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Saturday, February 1, 2014

#63 Joshua Mohr

20 Questions with Mourning Goats
Joshua Mohr

When someone as badass as Gina Frangello says, "By the way, why haven't you ever interviewed Josh Mohr? What are you waiting for -- he's perfect for your series." you don't ask questions, you just do it, and I'm pumped that I did! Check out Joshua's interview below and then go pick up his newest novel, Fight Song!

1. What comes to mind when you hear, "Mourning Goats?"  

That makes me think of weeping barnyard animals in their most conspicuous funeral attire, veils, flasks, the whole macabre enchilada.

2. Sell your new book, Fight Song, in one sentence. 

FIGHT SONG is a retelling of The Wizard of Oz, set in a 21st century American suburb, and my Dorothy is a sad sack computer programmer named Bob Coffen, who's not making super bueno life choices...

3. You were the surprise guest at a pretty big event at The Lost Church on January 22nd, can you tell us a little bit about that?  

It was really fun!  I read a new essay and good times were had by all.  

4. Big fan of your tattoos, when was your first and why did you get it? 

I tried to get my first tattoo when I was seventeen but the shop refused my fake ID.  The owner liked my enthusiasm and offered to give me a discount on my 18th birthday.  I've been hooked ever since.

5. Do you have a writing schedule? What's it look like? 

I had a writing schedule, but my wife and I had a daughter, Ava, in June.  So any semblance of predictable daily life has been dismantled.  I write in stolen moments.  I write in the laundromat.  On subways and buses.  I also have an office down at the SF Writers Grotto and sneak down there whenever I can.

6. You had a pretty badass tour for Fight Song, are you a fan of doing readings? 

I love readings.  Being an author requires you to spend so many hours alone, so getting a chance to travel and share your art with other nerds is a dream.

7. What's it like being married to another novelist? Are you each others first readers?  

We are.  I think it's great, though you'd have to ask Lelo if she digs it.  We can geek out and talk about really nuanced stuff.  I mean, we get how crucial certain discoveries are, whereas a non-writer wouldn't understand how exciting it is to dial in the secondary characterizations in chapter 13.  

8. I heard about you through another MG interviewee, Gina Frangello, how'd you get involved with her, Craig Clevenger, and Rob Roberge in the desert?  

I just go wherever Tod Goldberg tells me to go.  He said, "Come to Palm Desert," and I said, "OK."  

9. How did you get your agent? Did they reach out to you or did you query them? 

I queried ICM.  I like having a mainstream rep, especially because I publish with indie houses.  It's good to have a strong advocate and plus ICM has those pitbull lawyers if things go off the rails.

10. What are your thoughts on MFA's? I see you have yours and teach at the University of San Francisco. 

Graduate programs are fantastic.  It's the place to take a lot of chances on the page and meet a bunch of other heads who dig literature.  The community aspect is something people don't talk about enough: we need to be around other writers, or it's hard to finish our books.  I try and tell my grad students to honor their imaginations.  That's what makes them unique, their idiosyncratic imaginations.  If they play to it, they'll be fine. 

11. Other than writing, what takes up the most of your time (that you enjoy)? 

Ava, my daughter.  I only taught part time in the fall so I could stay home 3 days a week.  It's pretty rad.  We just roll around and drool.

12. The Scout's Honor book trailer is one of my favorite book trailers, ever. How did that come about? Did you write it? 

I did write it.  We wanted to do something ala the promo trailers for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."  Something that is barely related to the novel.  Book trailers usually are just bad advertisements.  I wanted to make something that was its own piece of art.

13. Did I hear that at one point, there was a goat talking to various characters in Fight Song? Did you know this interview was coming?  

Ha.  That goat!  Normally, I have one embarrassing thread in a book that I have to cut out before it's pubbed.  In "Damascus," there was a genie in a whiskey bottle.  Yikes.  Seriously.

14. The first book you ever read was Kurt Vonnegut's, Slaughterhouse Five, do you think that reading that book changed your life? Do you think most writer's have a book like that? 

I hope so.  I hated reading, faked every book report until my senior year in high school, and when that guy put Vonnegut in my hand, my whole life changed.  

15. You just received your 1,000th rating on Goodreads, congratulations! Do you think sites like that are important for an author's success?   

Nah, they're not essential, but like I said earlier, I value community, so I try to make myself available to other people who cherish the written word.

16. What about social media? Is it a necessary evil?  

I don't think it's necessary, and I don't think it's evil.  It's just these things we can either do or not do.  They're resources, but books succeed without them.  Steve Elliott once said that we should market our books with the same integrity with which we wrote them.  That's always stuck with me If you don't like Facebook/Twitter/whatever, then don't do it.  Don't let some marketing asshole talk you into something you're uncomfortable with.

17. It seems as though you embrace insomnia as almost a gift, can you expand on that?  

Well, I don't really have a choice.  I can't sleep.  But I try to use that time to write more.  Most people are calling it a night and I'm still going.  So in a sense, my work day is longer.  My work day is dog years, if that makes any sense.

