This installment of the Small Press Conversation features an up and coming fiction writer and her daring young publisher (who is also an up-and-comer in the fiction world). Zach Dodson (aka Zach Plague) started featherproof, a small publishing company, with Jonathan Messinger a couple of years ago in Chicago. Recently, they published AM/PM, a sweetly funny and unpredictable collection of flash fiction by Austin, Texas writer Amelia Gray. The creator of the music and reading series, 5 Things, Gray is also the author of the prize-winning collection Museum of the Weird, which comes out in fall of 2010. Besides being a renowned designer, Dodson is the author of the extravagant and strange novel Boring Boring Boring Boring Boring Boring Boring.
Zach Dodson: Amelia, I know you really well, we just spent two weeks in a van together (for the Dollar Store Reading Tour). I know everything about you, like how much trouble your bangs give you when you wake up drunk. So it's going to be hard not to pepper this conversation with reader-alienating inside jokes, but damn it, I'm going to try.
I want to tell you: I am about to cloister myself in blazing hot Arizona for a month in attempt to write a novel, or part of novel that will erase my last novel. You are from Arizona, so maybe you know if I will make good words while hiding from the weather, but I feel uncertain.
I want to ask you: Now that your book has come out, what has surprised you about having a book out — anything you had not thought of before?
Amelia Gray: If the bangs are the biggest trouble I've got when waking up drunk, I'm doing all right.
The great thing about an Arizona summer is that it provides this natural backdrop of suffering that you can use to make some great art. I wrote half a dozen long stories in a walk-in closet during the summer of 2003. My desk was a cardboard box and I had a little camping lantern. I didn't tell my roommates what I was doing. Every time I stepped outside, it was like standing in the business end of a blast furnace.
Actually, you might be in for a treat if you hit Arizona during the monsoon season. An afternoon thunderstorm is one of the most beautiful events one can experience in the month of August, anywhere in the world. It's real romantic and strange. It will slap cynicism out of a body.
The biggest thing that surprised me about publishing a book is how hard I compare all my other writing to it. I was talking about this with Blake (Butler) in the van a little; when you have trouble placing a story, it really screws with your idea of how good that story is. Sometimes that's what it needs, but sometimes you just haven't found the right market. On the other side, placing a story can raise that story in your estimation. If other people say nice things about the story, you start thinking in the back of your head that perhaps this is how all stories should be written, by everyone, ad infinitum. A lot of people have been so nice about AM/PM that it's hard to not make that become a model of what I should be writing.
Anyway, there are worse problems to have, but it's stressing me out a little because I'm putting the last touches on Museum of the Weird this week before it gets sent off to the copy editors. It's a totally different book and while I think it's a strong book and a good book, it has been harder than I figured it would be to let it go. It doesn't help that we're having this conversation in the last week of edits and I sorta want to turn my skin inside out.
Do you know what I'm saying? You get to see both sides of the writing/publishing world better than I can. Do you ever want to turn your skin inside out?
ZD: I especially want to turn my skin inside out today. I have acquired the worse sunburn I've had since I was maybe seven years old. I feel like Joan of Arc from the thighs down.
I love desert storms. That's something I miss about El Paso (my hometown). The smell of creosote. Having experienced a few in Arizona, I have to agree: they are spectacular. One peppered with lightning came up suddenly when I was on the rim of Meteor Crater, and we all had to get off the rim of Meteor Crater. Have you ever been there? It's big and expensive.
I want to tell you: I can see the struggle losing AM/PM as a model. Obviously, I think it's a fantastic book. When it comes to mine though I can't wait to do something different. Also, in general, I might think that's the way to go. When I think of my favorite musicians they try something new on every album. When I think of the ones that disappoint me, it's because they had a successful album, and they try to replicate that success using the same formula. Even if it fails sometimes, pushing into new territory seems a much worthier endeavor.
So, I'll ask you: If you got to go back and do one thing differently with AM/PM, what would you have done? And, what would you say is the main thing that is different about Museum of the Weird?
AG: Aloe and ibuprofen. I hope you use that Joan of Arc line somewhere.
Man, I forgot about your El Paso roots, of course you know desert rain. And yeah, I've been to Meteor Crater. When I was little my parents bought my sister and I matching Passport to Your National Parks booklets that we could get stamped whenever we visited a park or site. I still believe that a Passport to Your Natural Parks is the best gift anyone could give to their children. I think Meteor Crater is privately owned though, so this paragraph means nothing. Sorry about all this.
