Polish sausage of literary sites.
And maybe it was because people could tell we were having fun. It felt good. It felt like photocopying a zine at two in the morning, that same kind of energy. And that's not to say there aren't things I wrote that I now regret, but I don't regret the experience. And to our amazement, people started to pay attention. We didn't even have to start publishing pornography for that to happen. (Although I still say we should do this. Sure, it might compromise our integrity, but we could get rich and retire. Did you have fun in Odessa? YOU COULD BUY ODESSA.)
It's amazing that it still feels like that to me. It still feels like we're in that Austin apartment with vodka and Lisa Germano playing on your stereo, even though we're 5,000 miles away from each other now. You were in Portland not long ago, and we hadn't seen each other in years, but it didn't seem like any time had passed since we were 23-year-olds semi-drunkenly discussing the next issue outside at Emo's. There was maybe four writers then; there's over 75 now. We've written for Big Serious Publications, but I still feel like a punk kid. And it's so much fucking fun.
I read a lot more nonfiction now, too, and I just started The Master and the Emissary, which you recommended to me (and everybody) a few months ago. I'm also reading about the Clash album London Calling, and (new Bookslut columnist!) Ben Greenman's amazing short story collection What He's Poised to Do.
What are you reading? And where do you get your recommendations? Mine come increasingly from Bookslut readers, who, by the way, are the best in the world. We've been blessed to an insane degree with our fans, who are loyal, and sweet, and intelligent, and attractive. (I went to a Bookslut reading in Chicago. I'm not kidding about the attractive.)
Amen to the attractive readers. I ran that reading series in Chicago
for three years, and we had by far the sexiest audience I had ever
seen. And people got laid when they came to those readings. How could
they not, with the booze and the hotness and the poetry flying around.
I started that entire series as a way to meet Shalom Auslander. I read Beware of God and loved it intensely. I saw he wasn't coming to Chicago on his reading tour, and I wondered how I could change that. Well, maybe if I have a reading series. And then it just came together. (Well, with some difficulty. I had a weird encounter with a man who wanted to be a "sponsor," but it turns out that meant "approving" of my author selection. Fuck him. Actually, that's been the weirdest thing about running Bookslut -- there have always been these men hanging around who wanted to "help" or "mentor." Not Dennis, because he actually did. But men who wanted something, and when you made it clear they had nothing you wanted, they got nasty. They stopped showing up about a year or two ago, but for a long time it was a constant problem.) Then Shalom did read at my series -- twice. And so did Kathryn Davis, and meeting her was magical. And Kelly Link, Dubravka Ugresic, Mark Z Danielewski, and on and on.
As for the books, I get a lot of recommendations from our Bookslut contributors, to be honest. Especially from Elizabeth Bachner, who I am very lucky to count as a good friend. But then it's always worked a little weirdly for me... sometimes books would just show up and for some reason, despite ugly cover art or totally obscure writers, and being published by people I'd never heard of, I just knew I would have to read it. Metropole was like that, and that book reshaped my brain. Little Boy Lost kept yelling at me from across the room. Naming Infinity did that, although it had to be more aggressive, since it was
a book about math. It flung itself off my shelf when I walked by, it was the oddest thing. I was forever picking it up off the floor, reshelving, until one day I broke down and read it. And that has been a very important book to me.
Right now I'm reading Lewis Hyde, and the essays of William James. And William James came into my life because of Bookslut, too. J. C. Hallman was coming to the series, I read his book about James (The Devil is a Gentleman) and was hooked. (Embarrassingly enough, also a cute boy told me Varieties of Religious Experience was his favorite book of all time around then. And I had a crush on him. Despite the fact that he wore a hemp necklace. I KNOW.) And now I'm reading his essays on the beach of the Black Sea, underlining the shit out of it. Because he keeps me grounded, when nothing makes sense.
I was going to ask you: do you remember why I named this thing Bookslut? Because people ask. And I have no idea. I have been telling them an angel came down from high and told me "And thoust shallst namest this web blog Bookslut." But I don't think they believe me.
That should be the motto for the upcoming Bookslut Reading Series in Portland: "You'll get laid, nerds!" If there are two things Portlanders like, I have learned, they are sex and books. Also brunch, Tibetan prayer flags, and sensible urban planning. But more sex and books. Which is obviously perfect for Bookslut. I actually saw a guy here walk into a strip club carrying The Gulag Archipelago.
I think we're both excited about our respective new(ish) cities. You and I have been in Berlin and Portland, respectively, for over a year now. I escaped the heat of Texas, finally, after 31 years there. And you left the chilly, gray, urban Chicago winters behind for the... oh. Right.
Berlin sounds amazing, and not just because I imagine it to be full of sausage and people who can correctly pronounce my last name. (It's not like the quarterback, people.) And Portland... it's Bookslut's kind of town, you know? You go into apartments and houses (hopefully with permission) and there are bookshelves with actual books. People don't use them to store DVDs, ceramic animals, or bongs! Maybe bongs. But people are in love with literature here. I knew about Powell's before I moved here, and God knows it is amazing, but there's so much more. Even the library system here is perfect.