18. What's the last book you read that knocked you on your ass? 

James Brown's "LA Diaries"

19. Your new book is the first book you're doing some heavy research for, what's making this one different?  

Fortunately/unfortunately, the thread of the new novel that was requiring the research didn't make the cut.  So I'm back to just making stuff up and swigging coffee.

20. What's next for Joshua Mohr?  

I'm just finishing up a new novel called "ALL THIS LIFE."  It's an ensemble story about a mass suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge.  We follow seven or eight people directly or indirectly related to it.  I've had a blast writing it and I hope my enthusiasm rushes off the page!  

Thank you! 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

#62 Gina Frangello

20 Questions with Mourning Goats
Gina Frangello

Gina is a brilliant workaholic who has more creds under her belt than a normal person should be able to achieve. And, she made me ridiculously jealous when she told me about her UCR-Palm Desert Residency with Craig Clevenger, Stephen Graham Jones, and Rob Roberge. Check out the interview below, and then pre-order her new book, A Life in Men

1. What comes to mind when you hear, "Mourning Goats?”

Probably Heidi.  I associate goats with Heidi’s little quasi-boyfriend, Peter.  Also, a goat ate half my skirt once, while I was wearing the skirt.  So maybe nudity.  This feels like a Rorschach test where the answer is sure to reveal that I’m deranged... 

2. A Life in Men, due out in February 14', sell it in a sentence. 

Uh.  If you’re obsessed with sex, travel and mortality, this is definitely a novel for you?

3. Mother of 3, wife, teacher at Columbia and Northwestern, editor and co-founder at Other Voices Books, editor at The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown... the list goes on and on, where do you find time for anything? Let alone writing a book? 

I don’t sleep much.  That’s the real answer.  But about a year ago, I realized my schedule was untenable and that I needed to unload…I don’t teach at either Northwestern or Columbia College anymore, and in September I stepped down from Other Voices Books…the idea was to focus on my online editing at The Rumpus and TNB, my writing, and my family.  But then this summer I was offered my longtime dream job of joining the MFA faculty at UC-Riverside Palm Desert—my former author, Tod Goldberg’s, program, where I’ve been a regular guest for several years—so pretty much everything I unloaded has now been consumed by that new gig, which I love.  It’s funny because my husband had told me it would take me all of five minutes to replace the things I was letting go with new things that would keep the chaos in my life at a constant breakneck level, and indeed, he was right—actually, I took the UCR job even before I left Other Voices Books, so the chaos was already assured. I have to admit that I must like it that way.

4. You recently met with two women from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation about finding a way to contribute to the lives of people living with the same disease as the protagonist of your book, A Life in Men? What came of it? 

It’s been really cool so far, and is still unfolding.  Mainly, we’re trying to strategize as to how to get A Life in Men into the hands of anyone with CF who wants it, without their having to buy it.  We’re trying to figure out ways to approach that without the CFF actually “endorsing" the book, which is tricky with such a large organization that serves all ages and kinds of people.  But they’re helping me with outreach and awareness, because ideally I would like to give back to the cystic fibrosis community as much as possible.  I donated ten percent of my advance to the organization too, but I’d love to get involved on a more direct and personal level if possible, with individual people.

5. You just had the pleasure of hanging out with 3 other Mourning Goats Interviewees (Craig Clevenger, Stephen Graham Jones, and Rob Roberge) at the UCR-Palm Desert residency, how was it and how did you get involved? 

Well, Rob and Stephen are both on the UCR faculty too—they were both hired well before my more recent hire—so I always see them there when I’m out as a guest, and Rob is also a former Other Voices Books writer (for The Cost of Living) and one of my best friends, and Stephen is a writer on Dzanc Books, which is Other Voices Books’ parent company, so we’re all kind of lit-kin.  But Clevenger I was meeting for the first time, which was awesome because I hear about him all the time from mutual friends.  He actually recognized me at a distance and followed me into the gift shop at the swanky resort where the residency is held, calling my name, so at first I thought he was just a crazy person, and then I realized who he was (in other words, a crazy person I already vicariously knew and loved) so I started hugging him in the shop.  Did you see the photo of the three guys in their spa robes that I took at residency?  You have to include it in this interview!  I’m going to send it to you!  They’re all always being branded as edgy, bad boy, “transgressive” writers, but seriously, there couldn’t be sweeter, funnier people anywhere.  (By the way, haven’t you ever interviewed Josh Mohr?  He was there too!  If you haven’t, what are you waiting for—he’s perfect for your series.  He left residency just in time to avoid being photographed with strawberries on his eyes.)  
Some goats, relaxing in their natural habitat 
(Craig Clevenger, Stephen Graham Jones, and Rob Roberge)

6. As an editor at The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown, what are your responsibilities there? Do you read everything that comes through?