You're exactly right about music and doing something different.I got it pounded into my head in school that the reason it's called a novel is because you want to do something novel. Still, I talk to people working on their first novels, and they're all freaking out because this point-of-view shift or that tone or whatever is totally new to them, and they can't find an example of it published anywhere. That's a genuinely terrifying feeling, because when you're doing something different, there's a real fear that it's wrong. That fear doesn't make a lot of sense to someone standing outside of it, but when you're sitting in front of the page, it's this constant nagging voice. I think that people assume that voice goes away when you get a story or a book published, but it didn't for me, and talking to artists much more accomplished than I am, it never goes away. If you're doing it right, you're always reinventing.
To answer your question, there are a couple stories in AM/PM that don't quite fit with the collection. I wrote them during that time, during the morning or night like all the other pieces, but then two ended up turning into larger stories. I decided to keep them in AM/PM because I felt like they were objectively good stories and would contribute to a better whole overall, but the truth in the end is that they didn't quite fit. Now, two of them are turning up in their longer forms in Museum of the Weird, where they fit a lot better. I'm learning to respect the cohesive unit a little more. I just kicked a perfectly good story out of Museum of the Weird because it didn't fit. It's hard. It's like kicking your friend off the dodgeball team.
Anyway the two biggest differences with Museum of the Weird are that first, there's less linkage on the character level (in AM/PM, every character and piece is linked to at least one other in some way), which is why I call Museum of the Weird "stories" instead of "a book" like AM/PM. Second, most of the stories are longer.
I'm glad you're excited to be doing something different with the new book. I hope that makes you feel like Joan of Arc — in a warrior way, not a burned-at-the-stake way. Do you think you'll write about El Paso?
ZD: I feel like I can't write about El Paso. I've tried. Maybe I'm just inept, or maybe my head is filled with too much El Paso: to get it across I feel like I'd simultaneously need to get 15 things across. I can't do it. It's a really strange place, and I think my interest in it is only shared by other El Pasoans, and probably not many of them. I am writing about the southwest though, maybe that's my work-around. Perhaps I'll become a regional author. The next Tony Hillerman?
I'm glad you're doing something different. I think that's exciting. Good job killing your darlings on the dodgeball team. I'm bad at that.
I am a fan of National Parks. Did you get White Sands stamped?
I believe the best gift anyone could give their children is a very large trust fund.I really missed out on the whole 'having rich parents' thing. I think I could've really benefited from that type of funding.
So I want to tell you: This is not my only gratuitous money-from-the-sky fantasy. But most end with me funding featherproof, which is funny in its own right. For a long while Jonathan (my partner in featherproof) was playing the lottery with the sole purpose of funding the press.
So I'll ask you: Do you want a writers' life? How, and in what ways, will you pay for it?
AG: It would be hard to write a love letter to El Paso. I've got some strong feelings about El Paso gleaned from the few hours I've spent in traffic there on my way to Tucson. I once saw a drug dog jump through the open window of a Cadillac Escalade in El Paso. It's easy to write a love letter to Tucson because it's all creosote and resort money and a couple of charming barrios. I think people are more interested in El Paso. If you were the next Tony Hillerman I would be your sinister pig.
White Sands is totally stamped, multiple times. We used to take that road through Roswell and Clovis en route to Bartlesville, Oklahoma. That's not the weirdest way to see New Mexico — the weirdest involves an hourly motel in a town called Raton — but it's right up there. Driving through White Sands on a blue day you get the distinct feeling of Why is this happening? Who are these people? and that's a feeling you usually have to break a law to get.
I'm currently paying for The Life by working below my (vast) financial earning power in a freelance job that allows me time to write stories about death and hair. I intend to do this until I either wise up or die.
It seems like the trust fund thing would be kind of hard to get around, mentally. I envy a trust fund kid who splits her time in Barbados or whatever but I don't exactly envy the kid trying to make art. I build a lot of my life around the scramble to make ends meet. Elements would change if money was not a thing. But it would be nice to have some extra money for projects. I hear people are getting grant money for putting on readings? Where can I get in on that? Would you turn down a fat government grant with featherproof's name on it? Some of that tasty Poetry Foundation cash?
ZD: My best friend Ryan always talked about making a movie in White Sands. It would just be a bunch of mohawk'd teenagers sitting on one of the dunes, smoking, and it would be entitled: Hellcats Bored on Jupiter. This is a movie I would trade a trust fund to see made.
You're right about those. If I had one I would probably complain. That's my nature. I would accept any grant or pile of cash to fund featherproof. I would not stop shy of changing the name to Doritos Books. I would stop immediately after that. Funding would be a great thing. It's hard.
If you tell me what happened to you in Raton, I'll tell you what happened to me in Santa Fe. And in Truth or Consequences. But not on the public interweb. This is a good time for us to move offline, and tell secrets.
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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