The Bookmarked series, in case you were wondering, is a new line of books from IG Publishing in which lesser-known authors meditate on the impact that various works of literature by better-known authors have had an impact on their lives. Tackling Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five in the second volume of the series, Curtis Smith takes a cue from the subject of his investigation and offers what might best be termed an “unstuck in time” reading of the novel. Bouncing from point to point and theme to theme throughout Vonnegut’s novel gives Smith the opportunity to touche on a wide range of topics, including (but not limited to) Ayn Rand, Genghis Khan, SpongeBob SquarePants, PTSD, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and the ancient Stoic theory of Ekpyrosis, which holds that the universe is destined to be consumed in flames only to recreate itself from the ashes. Yet even as Smith’s musings careen from one topic to the next, he never loses sight of the thread that holds them all together. Indeed, if the central question of Vonnegut’s novel was how to write about a massacre, the central question of Smith’s extended essay is how to write about a book about a massacre. The big difference, of course, is that where Vonnegut could only conclude that there’s nothing sensible to say about a massacre — nothing, that is, beyond the plaintive Poo-tee-weet? of singing birds — Smith finds that there’s plenty to say not only about Vonnegut’s novel in particular, but also about writing in general, and its place in our efforts to make sense of the chaotic world around us. We are capable of great savagery, it turns out, but our saving grace is that we’re ultimately a kind, compassionate, caring species. So, yes, we are doomed time and again to witness and sadly participate in conflagrations large and small, but we’re also party to the kindness and curiosity that allow for new life to emerge from the destruction we wreak. In this engaging take on Vonnegut’s classic anti-iceberg novel, Smith comes down solidly on the side of humanity, for better and for worse.
If gross-out humor has a tragic cousin, then Lavinia Ludlow is a master of the form.
Her new novel, Single Stroke Seven, begins with the protagonist, Lillith, castrating a drug-crazed former coworker in self-defense and then blasts off into a stratospheric series of riffs on trying, failing, and trying again to follow one’s passion in a world dulled in equal measure by the nine-to-five demands of corporate adulthood and the empty nihilism of prolonged adolescence.
At twenty-seven years old, Lillith is staring the future in the face, and her encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture and music history won’t let her forget that all of the musicians she admires had made their marks by the time they were her age. That they died before turning twenty-eight, moreover, is of little consequence to her since she sees little difference between dying and reaching the milestone of her next birthday.
Adding to the drama is the fact that Lillith’s main band, Dissonanz, includes three man-children who can’t get their act together long enough to rehearse so much as a single song, let alone get a gig. That they’ve been together for over a decade only adds to her ennui, and even side gigs — like playing for a post-Riot Grrrl punk band fronted by a psychopath who’s sleeping with the man for whom Lillith secretly pines — complicate her life exponentially.
As Lillith struggles to balance her musical aspiration against the real-world need to hold down a job and pay bills, her life increasingly turns to shit — quite often literally. At one point, for example, a porta-potty explodes on the front lawn of the dilapidated home she rents with her band mates. Throughout the rest of the novel, other forms of excrement, bodily fluids, and organic matter splatter across every surface imaginable, so much so that I’m comfortable reporting that Chuck Palahniuk has nothing on Lavinia Ludlow.
Yet for all of its — grit, for lack of a better word — Single Stroke Seven is a novel with heart. The title refers to a basic drum pattern, but it’s also a metaphor for everything Lillith is searching for. Teaching percussion to earn extra money, she transcribes the pattern onto a sheet of manuscript paper for a young student who responds to the image with pleasure. “I like this one,” he says. “They’re all holding onto each other so no one’s lonely.”
Ultimately, this is what Single Stroke Seven is all about — searching for meaning in a soul-sucking world and hanging onto friends (even if they’re losers) because the alternative is unbearable.
Publisher: Chicago Center for Literature and Photography
Bonus content: Q&A with author Leland Cheuk
The title of Cheuk’s new book, and many chapters within, contain the word “misadventures,” but I’m confident I could run a “find and replace all” of that word with the phrase “fuck ups” and no one would be the wiser. The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong is a Chinese American’s tale of trying and failing to remove himself from the fate of becoming another man in his family with nothing but a life full of “misadventures.”