Oh dear god no.  I mean, no one person could possibly read everything that comes through The Rumpus and TNB even if s/he was paid six figures and worked ninety hours a week.  Whereas in reality, both sites are run almost entirely by volunteers who have additional jobs.  Both sites have a lot of different editors with varying duties, to make the situation manageable—and enjoyable--for everyone.  At TNB, I only handle fiction, and my role is mainly curatorial.  I book “featured” authors whose recently released books we spotlight with excerpts and interviews.  I also publish some original short fiction, but not that much due to time constraints.  And I have an amazing, superhuman assistant editor, J. Ryan Stradal, who does a lot of tech and copyediting work that makes it possible for me to manage my time and for us to showcase as many writers as we do.  At The Rumpus, I’m in charge of all Sunday content, basically.  I write the Lit-Link Round-up column for the blog, and I bring on original content, like an essay or a review, from another contributor weekly.  I find the work I publish on The Rumpus mainly via people who already know me from another professional capacity,  have written for The Rumpus previously, or are referred my way.  What’s fun is that the content on Sundays is completely open—I even publish poetry once in awhile, for example.  There, I do all my own uploading, so time management is important because I’m a tech idiot.  If the entire internet ever crashes on a Sunday, it will be my fault somehow.

7. What are your thoughts on writing programs? Is an MFA necessary? Do you recommend it? 

No, of course it’s never been and never will be necessary.  There will always be the exceptional writers who are self-taught, or the many who have mentors and peers who help their work grow outside of the academic system.  An MFA is helpful in several ways, the primary ones probably being structured time to devote to writing, a structured audience to read and critique said writing, and deadlines that help a developing writer learn discipline.  Some MFAs, like UCR’s, are also extremely useful for networking with a wide array of published writers and industry professionals--but that varies a great deal among programs.  Not all focus on those more professional aspects of being a working writer, and the philosophies as to whether they should differ widely program to program. All MFA programs, however, give students an opportunity for intense bonding with other developing writers, and with the working writers who are their professors, and for many people—especially those who don’t come from artistic families or live in major metropolitan areas—those experiences can be invaluable and world-changing.  MFAs are also, bluntly, extremely expensive, and clearly they do not always translate directly into earning a living as a writer or a professor, and I consider it my ethical responsibility as a writer and teacher to acknowledge that.  I recommend graduate writing programs very highly for people who go into them for the right reason, which is to learn more about their craft and the literary community within a structured environment of like-minded peers.  If you go to be enriched, you will be enriched, as a writer and a person.   You may or may not get a job or a book deal as a result of a program, so those are not the right reasons to go, period.  Also, for people for whom money is a big issue—as it was for me—there are also programs where you can TA and receive a tuition waiver and even be paid to go to school, or low residencies that allow people to retain their day jobs and keep their lives mainly intact while pursuing their degrees.

8. You have a great social presence, do you think it's necessary these days? Especially for a writer trying to sell a few books? 

Well, this is a really hard question.  I’m a social person in general, and I’m especially happy to spend time among other writers and avid readers, so for me this is a perk of the job not a task or a hoop to jump through.  But I know that not all writers feel this way, either because they’re more introverted or because they don’t live in places with easy access to literary events, or don’t have the job, family, or financial flexibility to do things like touring extensively.  The internet, with things like Facebook, guest blog tours, and the wide array of literary sites, certainly make it possible for someone to have a social presence without having to be someone who goes out all the time or tours a lot.  But of course focusing on social media can also seem like a full-time job to people who don’t enjoy that kind of thing, and even among those of us who love connecting with other literary types, it can prove a distraction from the actual writing.  You can’t sell a book you aren’t producing.  So this is really a mixed bag.  Social presence is, more than anything else, something that should be fun and community building.  Maybe it does help move a few books, sure.  But the people whose books really move—I mean, a Franzen or Egan or something—that isn’t achieved by spending more time on Twitter or adding a couple of cities to your tour.  Even presuming all other things being relatively equal, i.e. that the book is really fucking good, quite a bit of sales success has to do with the marketing engine behind the book: the publisher and the time, organization and money it fuels in for PR, etc.  So it’s really all about keeping expectations realistic.  You should be social because you like it, I think, not because you think it’s going to make you famous.  It’s not going to make you famous.  Only Paris Hilton gets famous for going to parties, and only Anthony Weiner gets famous on Twitter, you know?  Those are…not goals.

9. Do you read every review you receive? Do you think they sell or stop someone from purchasing?

I’ve mainly kept up with my reviews…my husband has a google alert on me so he can see what comes out about my books, and once he knows something is there I find myself curious and usually end up reading it too.  But I’m considering asking him to stop telling me.  I think reading everything people write about you can really only lead to trouble eventually and that I should quit now before I get burned.  

