An Interview with Gina Frangello
When Gina Frangello was last interviewed for Bookslut, nearly seven years ago, she hadnít yet published her first novel, My Sisterís Continent, nor had it received the accolades it would in these pages and beyond. She was the executive editor of an acclaimed Chicago-based literary journal, Other Voices, which, among its decadesí long history, had published in 1999 a short story of Pam Houstonís that went on to appear in Best American Short Stories of the Century, selected by John Updike, and, as though that wasnít enough, also taught college writing classes.
In the years that have racked up faster than either of us might readily admit, Frangello has continued to keep an awe-inspiringly breakneck schedule. Though the print magazine has shuttered, she now serves as executive editor for its book imprint, which she founded, OV Books. She edits the fiction section for The Nervous Breakdown, a fairly recent addition to the liternet, but already, and in large part to Frangelloís curating, a formidable compendium of literary demons (and saints). As a writer, in addition to her well-received first novel, sheís put out a short story collection, Slut Lullabies, last spring, which Vanity Fair resoundingly proclaimed ďwill seduce you.Ē Another novel is on the way.
Last year she won a fiction award from Summer Literary Seminars, judged by no less than Mary Gaitskill. The first-place prize, which she got to redeem two months ago, was a chance to travel to and study in Kenya. I caught up with Frangello one late morning in January, several weeks after sheíd returned to the States, at a diner called Kitschín, a few blocks from her home in Roscoe Village. It was snowing heavily that day. We were recorded by a sound engineer Iíd hired from a Craigslist post -- and paid in brunch and a couple of bottles of tequila. Frangello and I had drinks -- I Jameson neat, she a margarita -- and chicken and waffles, and we talked about her recent trip, her discoveries about the Kenyan scene, being a writer in Chicago, and how exactly it is that, in spite of her myriad commitments, she always has time to hang out with me for early-hour cocktails and conversation about books and the rapidly evolving publishing industry that never fails to seduce me.
Are we actually being recorded?
I think so.
I guess we should begin. I donít really have much. The Word-of-the-Day today -- do you get that? From Dictionary.com? -- itís autoschediastical...
Which is something improvised or extemporized...
All right! Thatís us!
Which I thought was perfect for today. So, weíre here at Kitschín, this is Gina Frangello, and Iím Charles Blackstone, in case I forget. Did you ever listen to Don Swaim?
He had Book Beat, on CBS radio, in the eighties, and thereís an Ohio University website that has .wav files of all these interviews, hundreds of interviews he did with writers.
Oh, cool. God, I didnít know anything about it.
Itís fascinating. Iíve gone through a lot of them. He has two with Carver, and one with Joyce Carol Oates Iíve listened to more times than anybody would deem appropriate.
I wanted to see what his first question was, to people, and I just did a random sampling, and I went to Carver -- some of them just like start oddly, like the recorder took a minute to go on, so thereís no beginning. One of the Carvers is in the middle of Carver talking about Yakima [Washington], so the question maybe is, ďWhere did you grow up?Ē but you canít tell. The one with Toni Morrison and then the second one with Carver both began with, ďWhen was the last time I saw you?Ē and theyíd been at, you know, like a PEN conference or something. So, I thought, perfect to begin with, when did we last see each other, because it was right before...
Yes, it was right before...
Right before you took a big trip...
I went to Kenya. Maybe a week before I went to Kenya. It was really close. And we were at May Street Cafť, planning [novelist and short-story writer] Cris Mazzaís release party, and like...
Which weíre excited about.
Which we were excited about. And we kept calling her on the phone, and like trying to pin her down to a date, when we could finagle the most people from UIC to get there. And we ate free, and life was good, and then I was off to Kenya. Yeah.
But so in Kenya, thereís a really different lit scene.
And I was wondering, sort of like vis-ŗ-vis your recent experiences, because Slut Lullabies came out last spring...
Yeah, it came out in May.
So, sort of like that period of time youíve been on the scene domestically -- I mean, how did you really... what did you make of Kenya, you know, coming on the heels of that?
