The Thursday Agitation: Amelia Gray

Reading AM/PM, the first collection of short stories from Austin’s Amelia Gray, one can’t help but be impressed: across a series of flash fiction pieces, Gray evokes wonder and dread; romanticism and despair. And slowly, as you make your way through AM/PM‘s stories, patterns begin to emerge as characters recur and situations evolve — a much more resonant emotional experience than one might expect from flash fiction. Gray’s longer work is equally distinctive; a collection of that, Museum of the Weird, is due out next year on FC2. Both collections, along with her work as host of the Five Things reading series in Austin, were among our topics of discussion.

[Previous interviews in this series can be found here.]

First and foremost, congratulations on winning FC2’s short story collection contest. What attracted you to FC2, and how do the stories in Museum of the Weird differ from those in AM/PM?
I’ve been lucky to work with two presses that I love and are doing something innovative. Featherproof has this pair of guys with the ideal mindset in considering content and form. Then there’s FC2, who have a history, and they anticipated and are fighting a lot of the problems you see with experimental fiction in the print industry. It seems like it’s hard to survive too many years in print if you’re unwilling to change your mission statement, and FC2 beat the odds in that sense. I think Featherproof will too, because they’re real smart guys and they have a good plan.

The stories in Museum of the Weird are longer, which gives me a chance to stick around with characters for a while. I screw around with form a little as well; there’s a play, some letters back and forth, and a couple lists. The subject matter is a little hard to describe in fifteen words or less. My girl at the salon asked me what the stories were about and I told her that one is about a man married to a bag of frozen fish.  She was sort of quiet after that.

Do you approach writing flash fiction differently from writing longer stories?
Unless I’m trying to write in a very specific form, the goal is to tell the story in as small a space as possible. I just wrote a story that where I took lines of an old newspaper article and wrote a little vignette after every line. I knew that was going to be longer because I had a certain number of lines I wanted to use. I can usually tell where 600 words is, and if a story is still plugging away when I hit around that mark, I usually have to re-figure the arc and start thinking about it differently. Whenever I try to force myself into a bigger arc for the sake of the word count it ends up being a huge disaster.

If memory serves, you recently wrote about teaching a class on flash fiction — were most of the students there coming from a fiction-writing background, or looking at flash fiction as an entirely different form?
This was a high school class taught by my friend Jack, and I came and talked to them for two class periods. They were learning about flash fiction that week and Jack had given them some really excellent stories to look at for reference; “Rose Period” by Jimmy Chen, “Leak” by Claudia Smith, “The Chair” by Richard Garcia. Lucky kids to be reading such good stuff. Anyway, the idea of flash was totally new to them but they were really into it. Flash fiction is a lot of fun to teach to casual readers.

In AM/PM, certain characters begin to recur as the book proceeds — did you know from the outset that you would be returning to these characters periodically?
Not at all; in fact, my initial goal was to write a different character for every story. The first draft had a lot of nameless characters because of that, and they mysteriously started sharing a lot of similar plotlines, and then I realized I was writing about the same damn people over and over again. So I figured it out and gave them names and that took about a year and a half.

How did the Five Things series come about? Do you find that your involvement in it has affected your writing (or your perspective on writing) at all?
As with most things I do, it started with me bitching; this time, about how there aren’t a ton of readings in Austin. There are just too many good writers hiding in their homes instead of coming out and having drinks and making asses out of themselves, which is what writers should be doing all the time. I was inspired by the great reading and art events happening in Chicago, namely The Dollar Store, Quickies, and the Show ‘n Tell Show. Featherproof is behind some of this stuff and they lied to me and said that it’s not that much work to put on a show, and I believed them and here I am.

Hosting the show keeps me thinking about what works on paper and what works in front of a crowd. A crowd will always push you towards the strange side of a story, and I think the strange side is a good place to be.

The Thursday Agitation: Ryan Catbird

For seven years, the man known as Ryan Catbird has been writing about a particular corner of whip-smart indie rock — including, in recent days, Royal City and Golden Triangle — at his blog The Catbirdseat. Through an affiliated record label, he’s released music from the likes of Manishevitz, Moviola, and Jason Zumpano. Even more interestingly, however, is his role in a new collaborative site called MBV, which brings together work from five music bloggers, including Largehearted Boy and Matthew Perpetua’s Fluxblog. With a lot of recent discussion about the evolution of media, Ryan’s work, both creating a new destination for music coverage and through his discussion of print-on-demand models for media, is helping to shape the debate in interesting ways.

[Previous interviews in this series can be found here.]

Where did the idea for MBV come about?
Last year I started noticing a total spike in the number of “entities” (for lack of a better term) suddenly becoming interested in music blogs. I won’t name any names, but there are a number of organizations out there now approaching music blogs with nebulous offers of “partnership” or “working together.” They say they can “help grow” the blogs; help to “promote” the content, and so on. But in fact, the only thing these companies are actually proposing is to slap some ad banners on your site, and to siphon off your content to re-use on their site. They have no real interest in “growing” the music blogs they deal with; no interest in the health of those blogs, no plans for the blogs for the long-term. They simply want to leech for as long as they can, to grow their interests. They appear to offering to bring these blogs into a carefully-tended private garden, but in reality, they’re just practicing slash-and-burn agriculture.