Sulliver narrates the bulk of his story from a prison cell in Bordirtown, a desolate Anytown, USA that reeks of cow patties and chemical pollutants, and was christened its phonetic name by an illiterate great grand uncle. Serving 18 months on a 4 year sentence, Sulliver documents his story in a manuscript that he hopes will lead to his release. In his cell with rats and uncouth cellmates, he defends his innocence by recounting not only his own “misadventures” but those of all his male predecessors made up of every variety of loser, criminal, and sociopath from murderers, pimps, drug dealers, wife beaters, and politicians. Among them, the occasional ordinary citizen like a pastor or hard working husband, but these are rare, as if being a normal functioning human being is a genetic mutation or a gene that skipped not one, but every two generations.
What Sulliver wants us to believe (or perhaps he’s trying to keep himself convinced) is that he tried his hardest not to become another link on a dysfunctional family chain—he left as soon as he could, moved to Copenhagen, and married outside the Bordirtown community. However, a few years back, he was beckoned home to care for his mother, and with nothing better to do than mooch off the “sweet, sweet Danish” unemployment, he returned to Bordirtown only to find himself snarled in a toxic suckhole of family drama. He carpet-bagging-ly ran for town mayor against his father out of pure spite, a hilarious satire on politics since father and son Pong are not only least qualified and terrible at managing their own lives, but both believed that battling each other for public office would miraculously result in a positive outcome for everyone, including the townspeople and spouses caught in the middle.
From the beginning, Cheuk brilliantly illustrates unyielding familial and marital tensions. Sulliver is not only torn between his wife and his duties as a son, but also the life he started in Copenhagen and the mess he left behind in his childhood home. Subtle bitterness bubbles from every interaction and confrontation, and the dialogue is laden with passive-aggressive undertones, and the novel itself ceaselessly maintains the tension and conflict (simply because these people are so hopeless). From an outside perspective, the answers to the Pong family problems are obvious: someone needs to do more than just move to another country to break the cycle of dysfunction. Someone’s gotta kill someone, breed outside the bloodlines, get divorced, or find a life coach, but naturally, these people aren’t going to miraculously get their shit together, save themselves, and then go on to save the world. Quoting Sulliver’s public defender, “you come from generations of idiots and jerks,” and there’s no way the Pongs are going to change overnight without drastic intervention, and this is precisely what maintains the novel’s unbreakable connection to the major dramatic question. This powerful literary tool becomes a perfect Petri dish for the multiplying family dramas.
Cheuk also leverages the human power of denial, especially when it comes to Sulliver who staunchly believes that he’s always chosen the higher path and has done everything to prevent himself from becoming another “degenerate” (his word, not mine). The evident disconnect between his observations and reality is uncanny and the only thing he manages to perfect is the art of whining about how his life never works out because a series of unfortunate events. In reality, he rarely makes any selfless or good decisions unless forced into a corner, and although he may believe that his life’s just been a tidal wave of bad luck, he drains his wife’s inheritance money to fund his campaign for mayor and he has his cell mate killed because of a few annoying habits. This is not bad luck; this is being a total asshole.
However, this schmuck can’t be totally blamed for the way he turned out, after all, he grew up watching his father and mother act like that raging high school couple we all know, the king and queen of drama who just needed to break up to save everyone the headache. Classically codependent, this husband and wife are a train wreck that derailed into a minefield, and both refuse to divorce each other. His father refuses because he doesn’t want it to tarnish his political image and his mother refuses because she doesn’t want to have to “find a job.” As individuals, they’re self-serving and abrasively obnoxious. The mother character has a bottomless barrel of harping in her reserves with a keen ability to hurl insults at the drop of a hat. The father, Saul, is definitely a piece of work and seemingly worse than all Pongs that preceded him, even his illiterate brothel-owning prostitute-murdering uncle. There’s the small stuff like making his secretary ask his own son to answer a series of security questions before wiring him through, but add in his hobbies of fathering families all over the globe like an international man of polygamist mystery, brothel-owning, wife-beating, and scheming, and he makes for one fantastical character. His own father once referred to him as a demon child, who at age five, “was bilking neighborhood girls out of their money by selling piss and water as lemonade.”