Kenyaís got a very, very different lit scene. Just to sort of backtrack, Iíd won the SLS [Summer Literary Seminars] fiction contest, and so I was in the fiction workshop, and Therese Svoboda was the instructor, and I know her from here, and so that was all awesome, but thatís like a few hours in the morning in a conference room in your hotel, and you can kind of do that anywhere. The really cool part, the part that they really bill, is this Kenya Between the Lines program where theyíre taking you to meet directly Kenyan writers, Kenyan artists, Kenyan filmmakers, and talking about basically the emerging art scene in Kenya, and the thing thatís really... we all kind of know it, but it doesnít seem real until you get there, but, like, it was only a handful of years ago that there was this big building in the city center where they used to torture all the journalists, you know? I mean, Kenya is not a place where free speech has really existed consistently or for very long. So, they have this terminology for writers in Kenya, they call them first generation, second generation, and third generation, having to do with colonialism, post-colonialism, and now emerging writers, twentysomething hip-hop poets and what have you.
Do they interact much?
The first really fascinating thing about the Kenyan literary scene is that absolutely everyone knows everyone else. If youíre some twenty-year-old slam poet, and youíre giving a reading, you have Ngugi [wa Thiongío], who was a frontrunner for the Nobel Prize last year, in your audience. Itís very non-hierarchical, in the sense that there just arenít different tiers. Itís a small community. Thereís this guy Binyavanga Wainaina, and Binya is basically the highest profile writer I would say there under forty. Heís maybe thirty-eight, thirty-nine, a writer who everyone in the country whoís interested in literature knows, and heís very successful. But to say an equivalent of that here, you know -- heís just kind of everywhere. Like at every new writerís reading, at every talk about Kenyan literature, like you go to the National Museum, and there he is in the cafť, writing. You meet these writers and the next thing you know, you see them everywhere. They all attend every single other event by any of them. And theyíre just kind of everywhere. Thereís no sense of, you know, like, oh, Iím too good, or Iím famous and youíre not, or I have books out and you donít. So, so, thatís fascinating, step one.
But the other thing that was really fascinating to me as a publisher [of Dzanc Books imprint OV Books] is that they donít have much of a concept of really distribution in Kenya. I mean, youíve got writers like Ngugi and, I assume, Binya, whose work obviously has been distributed worldwide...†I mean, Ngugi has been writing for several decades and you go into Borders or Barnes and Noble, and there are his books, but, for the most part, you can have writers who in Kenya are viewed as pretty, like, canonical, viewed as like godmothers or godfathers of Kenyan literature, who everyone in the country is like, ďOh, thereís been no artist, no writer who ever passed through East Africa without going and having tea with this person,Ē but theyíre only famous internally. One such example is a writer named Rebecca Njau, who, um -- sheís kind of old, I donít want to guess her age, for fear of being offensive, but sheís, you know, an older woman, sheís actually Binyavangaís aunt, and, um, she and her husband ran a colony, like for artists and such, and apparently there was a little free love aspect involved, and that was all interesting, but mainly, you know, they were an artistic hub, and everybody in East Africa whoís at all involved in the arts knows them. So she did a reading from her new book, and Binya introduced her, and it was fascinating, and afterward I went over, you know, thinking about things like The Nervous Breakdown and writing book reviews, and I went up to her and I was like, ďSo, whoís your publisher in the United States? I really want to get on your review list. Iíd love to write about you in America.Ē And sheís like, ďI donít have a United States publisher. My books have never appeared in the United States.Ē And I was like, ďOh, well, whoís your UK publisher?Ē ďWell, my book is -- one of my books is available -- as an ebook in England, but other than that, none of my books are in the UK,Ē and Iím just like, Iíve just spent an hour and a half listening to every writer in the entire Kenyan lit scene stand up and pay homage to this woman as a godmother of Kenyan literature... and sheís basically never been circulated outside of Kenya.
Sounds like sheíd be perfect for Open Letter or, obviously, OV Books.
Well, you know, we did that anthology A Stranger Among Us, and in Stacy Bierlien the editorís introduction, she was talking about how something like, I donít know, eighty, ninety percent of literature in translation is literature in English being translated into other languages.
Like we export our English-language literature, but mostly we donít...
It doesnít work the other way around, yeah.
You know, we donít import. Now, keeping in mind, of course, Kenyan literature is written in English. I mean, Swahili is the dominant spoken language, but written-wise...