As an editor and book reviewer myself, I very much want to believe that positive press can successfully promote a book and increase sales.  I get euphoric when one of my Other Voices Books authors receives a lot of press.  The truth is though that reviews sometimes move books and sometimes don’t.  There are very few clear formulas in this business.  We all know critically acclaimed titles that fail to sell and books that the media scathingly mocks yet sell off the shelves.  This is a capricious business.  As a publisher, I have always vigorously pursued getting reviews for my writers, and as a writer I’m very grateful when my books are given attention, but I have no expectation that these things lead directly to radically increased sales.  Sadly, I think very negative reviews may halt sales more than very positive reviews prompt sales.  People are always looking more for a reason not to buy something than a reason to buy it.  We all have too much stimuli, too many possibilities, and are looking for ways to weed down.  No one can read every book out there, so if a respected reviewer says to bag it, people may be all too happy to take that advice.  It may take more positive reviews to sell a book than it takes negative reviews to shut down a sale.  Although nothing moves a book like controversy, so there are always exceptions and loopholes, i.e. James Frey and so forth.

10. Why did you start Other Voices Books? What was the hardest part? 

My business partner, Stacy Bierlein, and I launched the press in 2004 out of Other Voices magazine, which had existed since 1984 and which I’d been editing since 1997, mainly to address the fact that trade publishers had moved stridently away from publishing short story collections.  Story writers—even those who had won awards and published in highly reputable magazines--were having an increasingly hard time being read by agents or considered by publishers and were continually being told to "come back when you have a novel.”  Stacy and I knew that as a small boutique indie we couldn’t rectify that industry-wide problem, but we saw that indie presses were more and more the gatekeepers for outstanding books of short fiction and we wanted to be able to offer a couple writers a year an intensive publishing experience in that vein.  The press eventually broadened to include not just collections and anthologies but novels and an international series—and in fairness the corporate publishing industry has also started to embrace collections a bit more again, too, and the indie publishing community has completely exploded since 2004.  

There are no “easy” parts to starting a press but the hardest parts are finding the money to stay alive when your financial cushion is small and one book that fails to generate revenue can potentially bring the whole enterprise down, and also finding a distributor to get your books into the world.  I initially spent so much time trying to deal with these business-level hurdles that it began to feel as though actually editing was a “secondary” part of my job, which was extremely frustrating, and could have made OVB a very short-term endeavor had things continued that way.  It was liaising with Dzanc Books in 2007, and beginning to operate under one financial and distribution umbrella with them, that dramatically changed my ability to focus on acquiring, editing, and promoting my writers, and made the business end of the work tenable for a much longer period of time than it would have been if I’d been spending all my time on grants, fundraising and sales.  At heart, I’m an editor, not an entrepreneur.  Dzanc did amazing things for my ability to prioritize the parts of running a press that I had made me want to launch one in the first place.

11. Of all your books, articles, interviews, is there one that makes you most proud? 

I feel extremely lucky to be able to say that A Life inMen is, in my own opinion, my best book so far.  Still, proud is a weird word, if that makes sense.  I do have a series of essays on The Nervous Breakdown about my father—there are five in total, the most recent being “The Lion and the Mouse” —that I feel a lot of emotional satisfaction in having documented.  I write very little memoir-styled nonfiction, and these were intensely personal and meaningful pieces for me.

12. As an interviewer myself, I'm so jealous of your past interviews, Margaret Atwood, Junot Diaz, Steve Almond, and many others. What do you think the hardest part of interviewing people is? 

Well, the hardest part is sheer terror at having to call Margaret Atwood on the telephone, and then trying not to sound like you’ve been drinking bourbon at 9am because of how terrified you are…

I guess, seriously, the challenge is to be able to ask questions that yield something new, that push and encourage the subject to open up in some way that varies from their other interviews, that goes deeper or in a new direction.  With so much readily available online, why do an interview if it will just sound like something the subject has already done 10 times or 50 times and those pieces are already at the reader’s fingertips for free, out in the world?  I try to make it fresh, and the bigger the name of the person being interviewed is, the harder that can be to achieve, because a whole ton of other people have tried to do the same thing, and there is a lot of material and information that you’re trying not to just regurgitate.

13. Slut Lullabies has to be one of the greatest names of a book, ever. What was it like when you heard The Cult, Chuck Palahniuk's group, made it their book selection for November 2011? 

Oh, it was so so cool!  I was thrilled.  For two reasons, mainly: first, the collection had been out for half a year already, so it was an incredible burst of new interest past the usual “season” of a book.  But even more so, for me, it was exciting because I think it was a very public declaration that the collection wasn’t something only women readers would appreciate.  I think women writers who aren’t yet widely known often face a knee-jerk response regarding…well, male readers assuming that their books are only going to be of interest to women.  If you’re Mary Gaitskill or Francine Prose, and you have a wide literary reputation, you can overcome that gender bias of course, but I think most people in the industry understand that for whatever reason, it is harder to get a male reader to pick up a book by a new woman writer than it is to achieve the reverse.  The Cult was a popular site among male literary readers, and they were able to introduce my book, I think, to a lot of guys who might not have known about it otherwise or realized it was something they would like.  I think every writer appreciates a chance to get outside what might seem the natural “target market” for their work, and that most literary writers, actually, consider the concept of writing for any one demographic to be limiting.  I absolutely consider myself a feminist writer and someone interested in gender politics, but I also strongly resist the notion that somehow that would translate to female readers being my only market.

