At McNally Jackson July 17th

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The last time I took part in an event at McNally Jackson was when it was still McNally Robinson, events were held in the cafe, and several of the bookstores I now frequent didn’t actually exist. Regardless, it was and is one of the great spots for literary culture and discussion in New York City, and I’m happy to be involved in something else there.

I’ll be there on Wednesday, the 17th, to take part in a conversation with Matt Bell and Justin Taylor. Given that both of them are responsible for some of my favorite fiction of recent years, I’m excited and honored to take part. This might also be the time to dredge up the two interviews I’ve done with the former: one from last year, and one from 2009.

(Image from City Lights’ shadow puppet adaptation of In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods.) 

Talking Art & Writing With Sarah Butler

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Last month, I visited Sarah Butler‘s exhibit at Reverse Art Space in Brooklyn. I was immediately impressed: Butler’s use of automatic writing, her own handwriting, and repeated patterns led to an immersive experience that was at once familiar and alien.

This led to a longer conversation, conducted via email, which is now up on Tin House‘s blog.

TC: One of the series of chronologically-arranged cards on one wall of Official Transcript ended in late October 2012, just before the city was struck by Sandy. Was that an intentional nod to the storm’s impact on the city?

 

SB: The cards you mention are collectively titled cloud test, they record my daily practice of learning to write with my left hand backwards. I wrote one card each day from October 19, 2011 to October 19, 2012. While I haven’t self-consciously considered Sandy as an influence, references to current events echo throughout my work in really indirect ways. For example there is a story about a woman whose body—all but her ear—is dissolved by raindrops tinking into teacups from her leaking roof. There are lots of passages on rain in fact so, the storm certainly does have a presence. Water is something I think a lot about as a common denominator for human rights discussions. There’s a project called water sample that I’d like to expand.

I’ve been trying to work on some writing outside of my usual “writing about books/writing about music” wheelhouse; I’m glad that I was able to do so here.

The Working Title Was “Buying Unrest’s ‘Isabel Bishop e.p. at Nobody Beats the Wiz”

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At Vol.1 Brooklyn’s Lit Crawl event earlier this year, Maura Johnston mentioned that she was working on an indiepop-centric issue of her magazine, and suggested that I pitch her something. A few days later, an idea came to me; a few emails were exchanged, and an essay was born.

Friends of mine who, in those days, listened to music that was somehow esoteric tended to fall into two camps—some dug shoegaze, others dug hardcore. Bands who didn’t fall into either camp were in a sort of neutral zone. Today, I realize that Unrest had clear stylistic debts to punk and hardcore—but because the concept of hardcore I had back then was a patchwork of scenes from other eras and areas (early-’80s DC, late-’80s New York, and the straight-edge scene of mid-90s Syracuse), I missed the cues.

I am incredibly happy that Maura Magazine is now available to subscribers on all devices; it’s as good a time as any to allude to this piece, which began with memories of buying esoteric records in the back room of a chain electronics store, and evolved into something far different. And I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to publish this.

Messages on Medium

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So: I ended up with an invitation to Medium, and ended up trying it out by writing about digital publishing, exclusivity, and the shorter side of longform writing. I’m not sure how much I’ll make use of it — there’s a pretty narrow window between essays I can write for Vol.1 Brooklyn and posts that might end up over here, but I’m glad to have the opportunity regardless. And it doesn’t hurt that the interface is fantastic; as a way to enter text into a CMS, it’s nicely intuitive, with an impressively clean design.

So Hey, New Flickr

According to my Flickr profile page, I’ve been using the service in question for eight and a half years. So, news of their redesign-slash-reworking-slash-whatever else definitely got my attention. I’ve been a Pro member since roughly 2005 — there was a vacation on which I took an abundance of photos, and I liked the idea of having the best of them online. For a while, it became a place to put the best photos from different excursions; a kind of personal historical record in miniature.

Somewhere along the way, I stopped using Flickr as much. This could probably be traced to its purchase by Yahoo, and the dwindling amount of attention that it got. There were other places that aggregated one’s social activities — though I’ve personally never been a huge fan of Facebook for the sharing of photos.