So they are all writing in English.
English is the dominant language. There isnít really even that excuse. Itís just inexplicable. And so right now Iím hoping, Iím hoping, that Other Voices Books may become the next, the publisher of Rebecca Njau in, in English. I basically was like, you know, ďI want to see this novel when itís done,Ē I would really love to try to introduce this, you know, this woman whoís been writing since colonial times, and whoís been known in Kenya for decades and decades, to an American audience. Apparently no oneís ever heard of her here. I mean, I Googled her, that seems to be true. Nobody, nobody knows who she is. So, so thatís a very long answer.
But, yes, itís quite different there.
It must have been such a, you know, such a moment of... of shock and surprise. I mean, just hearing this makes me start to reevaluate everything we do here. I mean, weíre so tied up in, you know, distribution.
We are! Yes.
And it seems like... What you describe reminds me of -- naÔve is probably pejorative -- but that sense of, like, when youíre, I donít even want to say in college, because then, by the time youíre get to college and youíre writing, it already becomes competitive. I donít know, you know, those really young kids that are, like, ďIím just making art, Iím writing,Ē writing poems.
It reminded me, yes.
That lack of fear, and, you know, the lack of hang-ups.
Thereís really a very celebratory aspect in Kenya right now, because people are being able to write more freely than they were in the past. And thereís also really a very on-going and very-pressing-to-them discussion of what does Kenyan literature mean right now. So, you know, there were Kenyan writers who were writing in the colonial tradition. Then there was a whole generation of writers who were writing in reaction against the colonial tradition. And now those issues are largely very passť to the new generation of Kenyan writers, and people are really grappling with, like, what does it mean to be a Kenyan writer, do we have a particular flavor, is there something we do differently or more uniquely, and you have to remember Kenya is smaller than Texas. We do a lot of talk in this country about, like, oh, you know, ďFreedom [by Jonathan Franzen] is the new American novel,Ē or whatever is the new American novel, but there is no... itís very difficult to say something is the American novel. Itís a damn big country. Itís easier to say, oh, itís a Chicago novel.
The scope has to be reduced.
Yeah. And while Kenya is very diverse in terms of landscape, and, you know, one minute youíre in this lush green tea plantation, or youíre in Nairobi with three and a half million people, and the next minute youíre somewhere where they still ride donkeys down the street, and itís a Muslim culture... itís very... there are huge differences in terms of Kenya, really shocking differences, considering how small the country is. And thereís a small art scene. And people are really grappling with what is our identity in the literary world, and theyíre not worried about, like, am I making enough money, did I get a big advance, is my agent more prestigious than your agent, you know, am I in all the Barnes and Nobles on the front table... like, no one is -- you know, I mean, I guess maybe we could say, theoretically, theyíd like to have those problems. I guess eventually they will in fact have those problems as their literary tradition develops with more freedom and there starts to be more economic power behind it... but right now, all the concerns are creative. All the concerns are issues of community, identity, writing content... like no one, no one seems to be viewing it as, like, a means of economic or celebrity showoffedness. Like that doesnít seem to be -- admittedly, I was there a month -- but that doesnít seem to be the case. You know, I canít really imagine attending an open mic poetry reading here in Chicago and there being, like, Nobel Prize contenders in the audience. Thatís just not something... you know, that just doesnít seem to be something that really exists here. So it was hard not to be... I mean, I was very drawn to that, even as I realized a great deal of political oppression and political turbulence and change have contributed to -- maybe -- these problems, that itís not all a picnic or a rose garden, you know, the community is smaller or doesnít have as sophisticated a distribution methodology or whatever, because of certain difficulties the community has had to struggle with... but yet it was sort of beautiful, because itís like here everyone is snarky and self-promoting and worrying that theyíre not making enough money, and it just seemed like their people were like, can I contribute to this scene? Can I contribute to this community?
...Do I have something to say? And that was really cool.
And theyíre listening to each other. And reading each other. How are they disseminating their ideas, besides readings and events? Do they have a lot of publications? Journals and things?
In Africa, in general, there is not very much of a literary magazine culture.