14. How did you get an agent? Did you reach out or did they come to you? 

I’ve had four literary agents.  I mean, I’m 45 years old, and I got my first agent when I was 31.  The first two, I reached out to; the third reached out to me; and the fourth, my current agent, was already a Facebook friend of mine for a couple of years before I found myself interested in changing agents and basically just FB messaged her really informally.  My first agent, who mainly represented YA novels and cookbooks and things like that, wasn’t a terribly fruitful experience, but the next two—Bill Clegg and Ellen Levine—were both creatively formative and productive relationships for me, each in their own way.  I think it’s important for young writers to realize that their first agent may well not be their agent forever, but that doesn’t mean it’s time wasted.  Big agents like Bill and Ellen became so successful because they are extremely smart, and they have things to impart to their clients beyond just being a broker in a deal.  I mean, I can’t speak to whether agents “get anything” from clients whose work doesn’t sell, and unfortunately I had the opportunity to be That Client for a few agents—but I believe if a writer is paying attention, s/he can always learn things and improve skills by working with a strong agent.  To use a somewhat lame metaphor, it’s not that dissimilar from the way previous dating relationships or job experience is essential to who we become, even if we don’t marry our college boyfriend or keep working at The Latchmere Pub forever…

15. What's your writing process like? Every day? When the idea hits? Do you outline? 

Dude, seriously, sometimes I don’t write for nine months.  I mean, you were just remarking earlier on my insanely busy schedule and all the hats I wear and juggle—if I told you I wrote every single day, you’d think I was an alien with no actual life!  Of course I don’t write every day.  Wow.  My gut reaction is to say “I wish!” but I guess if I really, really wished that, I’d do it.  I’d quit all my other jobs—some of which do not even pay—and just do it.  My other jobs aren’t an “excuse.”  I do them because I love them.  Because I get a very similar rush from bringing other writers’ work out to the world as an editor to the rush I get when my own work comes out—because I believe in a literary community and I want to be a part of it and contribute to it in ways beyond just…me.  Teaching is a great job and I really enjoy it.  Editing, I think, is a core passion in my life that I’m not sure I could entirely and permanently do without any more than doing without my own writing.  I write when I can.  Sometimes that is pretty often.  Sometimes I have a very, very slow year.  Inevitably in any long project, I will hit a kind of obsessive mania where I can’t do anything else and I don’t function that well for awhile, so to be honest I have to be judicious about the really long projects—about novels.  I’m not sure I could live in that state all the time.  Stories and essays spill out faster and leave my system faster.  I outline, yes.  And then I flagrantly disregard everything in my outline, usually.  When I’m following the outline very literally, I know things haven’t clicked yet.  When it clicks, it’s more like taking dictation.  The voices keep talking even when I'm away from the keyboard or a notebook and the only way to keep up would be to wire a stenographer directly into my brain.  Outlines don’t mean much in that stage, and that’s the stage I love.

16. How did you get involved with The Rumpus?  

It was circuitous, like most things.  A mutual friend, Joe Meno, asked me to read with him and Stephen Elliott years ago, when Steve was still touring for The Adderall Diaries.  We had a bunch of friends in common, but I’d never known him when he lived in Chicago.  Then later I interviewed him for TNB, and he liked the interview so he asked me to do one—with Rob Roberge, actually—for The Rumpus.  Then I think I wrote a few other things for them.  One day a couple of years ago, I saw that Steve had said on FB that they needed a new Sunday editor.  He said some adorable thing, something like, “someone smart and good like Gina Frangello.”  He tagged me.  I’m pretty sure he was probably mainly just being nice and paying a compliment—I doubt he thought anything would come of it.  But I loved The Rumpus, so I messaged him and asked what it would entail.  And in, like, half an hour, it was settled.

17. Are you going to be doing a book tour of any kind with ALife in Men? Where can we expect you? 

Um…yes.  I am doing quite a book tour.  It’s the first time in my career that I have a publicity engine and—you know—actual financial support from my publisher to tour.  Algonquin is phenomenal about publicity.  They’ve got me booked all over the place, book festivals and conferences and the usual bookstore readings.  I’m a control freak with strongly indie roots so of course I’ve also booked a bunch of things on my own to complement their itinerary.  I hit the road for the east coast onFebruary 8 and I’m really working my way east to west, with some strange detours down south, on and off until late April.  I need to get my old website (www.ginafrangello.com) updated so I can get my tour schedule up there.  You’re in New York, right?  I’m at Word on Feb 11, and at the KGB Bar on Feb 16.

18. Who's currently knocking you on your ass with their writing?

Right now, I’ve had the incredible privilege of reading three absolutely kick ass powerful memoirs in manuscript form from Zoe Zolbrod, Rob Roberge and Joshua Mohr.  It’s the first foray into this kind of nonfiction for all of them—they’re all primarily fiction writers—and their memoirs have completely stunned me, for both widely divergent and yet some overlapping reasons.  They’re all extraordinarily intense.  I feel like I need to go lie on an island somewhere and recover from the emotional power of those three books, cumulatively.  