Occasionally, the narration is disorienting—it’s one thing to narrate the past from the present, but Sulliver bounces to and from stories of past Pongs, from great-great-uncles to great grand fathers. He also rambles to himself in a “but what? What was I planning to do?” sense and injects random details that don’t add much value. And the quantity of Pongs in this story who were made out to be low-class, violent, racist, and dishonest clowns all tied up in antisocial behaviors be it drugs, pimping, scamming, philandering, and/or wife beating is uncanny. After reading through countless generations of the Pongs’ “misadventures,” it is difficult to like anyone, even in a “like to hate” sense. At times, the never-ending stream of fuck ups was miserable to endure, and read like a bad cocaine crash while walking uphill in a torrential downpour of acid rain.
There are a few uplifting moments such as father saying to son (Saul saying to Sulliver), “Learn only the good things from me, not my bad,” and quieter passages where beautifully sad details twinkle through the grit like a silver dollar in gutter muck. In a flashback of Sulliver’s great granduncle, Pariss, an illiterate brothel owner who beats and murders the prostitutes, we learn that he grew up watching his mother sell herself and take beatings from her clients, and how, as an adult, he only felt a connection with someone when his fist connected with their flesh. Moments like these remind us that the men in this family are still human, and perhaps better influences and upbringings might have spared them a lifetime of “misadventures.” These redeeming moments are rare though, and most of the time, everyone is acting like a total jackass and dragging down the innocent.
All in all, Leland Cheuk’s new novel is a fast-paced and detail-laden read about a family still struggling to make a positive impact on the world. Painfully dark but darkly humorous, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong is a dysfunctional tale about one man’s fight to conquer his personal demons and pursue his own version of the American Dream.
Q&A with Leland Cheuk
Lavinia: You dove into the history of the Pong family bloodline, back into the 1800s. What research did you do to make the scenes and predicaments historically accurate?
Leland: I didn’t go much further than Google. At first, the book was just Sulliver’s story, but my agent at the time asked me to add the stories of the ancestors, and he made it sound like he was ordering extra onions with his burger. No big deal, right? In the end, I was really happy he did, because it added depth to the book and it was a challenge to write what was essentially comedic historical fiction. There were characters that I personally loved, specifically slow, but good-hearted Millmore and Robinson the frustrated artist. Because Sulliver’s story was already written and the characters were all going to have a sliver of Sulliver and his father in them, my research was basically fill-in-the-blank. What did the characters wear back then? What did they do for work? What were the family units like? All that stuff is readily available online if you look for it.
Lavinia: Which character do you identify most with, and why?
Leland: It would have to be Sulliver. I started this book in the mid-oughts, so I was in my late-twenties, and my parents had just had this huge blow-up. My mom caught my dad with another woman–Cheaters-style. She trailed him with a car and everything. She was calling me all the time, emotionally wrecked, giving me the play-by-play like I was her best girlfriend. Eventually, I got my mom a divorce lawyer in San Francisco, and I was sitting there between them in the lawyer’s office. I was divorcing my parents. It was terrible for everyone involved. But my mom never pulled the trigger. She chose unhappiness in exchange for stability. The thing I’ve never understood: why was she so wrecked then? I remember my parents fighting about my father’s philandering way back when I was in grade-school.
Anyway, the whole experience led me to question whether I was infected with the worst traits of my parents, despite consciously making choices that were the polar opposites of all of the choices my parents made.
Lavinia: Sulliver ditched his home of Bordirtown for Copenhagen. Why this city and not another? Is there a significance or symbolism?
Leland: I studied abroad for six months in Copenhagen in 1997. I was at undergraduate business school at UC Berkeley (thanks to my caving to parental pressure) and hated it. I was going through a lot of angst and needed a break. It was the first time I was away from the Bay Area for an extended period of time. My parents couldn’t even call me easily. Copenhagen was where I came of age. I learned some Danish, visited Christiania on a daily basis, met people from all over the world who were different from me (certainly different from the type of people who go to business school at UC Berkeley), and I traveled all over Europe. I got into Danish film (that was the heyday of Dogme 95). There’s a terrific film entitled Inheritance, directed by Per Fly, starring Ulrich Thomsen, and the broad plot strokes are essentially Sulliver’s story. A prodigal son and successful restaurateur is happily married in Stockholm, but when his father commits suicide, he’s ordered back home to Denmark by his mother to be CEO of his family’s struggling steel corporation. Once he returns home, his morals and his marriage slowly disintegrate, and by the end, he’s a drunk, alone in a giant French villa, contemplating whether to rape the housekeeper. I mean, yeah, it goes super-dark.