Anyway: the new Flickr. So far, I like it! The design makes it look like something I’d like to spend more time at — as opposed to the previous design, which, while functional, didn’t do as good a job of putting the photos front and center. The Android app looks similarly good; as of the time I’m writing this, one update has already gone out, which suggests that a lot of work is being done to get this right; I can’t complain.

I’m also curious to see what Flickr’s paid model will be. I’ve been a Pro member since 2005; less because I wanted to upload a bunch of new photos, and more because I didn’t want to lose access to the accumulated photos and notes that I’d put on the site. It looks as though this is slowly being discontinued — free accounts will have more storage space than Pro accounts did, although they’ll also have ads. I can’t tell if, as a Pro user set to automatically renew, this means that I’ll get a de facto better deal on the ad-free version, or if I’m a strange outlier in the new structure. (It’s worth noting that the two paid account options are more expensive than the existing Pro account.)

Still, I’m cautiously optimistic about this. At least for the time being, it’s making me excited about spending time on Flickr again — something that I didn’t expect myself to be typing any time soon.

(A note on the photo: Aside from the fact that it’s on Flickr, this photo has no real connection to the writing below it. However, the shop pictured does sell tasty olive oil.)

A Decade of Scowling

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A quick note: if a hunt through this blog’s archives is any indication, today marks my tenth anniversary of writing in this space. It doesn’t mark my tenth anniversary of blogging per se — before this, I’d had a blog named for a Wonder Stuff song, because, hey, pop music.

And now, I’m here. And it’s a fine thing. Somewhere in the past few months, I figured out what I could use The Scowl for these days; looking at my earliest posts here, most were annotated links, the sort of post I’d be more likely to use Twitter for these days. I’m still incredibly proud of the Thursday Agitation series of interviews that I did in 2009, and I’m happy with what I’m doing here. And for all that the past few months have seen the rise of “what is the future of blogs”-type think pieces, I feel reasonably confident in the future of this one. As always, thanks for reading.

World Book Night 2013

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Last year, I did the World Book Night thing. This is always a bit awkward for me — the concept of walking up to strangers and asking if they’d like a free book is always slightly terrifying, and I’m mostly concerned that I’ll be mistaken for a mildly deranged street preacher or something similar. (Which, I suppose, I am — but for literature.)

Anyway. This year, I’ll be handing out Alexis M. Smith’s novel Glaciers. I think it’s fantastic. Hopefully, some of the twenty people who’ll wind up with copies presently sitting in a bag beside me will think the same thing.

Some Quick “Life After Life” Notes

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So I wrote about Kate Atkinson’s much-praised Life After Life for Time Out New York. Here’s a bit of it:

At the core of Atkinson’s book is a very primal anxiety: missing out on those lives we imagine but never get the chance to live. Ursula Todd is blessed (or cursed) to circumvent this, but the weight of her situation—in which the best-laid plans might take repeated lifetimes to pull off—is impossibly saddening, a series of long games in which mortality is both a punishment and an obstacle to be dodged.

It’s probably stating the obvious to say that Life After Life, in which protagonist Ursula Todd relives her life again and again, is a deeply melancholy work of fiction. There are long passages in which lifetimes are used to attempt to get something right: years and experiences amassing exponentially. It reminded me, oddly, of a bit in The Invisibles (set in a novel within the world of the comic) wherein — I hope I get this right — a character dies and waits billions of years for the universe to restart to get to that same point in his life.

Yeah, this is the sort of thing that makes my head spin.

Volumes could be written offering theories on what the nature of Ursula’s rebirths actually is. Is she working through time in order to get some sort of outcome? Are we actually reading a series of vignettes set on parallel earths, with each version of Ursula dimly aware of her alternate selves? (Echoes of a character in Bryan Talbot’s The Adventures of Luther Arkwright.) Does the novel open in media res or is Ursula’s life simply resetting itself each time around, akin to the time travel in Stephen King’s 11/22/63?

Seriously; volumes. Though the fact that (spoiler) one of her next novels may feature a character from Life After Life suggests, at least in this novel’s cosmology, that there is some final outcome. Either way, there’s a lot to think about in this novel: raw, messy human themes grafted to an archetypally science-fictional scenario. It’s terrific reading.