There is a really prominent one in South Africa, and then thereís a really prominent one in Kenya called Kwani. And basically, yeah, everybody publishes in Kwani, like, I mean, really famous people, really new people. Everyone reads Kwani, and books are distributed by Kwani. Kwani also publishes books, or booklets, and so the relationship seems much more immediate. I mean, there is distribution within Kenya, definitely people are reading things, and kind of all reading many of the same things, and Iíd like to know more, I donít know precisely how the distribution works, Iím not sure. It didnít seem to me that there is an outside ďdistributor,Ē it seemed to me as though that Kwani distributes its texts directly to bookstores. I may be wrong about that, I kind of aim to find out, but it was fascinating, because Kwani does not -- they have an online presence, and they have a website, but they donít really have an international subscription system where you can subscribe to their written books that effectively, like on an international level.
Any plans to expand the readership?
They also talked about how they were planning to do ebooks, and they anticipated that it would take about two years, and so I guess here might be the downside to their being this small collective community. I immediately, as a publisher, started thinking logistically, like why would it take two years to make an ebook? And clearly it wouldnít take two years to make an ebook. The only reason -- I think -- is that everything is done by committee, everything is done by ďletís meet, letís talk about the pros and cons of having an ebook, letís talk about how we would design the ebook, letís have fifty different people weigh in on this.Ē Things are taking a long time because there still isnít maybe a lot of diversification within the community and itís still so collective that everything takes a million years. Like when you have an academic meeting in a department of a university and what would take two hours ends up taking two months because thereís thirty people involved, and blah, blah, blah, and you have to have a meeting every week to talk about something that you could have done in fifteen minutes...
Because they need to have meetings more than they need to actually solve problems.
Yes. Yes. And so I wondered, how much is that perhaps contributing to -- like, you know, ďReally? You want an ebook? Like, all right, Iíll get my intern to make you an ebook next weekend.Ē You know? But I suspect thatís not how it works. I think itís not as easy as ďMy intern could make you an ebook next weekend,Ē because obviously their intern could make them an ebook next weekend. There must be some sort of internal process that Iím not aware of.
Maybe theyíre not in a rush. It sounds like things are working pretty well for them within this largely insular system.
It reminded me, in some ways, of things I used to read about the Bloomsbury Circle, you know, the Bloomsbury Group, with the Hogarth Press and everything, and kind of like the way everyone in that community knew each other and published each other. There are many communities like that within indie publishing here, but thereís not one or two, there are many. One of the big debates last year when everyone was making these best-of lists was, okay, you know, the New York Times comes out with a list, and everyone is pissed off at their list, so Dzanc, my parent company, comes out with an alternative indie press list, but even within indie press circles in the United States, people are like, ďYeah, well, that list is as clique-y as the New Yorkerís list, thatís the Dzanc clique.Ē What about, you know, the McSweeneyís clique? What about the Chiasmus clique? There are so many different groups doing -- theyíre not doing the same thing, but theyíre doing similar things, and they all have groups of friends, and they all have groups of supporters, and they all have groups of readers, and the circles overlap, but theyíre not identical. It seems like when I was reading about the Bloomsbury group, like back when I was young in college, it seemed sort of like, if you stuck your finger in the center of that, you had your finger on the pulse of the thing. And I feel like thatís whatís going on in Kenya right now. Binyavanga and this group of people, this is the pulse of Kenyan literature. I donít know if... I mean, I love the indie press scene here, but I donít feel like...
Itís not central.
I donít feel like thereís any such community here. Maybe indie publishing twenty years ago, there was more of that. But thankfully, itís an asset and to our benefit, I think. Itís expanded so much now that even indie publishing is diverse in the US now.
Maybe itís just that the US is too big. You know, even in a small indie sense, itís just too big to have...
Itís a big issue of access too. I think people feel less local affinity, particularly here in a large city. Chicago readers or event attendees or whatever donít necessarily feel compelled to limit themselves to a Chicago writer base. Why would they, in a sense? We have writers coming on tour here, weíve got obviously chain bookstores where writers from not only across the country but the world are coming here. So if you are a writer in Chicago, you might have more incentive to think, ďOh, whereís the Chicago literary community, how can I be a part of it, I probably want to know these people,Ē but if youíre just a reader, and you happen to live in Chicago, you may not necessarily feel any particular affinity toward a Chicago literary community. You can read any book you want from anywhere.