Anyway, I have no clue how you came up with Bookslut. I get asked that very, very frequently -- I just did an interview a few days ago where the host asked me that -- and I now just make things up. Did vodka have something to do with it? I think we were drinking a particularly cheap brand in those days. I love the name, though I imagine you get the brunt of creepy old men saying "Bookslut, huh?" and raising a bushy eyebrow when they meet you. That does not happen to me. I just get blank stares.
Jesus, it does not seem like it's been this long, almost nine years. What the hell? I hear from readers who say they started reading us when they were in high school. And now they're writing books. Obviously we need to start planning our tenth anniversary party. I'm thinking Amsterdam. Or Bourbon County, Kentucky. Or there's this liquor store off Powell that's pretty cool.
Are you enjoying Lewis Hyde? Oh, and I know you're on a nonfiction bender right now, but I have four words for you: You Lost Me There. Trust me on this one. I love that in the course of running Bookslut we can still come across books -- I think I can speak for you on this one -- that just kind of change things for us; that make us feel something; that move our jaded little selves. For me, those have been books like Ander Monson's Other Electricities; James Hynes's Next; Travis Jeppesen's Victims; and too many others to name. What about you?
When you mention Ander Monson, mostly what I remember is the time I was asked to interview him on stage for Printers Row, except Ander and I went drinking beforehand, and at the event I had to keep telling myself over and over, "Crispin, you cannot lie down under the table, you cannot lie down under the table."
The move from Chicago to Berlin... I feel like I'm still adjusting a year later. I got off a very long train ride this morning, checked my e-mail to find a message from the fella asking, "Where are you right now?" I typed in "Chicago" and then felt a little sad hitting backspace. Obviously my brain still defaults there.
Chicago was so good for Bookslut. In Austin, it was sort of this adorable little thing, right? Everyone sort of looked at us like we were just sort of cute, if that makes any sense. And in Chicago, it was this immediate acceptance and enthusiasm. We had the support of the Chicago Tribune, the Reader, the Sun-Times, and Chicago Tonight. (Oh, Phil Ponce. I miss you so...) My bank in Chicago (which I still use, they have earned my undying loyalty) used to clip articles that I was in from the newspaper and save them until I came in to deposit a check. "You are much prettier in person!" they would scold the photographer.
And I totally needed that, because I wasn't really taking it that seriously. It took me a long time to, actually. I remember Dennis (going back a bit) took Bookslut seriously immediately -- way before I did. He and I met because we were on this horrific panel together (you were there, you remember) and this absolute Motherfucker just started attacking Dennis and myself because we were destroying literature or something, whereas the Motherfucker was the light and the way. And I think I was mostly stunned into silence, because I was afraid if I moved a muscle, it would end in me ripping the guy's tongue out of his mouth with my hands. If the Motherfucker accomplished anything, it was to make fast friends out of Dennis and me, we bonded like we had been through battle.
Now with Berlin, it's completely different. No one here cares too much about Bookslut, which has been a relief. We do our events from time to time, but it's nice to have some distance. Because Berlin has been a whole other kind of thing... Trying to figure out if I'm a writer or not (again, Dennis taking me much more seriously than I do), trying to do things outside of the blog and the editing. And whatever the weirdness that happened with the transition, I feel lucky and safe to have Bookslut in your hands. It was destiny. Slightly traumatic destiny.
As for the Lewis Hyde, god, it was amazing. I tore through it on the train, and I think that reading about permeable borders and tricksters and thieves accidentally manifested my neighbor on the train: a smuggler. I just put my nose in my book, felt really lucky to have absolutely zero Polish in my language skills when we hit the border and her goods with discovered. "I have just been sitting here reading, I did not notice her prying up the paneling in our compartment at all." Sometimes it is good to play the dumb American.
I do get the weird, leering old men thing occasionally. (I had a fellow blogger come into my home to conduct an interview with me, and he got all greasy and weird, started telling me how freeing his divorce was, and started off the interview with: "So, are you still a slut?") But mostly it's a little gunslinger. It's a little "go fuck yourself," and I like that. I do remember that when I named it that, I was working at a women's health nonprofit, and there was this safe babe space, you know? And it was like a little collective, all body happy and righteous, like a fucking Ani DiFranco song or something. And it was a little bit of a shock to greet the outside world after that, to find people are going to be weird about the name. I was a little oblivious. But then when people got weird, I learned to put on my "go fuck yourself" stare and they generally shut the fuck up really fast.
Do you think Portland is going to change what books you read? Because I noticed big shifts from Austin to Chicago and then from Chicago to Berlin. I'm reading way more history than I ever have before, and weirdly reading anything I can get my hands on about Russia, particularly 1900 to 1930. It's a thing with me, I can't explain it. But I was reading a lot of European literature in Chicago, way more than I had been in Austin, so maybe this is life's foreshadowing?
I do remember the Austin press regarding us as something of a novelty, when they regarded us at all. Which is why it was so weird and cool when the Chicago media embraced us so fully and readily. When I walked around with you there, people would just recognize you. It was kind of amazing. (I was trying to remember when exactly this was, and I suddenly remembered having seen campaign signs for a US Senate candidate named "Barack Obama" all around your neighborhood. And I also remember thinking something like "Nobody with that name is going to be elected to the Senate." So I guess my predictions haven't been like totally flawless.)