Music from Overseas (…literally)

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Unless my memory’s failing me, the first time I heard Bedhead was in the summer of 1998. They were, at the time, a band I knew next to nothing about, save that their name kept cropping up as an influence on bands whose music I dug. I’m pretty sure that reading interviews with Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan, in which he cited Bedhead as an influence, played a prominent role in that — in ’98, I was listening to The Only Reason I Feel Secure a whole lot. Maybe obsessively.

Anyway. If memory serves, I was working a temp job in Little Silver for a couple of weeks, and I headed to Jack’s Music in Red Bank after work one day to see if they had anything from Bedhead in stock. Turns out they did: I went back home with Transaction de Novo, what turned out to be their final album, in tow. I followed the Kadane brothers’ musical output from there to The New Year, which preserved Bedhead’s restrained approach while adding in a slightly more cathartic element.

And now there’s Overseas, in which both Kadanes are joined by Bazan and Will Johnson. It’s the first music I’ve heard from them in a while, and my interest — piqued when I first heard of the group’s existence — was piqued. I’m a little bummed to hear that the Kadanes won’t be singing on this one — though I’m a fan of both Bazan’s voice and Johnson’s, I’d also love to hear how the voices of all four of the band’s members could play off one another.

Of the two songs they have posted, I’m a bit more drawn to “Down Below,” which — not shockingly — sounds a bit like David Bazan providing guest vocals on a The New Year song. I suspect I’ll end up ordering the album before long — the collected works of the band’s members inspires more than a little trust. And in writing this, I’ve had a reason to visit The New Year’s website, which alludes to “some news later in the year,” which seems very promising indeed.

So, Goodreads.

At around 5:00 pm on Thursday, my Twitter feed basically exploded at the news that Goodreads had been bought by Amazon. I’ve been on Goodreads for almost six years now; I also, as a rule, try to avoid giving Amazon money whenever I can.

Putting it far better than I could have, Rachel Fershleiser referred to Goodreads as “the last neutral space on the internet.” This was true. One of the the things that I liked about it was its relative agnosticism: going to a book’s page on Goodreads allowed you (if you so desired) to order the book from pretty much any online vendor imaginable. In an interview with Laura Hazard Owen, Goodreads’s Otis Chandler seemed to hedge on whether these links would remain:

As for specific design of [the links], we’ll see, but we really think about it from the user perspective. If users really want those links [to other retailers], then those links will probably still be there.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez has some smart things to say about the deal as well. Though I think there are two different questions at work here. One is the ramifications of this deal on the bookselling world as a whole. Will it ultimately drive more people — and more money — Amazon’s way? Or will Goodreads continue as a (mostly) independent entity, with little changed except for an “an Amazon company” tag at the bottom of the page? 

Part of what makes projecting outcomes here so difficult is that neither of the two examples of relatively freestanding companies purchased by Amazon — Zappos and IMDB — corresponds directly with Goodreads. Zappos sells things; IMDB is a research tool. Goodreads has elements of one, but is also damn good at recommending books — maybe the best, short of actually asking for a personal recommendation from a bookseller, librarian, or literary-minded friend.

Some of my friends have already deleted their Goodreads accounts. I haven’t yet, though I think it’s more likely than not that I will in the next couple of months. But for all that the announcement was greeted by a fair amount of skepticism by Goodreads users, will it matter? It raises the question: what’s the tipping point going to be, for me and for others? One of these has already happened; the other two are, I think, within the realm of possibility, though I’d guess that either would be at least a few months off.

  • The purchase of Goodreads itself?
  • A theoretical point in time when “buy” links to all sellers save Amazon are disabled?
  • A theoretical point wherein — a la Flickr merging their user accounts with those of Yahoo! — your Goodreads account and your Amazon account become one?

I feel as though I’m in a similar position to the one I was in when Google announced that they were shuttering Reader. The main difference here, though, seems to be that a number of alternatives to Reader made themselves known almost immediately. I don’t know if I see this happening with an alternative to Goodreads. Part of what I’ve liked about being there is the social aspects — that if I finish a book and notice that a friend had also read it, I can send an email their way. Start a conversation. Maybe learn something about someone that I hadn’t realized before.