And of course, Denmark is the setting of the ultimate dysfunctional family drama: Hamlet.
Lavinia: Any real place an inspiration for Bordirtown, the city that reeks of cow patties and chemicals?
Leland: El Paso. I visited a high school friend who was a medical resident there in the mid-oughts. It is indeed a scary border town. For whatever reason, Mexico looks extra scary from El Paso. There were always dark clouds over Juarez and black hills. For a kid who grew up in the pristine Bay Area, El Paso resembled Mars. My brother, who made my awesome book trailer, actually went to El Paso and got footage for me. A lot of his shots were actually images in my head when I wrote the book.
Lavinia: What are you working on now?
Leland: I plan to put out another book with CCLaP in 2017. It’s a story collection entitled Letters From Dinosaurs that has a lot of the pieces I’ve published in journals. For the past five years, I’ve also been working on a novel about the brief and wondrous life of a fictive famous Chinese American standup comedian (think Chinese American Chris Rock). I hope I’ll be ready to shop that this spring.
Leland Cheuk is a writer who lives in Brooklyn and is always working on a novel and a collection of stories. His novel The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong is forthcoming in 2015 (CCLaP Publishing). Cheuk has been awarded fellowships and artist residencies at the MacDowell Colony, I-Park Foundation, and Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts. Cheuk’s writing has also appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, Necessary Fiction, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Lunch Ticket, and Pif Magazine. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University.
Lavinia Ludlow is a musician and writer born and raised in the Bay Area, California. She currently divides her time between San Francisco and London. Her debut novel, alt.punk explores the ragged edge of art, society, and sanity, viciously skewering the politics of rebellion. On March, 1st, 2016, Casperian Books will release her sophomore novel, Single Stroke Seven, a narrative that sheds light on independent artists of a shipwrecked generation coming of age in perilous economic conditions. Her other small press book reviews have appeared in The Collagist, The Nervous Breakdown, Entropy Magazine, and American Book Review.
“Remember, my dear, religion makes murderers of saints.” – excerpt from Ken Wohlrob’s No Tears for Old Scratch
Ken Wohlrob’s writing has matured since Songs of Vagabonds, Misfits, and Sinners. The narrative voice in No Tears for Old Scratch is not only grittier with hard-hitting one liners, but the novel itself is laden with tension and conflict. Quirky is how one might describe his beautiful contemporary narratives with bouts of smart-ass dark humor. He sets each scene by trying to stimulate multiple senses at a time, depicting everything from the the scent and humidity of the atmosphere to the taste and grit in the air. All in all, he has great function in his form:
“A solitary woman sat in 9B…Yellow stains on the tips of her fingernails. Her salt-and-pepper hair was strung up in a wretched concoction that left strands hanging around her face like tentacles. Round glasses covered her eyes as she read an old book, scratching nervously at each page six times before she turned it with a single finger. OCD. A Catholic school graduate, no doubt. They did a hell of a job on this one.”
In No Tears for Old Scratch, we follow Biff, a melodramatic fedora-sporting Briton—with all his mentions of “wankers” and “bloody hells” and “piss offs” and “cunts,” he’s from across the pond—on his (homeless) holiday through Upstate New York. There, he stumbles upon a quaint community of people struggling with the usual stuff: poverty, divorce, and boredom, only they inhabit what they refer to as “the Holiest Town in America.” (The town is home to The Graveyard of the Innocent, which is a “monument to the unborn babies killed by abortions performed on teenage mothers in New York State every day.”)
Wohlrob’s developed the feel of small community well by illustrating a claustrophobic atmosphere where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and people bump into each other at the library by day and strip club by night. Though the dichotomies are sometimes puzzling—Biff is well-spoken and mannered (in most ways), but is a thief, accomplice to abduction and murder (somewhat), and spouts existential ramblings and antagonizing insults—they work well for the storyline. While referring to someone as “madam,” he might rattle off a slew of offenses:
“Your child was trying to reorganize the very molecules of my seat by beating them into a pulp with his sneakers, I’d assumed that the Neanderthal who had squirted his seed inside you had long since jumped ship and left you a Miss with a pair of bastards.”
