Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews Matt Bell

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I have been talking to book industry professionals and other smart people about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses.  We must wonder now, how will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and  economics?

I hope these Publishing Talks conversations can help us understand the outlines of what is happening in the publishing industry, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

These interviews give people in and around the book business a chance to talk openly about ideas and concerns that are often only talked about “around the water cooler,” at industry conventions and events, and in emails between friends and they give people inside and outside the book industry a chance to hear first hand some of the most interesting and challenging thoughts, ideas and concepts being discussed by people in the book business.

Dzanc Books is an amazing collaboration of a number of relatively young writers, editors and literary activists.  Founded only a few years ago (2006), it has now brought under its very broad umbrella, a large number of really interesting literary groups and activities, taking advantage of its nonprofit status to raise money for its work.  Here’s a brief description of all the projects they are involved with now (taken from the Dzanc website):

•    Publishes innovative and award-winning literary fiction, including short story collections and novels.
•    Supports several editorially-independent imprints and literary journals, including Black Lawrence Press, OV Books, Keyhole Press, Starcherone, Monkeybicycle, and Absinthe: New European Writing
•    Publishes The Collagist, a monthly online literary journal launched in August 2009
•    Recognizes the best stories, poems, and non-fiction published online each year through the Best of the Web anthology series, now in its third year
•    Provides low-cost writing instruction to beginning and emerging writers by connecting them with accomplished writers through the innovative Dzanc Creative Writing Sessions
•    Funds the Dzanc Writers-in-Residence Program, which places published authors in public schools to teach creative writing to elementary and secondary students
•    Conducts the yearly Dzanc Prize, which recognizes a single writer for both literary excellence and community service, as well as an annual short story collection competition
•    Offers the Disquiet International Literary Program, a writing conference held in Lisbon, Portugal
•    Creates internship opportunities for students looking to gain valuable experience in independent publishing

Dzanc has been on my radar for a while, and I subscribed to their really interesting e-book club, which is not only a cool idea for an independent press to undertake, but is also a great way for readers to easily find some new writers to read and enjoy.  This particular project represents some great new thinking about ways that digital technology can create new opportunities for publishers to interact with readers.  But Dzanc’s nonprofit model, and ability to foster new projects across a broad range of literary activities, and to almost amoeba-like, absorb new energy and ideas into its structure is a powerful organizational model that may offer hopeful lessons for literary writing across the country.  Another corollary may be McSweeney’s, which has a similar umbrella approach to innovative and energetic literary projects.

I talked to Matt Bell, who is not only Editor for Dzanc Books, The Collagist and of Dzanc’s Best of the Web anthology series, but is himself a very interesting writer, author of How They Were Found, and three chapbooks and a number of magazines and anthologies. His book reviews and critical essays have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, American Book Review, and The Quarterly Conversation.  We discussed the plethora of Dzanc activities, their overall business model, and in particular their digital publishing program, all of which I think is valuable for anyone thinking about how publishing and writing are evolving into a new and vibrant future.

Harry Hamlin: Full Frontal Nudity

March 13, 2011 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

978-1439169995 –  Hardcover – Scribner – $24.00 (e-book edition available)

Harry Hamlin’s autobiographical memoir is not what you might expect if you are looking for a traditional “famous actor” tells-all but really tells-very-little story.  Full Frontal Nudity is a completely honest, sometimes hilarious, sometimes sad, sometimes mind-boggling story about Hamlin’s growing up in suburban California and coming of age through two different college experiences and the beginning of his life as a professional actor.

This book is a thorough pleasure to read; Harry is a fine writer, and has a remarkable sense of the accidents and sometimes mysteries that go into making us who we are.   And it’s also true throughout, whether intentional or not, by telling his own story, he becomes part of the larger social fabric of the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s, and thus helps us understand what it was like to be alive during that now famous era of history.  And for those many of us who were also there then, his story will remind us of some of the beauty and dangers we lived through.

The subtitle of this engaging memoir is important too: “The Making of an Accidental Actor.” Hamlin is clear that who he is today and how he got there represent the sum of a long series of accidents and choices with unintended consequences.  As the book opens, we discover that Harry has an arrest record from 40 years ago that has suddenly prevented him from traveling to Canada, where he actually now lives part of each year.

How this happened is a great story, but what I liked most about it was the way that Harry told it on himself, unafraid to bare the truth about his life.  I know that really good actors must learn how to do this, but they’re usually acting someone else’s drama, and thus are always protected on some level.  There’s no hiding here, and it’s a refreshing turn.  Hamlin is an actor, and a good one

Hamlin grew up in California, in a not quite normal household, and after high school headed for Berkeley at what some would say was just the right time – 1969.  On the way to college, he managed an accidental detour that got him, shall we say, distracted.  Intending to sign up for an architecture major, he found that there were no courses available, and the only ones available were drama, thus he embarked on what would eventually become his career.  His time at Berkeley was suitably exotic, and included the drug possession arrest that later caused him so much trouble with the Canadian immigration folks.  His time at Berkeley came to an untimely and early end because of a fire at the fraternity whose president he had become, and almost by magic, and again accidentally, he headed for Yale, where he flourished.  Then another more or less accidental turn – he gives up a safe job as a PBS production assistant and takes an offer from the American Conservatory Theater, where a role in the play Equus ultimately led him to an outstanding film and TV career (notably LA Law, many others).