I noticed that this was happening. And the thought occurred to me that if, in the future, music blogs were indeed going to be something “important” moving forward, why should that future be defined by the clueless, just-don’t-get-it heads of these large media companies? If music blogs are going to be an important part of music’s future, well, hell, I can’t think of anyone better suited to define that future than me and my MBV kin. We’ve all been at this 6, 7, 8 years now — and our experience, our perspectives, our contacts, our audiences — this is all stuff that some biz guy from the music-focused Social Network du jour can’t touch. And I believe that we can accomplish a whole lot more working as a team than we can working as a vast army of little “one-man shows.”

And do you find that more people are reading you there or on the Catbirdseat?
I don’t know who’s reading more where, but I can tell you that after 4 months, I’ve gotten the traffic on MBV to the same level as The Catbirdseat, which has been around for 7 years.

Do you find that the presence of MBV changes the way that you write?
There’s really only a minor effect. Of course, the criteria for posting to the two sites differs… The Catbirdseat is, always has been, and always will be a site where I write about the music that I really like a lot. It’s a very subjective view of things, based very specifically on my tastes. With MBV, though all of the subjective tastes of the entire team come through, the majority of the daily posting I do there represents a much more holistic view of the “indie music” sphere. I post about items that are not necessarily specifically relevant for me, but rather, stuff of interest for the greater community as a whole.

As of a few years ago, Catbird Records was funded via ad revenue from the blog; is this arrangement still working out?
That was true in a literal sense for a very short period of time, owing to the totally anemic ad revenue the site generates. And being that I’ve never held any ambition to try to actively “grow” the site, that’s been a constant since the ads were first implemented. It remains true in the sense that the “digital pennies” that do trickle in go into the greater pool of funds that are used on the Catbird Records projects– you know, those funds that come out of my pocket.

You’ve been a pretty staunch advocate of print-on-demand technologies for media. Do you see this being used more on a mailorder basis, or — given the recent press for the Espresso machine — being something that people will interact with in stores?
Yes, I think they can be used in stores just as much as they can be used to fulfill mailorder. The point is that we have the technology now to do this, and it has so many upsides: less cost, less waste, less everything. Whether we’re talking about books, magazines, DVDs, CDs — these are all things that, for the most part, have a pretty standardized format. A CD for example: you’ve got a case, a disc, and a booklet. Book: bound pages, a thicker cover. It makes much more sense to me for a store to keep a stock of “blanks” of different products, and when the customer comes to the register, holding the demo copy they picked up off the shelf, the clerk can just fabricate a copy on the spot.

How has running Catbird Records affected your perspective on the current environment for artists?
It’s been incredibly valuable and educating to experience things from a label perspective these last few years. I feel like I’m able to see a lot of things in the music sphere from all sorts of different angles now. I’d say the one big thing that I’ve come to realize in recent times, something that I try to convey to the artists, is that you’re no longer “selling an album.” It’s great to put all your hard work and energy and money, if you’ve got it, into creating an album– but you can’t look at that as the end goal now. It’s not “make an album, then sell the album” anymore, it’s an ongoing, neverending process of simply “being an artist,” and putting out an album is just one small part of the overall thing. And that overall thing includes things like the old stuff, such touring, getting reviews and interviews, and new stuff like communicating with the fans online, posting new songs and videos, keeping a blog, and so on. And whether you decide to commit fully to that, or to just dabble and release albums every once in awhile, one thing is certain: you shouldn’t *expect* to make money from selling your albums. If you do, that’s great– but your primary goal should be to take the long view, and focus on just getting the music to as many people as you can. I mean, isn’t getting your music heard the whole point?

The Thursday Agitation: Dan Friel

Dan Friel‘s music acts as a literal definition of the oft-used phrase “noise pop”. His solo work, including 2004’s Sunburn and last year’s Ghost Town, achieves a near-perfect medium of frayed sounds and memorable hooks. As a founder of Parts & Labor, he has seen the group evolve from the aggressive abstraction of their early work for the more refined but no less experimental approach heard on 2008’s Receivers, built around a collection of field recordings and samples. And as one of the owners of Cardboard Records he has also helped to release work from the likes of Gowns and Pterodactyl, likeminded artists memorably working the boundary between squall and bliss.

[Previous interviews in this series can be found here.]

Sunburn‘s packaging struck me as extremely utilitarian, with the CD itself serving as its own artwork and liner notes. Ghost Town, by contrast, has a much more abstract approach; was this something you had in mind from the start?
Sunburn
‘s whole feel is pretty utilitarian. I tried to make the best looking package I could make without any actual packaging. Just a simple way of getting music to people’s computers/iPods/etc without waste or bullshit.  Fun fact: my friend who released it got several hundred of those used jewel cases from CDs that were being thrown out by Pitchfork.

With Ghost Town I wanted something that represented how busy and bright the album came out.  Shawn Reed’s art always struck me as being its own universe with its own language, and I was shooting for that level of cohesiveness with the album.

How would you describe Ghost Town‘s overall sound in comparison with Sunburn?
Ghost Town is a lot more dense and more purposeful, which is not tosay that I like one better than the other.

At this point, at least three of the members of Parts & Labor also have solo projects. Do you find that having more of a presence for your own music affects your part of the songwriting process for Parts & Labor?
I find that the two processes feed into each other really well.  I have a pretty short attention span, so I’m constantly burning out on either the all-electronics mode, or the rock band mode, and falling back on the other.

Do you view the sample/field recording-based songs of Receivers as a one-off experience, or has this had a permanent effect on the way you conceive music?
I wouldn’t do the same thing for another record, but I would consider some comparable participatory theme for future records.  That collage style has always sounded good to me.  It was really fun getting to hear what people sent and interacting with friends and fans and total strangers in that way.

Besides your work as a musician, you’ve also been involved with releasing music via Cardboard Records; how has that affected your experience of being in a band?
Hmmm… I don’t know that it has. Maybe it’s given me a little bit more sympathy for all of the long running indie labels that are going under these days.

The Thursday Agitation: Jon Solomon

Over the years, Jon Solomon has released an abundance of striking music. My Pal God, the label through which I came to know him, has encompassed everything from precise, experimental rock to retrospectives of offbeat pop groups to compilations of skewed holiday music. More recently, Solomon began a new label, Comedy Minus One, which has released music from the likes of Bottomless Pit, Karl Hendricks, Obits, and Oxford Collapse. While both labels share a high quality of music, each has a very distinct aesthetic — and it’s the differences between the two labels that provided a starting point to this conversation.

[Previous interviews in this series can be found here.]

What led you to create Comedy Minus One as opposed to releasing those albums under the My Pal God banner?
You know how some comic books and long-running series try to hit a reset button and launch a second time from “year zero?”

I didn’t want to do that.

For a long while, I had been interested in trying my hand at something new, but I didn’t want to do anything that would brush aside the past work that had been put in to My Pal God.

Starting a new label gave me the freedom to do a number of things that were not possible with a label that was so firmly entrenched.

So, Comedy Minus One was born.

What do you see as the distinctions between the two labels?
Well, Comedy Minus One is able to utilize current technology in a way I was not able to do with My Pal God – Facebook, MySpace, electronic mailing list programs, on-line credit card processing, a blog, all that jazz.

With a long lead time between when I first agreed to put out the Bottomless Pit album “Hammer of the Gods” and the release date, I was able to sit down and draw up how I wanted to do everything and put those ideas into process. It was extremely exciting to build off this blank slate.

So far, Comedy Minus One’s releases have ranged from CDs to vinyl to digital-only; how do you and the artists determine which format(s) will be the most appropriate for a particular album or single?
Well, in a number of cases, I’ve been dealing with distributing records that weren’t available digitally. Those digital releases have helped fund physical releases and I think there will continue to be a split between the physical and the digital going forward. There are a vast number of out of print records I hope to be able to make available again to a new audience.

The lineup of artists who have released music on Comedy Minus One to date is an impressive one, with a history that could be called “storied”. To what extent do you find that the audience for new music from, say, Karl Hendricks or Rebecca Gates is comprised of people already familiar with their work as opposed to new listeners?
To some degree, it is reverse engineering. The Bottomless Pit record was better-received and further-recognized than I ever expected and I hope that allowed some folks to go back and discover the Silkworm catalogue. The same may be the case with the Crust Brothers digital release, with younger Pavement fans taking a similar step.

Karl Hendricks is a long-standing friend and when he told me he had put out his most recent album on his own (“The World Says”), I just wanted to make sure that the record was available digitally and reaching additional ears that may have had no idea this record existed.

I do think this Rebecca Gates remix record (which I hope to have a release date on soon) may interest people who aren’t familiar with the label at this point, but this release fits with the welcome trend of getting to work with some of my favorite musicians and people. Rebecca’s remixers are a varied lot and that should hopefully also bring people in who are interested in the artists that have reworked her source material.

Besides your record label work, you also DJ on WPRB and maintain a blog on Princeton basketball; is there a similar community-minded approach to all three?
There is more of a community built around a independent radio station or a college basketball team in central New Jersey than there is an independent record label. The label is a fairly solitary operation, with packages taped and records bundled early in the morning or late at night. Sometimes there’s crossover between the three (mostly between the label and the station) but the only connection I can draw is that independent music and basketball are things I both got into over two decades ago and are intrinsically tied to my day-to-day life at this point.

The Thursday Agitation: Nick Antosca

Reading Nick Antosca’s second novel Midnight Picnic was one of the most intense experiences I had last year. A surreal ghost story (of sorts), set in both a surreal landscape and an immediately, tragically contemporary America, it moved towards its conclusion with an unknowable but clearly present logic. Via email, we discussed process, Antosca’s work past and present, and television advertising for independently published novels.

[Previous interviews in this series can be found here.]