I think of the alternative music scene in the nineties, and granted the following didnít include every Chicagoan, but the interest was sizable, itís something still talked about. That moment. I just read today -- heard today, I donít read any news -- but thereís a new Urge Overkill album. And I was like, ďI loved Urge Overkill.Ē And it made me think of Material Issue, which I randomly referenced the other day.
Oh, god, yes, yes!
You know the drummer [Mike Zelenko] made my bookcases.
I didnít know that. Thatís so cool.
Yeah, he also has a new band, The Ladies and Gentlemen.
Oh, god, my friend Didi used to be friends with those [Material Issue] guys and dragged me to their shows constantly. You know, I know like five thousand different people who used to date the same guy from Smashing Pumpkins.
Youíre right, that was the nineties, you know, I mean, that was a different...
There was a community. It had those people. Maybe because they were so unconcerned with commercial success -- which, I mean, they ended up getting.
Which they ended up getting.
But they werenít so focused on it. I think thatís what enabled them to become... of course, it destroyed a lot of them. And made Liz Phair have to go do TV soundtracks, which she says in interviews she likes doing.
But -- but -- a far cry from selling drawings on the corner of Milwaukee and Damen, which, as goes local lore, is how she got her start.
I definitely feel like Chicago -- maybe not the country in general, but Chicago -- has made a lot of progress in the last five to ten years, in terms of having a cultural, a city identity for the literary scene. However, I donít think things like One Book, One Chicago [a heavily advertised and funded mostly ceremonial citywide reading initiative] is the pulse of Chicago literature. I think that is well-heeled people who legitimately like to read and want to be part of what they view as a literary or artistic community through city-run organizations or what have you. The real grassroots on-the-ground Chicago literary community has always been much more D.I.Y. It has no fuckiní money. It never has. Itís very... I donít want to say itís blue-collar...
I think it likes to act blue-collar. I think probably most of the people grew up in quite a different milieu than blue-collar.
Oh, well, yeah.
But, you know, itís young, it doesnít have a lot of money, and itís based in bar readings and publications being put together by the press and distributed by their own hands. And they donít have [the distributor] Consortium, and it certainly doesnít have One Book, One Chicago status. I think thatís a very different community, a community more about affluence and middle-age or whatever, than the community thatís really making things happen in Chicago, whether itís something like [indie press] Featherproof or [writer and impresario] Amy GŁth, or reading series like RUI or Second Story, which...
Did you ever do that?
I did Second Story, I have a funny story about that, but Second Story is not even written-word based, itís oral storytelling...
I was going to say. Itís more like acting.
Itís like a theater group, which Chicago has a great tradition of. Those guys pack the house, and they actually make money, but theyíre not going to be endorsed by One Book, One Chicago anytime soon. Itís a completely different community.
Do you think thatís a specific issue weíre having here, or...
I think that exists to some extent in all cities. Obviously what the big New York publishing industry views as their poster children are not the same people running the reading series. Again, kind of as a contrast to Kenya, thereís clear hierarchy here. But I think Chicagoís always been a city where the upper level of the hierarchy is a little bit more... itís not what the vast majority of the people are connected to. As opposed to in New York, where thereís a whole publishing industry that really is more connected to the more celebrity or monetized successful writers. Here in Chicago, it really is more on the grassroots, on the street level.
If thereís any evidence of that, you see few actual Chicago writers featured at those big Cultural Center events.
Yes, yes, yes. I donít know if she still feels this way, but you have a writer like, say, Audrey Niffenegger, whoís very successful, who, when I published her in Other Voices [magazine]... this was like in 2007, so her second book hadnít come out yet, but The Time Travelerís Wife was already a big bestseller, was basically saying, I donít feel like I know that many people in the Chicago literary community. And certainly libraries and big bookstores were taking notice of her, but a lot of the other people on the ground didnít know her yet. Now she teaches at Columbia [College] and sheís done other things, and I think sheís probably gotten a lot more integrated. You can be kind of an internationally wealthy and famous writer here and not be connected to the local scene, if mainly youíre reading at the Harold Washington Library. Itís not really where the other writers are going.
Itís an interesting city. But so, thereís another city coming up. Thatís a terrible segue.