Even if I keep my account up and running exactly as it was before, that sense of community is going to change; more than a few close friends of mine are, I believe, in the “leave immediately” camp. The smaller my own circle on there gets, the less useful it becomes.

I’d love for there to be an alternative to Goodreads arising in the same way that, say, Feedly has positioned themselves as the heir to Google Reader. But is there money to be made in an online community of readers sharing the books they’ve read where the common element is an intense dislike (or distrust) of Amazon? It’s easy enough to export your Goodreads data; finding somewhere else to talk about books in a similar online setting may be far more difficult.

Hello, Next Big Thing Questions

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So! Mairead Case tagged me in the Next Big Thing interview thread, and thus: I am answering some questions about works in progress.

What is the working title of your book?

Reel is the short novel I’m currently trying to find a home for. The novel I’m working on writing doesn’t have a title as of yet — the folder it’s saved in is called Untitled New Duchess Project. I’m writing this in pieces right now, and there isn’t one overarching image that lends itself to a title. Or, at least, there isn’t yet. It’s still a ways from being in any condition that would merit showing it to people.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I’ve got a novel sitting in a drawer called The Freestanding. Chances are pretty good you’ll never see it. There are things about it that I love, but there are also parts of it that flat-out don’t work — ultimately, I think I plotted it a little too heavily, and the end result was something that never quite felt…right to me. That said, the first third or so — about a guy gradually losing his shit and surrendering to a particular set of masochistic impulses — is work I’m still really happy with. (I keep thinking about whittling it down to a novella, but the brighter, shinier, newer work keeps taking precedence.)

Reel was written as a kind of reaction to that — a much more improvisational style of plotting, basically, to see where that led me. I’d had the scene that opens the book — two people meeting and immediately clashing at a Seattle punk show — stuck in my head for a while, and somewhere I have a folder full of false starts. A version closer to what eventually made it into to the novel appeared on Vol.1 Brooklyn a couple of years ago. There were a few other scenes that I knew I wanted — including one sequence where one of the two central characters takes a train from New York City to Charleston, South Carolina — but largely, I didn’t really know where the narrative was going, and that was liberating.

The New Duchess project is a little more organized, structurally speaking. I keep filling up Field Notes notebooks — I’m using the County Fair editions for this, because it’s a very New Jersey-centric project. I’m writing a lot more about punk and hardcore in this one. If you go even further back into the “books in my drawer” category, there’s a novella about the slow disintegration of a friendship set against a backdrop of VFW hall shows, hardcore, and the like. I realized that, aside from a few short stories, I hadn’t really returned to that world.

What genre does your book fall under?

They’re both literary fiction, I’d say. Reel has some pulp-y elements, but I wouldn’t call it anything other than a novel.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I’m not really sure. In the back of my head, I kept thinking of one of the main characters of Reel as looking somewhat like Kathy Foster of The Thermals

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Reel: The parallel lives of two people who meet at a Seattle club and immediately clash.

The New Duchess book: The rise and fall and reinvention of a trio of friends who came of age in a small New Jersey town’s punk scene.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

With respect to Reel, I’d like to see it come out via a publisher, large or small. I am proud of it; will that pride mean that I’d self-publish if a publisher couldn’t be found? Maybe. But I’m not necessarily qualified as a designer, or a proofreader, or as an editor — and if I was going to set up that kind of structure for something, I’d want it to be for purposes beyond just getting one short novel out into the world.

In terms of the in-progress New Duchess book, I’m nowhere near done — it’s possible that, at day’s end, I’ll have a lot of loosely connected short stories as opposed to anything else.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Reel took…maybe a year and a half? Two years? There are a bunch of rough starts to it sitting in old folders on my hard drive. In one of them, I coined the term “brunched econo,” which I suspect I might go to some sort of punk rock hell for.

What other books would you compare this story to in its genre?

For Reel, I’d cite William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition and the novels of Javier Marias as being very influential — especially in their ability to blend proper thrills with heady concepts. (I can and have raved about Marias’s All Souls and Your Face Tomorrow to nearly anyone who’d listen.) I also think that, in retrospect, Rick Moody’s novella “The Carnival Tradition” inspired certain structural elements.