That panel was at BookExpo America, right? That was the first and last one I went to. That was still in the day when we'd get raised eyebrows when people saw "Bookslut" on our badges. But yeah, Dennis was, as usual, completely cool. He's one of those guys who gets even more eloquent when challenged, which is the opposite of me. (You react with stunned silence, I guess; I react with an ungrammatical string of nonsensical words.) BEA was one of the first times I realized that the publishing industry was like any other one, and there was the same petty, internecine squabbling that there was in every other business. I don't know why I hadn't realized that before. Wishful thinking, I guess.
I was going to ask you here about the state of the publishing industry. But honestly, do you give a fuck? I mean, I realize it's important; of course it is. But there's been so much hand-wringing about e-books, about retailers, about book tours, and it seems like some of our colleagues are starting to forget about, you know, the books. And there's so much good news there, if you know where to find it. That was one of the first things you did with Bookslut -- emphasize indie presses, authors in translation, neglected writers from the past. And it's such a deep, deep well, but everyone wants to have these interminable jack-off sessions about the fucking Kindle.
Anyway. I used to get raised eyebrows when I told people the name, though not so much anymore. (And definitely no leering guys, but I might just be hanging out in the wrong neighborhoods.) People seem to recognize us now, thanks to you. Sometimes it seems like everyone I meet in Portland has already heard of us, or if they haven't, the name seems reasonable to them. This city is obsessed with literature and sex, and being a man who reads means that I am too. Which is why I love the name -- it perfectly integrates the sexy and nerdy worlds, which go together so, so well. I mean, for people like us.
Portland has been so amazing and supportive. It's the perfect home for Bookslut. The two alternative newsweeklies here, the Willamette Week and the Portland Mercury, immediately reached out and have been encouraging and helpful. (The local journalists here are absolutely amazing. This city has three great local book review sections -- the two alt-weeklies and The Oregonian, one of the only daily newspapers left with dependably intelligent literary coverage.) The bookstores, from Powell's to Reading Frenzy, have welcomed us here. Which makes sense: Portland has the world's most amazing bookstore (Powell's), and more strip clubs per capita than any other American city. It's perfect! Jessa, come home!
And Portland has, I think, changed what I read, though I'm not sure how. I've been reading a lot of coming-of-age novels since I've been here -- The Go-Between, Of Human Bondage. I bought a Ken Kesey book the other day. Never read him, but shit, I'm in Oregon now; I think I'm legally required to. And I've been on a Western kick, oddly; I suddenly had the urge to read True Grit and Lonesome Dove. I don't know why. Maybe it reminds me of Texas; maybe it's just me getting in touch with my Western self. (Which does not exist. I have never ridden a horse, and I like air conditioning.)
So here we are. One hundred issues. This does not seem real. Nothing this year seems real to me.
This year has been magical and terrible, hasn't it? The best and the worst of our lives, I'd bet; maybe I'm just speaking for me. But I'm more grateful than I've ever been to you and to Bookslut. I don't know if I could have survived this year without it. We lost a writer this year; I lost a brother. And if it weren't for the fact that you've been my de facto twin sister for the past nine years, I'd probably be busking for change on Hawthorne. (I don't know how to play any instruments, or sing, so it's good you're around.) Since I'm 32 now, and entitled, I feel, to some sentimentality, I feel like I have to say this: I have been lucky. Lucky to be surrounded by our readers, who are the coolest on the Internet; our writers, who are the best book critics in the world. Lucky to have you as a best friend.
You started this, kid; I leave the last words to you. I know Bookslut is important to you; if you're like me, there might have been a time or two when it actually saved you. I know you and I are used to being saved by books and the people who love them. So what has Bookslut meant to you, the founder, the editor, the instigator and head bomb-thrower? I don't know what I would have done without you and the writers. What about you?
I have had half a bottle of wine. Which is what it takes for me to be squishy. You have known me for nine years, you know this to be true.
I will just say that I have been dealing with Bookslut since I was 23 years old. Now I am 32, which means "my entire adult life." There is not a single aspect of my entire adult life that did not come from Booklut. I met Honeybee because she saw me on Chicago Tonight and kind of stalked me. I met my boyfriend through the reading series. Nearly everyone I know, every good thing in my life came through Bookslut.
And yet, there's me at the core, trying to be emotional about it... oh look! There's an entirely implausible creature over there in the corner, distracting you from my emotional vulnerability!
What were we talking about?
Oh right. Bookslut. Yes, there have been moments.
Except for you, who knew before, Way Back When.
I have zero regrets, Mr. Schaub. There have been not-at-all-great-times during the years, but I would not trade them in for anything. I am blessed to have you, to have the writers, to have Bookslut, to have Berlin, to have Honeybee, to have the life I lead, and there is not a day that I am not aware of it. I somehow constructed the life of my dreams. It may have been an accident, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate it.
I love you, Michael Schaub. I have a plane to catch tomorrow, and I will talk to you from the other side of Vienna.