But whatever, I want to talk about London Calling, which is a book you first told me about before Iíd been to London. Right before I went, so it was a couple of years ago. And what I think is interesting about it, beyond the story of its particular trajectory -- itís gotten stalled and rerouted and derailed on the way to publication -- is that I think it kind of represents your process almost. This book will be your third, but is really something I know you wrote before My Sisterís Continent.
Um hmm. It was my first novel.
So whatís interesting to me about your process is that youíre the opposite of a quick-turnaround blogger. Youíre not just factory-producing, in the New York mode, draft in six months, a year and a half later, itís a book. I canít write like that. I canít be happy with something until the ninetieth draft, and I know youíre similar.
I certainly donít write like that, not only because I think itís strange to write like that, which I do, but I have too many other things going on. I mean, obviously I have three children. I edit not just OV Books but the Nervous Breakdown fiction section. I teach at two different universities. I canít be on a six-month book deadline, blah, blah, blah. I guess -- theoretically -- if I were a big corporate-publisher author, who was getting $350,000 advances, presumably my editor would have pressed me to quit some of those things, and would be throwing money at me, saying get it done by this date or you donít get this money, and maybe that becomes peopleís incentive, sure, why wouldnít it, but...
But would you even want... Say you could. You wouldnít want to, I donít think.
I would not want to be a book factory.
Thatís not your style.
Iím not really capable of it. I donít think Iíd work that way. And I also donít think, ultimately, on the one hand... Certainly I look at writers who are able to sort of quit all their day jobs and really make a living as a writer, and say, ďWow, thatís fabulous, weíd all like to be so lucky,Ē but Iím not really willing to give up a lot of the other things. I want to go to Kenya for a month and not write anything while Iím there. I want to pick up my kids at two-thirty instead of having a nanny do it, and not necessarily be writing while theyíre home and Iím helping them with their homework.
Get interviewed over brunch with whiskey and margaritas and a sound guy.
Right. I want to promote and produce other writersí work through Nervous Breakdown, through OV Books, previously Other Voices magazine. Iím not willing to give up all the things that it would take to make writing a full-time job. I donít think that means that I love writing less. I think, for me, itís because I love writing so much I want it to be what it is.
When Iím in a groove, I may write for fifteen, sixteen hours a day, and have a really hard time doing anything else, and blow a lot of things off and miss other deadlines, but when Iím not in that space, Iím not going to sit down in front of the computer and basically tell myself, ďYouíre producing three thousand words today.Ē I donít have that kind of... itís not a job. Itís not a job. Itís a passion. And I feel really lucky that I have other ways, other forms of work, a spouse with a job and what have you, that it doesnít have to be a ďjob.Ē I get to do what I love. Anyway, that said, London Calling was supposed to come out quite a while ago, so it was not necessarily my choice that it didnít, that itís taking the longest route to publication practically in the history of the world. It was supposed to come out in 2008 with [defunct] Impetus Press, and as Chicago already knows, because it was written about quite extensively in the city, Impetus went bankrupt and the book disappeared off the horizon for a while. Now my current editor [Bryan Tomasovich] at Emergency Press has been after me to see and to publish that book for a while. At first I had a contract with a marketing group that was going to be handling it, and I had to sort of get out from under a few different loopholes before I was able to really show them the book and pursue that, but, yeah, he does want to come out with it in 2012.
Have you edited it significantly?
I actually just showed it to my writing group, and itís a testimony to what an old a book it is that they had actually never seen it, even though Iíd been with them for something like four years. They just read it and gave me some suggestions, and I am going to do another little revision of it. Itís not going to be huge and extensive, I think, for two reasons. Number one, I already revised it a lot when Impetus was going to publish it. It was at that point already a very old book. I wrote it in something like 1997, and they were looking at it in 2006. I did a big revision that took like six months of intensive work. So thereís that. But the other thing is, I donít think I want to try to turn the book into something I would have written now. I think thatís not what the book is going to be, and that if I were to try that, it would only ruin whatís good about it and what, you know, its own charm, its own nature is. Itís a book I wrote before I was even thirty years old, and I wrote it at a very different time -- I was spending a lot of time in Europe and in London -- and it would be really, really, really different if I wrote it now. Thatís not what I think that book wants to be. If I want to write a new book, Iíll write a new book. Itís not going to be, you know, London Calling: Fifteen Years Later.