19. Every Kind of Wanting, what can you tell us about it? 

If I don’t have a draft finished by the time A Life inMen drops, I’m jumping off the roof, for starters, because I doubt I’ll have time to write again until late summer.  But presuming I’m still here…well, it’s a novel that on the surface centers around a gay couple’s efforts to have a child through a gestational surrogacy, but really it opens into something much wider than that.  It spans thirty years, and is partially set in Venezuela, with parts in Chicago and Beaver Island.  Parts are funnier than anything I’ve ever written, and other parts are so raw they’re making me very nervous and I’m not sure I can possibly show them to anyone, which I tend to take as a good sign…provided I get the balls to overcome that impulse, that is.

20. What's next for Gina Frangello? 

Literally?  I think a Jameson, and then checking the 40-something emails that have piled up while I’ve been answering this interview!


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

#61 Tony McMillen

20 Questions with Mourning Goats

Tony McMillen

What can I say about Tony? He's one of the nicest, most driven, creative people I've ever had the pleasure. His new book was a KickStarter success and he's killing it over at DigBoston where he writes articles and reviews. Check out the interview and then go pick up your copy of his book, Nefarious Twit on Amazon!

1. What comes to mind when you hear, "Mourning Goats?"
I just picture like a college rock ‘90s album cover with the band logo “Mourning Goats” written in a smudgy, off orange sort of color that’s plastered across a black and white saturated photograph of something mundane that now looks divine thanks to the logo. I get a real R.E.M./Smiths vibe off it. Then I change my mind and it becomes a brutal, barbwire diaper black metal album cover and “Mourning Goats” is written in Hammer Horror movie style blood that looks like day old spaghetti sauce.

2. Your new novel, Nefarious Twit, was funded through Kickstarter; how did it go, why did you do it, and would you do it again? 
We raised 3,668 dollars, it went well. I chose Kickstarter because I wanted total control over my project and at the time, with the few smaller press alternative options that I had, they didn’t really offer me much that I couldn’t already do or learn to do myself. Like formatting, publicity etc. So instead of slicing off another piece of what was already going to be a slim pie I decided to keep as much of the revenue as I could and just start my own publishing company called Branch Hands. That being said, I’m not opposed to working with another press for Twit or another project in the future but at the time when I was getting my ducks in a row nothing was really blowing my skirt up. And yeah, I would consider doing Kickstarter or another crowdfunded project again, sure.

3. What advice would you give someone who's considering doing a Kickstarter? 
Don’t assume anyone you know will contribute. Most of your friends are just as broke as you are, don’t get upset when they don’t or can’t contribute. Also look up all the horror stories online about people who have failed at Kickstarter or worse, who have succeeded but forgot to do their math and ended up owing tons more money than they raised. All because they didn’t calculate stuff like the cost of shipping and/or how much the extra rewards will cost them to produce. Last thing and this is important: Find a way to reach beyond the audience you already have. Do an interview on a website or on the radio, get blogs to mention it, the alt weekly newspaper in your town. Find a way to turn people on to your project who don’t know you at all.

4. Sell your book in one sentence, and go! 
A bent, psychedelic odyssey of vengeance and family that reads like Shel Silverstein by way of William S. Burroughs.

5. I also saw that you have illustrations in it? 
Yep. There are 14 full-page illustrations credited to the character Nefarious Twit himself but I’m going to dismantle this whole Chris Gaines bullshit before it even gets started and just admit that I did all the drawing. Because I’m a whore for credit. But yeah, the idea is I don’t usually like illustrations that depict the characters themselves in prose books. Weirdly enough, I do love comic books, but with prose I’d rather just imagine the character’s face myself. So for Twit what I did was make all the illustrations actually pictures that are taken from the children’s books of Nefarious Twit. The pictures used in my novel usually have some sort of parallel with actions of the actual characters of the novel. This way I don’t push a certain look on any of the characters or any of the novel’s scenes but I do get to enhance the novel’s look and more importantly enhance the world I’m building within the novel. Plus I get to reinforce the symbolism from Twit’s children stories and how that ties into the journey his son Rick is taking. Besides, sometimes you’re like, fuck words, I just wanna see some doodles.

6. You sat down and chatted with Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost about their new movie, The World's End; how did that come about?
First off, just so you know, Simon Pegg is easily 3 times more handsome in person than he is on screen. But anyways, that thing was a total blast. I write a pop culture humor column called “Touch the Wonder” for DigBoston, we’re an alt weekly obviously operating out of Albuquerque, New Mexico; anyways DigBoston asked me if I wanted to interview those three gentlemen. And I was like, “Psssh, no thanks, I’m good.” And DigBoston was like, “Listen here, Charlie Bucket, we’re throwing you a golden ticket minus the chocolate bar so stop trying to be cool and go geek the fuck out and meet these guys. And I did. And it was everything a fan of theirs could have hoped it to be.

