When I took over the small press section at Powell's about eight years ago, I was immediately won over by a colorful little paperback book by local writer Mykle Hansen. Eyeheart Everything was the kind of book that had a strong word-of-mouth following due to its over-the-top humor and biting sarcasm.
Mykle spent the next few years doing the usual Portland things: making zines, getting and losing jobs, breeding, playing weird music, and writing for the local alt-weekly. And then last year he reemerged with a new book, the ridiculous black comedy Help! a Bear Is Eating Me! — which he also podcasted in its entirety. He toured around, doing readings at places where he dressed up in a bear costume and mauled potential readers. Recently, a book containing three of his novellas, mysteriously titled Rampaging Fuckers of Everything on the Crazy Shitting Planet of the Vomit Atmosphere, came out to the buzzing fanfare of his growing cult-like audience.
Andersen Prunty, meanwhile, has been just as busy. Besides publishing novels like Jack and Mr. Grin and short fiction collections like The Overwhelming Urge, he also published his novella, The Sex Beast of Scurvy Island, in the first issue of The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, which premiered earlier this year. And, as you'll read below, there's even more Pruntyesque goodness seeping into this new world of horror and weirdness both of these fellows are storming into.
They recently took the time to volley some emails back and forth before this year's BizarroCon in (of all places) Troutdale, Oregon.
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Mykle Hansen: Hello, Andy! I met you last October (2008) at the first ever BizarroCon, and now, less than a year later, you've already brought out three new books! You had The Beard online, then the limited-edition hardback, Market Adjustment, and now this new one, The Sorrow King.
How do you do it? Do you take drugs? Do you have a sugar mama? Three books in one year, that's crazy. I'm freaking out. Especially since I just abandoned a novel and am now feeling like a total loser. (Novels published by me this year so far: zero.)
BTW, are you and Heather coming back to BizarroCon this year?
Andersen Prunty: I wish I had a sugar mama or a sugar daddy. I'm really not that selective. I do it through ingesting unhealthy amounts of caffeine and maintaining a sweatshop in my house. I'm from Dayton, Ohio, where unemployment is rampant, so I've put people to work writing books for me. Unfortunately, it doesn't pay very well, so I have to work a day job to feed the sweatshop. On the plus side, I think they've covertly started a meth lab in the basement which means they don't need to eat very much and can work virtually around the clock.
2010 should be even crazier. The Beard will be released as a trade paperback by Dayton-based Atlatl Press. A book called Morning Is Dead will be released by Cargo Cult Press as a limited and lettered hardcover. I'm currently working with another editor on a short story collection and there may be one or two other books.
In your defense, you did embark on a massive North American tour to teach people how to defend themselves against the nefarious and unsettling predator known as the bear, which is an invaluable public service. My public services this year: zero. You will only feel like a loser until a bear attacks some child walking to school and said child is able to defend him- or herself because of one person: Famous Author Mykle Hansen.
I will be at BizarroCon this year. I wanted to bring Heather but Gretchen, my wife, grumbled so I decided to take her instead.
Hansen: Wow! I'm such an asshole. Gretchen, yes, her. We hung out at BizarroCon last year. She's awesome, and I forgot her name. Forgive me, but I simply cannot keep anybody's name straight any more. Just last night at the art openings downtown I had four or five classic name-fail conversations along this pattern:
PRETTY GIRL OR IMPORTANT PERSON: Hi, Mykle!
ME: Hi... there!
...and one of these was a very nice woman who I literally had no recollection of having ever met. She asked about my family, how's the writing going, how's my cat, when's my band playing, did I ever finish that book about Dubai... she knew everything about me. And I began to wonder: the fame I've been struggling to acquire, is this it? Am I now such a famous small-press author that star-struck members of the reading public pretend to know me, just to be able to say later,"OMG! I was at this party and Famous Author Mykle Hansen made a snarky comment about my shoes!"