I want it to stand on its own.
That seems to be the danger, of any revision, when you take it on. Youíre applying who you are at that point to older work that may or may not have wanted the newer you.
When I did the revision in 2006 or 2007 for Impetus, a great deal of my agenda had to do with clarity. It has kind of an adventure plot, itís a bit of a thriller, which anyone whoís ever read anything of mine knows is very different from my current work. I didnít want it to be confusing or muddled or contradictory or unclear. A lot of my revising was aimed at making sure things were coherent and the plot actually was consistent. There was also a particular character whom I didnít think was developed enough in the first version, and I spent a lot of time on that increased development. But I didnít try to give it anything resembling a worldview I have now, or what I think a book should do now. I just want it to be what it was, and what it is, and Iím not sure that the audience for it is completely identical to the first two books that Iíve come out with, which were written later. But I will tell you that my writing group thinks itís a lot more similar than I thought it was. So itís interesting that maybe you donít change as much as you think you do. Itís more plot-centered, but I guess a lot of the psychology is really quite similar.
It sounds like neither Impetus nor Emergency have tried to apply too heavy a hand to it. Or else youíd end up with two completely different novels. Just knowing who was editing at Impetus.
The whole concept of Impetus Press was something I think quite different than Emergency Press.
Yes, yes. Impetus was looking particularly for work that was smart, that was literary, but that had a very clear pop sensibility. This book takes place in 1989, in the squatter subculture of London. Itís a very retro book now -- now. I mean, it wasnít that retro when I was writing it. It has a lot to do with the cultural climate of that time. Itís not a book that could be written about London right now. That London doesnít exist anymore. Itís a different era. I think Impetus was drawn to that, it was drawn to the strong plot of the book, because they were interested in that hybrid genre, that straddling-the-line between sort of like a popular mainstream book versus a literary book. They were looking for work that had the prose or the characterization of a literary novel but that was really a page-turner. It was definitely right up their alley in that regard. Emergency has no such agenda. Bryan really just publishes work he likes. He has a taste for edgy work, but I donít think that he has any particular mission thatís as clear or as specific, that has such clear parameters as the way Impetus did.
Theyíve done some poetry, too, right?
Theyíve done a lot of poetry, which was what they started out doing. They have a different editor for poetry than they do for the prose work. This guy Scott Zeiger, who lives in New York, does the poetry books, and Bryan does the fiction and nonfiction out of Seattle.
It doesnít sound like... I get the sense your manuscripts are pretty much ready to go, as soon as the editors accept them. So, what is the time spent on after the contracts are signed? You strategize marketing, or...
A bookís production period -- obviously, Iím involved in this more often on the editing end than I am as a writer. This will be my third book, but as an editor Iíve come out with something like ten. Timing is really crucial. First of all, indie press books kind of... you donít want to put one out in September, for example, because thereís a new book by Francine Prose and by Margaret Atwood and blah blah. September is heavy-hitter season. Although actually Francine Proseís new book is coming out in April. To some extent, youíre thinking, when can I get the most review coverage for my authorsí books, as an indie press, but also your creative edits -- youíve got a copy editor whoís probably not getting paid as much as the copy editors in New York and has three other jobs, on top of your job, and so might need a little more time than the Random House copy editors do. Your publicity team is basically yourself and a couple of interns, who, again, donít get paid, so things take longer in the indie world. You donít want to rush a book out the door. I will say that a lot of indies rush books out the door. They are more concerned -- for noble reasons -- with publishing as many good books as they can, within the time and budget that they have, but thatís not our mission at Other Voices. We really are aimed at trying to support the entire life of a book, and that means that weíre not just taking every single bit of money and putting it into printing costs. We pay a copy editor, we do a lot of creative edits that take a lot of time, we do a book tour that we arrange for the writer and we partially fund. We basically do a hell of a lot of media copies, sending out galleys. I mean, a lot of indie presses send out twenty books. We may send out two hundred books. We really try to give it everything we can, and that takes time and money too. How a book season works, like when you put out a book and how long it takes to produce the book, has a lot to do with that. It also has to do with how ready is the book to go, obviously. Youíre working with someone like, say, Tod Goldberg [author of OV Press story collections Simplify and, most recently, Other Resort Cities], and probably every story in the book has already been published in a magazine, because heís a very prolific working writer. If youíre me, you still make him jump through hoops, because you have your own definite ideas, but itís not going to take a year and a half.