The middle section of Biff’s adventures is a tad dry, and there are times when I have no idea what the hell is going on. Random personalities are always coming and going, saying and doing nothing particularly interesting, and he frequently makes random mentions of an old man with rabbit teeth and the lifecycle of earthworms.
In the end though, he ties off most hanging ends, and stepping back, we see that Biff is a vagabond who blows into town looking for absolution in this small community, but disrupts the balance with his sociopathic demeanor, and ultimately gets what’s coming to him: a violent demise similar to The Lottery (sans the actual lotto), and after being such a haughty dick—accomplice to murder, stealing from a collection plate, punching a priest—I was almost rooting for the angry mob. As he goes down against the pavement, a few of Biff’s words sear in mind:
“I take no issue with the dead. It is the living whom I find so irksome.”
Suitably titled, No Tears for Old Scratch is a great read for this summer.
Told through the eyes of young harpest Silent Sam Stamps, Don’t Start Me Talkin’ is a fanatical tale about the spirit of Delta blues, and what it takes to stay true to the music in a modern society plagued with a short attention span and a lust for mainstream pop.
Together, Brother Ben—the Last Delta Bluesman—and his protégé Silent Sam Stamps climb into an old Caddy Brougham and tour the nation performing songs off their chart-topping album. Hardly a stereotypical tale of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, the duo upholds a strict respect for themselves, each other, and their art. They live modestly, doing coin laundry, sharing hotel rooms to reduce costs, and shrugging off scene temptations, commercial exploitation, and crass audiences who pressure them to perform songs like “Soul Man.”
The story bursts with eccentric and original character. Williams sets his tale in contemporary society where grande coffees and Kinkos exist, “jooks” have high-priced paraphernalia on the walls, and the duo pays their bills with a gold Corporate Amex. Brother Ben, real name Wilton Mabry, tries up uphold his image of “smoking dynamite and drinking TNT” by leaning on a stage dialect and a stage cough, and habitually swigging from a flask. In reality, he’s an articulate health nut who eats well, exercises, maintains an intense vitamin regiment, and keeps his flask brimming with caffeine-free Diet Dr. Pepper.
As the tour wears on, Silent Sam finds himself increasingly conflicted by the style of music he’s performing alongside The Last Delta Bluesman:
“I’m pretty sure the only recording we’d make would be for a commercial. Maybe even under Kent Bollinger’s direction. For the United Negro College Fund, perhaps. Or a fried chicken franchise.”
The quieter of the two—think neutral narrator Nick Carraway-ish—Sam keeps his head to the ground and his mouth shut, and focuses on perfecting his craft, playing with heart, grit, groin, and gut, and searching for the right audience that would truly understand his music. The duo’s fan base often consists of college professors, health-food storeowners, and “all others who graduated but never found reason to leave Missoula, Ithaca or Athens, GA.”
“I look out in the crowd every night and never see just what I’m looking for,” Silent Sam says. “What we’ve got tonight are young, Soloflex types, tanned and dressed in bright colors and eager to toss each other around a dance floor. The blues faithful come to exalt in the presence of an authentic artifact of some quasi-southern, quasi-African past. Tonight’s crowd would make Jimmy Buffet happy… a payphone is getting as rare as black blues fans.”
It’s easy to get lost in Williams’ crisp narrative, and burn through the novel from cover to cover. Details unfold naturally, and I never found myself straining to re-read a sentence, cringing at an awkward passage, or cutting around fat to get to the meat of his message. Take the opening line:
“It’s said that when Robert Johnson arrived in a new town, the first thing he looked for was an ugly woman who owned her own house. That way, Bob could depend upon a place to sleep, food on the table—he’d supply the liquor—and a bed partner likely as starved for affection as he was.”
Williams lays the story to rest with one of the most extraordinary and well-written conclusions. Never cliché or predictable, we come to learn how powerful and unbreakable the bond is between the two bluesmen, and how it perseveres in the face of tour stressors, musical infidelity, and even retirement. The curtain will rise again for Silent Sam Stamps and Brother Ben in one form or another, and together, they’ll fight to keep Delta blues alive and authentic in an ever-changing contemporary society.
Released in February of 2014, this title is available for purchase over at Curbside Splendor.