For the New Duchess book? I’m not totally sure. It’s a novel about music, but I’ve tried to steer clear of books that have touched on the northeastern hardcore scene — working on this book is why I haven’t yet read Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints, for instance. And I’m still not sure if some of the weird structural things I want to do with it will actually hold up as I start revising it.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’ve wanted to write about Seattle for ages, and the bulk of Reel is set there. (I hope I’ve made a reasonably accurate portrayal of the city.) But it also let me riff on a lot of things, from characters’ desire to travel to mixtapes to the pleasures and anxieties that come from wandering through a city.

And one of the main characters is, basically, hyperaware; were this novel actually a pulp detective story, his powers of observation would make him the hero, but since this is more or less the real world, he’s a recluse who gets drunk most of the time and occasionally starts fights at punk shows.

In terms of the New Duchess book, I missed writing about hardcore, and New Jersey. But I also wanted to write across the span of a number of years. Reel is very, very condensed in its timeframe, and while I think that worked for that particular story, I was also eager to show relationships play out over a longer period of time. (Working on the story “An Old Songwriter’s Trick” reminded me of how enjoyable this could be — and how effective.)

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s got punk rock, bad tattoos, strange art, and mysterious antiques. Reel does, anyway. Admittedly, the book in progress has several of those things as well, and a lot more Jersey. And, as of now, a section mentioning both the Hartford Whalers and Coney Island High. Why not?

A Farewell to Sound Fix

I read today that the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix is closing down in mid-April. Given that I’ve spent a fair amount of time there — both at their original Bedford Avenue location and at their current space on North 11th Street — this hits home in a lot of ways. It would be an understatement to say that I’ve bought quite a bit of music there over the years. And during the days when they had a performance space, I saw more than a few fantastic events: an Alex Ross reading; fantastic acoustic sets from Scritti Politti and Oxford Collapse and Arthur & Yu. I put together a couple of events there as well — a benefit for the East River Music Project and a music-themed reading.

And here’s where, maybe, I start pontificating. If you click on the Gothamist link above, you’ll note that the first two words in the slug for the story are “dying breed.” And…I don’t know about that. Rather, I think that “record stores are dying” meme has a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. But, at least in the northern Brooklyn area around Sound Fix, I don’t know if I’d say that record stores are dwindling. If you walk from Greenpoint down to, say, Metropolitan Avenue, your route will take you past a whole lot of record stores: Permanent Records and Record Grouch and Co-Op 87 and Sound Fix and Academy Annex and Earwax. It’ll also take you past the original location of Heaven Street, before they relocated to Bushwick. And I’ve seen nothing to indicate that Rough Trade isn’t still planning to open a store somewhere in Williamsburg — all of which leads me to think that, at least in certain neighborhoods, finding a record store isn’t hard.

That said, this quote from Sound Fix’s James Bradley, in the Gothamist piece, suggests the complexities of the issue — and, probably, will point some young economics writer to create a stunning analysis of North Brooklyn’s record stores in the future.

“We’ve been selling more and more vinyl, and I really thought for a period of time we could make it through just selling vinyl,” says Bradley. “But we kept running into the same problem: the record companies weren’t producing enough….”

As someone who’s been trying (to no avail) to find the new Nick Cave on LP at a record store in New York, I can see his point. Of the stores on my theoretical record-store pub crawl above, most have a sizable amount of used vinyl on sale. Finding a shop where I know that a particular LP is on sale isn’t always easy.

And, while I have good things to say about pretty much every indie record store in New York City, I’m going to miss Sound Fix tremendously.

New Zine Column, Four In

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So I started a zine column at Vol.1 Brooklyn.

The first was about zines dedicated to Black Flag and Neutral Milk Hotel. (Not at the same time, mind you.) The second looked at zines made by members of Blessed Feathers and Case Studies. The third focused on the return of Rumpshaker and Chickfactor, and the fourth examined travel zines.

As of now, the column runs every other Thursday — though there are also certain features that this led me to that I’m not sure I’d have done otherwise. (My chat with one of the founders of the APRIL Festival, for instance.) Right now, it has me reading a lot more unexpected works; I’m curious to see where it’ll go from here.