Other writers are coming to you with a raw manuscript that you see something in, and youíre walking them through three, four complete revisions of that book before it comes out. And then anthologies take forever. Even if youíre publishing work that has predominately been published before, it takes about two years to build a good anthology, because there are just so many people involved.
I think mine [The Art of Friction] was about three and a half years, from proposal pitching to publication date.
Bryan taking on London Calling... I wouldnít say itís ready to roll, but itís not going to be a lot, because the book has been through a lot of lives before him.
Well, itís exciting.
It is, it is. [Laughs] Itís crazy. Itís like some young form of myself still allowed to come alive and live in the world. Iím looking forward to it.
Most readers wonít know itís had that kind of a life prior to publication, and I think will give you extra points for verisimilitude, and really capturing the era.
When I first wrote the novel, it didnít have as interesting an epoch as it did later on. I tried, really briefly -- very briefly, compared to My Sisterís Continent, which made the rounds forever before it finally came out -- but I tried briefly to get it published when I first finished it. One editor who really took a lot of interest in the book ended up saying, ďThis novel is set too long ago in London to be contemporary, but not far away enough to be retro.Ē Iím laughing to myself. All right, honey, itís retro now.
Maybe itís a clichť question, but Iíve always liked that youíre prolific in both long and short form prose. Do things start as a short story and go on? Or the reverse? I know an early version of My Sisterís Continent became all stories.
Yes, yeah. I had a whole series of stories called ďBody Parts,Ē and quite a few are now serialized on the Necessary Fiction blog, and they all got published on their own. Generally speaking, my novels are not usually something that I thought was one short story and it just grew and grew out of control. I really do think about novels and short stories quite differently. Even My Sisterís Continent -- it was never supposed to be one short story. I was going to do this series, and I did do it, and then I became interested more in the back story, I started thinking about the Freudian parallels, and I started pursuing it. It takes place in an earlier timeframe than the ďBody PartsĒ stories did, so it wasnít so much of a retelling of them as kind of a going back and deciding the real core story was earlier. My short stories tend to be long. Theyíre usually about thirty pages; theyíre not short. Nowadays, when everythingís supposed to be under three thousand words -- Iíve never written a story that short in my entire life.
[Laughs] Itís hard to even get into something in under two thousand words.
Oh, itís crazy. I have immense admiration for people who can write just a really complex story in so little space. Itís not how my mind works. Iíve probably written some fifteen, twenty page stories, and sometimes it makes me want to write about a character again at another time, but I havenít really had the experience of writing a story and it turning into a novel. The current novel that Iím writing has a little bit more of a novel-in-stories frame. The stories are not so self-contained, but they are enough so that a number of them have come out on their own, in magazines. Theyíre also long as hell, so Iím also surprised and thrilled that anybody would publish them as they are. Sometimes I think episodically, in terms of, like, a compilation of stories makes a novel, but usually I have parameters in my head.
When you begin? Or...
People donít always do what you think theyíre going to do. Certainly they donít sound on paper like they sounded in your head. Things change in that sense. I recently wrote a piece, my newest short story, which is going to be in Fifth Wednesday. Basically itís like a triptych piece between a mother, her own alcoholic mother, and her son, all spanning this one day, where the alcoholic mother is dying in the hospital, and the mother is meeting her lover, and the little boy is kind of wrestling with a dilemma in his head about wanting to wear his motherís sort of fancy pink shirt as a dress, and how he can get his mother to let him wear it. So the parameters of this day were where the story was going to go, and all the characters did things and said things that I certainly hadnít plotted out beforehand, but the parameters stayed in place, it was a piece that took place over one day. It ended up, as everything I do, a little longer than I thought it was going to be, but it wasnít in danger of turning into a novel. When Iím thinking novel...
Youíre really are in that mindset.
Iím really in. You know, itís going to be five hundred and fifty pages by the time Iím done with the first draft, and my job for the next two or three years is to really reign the fucker in.