In Ben Tanzer’s novella, Orphans, the world is a violent dystopia beyond salvation. Natural resources have dissolved, homeless encampments flood the shores, and the planet is an industrial wasteland. Laborers are no longer essential to the workforce–they’ve been replaced by hot and sassy robots that can even satisfy one sexually, think the embodiment of Samantha from Spike Jonze’ “Her.” Human clones known as “Terraxes” tend to household duties when the breadwinners leave on business. “The Corporation,” a merciless version of “the man,” has eyes on everyone, and if civilians loiter too long on the sidewalk to beg for a job or protest government fascism, helicopters gun them down like enemy soldiers trying to cross no man’s land.
In the old city of Chicago renamed Sector Six, Norrin Radd embarks on the hopeless and self-defeating search for financial security, identity, and the ever-elusive American Dream. With a wife and son to support, he mans up and takes a job with Joyful Future Real Estate as a salesman who dupes the rich “1-percenters” into relocating to a planet with questionable potential and an unknown future.
Tanzer sets the mood well for his flawed protagonist, Norrin. He is haunted by mysterious traumas of his childhood–as a kid, he saw his father “snatched” by “The Corporation” and found his mother dead after she allegedly committed suicide. He’s treading through an economic recession–“I am tired of sitting down at the kitchen table every night and talking about which bill should be paid this week, and how that will be possible when there is no money,” and trying to stay alive in a merciless civilization that guns down civilians in cold blood and creates human clones for temp work and organs.
Like most of Tanzer’s work, chapters are fast-paced, succinct, and contain no fat, dead ends, or draggy dialogue. Background details unfold naturally through flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness inner monologue, and paint a vivid image of Norrin’s internal struggles:
“I should know what to say, loving someone means knowing what to say, or at least knowing how to fix something after you’ve broken it…Instead I am about to break something and I know it, but feel powerless to prevent it…because it’s easier to leave when you’ve fucked things up…I hate myself and my inability to express my fears to her, and this self-hatred quickly mutates into rage, and the rage needs an outlet, and she looks up at me, so sad and vulnerable, which makes me hate her more, and I suddenly want to punch her in her beautiful face, break it and break her…”
For the most part, Tanzer respects the sci-fi element by not overdosing on the bizarre. He writes about conflicts and struggles consistent with those that many deal with today: unemployment, poverty, marital strain, soul-sucking jobs, and personality disorders induced by early traumas. Tanzer also recognizes the social implications of introducing advanced technologies into a culture hardly mature enough for radical change, such as the distress and heartbreak that Norrin feels when he sees a Terrax acting as the husband and father figure in his own household. At times though, the story’s naming conventions come off as senseless and unintelligible. Titles like the “Joyful Future Real Estate” and the “Happiness Sector” make me question why a sophisticated society with commercial space travel and “Terraxes” would elect such asinine titles for its businesses and districts. If Tanzer was trying to mock society’s fall from grace, the inconsistent attempt falls flat.
Scene transitions are often disorienting (but unavoidable with flash-like chapters), and the ending feels like an anecdotal obligation jammed in a single wide-margin page. The stunted closing does no justice to the overall story given the futuristic setting and Norrin’s emotional state of mind, which Tanzer did such a phenomenal job developing throughout the novel.
All in all, Orphans is an imaginative and sobering tale of one man’s final attempt to rise above his inner demons, an economic collapse, and a floundering society. Highly recommended.
Check it out over at Switchgrass Books.
Last month I brought news of Small Press Roulette, a new service designed by Karen Lillis to add the element of chance to the business of connecting readers with small press books and journals. Personally, I love the idea. Confronted with the wide range of indie offerings that the 21st-century publishing world has to offer, it’s almost impossible to decide what to read next. Sure, it’s a bit of a gamble, but playing Small Press Roulette means I don’t have choose, which is a big deal for me because I’m the poster-child for indecision. Curious about Small Press Roulette, I placed an order (reviews to come!) and emailed Karen with a few questions…
How would you describe Small Press Pittsburgh?
Small Press Pittsburgh is an evolving small press showcase. It’s a bookstore that started out as a web resource. Right now it is four things: a pop-up street bookstand (in Pittsburgh) selling indie press books, zines, and journals; a curated bookstore service (“Small Press Roulette”) for small press readers everywhere; a web directory for literary Pittsburgh; and a Facebook page for Pittsburgh literary announcements.