They were very warm, very smart and tremendously funny. They came across as genuine friends who happen to be collaborators and it was a pleasure to meet them and sit down for forty minutes and talk to them about their new film and a host of other topics. They made me laugh, I made them laugh. I turned them into chatty schoolboys by bringing up British Wrestling and I ended up playing back the recording of the conversation many times so my girlfriend could enjoy the sound of Simon Pegg’s accented, low and mellifluous voice.

Also I met them at a nice hotel here in Boston that used to be a prison. Because someone had a sense of humor the former detention center is now called The Liberty Hotel.

7. You stripped at a reading (at least once), please tell us about it. 
I find a lot of readings quite boring, despite them being done by authors whose work I love so I try and make it a point to give a little something extra to my audience when I do a reading. Operative word being “little.”

So my striptease was at an interactive "Choose Your Own Adventure" story event I hosted and wrote called “You Are A Suicide Sex Bomb." The idea was I'd ask the crowd to raise hands and vote on the next decision our characters would make at certain points in the story and each time they chose I'd discard a piece of my own clothing. Yes, there were children in the bookstore. Yes, I'm not sorry.

Also, after my reading/performance I noticed an older lady in the crowd who seemed to be staring at me. She walked up to me and then it hit me, "Mrs. Jacobs?" She was my old high school sweetheart's mother. She was nice and everything but I could see the relief on her face that her daughter and I were no longer together. Which makes sense.

8. Do you think that your location, as an author, is important when you write? I saw that Nefarious Twit was located where you're originally from in Tucson. 
It can be. I believe everything can effect us as writers and locale is something that can soak into your work in ways you might not even be aware of. Nefarious Twit is a road trip story so it goes all over but it begins and its heart is in Tucson. Tucson is unlike anywhere else really. I moved there from Pennsylvania when I was 11 (after finding work, of course) and for the first 10 years the desert did not feel like home. But then that thing happened where the place you’ve been ragging on and talking shit about for a decade becomes your best friend and you realize that it’s your home. Not that it doesn’t suck. But you know how it sucks, you grew up with it sucking, it’s what you know. Currently I’m living in Boston I like to think I’m like Bowie recharging his batteries by moving to Berlin. Mostly because I’m pretentious.

9. Are you an, "every day writer?" 
I write for a living in one way or another so I have to be. But do I write fiction everyday? No. I will write an article or work on some sort of non-fiction piece nearly every day and I will always be thinking of fiction but I won’t sit and down and right until I know I got something to say.

10. You're not only a storyteller and artist, but a comedian too? Do you think they all go hand in hand or are they separate? 
I think about this a lot and I think they’re all related but very different creatures. I write and perform music too, I used to be the lead singer and guitarist for the legendary rock band Bicycle Fight (legendary), and I learn a lot from each thing I do but they’re all so different. It’s like cooking food, cooking a delicious pastrami Ruben will teach you how to use your stove top but it won’t necessarily help you make zesty pasta salad, you know?

11. You've mentioned a lot that you love creating new worlds, what about Nefarious Twit's world is new or different? 
I love getting lost in the details of a fictional world and I really like inventing fake stuff.  Because of that I invented an entire fake ethnic group for this novel. So a lot of the main characters, Twit, Rick Lime, Lou Lime they’re all Dajmainians which is of course not a real thing. But throughout the book  we learn little facts about Darjmainian history and culture and folklore. We even learn there’s a slur word that you should never, ever call a Darjmainian. It’s “woog” by the way, in case you meet a Darjmainian and want to be an insensitive prick.

Beyond that you have the title character Twit himself who is a fictional children’s book author with a complicated fake history, and fake books he’s written and there are fake pictures from his fake books in the pages of this book. There are even excerpts from fake critics about his fake books. There are fake heavy metal bands, fake cult, science fiction shows from the ‘70s, fake cigarette brands and more. And all of it isn’t just there for novelty’s sake, it all serves to enrich the reading and embellish the world the characters live in and each part helps tell their story too.

12. You're a journalist as well as an author, do you find it hard to switch between the two types of writing? 
Sometimes. But I think it might potentially be harder for my audience to switch over between the two, I guess we’ll see. But what I mean is most of my journalism is humorous and my fiction can be too, at times, but it can also be a lot of other things.  I’ve had a few times where people I knew read something serious I wrote and were like, “Tony, where are the fucking gags?” And I was like, “I’m dropping liquid ghost tears on your fucking brain here! I’m trying to make my soul cry on to these filthy pages for you but I’m sorry if I didn’t think to include a joke about werewolf penises (lupeen, the joke would be lupeen, come on) and ‘80s movies.” Then whomever I’m talking to will gently pat my hand and tell me to stop shouting and get over myself. And I’ll agree because my throat hurts.

13. Do you think social media is a necessary evil for an author these days? 
Yes. And what’s really shitty about me is that I have done nothing but gain readers and reach others authors through social media and I still kinda hate it. Maybe not hate but I am, at the best, begrudgingly ambivalent towards it.

14. Looking through your articles, it looks like you're very on top of pop-culture in general, do you think a lot of this transfers over into your fiction writing or do you try to keep the two separate? 
I try to keep it separate in the respect that I try not to do a bunch of references to or jokes about pop culture in my fiction. I’m not trying to be Kevin Smith or Tarantino here with having characters who just regurgitate or make mention of some old band, old TV show or old movie every five seconds. Not that I don’t like that but it’s not really my bag in fiction. However I do love inventing fake pop culture in my stories and I suspect that has a lot to do with my affection for Mother Pop Culture. I’ve always loved the stories behind stories and stuff. I like reading up on the authors of books or the directors of movies and stuff like that. I think this why Nefarious Twit is full of fake pop culture like a fake children’s book author, a fake metal band, a fake cult sci-fi show, etc. That stuff is just fun to me. I just think it’s usually more creative to make an analogue or a composite of a famous aspect of pop culture than to just use the actual thing.

15. Do you have a marketing plan for your book? Can you tell us anything about plans on how to get it into the public's hands? 
Payola, passive online threats, dangling Vanilla Ice by his bootstraps over the sides of buildings. Basically just Suge Knighting this literary shit like every single everyday. But besides reviews and the usual stuff, one thing I’m doing that a lot of smaller authors and indie authors aren’t trying is I’m getting my book in some record stores and comic book shops and other places that aren’t the conventional place to buy books.  This helps me target readers who might not usually pick up novels but who like cool shit regardless of the medium its presented in. I think Nefarious Twit appeals to both a well-read crowd as well as to people who might not be into books so much but who love other stuff like comics, music and movies. Nefarious Twit can be a gateway drug type of book for a people who don’t fancy themselves big readers.  So starting with some stores here in Boston, including comic shops like Comicazi, and some stores in my old hometown Tucson, Arizona including Fantasy Comics and a few record stores I’m working out consignment with right now, Twit will be available in places where all of its audience can stumble on it.

16. What's the best piece of advice you've received on writing, or life? 
We can give ourselves such terrible sentences. —That’s actually from Nefarious Twit  but shit, it works, right?

17. You review a lot of books/movies/etc., anything currently knocking your socks off? 
Books: A Greater Monster by David David Katzman (Most experimental and enjoyable experimental book I’ve read in years) Basal Ganglia by Matthew Revert, Gripped by Jason Donnelly, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe, I Wear the Black Hat by Chuck Klosterman.

Comics: Saga, Batman: Year Zero, Prophet, Sex Criminals, Pretty Deadly, Savage Dragon (always), and The Wake. Oh, andBurn the Orphanage.

Movies: World’s End and Room 237 (Gonzo documentary about The Shining)

Music: Queens of the Stone Age’s last record …Like Clockwork, album of the year.

18. Can you tell us anything about the new/old novel, Higher Climbs the Fire? 
Oooooh. Somebody did their research. Basically, if I can pull off what I want to achieve with Higher Climbs the Fire it’ll be the best thing I’ve ever done. If I fuck it up, it’ll at least be a noble, ambitious failure. It’s a rock and roll, science fiction, end of the world epic and the main character is a cross between Osama Bin Laden and Bob Dylan. It takes place sometime in the future and he’s fighting the Federal World Church and their genetically engineered manmade messiah and he’s doing so using folk music. Folk music is now outlawed and since everything digital is on the grid and the World Church controls the grid, these folk terrorists use vinyl records as the means of their messages of rebellion. But that’s just the start of the book, there’s even more going into it. I’ve had a few false starts with the thing but if I can make it happen I think it’ll be a total sockdolager.

19. What kind of readings do you plan to do for your new book? 
I want to do a “Dress Up like Your favorite Children’s Book Character Party” for the actual release party but I’m still looking for the right venture for that. But so far I have a radio interview appearance on The Good American, which is on DigRadio December 20th. I have a reading/lecture/ signing at Trident Booksellers in Boston on January 16th and I’m just putting together a reading/signing at Comicazi in Davis Square for sometime in early January.
20. What's next for Tony McMillen? 
This is the good part of the Bill Murray movie for me. This is when he gives a speech and tells Dan Aykroyd, “Call it fate, call it karma,” and then takes a swig off his flask and decides to bust some ghosts. So I’m going to get Nefarious Twit into the hands of every man, woman, child and book savvy small animal I can this year. After that I think the next thing will be a collection of my non-fiction, I’ll probably title it simply “Touch the Wonder.”  While I compile that I’ll start fresh on my novel Higher Climbs the Fire or I might start on another novel that’s been pushing to the surface in my head for a while lately. I also got this comic strip idea I’ve been kicking around that the newspaper I write for, DigBoston, says they might be into publishing. So I got plenty of ghosts to bust. And bustin’ makes me feel good.

Thank you!  

Pick up Chewing the Page: The Mourning Goats Interviews here and Tony's book, Nefarious Twit, here! 

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