And then I thought: no, probably not. But maybe someday... and what would that be like? As you know very well, we small-press authors have to do all our own promotion and sales and myth-making — hence last year's National Bear Tour, convention appearances, an obscene amount of blogging, et cetera — and it makes me utterly conscious of what a slapdash edifice fame is. And yet, how else can writers measure their success?
I obsess over this because I'm forty — a.k.a. half dead — and as a youth I imagined that fame and success in writing would just come, because I imagined I was so brilliant. And now that I'm older and I see just how much work — work that is totally separate from the actual work of writing — is necessary to get noticed, to get readers, even just to get discouraging words from the people you look up to... it's a lot of work. And then there's no money in it, so one has to have another job as well.
Do you know any really famous, successful authors? Do they have personal assistants who remember people's names for them? Do they have publicists to do their web sites? Do they hire actors to interpret their prose in front of Barnes & Noble customers nationwide? Is there an easier way? Or do they just work harder than us?
I wish I knew the secret to working harder. (I do know the secret to sloth, if that's worth anything in trade.)
Prunty: I don't really know any super famous or successful authors. I'm pretty sure that hard work doesn't have anything to do with it. I think it's probably more about luck and being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right people at the right time.I am bitter and inwardly hostile toward writers who are more successful than me, which is nearly every author in the world. I enjoy writing and absolutely hate the self-promoting aspects of it, although I realize that an author is now expected to do this kind of thing and, in my half-assed way, I do try. Before working with a publisher that wasn't myself, I always thought it was a writer's job to write. And now I'm learning that the writing is really only about one-tenth of what a writer is expected to do. So I always wonder if I should be writing or trying to make friends on Facebook, telling people what I had for lunch or what shoes I'm wearing or what band I just went to see or what ailment I had today on Twitter, throwing back a few with the folks at the bus stop and letting them know I'm a struggling writer and wouldn't it be great if they bought my book or at least took my business card, which is really just my website scrawled on a scrap of notebook paper. But if you write a book, or many books, and no one knows you wrote those books, do they effectively not exist? And, is it worth it? Probably not. But I've been doing it for a long time and don't really have any hobbies to substitute for it. So I guess I will continue doing it for the five people who've read my books. Is that a way to measure success? I'm not sure. Writers can only really measure their success by stacking the skulls of the innocent.
How do you deal with this? In these info-heavy times where you could feasibly spend 80 hours a week promoting a book just to be heard above the ear-shattering clamor of the internet, do you focus on writing the book/story/whatever or do you think of how you would first market that book? Do you think people expect this now? Do you think today's reader wants a book-plus-author interaction or do you think most readers are just interested in what an author's next book is going to be?
Hansen: In the end, we're just voices. Maybe we'll be remembered for our volume, or for our tenor, or for being right. Either way... well, I was about to say that all the marketing in the world won't sell a crap book, but we both know it will.
I guess I just want to write for the ages; I want to make works of lasting meaning and beauty. I hope that after this year's hysteria has been exploited by this year's loud and tacky books, my work will remain loved. I want to leave something behind besides family and a corpse — though I dearly love my family, and my corpse.
And so, I used to not really care about the size of my audience because I knew them all personally, and how many friends can you handle, really? (This was pre-Facebook, an era I vaguely remember.) Only 700 people have my first book, but at least a seventh of those people have personally told me how much they adore it and how it makes them happy. I would just carry copies of this book around in my little paisley suitcase, and if people found out I was a writer I'd maybe show them a copy. And some people actually bought one. And a few of them came back to buy more copies for their friends. I was a door-to-door salesman of the experimental short story.
But I've changed.Now I do care, and I do promote, and I tour, and I do a lot of things I used to think were for sellouts and jerks. I do not sell Amway products — yet — but I promote as much as I can and still respect myself. I do it because I have come to the conclusion that the more books I sell, the more books I'll get to write.
America is a nation of salesmen. That's a part of our national character I've always loathed, but I am feeling my way toward some kind of ethical detente with my inner used-car dealer, because I've given up waiting for the MacArthur Foundation to phone.
But also: I've accepted that I'm not one of those write-every-day authors. I truly admire those who are. Even when I can manage to sit in front of the typewriter every single day, some days I just have nothing to say. So I write when I can, and when I can't write I promote. Honestly, Andy, if you can write all the time, write all the fucking time! God, I wish I could. I don't think you should feel an obligation to go out and buy drinks for all your readers, or call them up and ask about their cat. Just promote your books with more of your books. The blogosphere has made everybody terribly chummy. That's great for some people but sincerity can be hard. If you're not like that, don't be like that. You can be the enigmatic, mysterious Andersen Prunty instead of the festive, perky Andersen Prunty.
You might even be the award-winning Andersen Prunty. It appears that you and I have both been nominated for not one, but two Wonderland Book Awards, to be presented at this year's BizarroCon. Consider the following three scenarios:
#1: Each of us wins one of the two Wonderland awards; together we reign supreme, and drink Edgefield dry.
#2: One of us wins both of the awards; the other one hates him.
#3: Someone else wins one or both of our awards; we kill them.
At any rate, I'm supposed to prepare an acceptance speech just in case, and I'm a bit stumped. How about I write yours and you write mine?
And if neither one of us wins then we can stand up and just begin reading our speeches over whoever actually won and drunkenly challenge people to knife fights in the parking lot.
So, what does Famous Author Mykle Hansen have planned for the next year? Are you going to become the Even Famouser Mykle Hansen? Are you going to go on a three-month coke binge and end up in rehab? Continue fighting the good fight against evil bears? Write your memoir? Write my memoir?
Hansen: Knife fights? It's on! In my speech, be sure to thank my publisher, my family, and your mom.
Next year? Well,I spent much of this year on a novel that didn't pan out, because I over-reached, so I'm regrouping. I've been writing short stories — still my favorite form of literature. I have just about enough of those for another collection, a bookend to Eyeheart Everything. After that I have a short list of next projects, but I haven't chosen one yet. Maybe a screenplay about hell, maybe a memoir about tiny universes, maybe a martial arts instruction manual. Something like that.
But of course, also more promotion! I haven't even begun to promote Rampaging Fuckers of Everything on the Crazy Shitting Planet of the Vomit Atmosphere, my latest novella collection. One plan is to create a podcast by staging the second novella in that book, Journey to the Center of Agnes Cuddlebottom, as a radio play, with as many guest-star Bizarro authors as can fit inside an iPod. I also want to do some readings in The Colossal Colon, which may require me to trek into the Midwest where it was last sighted.
And yourself? Three more novels next year? Or do you prefer to be enigmatic and not tell me?
The remainder of this year is going to be spent finishing a book called Satanic Summer which will probably end up being a trashy horror/porn novel. I'm not really sure what I'm going to be working on after that. I have an all-pervasive feeling of doom, so I think I'm going to die every day and don't like to look too far into the future. That's one of the exciting things about writing. I never really know what I'm doing until I sit down and actually start writing and then when I'm finished, I'm just happy that I've remained alive long enough to finish it.
It was great having this conversation with Famous Author Mykle Hansen. I would describe it as cataclysmic. And if I lose to you in the Wonderland Awards well, I just hope your family won't miss you...
Hansen: Ditto. I'll see you at BizarroCon, and I'll have my bulletproof Mormon garments on, so don't try anything funny when I win your award. Over and out!
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Mykle won the award for Best Bizarro Story Collection. Here's a photo of him and Andersen with the award.
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Kevin Sampsell runs the small press section at Powell's and is the publisher of his own micro-press, Future Tense Books. His books include Creamy Bullets, Portland Noir, and the memoir A Common Pornography.
Books mentioned in this post
Kevin Sampsell is the author of A Common Pornography: A Memoir