The bookstand has a heavy emphasis on Pittsburgh authors and publishers, and browsers so far have been most excited by discovering Pittsburgh authors. With the bookstand, I’m interested in bringing the larger indie lit world to Pittsburgh, while also making Pittsburgh’s emerging authors (and publishers) better known to Pittsburgh readers (especially outside the lit scene). With the bookselling service, Small Press Roulette, I want to introduce the best of the underground small press to readers who aren’t over-familiar with the authors I’m sending them. There are more great writers than the ones who are getting all the hype. Or, sometimes a writer is getting the hype, but not in a wide enough area—they’re some city’s local celebrity while remaining a national secret.
The mission of Small Press Pittsburgh (in any form) has always been to promote small and micro- presses and make them more visible—easier to find for anyone who’s looking. It started with the web directory, creating listings for all the indie publishers of Pittsburgh. Now I guess I’m getting impatient—it’s not enough to passively promote. Now I’m willing to stand on the street with all those indie publishers’ books and talk to people until they buy one. “We’ve got fiction! We’ve got poetry! We’ve got graphic novels! What’s your poison?” I’m like a carnival barker once I smell a passerby who’s genuinely curious about the books.
Small Press Pittsburgh has also been interested in cross-fertilization from the start. One big aim of the website is to help writers and publishers from outside Pittsburgh who are planning book tours and readings—I want to demystify Pittsburgh’s reading venues and bookstores in order to bring outside readers here. Now I get to cross-fertilize readers and writers through the bookstand and the roulette bookselling. I get to sell Baltimore zines to New Orleans, Pittsburgh memoirs to New Jersey, Pittsburgh graphic novels to San Diego, and San Francisco fiction to Pittsburgh. And so on.
How long has it been in operation?
The website started in 2008, and expanded a few times. The Facebook announcement page has been around for a couple of years. The pop-up bookstand started in early July 2013, and Small Press Roulette began in late July 2013.
What gave you the idea to do it?
The website came about because I came to Pittsburgh and saw a small but vibrant, dedicated but balkanized literary scene. It seemed like the academics kept their distance from the underground writers, and the “literary” writers didn’t always associate with the zinesters or the slam poets. I was in library school when I created the website for a cataloging class. Thinking as a librarian, I wanted to show what a healthy literary scene Pittsburgh had by democratizing each facet. To a librarian, each of those literary scenes is equal. Whereas the people inside the scenes can be blinded by concerns of the ego: Worrying whether their scene has enough clout or convinced that their scene is so much better than the others. As an outsider, I thought it would create a point of strength just to show how much was going on in Pittsburgh, to record it all in one place.
Evolving into the pop-up bookstand happened much more recently. I was inspired by a few different sources. I was following Mellow Pages Library really closely, a new small press library in Brooklyn. And I kept organizing Pittsburgh’s small presses to give me copies of their books, and I’d send them as library donations en masse. I’d label the packages “from Small Press Pittsburgh.” Next the Polish Hill Arts Fest was coming up, a street fair here where I had tabled as an author the previous year. The organizers were asking me to come back, but I wasn’t convinced it was worth it to sit there with my own novels. One of the organizers, Laura Zurowksi, knew about the packages I’d been sending to Mellow Pages. She suggested I could do the same thing—get books together from local publishers and showcase everyone’s, not just my own. I loved the idea, it made me excited about tabling again.
I think sometime after hearing about The Newsstand in Brooklyn, I bought a book/magazine rack, supposedly to augment table space at the arts fest. But as soon as I bought it I felt like I could sell books anywhere. Since then I’ve been popping up at events like gallery crawls—my next event is the grand opening of a library.
What are some challenges you face with the SPP bookstand?
Rain, wind, gravity. Every outdoor event has been under threat of severe thunderstorms. The first time we set up the bookstand, a good gust of wind came through and blew almost every book off the stand and onto the sidewalk. We clipped a trash bag to the back of the stand, which helped that dilemma. The physics of the bookstand itself is something I’m still working out—the “shelves” are very shallow, which is good for face-outs, but it’s easy for a book to start a domino effect. One book leans forward at the wrong angle, and in a few seconds, twenty books have fallen off. This is tedious because the books start to get damaged if they fall two or three times. Not terribly so, but visibly. It reminds me of another challenge—when the books are threatened by damage from falling or rain, it makes me see a very-low overhead operation (a lot of consignment books) as hundreds of dollars of stock I’m suddenly responsible for. Which is fine, as long as I adjust my thinking.