In your interview with Tao Lin for MobyLives, you talk about a number of novels, some of which you’re planning to revisit; what is your process when returning to something that’s been dormant for a while?
I think it’s: Hope something comes to me. I wrote the first few pages of Midnight Picnic something like a year before the rest of it. There’s another manuscript I have lying around that is a trainwreck, and I know what I need to do with it, but I’m occupied by other things right now, so I’ll just wait until the enthusiasm grabs me. I just kind of lay around on the floor a lot, or on the couch or the bed–that’s a lot of what I do with my life–and while I’m sort of mentally fading from one place to another, I’ll get a new idea that makes me super interested in an old idea again.

Do you ever find yourself returning to unseen work for ideas or concepts for new work in progress?
Do I look at stuff that failed and try to harvest cool things from it to use again? Yes, I do that. Sometimes I’ll get an idea for a scene and write a whole story around it just to preserve the scene, but I know the story sucks, and then I just let it sit around for a while and maybe one day take the scene (which I now remember clearly because I wrote it out) and fit it into something else. It’s like I’m saving up the scene for later.

Reading your blog, there’s definitely a sense of community — both the one inherent to the online space and a collection of likeminded writers. Do you find that this has happened by virtue of similar styles or education, or a less defined set of thematic concerns? (I’m thinking specifically of Helen Oyeyemi — I noticed that she was thanked in Midnight Picnic, and at times I was reminded of The Icarus Girl, not necessarily in the setting or themes, but in the shared use of sinister spirit-children and a blurred line between this world and another.)
Oh, interesting. No, I think that’s coincidence. Most of my writer friends don’t have similar educational backgrounds or stylistic inclinations. Midnight Picnic does have things in common with Helen’s sensibility. (Helen btw is a genius. I’m reading a story of hers right now and it’s just chilling.) But my other books don’t really. I met Helen before I had read any of her stuff (or she any of mine). I also have very little in common with, say, Noah Cicero or Karan Mahajan, other people frequently mentioned on my blog. All we have in common is the experience of trying with varying degrees of success to get published and read, I guess. Actually that’s not true. Our tastes are similar; we seem to like ‘strange’ things. I’m not so into the ‘flat affect emo’ style of writing that’s most associated with Tao and that’s been kind of brewing in the indie lit scene for the last few years, although I think Tao is an extremely talented guy. I’d rather read Ray Bradbury than Raymond Carver. If I could be friends with one writer I’m not friends with now, based on talent and writing style, I think it might be Kelly Link, or Alicia Erian.

Do you have a sense of what the response has been to the trailer for Midnight Picnic? (Between it and the news that Drag City is apparently buying some television advertising for the new Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy record, it seems like there’s a rise in the amount of — for lack of a better phrase — independent culture being unexpectedly advertised on television these days.)
People wrote to me saying they liked it, but I assume that the people who didn’t like it wouldn’t write to me… so in general I’m not sure. My friend Fred Guerrier made it really fast and I think he did a good job. I think it’s cool that you can buy TV advertising pretty cheaply from Google. I like the idea that trailers for my book ran during Lost next to car ads or something. Maybe a few people got a kick out of it.

Midnight Picnic brings together a timelessness in its opening chapters with a number of events that are very contemporary. Was that juxtaposition something you consciously sought? And do you have a sense when you’re writing of how a reference might read ten years from now?
I do worry about references being dated, but, like, what are you gonna do? I don’t know. I wonder how American Psycho read when it came out almost 20 years ago. It still reads great now. The truth is I don’t think much about stuff like that as I’m writing. To me the primary point of writing is to experience creative euphoria, which is a very specific feeling of like hunger and aptitude and accomplishment and possibility and incredible momentum all mixed together. Now that’s not the only point, because if it were, getting published would be irrelevant. So the secondary point of writing is to convey that experience in some transmuted fashion to a reader. So what a reader experiences while reading your book should be some distilled version of that euphoria you had while creating it. I don’t know if I’ve said that properly, and I also don’t know how well I’ve succeeded in doing that so far in my writing, but that’s what I believe, and I’m definitely getting better at it.

The Thursday Agitation: Tracy Wilson

One of the highlights, for me, of my zine-editor days came when I found myself in the basement of Brownies circa 2000, moderating a conversation between Tracy Wilson and Caithlin De Marrais. At the time, De Marrais was making music as one-third of Rainer Maria, while Wilson’s band Souvenir had begun playing shows around New York City; like her previous group Dahlia Seed, they had an utterly transfixing blend of righteous anger and blistering pop hooks. In the years since then, Wilson moved to Richmond, Virgina and, together with two friends, recently started Little Black Cloud Records. Her long-in-the-works solo debut Decimal, recorded under the name Ringfinger, saw release last year and includes contributions from members of dälek, Isis, Sunn 0))), and Engine Down. (Also, it’s damn good.)

[Previous interviews in this series can be found here.]

What led to the formation of Little Black Cloud Records?
The birth of the label began with my solo record (Ringfinger / Decimal) and truthfully and me not having the patience or ego to pitch myself to some other label in hopes they would want to sign me. After so many years of working in the music industry I was fortunate enough to have the knowhow and connections to self release my record as well as have distribution for it. The goal was never to be a full blown label but when I heard Cinemasophia I instantly wanted to release the record. As fate would have it two friends were interested in forming a label around the same time so suddenly we had our first band on the label (besides me) and a few other projects in mind for release in 2009. In a nutshell is was really Cinemasophia that kicked us into high gear as a label.

The vinyl/digital release configuration that I’ve seen on your site seems to be growing in popularity these days (Comedy Minus One also comes to mind) — as the structure of the label came together, was this something you had in mind from the start?
Yes. The one thing I have learned from working in music sales is that large pressings of CDs is relatively pointless unless you are a very popular and well established band (Animal Collective, M Ward) on a name brand label (Sub Pop, Merge, Matador) For new developing artists and start up labels it really makes more sense to begin with digital releases with tiny runs of CDRs and if there is momentum behind the group as they tour, earn more fans, build a press buzz, then you release it on vinyl. Vinyl isn’t cheap to produce so like any physical product you really have to be certain there is a market for it meaning there are fans out there to buy it. The economy is too sluggish to risk pressing anything that could potentially just sit in a warehouse or living room corner. The great thing with the digital format is there is very little overhead to get it out to people and for a new band or label, every penny spared is important. Thanks to the internet bands and labels can connect to music fans quickly and easily. It’s truly amazing how you can post a song on line and it can reach people’s ears all around the world literally seconds later.

I saw that Ringfinger has its first show coming up, with a tour to follow — how are you arranging the songs for a live setup?
It is with a bit of trepidation that I say this. I am singing to track (the instrumental versions of my songs) on this tour. There isn’t going to be a band because (a) all of the original players on my record are in profitable bigger bands who are always busy and on the road – in turn making it impossible to pin them down for a small tour where they probably won’t be making any money and (b) I dreaded the thought of trying to build a band from scratch. To make it a little more interesting than just a woman singing to her iPod I am working with the artist Chris Milk to help me recreate my living room via a theatrical set. I want the audience to feel like I am performing for them in my home (a more intimate setting than your typical show) so my goal is to have some people sitting on stage with me. I might bribe people with snacks at each show. I am still working out the details now so who knows what surprises are in store, ha!

Are there plans for a second album? If so, are you looking for a similar collaborative feel to the first?
A new record is in the works but it isn’t a Ringfinger record. It will be called Drekkingarhylur and it is a collaboration between myself and Runhild Gammelsaeter (solo artist / Thorr’s Hammer / Khlyst). I don’t suspect however this record will see the light of day this year. More than likely it will be early 2010.

Via the Dahlia Seed website, a lot of your musical history is readily accessible. Do you find that that’s helped as far as making people more aware of Ringfinger?
Perhaps a little but Dahlia Seed was such a cult thing that I don’t feel like all that many people have come across Ringfinger from that direction. Honestly I believe it is more likely that fans of all the musicians who played on my record (Isis, Sunn 0))), Cave In…) found me though the gossip circles of those bands. Maybe this is my lack of ego at work here but I feel like the attention Decimal has been given to date is much more about the line up of the players on the record rather than me, the singer from Dahlia Seed.

The Thursday Agitation: Kieron Gillen

Phonogram, the collaboration of writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie, is both a surreal urban fantasy with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music and a detailed critique of the same. Its first volume, Rue Britannia, covered Britpop with side trips into the music of Scout Niblett and the Afghan Whigs. The Singles Club, currently in progress, encompasses an even wider scope of music. One of the shorter pieces in The Singles Club, “She Who Bleeds For Your Entertainment” (with artist Laurenn McCubbin), critiques male indie rock fans’ fondness for songs in which women die; that it wraps its critique in an atmospheric horror story makes it that much more memorable. And it’s ultimately the dual nature of the series that makes it both fascinating and compelling. Gillen and I discussed this duality, alongside other topics, via email.

[Previous interviews in this series can be found here.]

Besides being a compelling story in its own right, Rue Britannia also works on the level of examining a genre of music — essentially, the narrative work as work of criticism. Was this something that was planned from the outset, or did that aspect evolve as you wrote it?
Planned from the outset. In fact, it’s its backbone. When I sat down to write the first demo Phonogram script – which was basically the Beth subplot from Rue Britannia, but done in a single issue – the question wasn’t “Can I work pop music criticism into a fantasy story?” but “Can I work this pop music criticism into a fantasy story?”. While the demo script had loads of problems, it proved to my satisfaction that it seemed to work – and when it was showing it to McKelvie that made him agree to joining me on this foolish endeavour. Depending on which story I write, we lean heavier towards the fiction or the theory, but fundamentally, for all the magical effects, if it isn’t a metaphor for what music really does to and for human beings, we can’t use it. It has to be true, y’know? When we’re occasionally reviewed in the music press, it does please me that they review Rue Britannia for its critical component as much as its more traditional narrative gubbins.

In your essay accompanying the first issue of The Singles Club, you talk about using each issue to discuss a different aspect of pop music. Do you generally begin with the story or the music — or are the two essentially inseparable?
Yeah, you may as well ask which atrium in my heart is more essential. I need them both. It… well, it varies. With The Singles Club it’s more character driven than Rue Britannia, so a lot of the plot beats are prompted solely by these characters I’ve crammed into a nightclub. But the vast majority of those characters were inspired directly by whatever I was listening to in 2006. Laura comes from the Long Blondes and Penny the Pipettes, for example. All about the alliteration, me.

Sometimes it’s the other way around, where I get inspired by my own personal response to some music… but I decide not to actually use that song, and work it in another way. Occasionally a story I have is totally derailed by musical inspiration. I wanted issue 6 to by my fanzine-tribute issue, and had a complete structure and plot for Lloyd to go through… but I found myself listening to Los Campesinos late one night and had a moment of clarity of what had to happen to Lloyd. In other words, it’s a big mash of my responses to pop music, how pop music responds to me and rambling silly formalist pretensions.

Thinking specifically of She Who Bleeds for Your Entertainment — do the backups relate specifically to the same aspect of pop handled in that issue’s lead story, or are they ways to cover additional facets of music that might not lend themselves to a longer piece?

The latter. Occasionally an idea can only support a page… but that doesn’t mean the idea isn’t worthwhile. I wrote the B-sides before deciding which issue they’d be attached to, though there’s some rudimentary DJ-style set-building after the fact. So for issue 1, I knew the main story was pop and flirty, so I dropped Laurenn’s She Who Bleeds… for a little of the obvious-criticism approach of Rue Britannia, with Marc’s Power of Love rounding off the set by being openly silly – something we hadn’t actually shown in PG before. I’d agree that you can link She Who Bleeds… to the main story though – ideally, we’re trying to create a thematic whole from what material we’ve created. Alternatively, sometimes we just go for counterpoint – issue 5 has a really tongue in cheek and playful piece after Laura’s seething white-hot mass of angst.

Bar having a bit too much fun and bullying our friends, the larger point of the B-sides was trying to populate the universe a bit. With Rue Britannia, people had a really strict idea about what we were about – Britpop and David Kohl, basically. As much as that’s part of us, Phonogram‘s a world book about music and magic. The fact the lead stories all feature different characters is a big step before that, but the B-sides are continuing the theme. I mean, I’ve just written one inspired by Mastodon. The ones in issue 2 come from Kate Bush and Diamanda Galas respectively. There’s one about bad pub-singers in rural England. It mixes it up and hopefully will make people’s conceptions of how the universe works. Plus, the B-sides let us make some stuff clear about our philosophy about this stuff. There’s a subsection of responses to PG who are making some assumptions about PG which are actually the total opposite of what we’re saying. I mean, PG is fundamentally an anti-elitist comic in any way which matters. If people read some of the B-sides and still don’t get that, I’ll feel better about shrugging and just moving on. But I have to try. Communication is the whole point.

For She Who Bleeds.., Jamie McKelvie is credited with “Production” — what does that translate to? Has the selection of the artists for the backups been a collaborative process?
Lettering and general pre-print stuff on the files, really. We can’t help playing with that kind of stuff.

And, yes, we collaborated. As in, collaborated in twisting people’s arms until they said yes. We approached some people and asked if they’d be up for it. Some people approached us and asked. Some people who we thought would be too busy to say yes stomped up and wanted to know why we didn’t ask them. Some people said they’d do it whilst drunk, and we held it to them. Really, it’s just a cross-section of people who we dig. In terms of what story they do… well, it’s about 50:50 whether I already have a story written which needs an artist or whether it’s me trying to think of something that’ll suit the artist who says they’ll do something for us. Whenever I give someone a script, I ask if it’s something they’d like to do – and if it isn’t their thing, I’ll find something else. For it to be fun is totally key, especially when we’re asking for so much time for from these talents. Sometimes an artist even has a core idea for a story – maybe just an observation about music – which I spin out into something else. For example, Laurenn with She Who Bleeds or Charity Larrison in her B-side in issue 4.

You’ve done an extensive amount of promoting Phonogram online, and have made equally compelling reasons for purchasing the single issues and the collected edition. Where do you find that most people are being exposed to it? Have you noted a significant difference between how people are reading The Singles Club in comparison with Rue Britannia?
We’re big ol’ sluts with our internet whoredom.

Er… I honestly dunno, regarding where people are exposed to it. In terms of pure numbers, sales of the singles are pretty much identical between the two series. And, yeah, that’s been somewhat disheartening to put that much effort into the singles and not get even a tiny uptick. Hell, going colour alone normally adds 2k – we were hoping for similar sales to Jamie’s Suburban Glamour, whose pre-orders of issue 1 were that much more than PG1. We’ve got a big old string of theories on why, but I suspect it’s as simple as the retailers just ordering exactly the same numbers of this series as the last. Oh – plus the economic collapse thing. It’s even possible that if we hadn’t done all we did with the singles, our sales would have come in much lower. And more than most demi-mainstream comics, I suspect there’s a split between the shops which support us – and do it fantastically – and those who don’t. There’s certainly many of shops who ordered the second series much higher than the first, which means I have to assume that other shops didn’t order it at all.

But, yeah, it’s doubly annoying when the orders came in as low as they were and we immediately sell out of the print run from re-orders. Which also happened with the first series of Phonogram.

In terms of whether more people are exposed in singles or trades, I’d assume the latter. Looking at Rue Britannia, we’ve sold twice as many trades as we did the individual issues of the series (And, yeah, shifting over 10K of trades would be another thing which would make you hope orders on the next series would be up. As Kirby said, Comics will break your heart). I do suspect that our best efforts with the singles are just railing against the light. A considerable portion of PG readers are non-traditional comic readers who just won’t go inside most comic shops, and will pick it up off an online retailer when it hits trade.

Putting the horrible business head away, it really doesn’t matter. The singles are worth doing for art’s sake. If they’re a waste of our time, they’re a glorious waste of our time.

The Thursday Agitation: Jonathan Messinger

The titles published by Chicago’s Featherproof Books to date have ranged from art-world satire to graphic design showcases to surreal evocations of the South. Their “Light Reading” series of minibooks includes work from Kevin Sampsell, Elizabeth Crane, Patrick Somerville, and Nathaniel Rich (and, full disclosure, me). 2009 finds Featherproof expanding, with both Paper Egg Books‘ line of limited editions set to launch and a digital remix project debuting in conjunction with Blake Butler‘s Scorch Atlas. Co-publishers Jonathan Messinger and Zach Dodson are behind all of this, and earlier this week, I emailed Messinger a handful of questions about Featherproof’s new ventures.

[Previous interviews in this series can be found here.]

The Paper Egg site bears the heading “a new old idea from Featherproof”. Where did the idea first come from? And what led to it happening now?
Well, Zach and I have been tossing around various ideas for how to expand our list. We only do two books a year, and some of that is due to time constraints, but a lot of it is financial. Our books sell well, but not so staggeringly well that we can just expand and expand. We just don’t have a lot of cash flexibility. So we just started talking over various other approaches, and a subscription idea came up. It allows us to have a good sense of what our print run should be, and gives us a story of cash to actually make the books. We’ve probably been refining the idea for a year or so, until it seemed like it made sense.

I guess it’s happening now because we’ve finally got our act together. I think with any independent venture that you’re operating as a second job (or in our case, as our third or fourth jobs), there’s a risk of burnout. We’ve both felt that. But I think we’ve both come out of that understanding that the answer to burnout isn’t to stop, but to make things more fun for us. Making these books with Paul Hornschemeier, and working with authors we love, it’s just going to be a lot of fun.

The setup of Paper Egg reminds me more of Sub Pop‘s Singles Club, or Dark Beloved Cloud, than anything specifically happening in publishing today. Were you looking to other forms of media for inspiration?
Sub Pop’s Singles Club is one that’s come up a lot, definitely. We’re always looking to other media for ideas, solutions. Especially when it comes to reaching an audience and dealing with the changes that come with digital media, you have to look elsewhere. Music is a great place, because of all of the enormous screw-ups in that industry, and a lot of the creative solutions, too.

Logistically, will Paper Egg make as many books as there are subscribers? Or are there plans to have something in reserve — if, say, there’s suddenly a sudden demand for The Awful Possibilities in 2011?
Nope. The books are going to be limited, first editions. We’ll print just over the subscriber numbers we have, for press, touring, and to accommodate folks who want the book after they hear about it. But we want to keep the idea of limited editions as a legitimate non-gimmick, you know? I’d hate to say, “Hey everyone, sign up for these limited-edition books” and then just keep churning them out.

When you’re looking at books, what indicates that something will work as a Paper Egg title but not necessarily a Featherproof title?
That’s a good question. I don’t know if we’ve 100-percent nailed that down just yet. We’ve always been very vague about what we like at Featherproof. Zach and I have fairly divergent tastes, and they match up in strange places. I’d really like Paper Egg to be an imprint for work that is typically not given much consideration by press or retail outlets. That means novellas, short-shorts, etc. There’s sort of a different mission, almost a social goal for Paper Egg, that I think I’ve solely imposed on it, without maybe Zach knowing.

I’ve been reading a lot of discussion lately about the book as object in contrast with the digitization of novels, collections, and works of nonfiction. Featherproof’s titles strike me as being memorable for their look and feel, something that seems to be continuing with Paper Egg. What are your feelings on the physical object/digital content debate?
Well, the line we’ve been delivering for a while now is that printed books will, eventually, go the way of vinyl. At some point, digital distribution will be the predominant method, but there will still be those who value and collect print, as people do records now (a fact that, it seems, has created a strong niche market for cool vinyl releases). But I’m not so sure that I completely buy that analogy, as fun as it is to repeat. Really, the debate seems pointless to me. What it always devolves to is one person clinging to what they’ve grown up with and accustomed to-the printed book, this classic, vaunted, untouchable commodity-and self-appointed visionaries who see digital distro as the obvious wave of the future, plowing down the fogies and fuddy-duddies.

If we de-politicize it, it becomes a much more open, interesting discussion. My feeling is that both media offer something that the other doesn’t. So why should one replace the other? What does digital do best? It readily reaches a much broader audience, costs significantly less money, has multimedia capacity. But print does some things better, too: trades in immediacy for longevity, has a tactile, textured component that digital hasn’t been able to replicate. There’s also a great single-mindedness about print that I enjoy. So I don’t worry so much whether print will “die” or “survive,” I’d rather just think about how best to use print creatively-what can it do that nothing else can, what are its limits and how do we test them?

But mostly, I’m interested in how digital and print can interact. That’s why we started our Featherproof Remix series, which releases part of a new book, and invites writers to rewrite and rearrange it. We then publish the best submissions as an ebook, a few weeks before the print book hits bookstores (and, of course, our books are available as ebooks). I guess what I mean is that both are great, and interactivity is much more interesting to me than exclusivity.

This ramble has been brought to you by Jonathan Messinger. Sorry about that.

The Thursday Agitation: Shane Jones

Shane Jones‘s novel Light Boxes is a strange and haunting work, alternating surreal descriptions of a winter-bound society with starkly tangible descriptions of that society’s daily life, and encompassing a storyline at once epic and deeply intimate. Its tone, bringing together metafictional elements with folk-tale lyricism, at times recalls Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman and the recent work of Steve Erickson. The book itself is physically memorable, from its windswept cover design to its use of multiple fonts and text sizes within. And given Jones’s online presence — besides his own website, he’s also a contributor to HTML Giant — he appears to be a writer making the most of what both print and online have to offer.

[Previous interviews in this series can be found here.]

***

Something I noticed about Light Boxes as well as a few other independently published novels I’ve read recently (Zach Plague‘s boring boring boring boring boring boring boring comes to mind) is the use of multiple fonts and different sizes of text. At what point in the writing of Light Boxes did you know that you wanted to incorporate this element?
The use of multiple fonts was more the publisher‘s choice when it came to layout. Some of it was originally part of the book. For example, there are parts in the dialog, especially Bianca, where she whispers and the font is smaller. I wanted to do that because it made me smile, it was a sweet touch for that to happen. I think when that happens you learn more about the character. I don’t want people to think I’m just trying to be clever or innovative, stylish, etc. All the font choices are for a reason and have an emotional tie to the character.

Do you think that there’s a greater sense now of the book as object — and thus, writers are moving to do things with the medium print that can’t necessarily be replicated digitally?
I think it’s important that a book is aesthetically pleasing and almost borders on being an art object. People are drawn to good design. They want to hold, buy, put on their bookshelf a good looking book. It just makes sense. I went to AWP in Chicago this year and saw some of the most beautifully designed books I have ever seen. It provokes a reaction in people. I want that! As far as replicating the book form (I think that’s what you’re asking) digitally, I just don’t think it really translates. You can do stuff digitally you can’t do in a book, but the physical object of a book in your hands is a unique and moving experience.

Nick Antosca recently mentioned on his blog that you had taken part in a discussion of using the internet to promote your work. Now that Light Boxes is out in the world, do you have a sense of the effect of your site on its reception?
I didn’t take part of the discussion. It was a panel at some university (I wasn’t there) maybe Georgetown? [George Mason University; for more, see here and here – ed.] The topic of using the internet to publish and promote your work to get a book and future books published (I think the panel called it starting a career) was brought up. Myself, Nick, and Blake Butler were used as an example of this and people were to go home and google our names. Having Light Boxes out in the world has produced a little more attention to my blog and online writing, but I don’t think that much.

On your blog, you’ve recently pointed out the influence of mythology and folk tales on Light Boxes — and much of the novel, for me, draws on the primal concept of the importance of naming. How did you determine the balance between this and the more tangible/realistic elements of the novel?
I don’t think I ever determined the balance. What I mean is that I never really planned it out in the structure of the novel. I wanted almost all the book to be about the town, the myth, the fable, the magical element of it. The more realistic elements kind of produce this effect of poking and maybe bursting some of the imagination of the myth. The two are very twisted together though. I just tried to keep it interesting at all times and I think adding the more tangible/realistic elements when they do appear was necessary. It adds another layer to the story. It’s another little maze. It also makes the book kind of turn upside down and create a sense of vertigo. Or at least I hope it does all that.

Given the roles of February and the girl who smells of honey and smoke in the act of creation, there’s a sense of ambiguity about the creative process. Is there an intentional parallel between the act of creating the novel and the acts of creation that take place within the novel, or am I reading too much into things?

It’s not an intentional parallel, but I can see what you mean. Ambiguity plays a big part of the book and I think because of that people are going to have many different reactions/interpretations. I’m comfortable with ambiguity. Recently, someone who had started reading the book wrote to me asking all these questions about what was going on, who is February, why is the town void of flight, etc. They were lost and frustrated. I like the lost feeling in books. I like ambiguity. I liked these questions. Thank you.

the thursday agitation: an introduction

Today brings the first installment of The Thursday Agitation, a weekly series of short interviews on The Scowl. First up will be Christopher Weingarten, my onetime editor at Paper Thin Walls, to discuss (among other things) his 1000 Times Yes project. Said interview should be up within a few hours.

For the record, I’m using “agitation” in the sense of

persistent urging of a political or social cause or theory before the public.

and also

debate, discussion, argument.

These are interviews that, hopefully, will lead to more questions. These are things that I was curious about; hopefully you will be, too.