Overall Full Frontal Nudity is a terrific and wonderfully enjoyable book, and unsurprisingly, we had a thoroughly interesting and revealing conversation about the book and many of the stories he wrote about.

Mickey Leigh: I Slept with Joey Ramone

January 28, 2011 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

978-1439159750 – paperback – Simon & Schuster – $15.99 (ebook versions available $12.99)

Mickey Leigh grew up in Queens in the 1950s and 1960s as Mitchel Hyman.  His brother was Jeffrey Hyman, more famously known as Joey Ramone, lead singer of the great American punk rock band, The Ramones.  I Slept with Joey Ramone (subtitle: a punk rock family memoir) tells their story from the beginning to the end of Joey’s relatively short life and just a bit farther into the almost present day.  Mickey had some writing help from rock journalist Legs McNeil, and throughout the book, the story is told compellingly in Mickey’s voice and from his perspective.

We start in Queens where the boys grow up somewhat rockily.  Their family situation was never easy, and Mitchel and Jeff were bullied misfits.  Joey had both physical and psychological issues that manifested early in his life. Music became their savior very early, but at the beginning it was Mitchel (Mickey) who was the musician, and it took some time before the very complicated Jeff got together with the band that became the Ramones and found not only his voice, but his new identity.

The Ramones story as told by Mickey Leigh, is pretty incredible, even for fans who know something about the band and were there during the glory days.  The relationships between the various band members were legendarily terrible.  How this band stayed together and made such incredible music is still a mystery.  Mickey was there at the beginning; John Cummings, aka Johnny Ramone, was initially his best friend.  Mickey ended up being the band’s first roadie, while Joey, the quintessential misfit outsider, became the front man singer of what eventually became one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Later Mickey had his own career with a number of bands, as well as being a songwriter too.

The many stories and incidents recounted in this book are never boring, even when the sometime strange and complicated elements of Joey Ramone’s personality begin to repeat themselves over years.  There is a tremendous amount of love here, and some not so nice things as well.  Mickey’s own story is complicated and he has alot to say about alot of the people he worked with, for and sometimes against throughout the years.  Nothing here is ever boring.  It’s sometimes sad and frustrating to know how things were for Joey Ramone and his family, friends and associates, as it was often difficult, confusing and painful for all of them.  Even years later, when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Ramones created an emotionally complicated scene.

Ultimately, Mickey (and doubtless Legs too) has captured beautifully a unique and special part of modern musical history, that is also the story of redemption, which is after all, the real story of rock and roll.  And at the end Joey and Mickey always did make up.  As Mickey tells it, the last time really counted the most. “He pulled me down to him, and he just didn’t let go. I can still feel that hug.”  This is a book well worth reading for anyone interested in New York punk rock.  I had a great time talking to him about the book and his experiences in rock and roll.

Martin Lemelman: Two Cents Plain: My Brooklyn Boyhood

October 31, 2010 by  
Filed under Graphic Novels, WritersCast

978-1608190041 – Bloomsbury – Hardcover – $26.00.

Martin Lemelman grew up in the back of a candy store in Brooklyn, NY.  He has illustrated more than thirty children’s books and his work has appeared in numerous magazines.  Lemelman is now a Professor in the Communication Design Department at Kutztown University and lives in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Martin’s first memoir done in graphic format, with drawings, photographs of personal objects and places, was Mendel’s Daughter, published in 2006.  Told in his mother, Gusta’s voice, the book recounts the story of her life, beginning in pre-war Poland, through her harrowing experience of survival in the Holocaust and displaced persons’ camps, and finally coming to Brooklyn, where she lived with her husband (also a survivor) and two children.

Two Cents Plain is not literally a sequel to Mendel’s Daughter, but it is a continuation of Lemelman’s family storytelling.  Two Cents Plain collects the memories and artifacts of the author’s childhood in Brownsville, a neighborhood of Brooklyn filled with Jews speaking Yiddish and children growing up in a comfortable city neighborhood.  Later in the story, as times change, Martin and his family’s experience in Brooklyn is not so pleasant.  But that’s ultimately the background of the story Lemelman tells.  His real focus is the dynamic story of his parents and how their life experiences in the Holocaust shaped them, and of course shaped their children’s experience as a family in post-War America.

Lemelman’s story is full of struggle, his parents were complicated and sometimes difficult for their children to understand, and life in a candy store was never easy.  But his Brooklyn memories also is also include the joys of egg creams and comic books, malteds and novelty toys, where the neighbors, the deli man, the fish man, and the fruit man, all are brought to vivid life in story and illustration. The changes in the city during the sixties are very personalized for Martin and his family and in the climax of the story, the family must leave their home once again.

I really loved reading and absorbing this book, the combination of Lemelman’s story telling voice and gorgeous illustrations work beautifully to transport the reader into another time and place.  And the author does a fine job of balancing between the sentiment of memory of his childhood with the clarity of the adult rememberer, which is keeps us anchored as the story unfolds.  There are layers of memory, emotion, people and place that are richly evoked in this book.

In our interview, I wanted to explore with Martin not only the story of his life and his parents gripping and sometimes painful experiences, but the period of the fifties and sixties and how he used the graphic memoir form to reflect and amplify the power of his story.  This is a unique and wonderful book whose creator is quite cogent about his work.  Martin has put together a very interesting and useful website for the book that is worth visiting (most useful after you have read the book, I think).  I am looking forward to reading the next book in this series of memory stories.

David M. Carroll: Following the Water

February 7, 2010 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction

followingthewater1978-0547069647 – Hardcover – Harcourt Houghton Mifflin – $24.00

David M. Carroll has been “following the water” for almost his entire life.  He grew up in Connecticut, then lived in Massachusetts, and moved to New Hampshire to find places less disturbed by humans, where he could study turtles and their woodland, waterine habitats.  Which he has done now for many years.  Following the Water is subtitled “A Hydromancer’s Notebook; a hydromancer would be one who divines by the motions or appearance of water, which is certainly descriptive of what David Carroll does in his life and in this book, a poetic journal of a year of divining the natural world by close observation of it.

Most of us spend far too little time in nature, and many of those who do “use” the natural world for entertainment or work in a way that would be difficult to distinguish from how they treat the non-natural world.  What is so beautiful about Carroll’s work and his writing about it, is the depth of his observation, and his literal being in place.  Reading his elegiac descriptions of the watery environments of New England transported me to an almost metaphysical trance-like state of mind where I could imagine myself inhabiting the outside space in which he spends so much of his time.

Of course there is a terrible sadness in this book, as Carroll experiences the changes in the places he has known so well and so long, always brought on by the effects of constantly encroaching human development.  He knows the turtles and their environments will soon be threatened and knows there is almost nothing that can be done to protect them.  This is a feeling that many who work in and strive to protect our remaining wild places share, an ever present sense of desperation, as we near the tipping point of urban and suburbanization.

Carroll writes beautifully, and his drawings are exquisite.  Reading this book made me wonder how I had managed to miss reading his earlier books, and has spurred me to go out and get them all.  Here’s a perfect example of the quiet power of his prose:

“As daylight diminishes, the peep-frog chorus intensifies in the backwaters of a fen a quarter mile away. With raucous clamor and a rushing wind of wings beats a flurry of grackles lifts off from the topmost canopy of the red maple swamp. In the quieting that follows, I hear again the drift of evensong from their red-winged cousins on the far side of the wetland mosaic. The season, like the water glimmering all around, extends before me.”

David Carroll is as enjoyable to hear talking as his writing is to read.  Interviewing him was a pleasure, tinged with a shared sense of dismay about what has happened to our shared New England natural environment.  Both this book and this talk are among my favorites, and I hope listeners will agree.

Alice Eve Cohen – What I Thought I Knew: A Memoir

August 10, 2009 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction

51t2hdnv1kl_sl500_aa240_978-0670020959 – Hardcover

Viking – $24.95

Alice Eve Cohen’s memoir tells an incredible story – a writer and playwright, she was diagnosed as infertile in her thirties, she adopted a daughter with her then-husband (whom she later divorced).  At 44 she began to experience strange physical symptoms – after six months of suffering she was finally recognized as being pregnant.  In many ways that was only the beginning of her story – which is an incredible, honest, sometimes funny but as often a painful journey of discovery.

I generally am not that interested in the modern memoir – most people’s stories are just not that interesting.  But I was attracted to Alice’s story right away, partly because of my own experience with DES and its damages to the children whose mothers took that fertility drug.  Alice’s persona shines through her story.  She is vivid and clear about everything that happened to her and how she felt at the time, and later, and she pulls no punches, including her own foibles, fears, and weaknesses throughout.

Overall What I Thought I Knew is a wonderful book that holds our attention throughout.  It’s transformative for the author and for the reader.  In my interview with Alice Eve Cohen, we talked in detail about the book and her experiences then and now (the events took place several years ago).  She’s not only a wonderful writer but a great interview subject as well.

Lev Raphael – My Germany: A Jewish Writer Returns to the World his Parents Escaped

July 19, 2009 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction

cover_mygermany_150978-0299231507 – Hardcover

University of Wisconsin Press  $26.95

Lev Raphael grew up loathing everything German. A son of Holocaust survivors, haunted by his parents’ suffering and traumatic losses under Nazi rule, he was certain that Germany was one place in the world he would never visit. Those feelings shaped his Jewish and gay identity, his life, and his career.  In “My Germany.” Raphael explores many layers of his personal life, including his visits to Germany, his complex relationships with his parents and his inner self.  My interview with this interesting and engaging writer ranges across a variety of subjects, including the author’s writing methods, a discussion about this new book and his life as a writer, the nature of memoir, memory, and the discovery of self.

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