What do you enjoy about it?
I love connecting people to books. Readers love discovering new books, so I love watching people get curious, start to browse. I try to gauge how much book talk they do or don’t want. Some people want to be talked into a book, others feel like that’s condescending. Often it’s more like conversation between book lovers—”I loved X book for Y reason, you should check it out.” Other times it’s just describing the basics so it piques interest without sounding like arm-twisting. “This is a true crime novel about a group of misfits working on an underground newspaper.”
Part of the enjoyable work is behind the scenes—curating a selection of books I know are great reads, or interesting small press items. I want books I can stand up for, and book design that’s bold and eye-catching, books that feel good in your hand. There’s books that are good reads but that have terrible design—they’re too POD, they have terrible font or colors, or they’re way too stuffy looking. Some books have a cover so dull it screams, “I CAN BE SOLD AT A READING OF SYMPATHETIC PEOPLE BUT NOWHERE ELSE.” I don’t always have time to convince people what’s between the covers. There’s a brief window where my potential customers might stay interested in my bookstand or might keep walking on to wherever they were actually headed. I want books whose design suggests in a glance how urgent and interesting the content is. I want books whose design is half the sell.
What gave you the idea for Small Press Roulette?
The Polish Hill Arts Fest was a big event for the bookstand, and I had gathered a lot of books for it. There was a lot of anticipation. I was checking the weather, which was calling for 0% chance of rain—I kept checking all week and that’s what it said, over and over, “0% chance of rain.” We ended up having five excellent hours of selling books—our area was always busy with browsers—and then a deluge came out of nowhere. Hard rain for over an hour. The stands weren’t quite all the way under a tent, and I had overstock sitting on a lawn….It was very stressful getting the books put away quickly and unharmed, and it was really disappointing to be cut off from the best day yet for the bookstand.
The next morning I took the momentum of all the browsers and invented Small Press Roulette. I wanted a rain-proof way for people to have access to the books. But at the same time, I’m not interested in promoting the books individually on the internet. Why are readers going to enjoy my jpeg book cover over Amazon’s jpeg book cover, over Powell’s jpeg book cover? Internet book sales is a cutthroat game. People want the lowest price, or they want their go-to bookstore, or they want to buy direct from the author or the publisher. One bookseller can knock themselves out hyping a book online and the customer will still go to Amazon or Ebay looking for a lower price. I can’t compete with those things. But I knew I could try to harness the excitement that far-flung readers had expressed when the news first came out about the Small Press Pittsburgh bookstand. I think that the Kickstarter phenomenon has shown us that people want to support ideas they’re excited about, and the people behind those ideas. And publishers Richard Nash of Cursor/Red Lemonade and Matthew Stadler of Publication Studio have both talked about giving customers a chance to support the author or publisher at different price points or different levels of involvement. Readers want to be involved with the writer, but different readers will have different financial capacities. Some people want to be involved for $2 and others want to be involved for much more. Right now Small Press Roulette goes between $2 and $15, but I’m planning to expand it. I already had an order from a bookstore for $75.
What makes it fun?
Connecting people to books I think they would genuinely like thrills me. I sometimes do a lot of research when I get an order. In a way, it means I’m working as a Small Press Librarian for the first time. A lot of people think I am a working librarian because of the title of my blog, but library jobs are scarce in this economy. I’m trying to invent the small press library job I’m built for. This is like Reader’s Advisory meets bookselling.
Helping writers and books I believe in find readers who devour them is another thrill. I hate watching talented writers work hard to languish in obscurity.
Links of interest:
Twenty Four Hours Zine blog interview about the Small Press Pittsurgh bookstand: http://twentyfourhourszine.blogspot.com/2013/07/small-press-go-go-talking-with-karen.html
Gigantic Sequins interview about the Small Press Pittsburgh bookstand:
Karen the Small Press Librarian blog:
Small Press Pittsburgh website:
Small Press Roulette: