Next week I shall return with a book or two to feature on Short Attention Span Theater, but today, let me step aside for one of my fellow Booked Anthology authors. Be kind...or just do what feels right. I introduce to you the author whose story appears just before my own. The man who gives you the intriguingly titled "Manger Dogs"...ladies and dudes...Mark Rapacz (the Rap is silent...okay, not really. Maybe you can ask him how to pronounce his name in the comments section at the bottom.
What are some of the best and worst things about being an author?
The absolute best thing about being an author is fulfilling that act of creation. To take an idea brewing in the nether reaches of your skull and to give it life. The entire process is both exhilarating and terrifying—well, maybe not terrifying. I think we writers can get kind of hyperbolic talking about the “fear” involved with creation and our astounding “bravery” when something does get made, which, you know, is silly when you think of what is actually terrifying (basement centipedes) and what is actually brave (karaoke). We talk a lot about risk, too. What exactly are we risking? Seriously.
I think those ideas come about because most of the language we use to talk about anything artistic is an inadequate means to describe the actual creative process.
That’s why I like to say, “Bingo! There it is! Where the shit did that come from?” Because, truly, I have no idea where the kernel for a story comes from. It happens in that weird space between waking life and that other one, and in the end when you find a character or a narrative that’s able to communicate this dream space in a more or less intelligible way, well then, heck, you’re doing something that feels magical. You’re building something from nothing, and it’s icing on the cake when somebody reads it and is like, “I get ya, fella.”
The worst thing—the absolute gyawddamnawfulest thing is waiting for the story to pop. It’s a really manic time where you end up questioning your own self-worth and your own abilities. I’ve gone through the cycle so many times now that I can’t imagine that it’ll ever go away. I’ve started to accept this time of rumination as part of my process, because when inspiration strikes, it hits hard and it’s so great.
And when you’re gripped by this inspiration and blazing through a first draft, I like to try my best to appreciate it because it is such an unusual moment where you’ve crystallized your understanding of the world, burnt away the unnecessaries, and are finally able to see clearly the heart of those things you hold most true.
And then when that goes away … well … I guess you feel totally lost. And that’s not a good feeling.
What are some of the lessons you have learned as a writer that caught you off guard?
When you care about something so much, it’s difficult to understand why nobody else seems to share that same level of intensity. This is why so many of us know writers who early on end up cynical and angry and lashing out about really dumb stuff.
What I try to do is remind myself that though this is a project I’m really into, the fact that I am into it and creating it and fully invested in it is meaningful for its own sake. All the other crap—gaining readers, accolades, and billions of dollars—the glory and fame business—cannot be the motivation to carry on.
You create to create to create again. All there is to it.
A caveat: This is the type of thing that’s easy to say in an interview when you know it’s the right thing to say. It’s much more difficult when you’re sitting in your underwear on a Friday night on Facebook, eating a block of cheese, and wondering why the universe isn’t paying closer attention to how beautiful your brain is.
What can you share about your writing process with new or up and coming writers?
Well, I would likely fall into the new and up and coming writer category, so I don’t feel totally at ease giving advice here.
But, honestly, do what works for you. I used to read everything about process, and I know it’s a good question and people are curious about it, but I started to find the more I read about other writers’ processes the more I compared my own to theirs and felt like I was doing it incorrectly.
How dumb is that?
Process is a personal thing that develops based on how much time you have, what social groups you want to maintain, whether you want to keep your job or have kids or spend time with your family, etc. Most writers do this writing thing after they get done working 9-10 hour days and then they drag themselves to a keyboard and escape the day-to-day drudgery for as long as they can.
I actually really liked what Steve Almond had to say about process here.
If you were to change genres, what would be your next choice?
You know, I don’t really write toward a particular genre for the most part. A certain genre may be something a story of mine falls into after my characters are well-established and their goals seem clear.
Even though Jason Stuart of Burnt Bridge was kind enough to pull my novella Buffalo Bill in the Gallery of the Machines from the slush pile and put it out, Weird Westerns are not the only writing I do. People reading this interview may only know my piece “Manger Dog” in the Booked. Anthology, and that work is a small family drama set out in the boonies. I really am fond of that story and spent years reworking it. I am so happy Robb and Livius put it out. It’s a work I’m quite proud of, and I would say it falls under a phase of writing I went through for a few years which mainly involved small, family dramas set out in the country. I follow impressions, and during this time I was most affected by pissed off folks living in the woods, apparently.
In fact, one of my more successful short stories is also a small family, country drama—“Bellwether” from Best American Nonrequired Reading. Oddly enough, this story started out as a strict genre-based monster story. In the first scene these two country kids, a brother and sister, lose a sheep in a flooded creek, which sets in motion the rest of the narrative. I wrote that scene because I wanted to introduce the first death (of what I planned to be many) that this small wooded town would experience at the claws and teeth of some Cthulu-like river monster.
However, since I don’t like to—or really know how to—write toward any concept, this wasn’t the direction the story went, despite it being the seed from which the story grew.
I tend to follow my characters. Just see what they do and let them roam about that strange inner landscape from which our stories are born.
What could traditional publishing learn from the Indies? And how about the other way around?
My short answer is a shitton.
It seems to me—and this is based completely on armchair, late-night rants I direct at a muted television—is that we are in one of the most exciting times in writing and publishing history. There are more writers, more ways to publish, more access to great narrative than any other time in human existence. It has influenced the television programming being made, it has developed niche audiences that rally around every kind of genre, it has heightened everything, and in a way the publishing environment is more competitive, but there’s also much more opportunity.
Having just signed on as partner at Burnt Bridge, I’m learning first-hand the benefits of indie publishing. Basically, I’m seeing that a two-man operation is able to put together professional publications that we hope sell well and we hope will illuminate writers who could use little bump in recognition.
It used to be that there were only five or six main gatekeepers. That has changed drastically. I like to paint the NYC Establishment as this blind monster thrashing about unaware of the teeming masses of readers and writers fleeing Manhattan to live peacefully with their books in the Greater U.S., but the big boys would have to be delusional to be unaware of the changes in the last ten years. I mean their sales have had to be affected. The recent merger of Penguin and Random House is a case in point. That’s a pretty bold move spurred on by the changing market.
I just have trouble seeing how they matter as much anymore. The NYC publishing establishment is this behemoth trying to maneuver in a publishing landscape that’s changing by the day, and I don’t really know people who buy books because FSG or one of the other big houses put them out. People buy the books they like, no matter who publishes it. And, anyway, don’t most these places make their money selling cookbooks or something? They’re not surviving off fiction sales. (This point is based completely on some comment I likely half-heard at a noisy bar.)
That said, the big houses are in the business of trying to predict and direct their sales toward market trends and all that business mumbo jumbo. It’s gotta be a headache, and it can’t be as successful in today’s marketplace. There are simply too many options with university presses, indie presses, micro-presses, and more and more authors, who are becoming one-stop DIY publishers. And they’re making good-looking books. It’s like the NYC Establishment is this Mothra that won’t be taken down by Godzilla, rather she will fall from the insidious and unseeable virus that is the regular ol’ schlub tapping away on his laptop and sending his manuscript to Lightning Source.
Similary, two dudes with InDesign and a contract with one of the better PODs can slip right through the chaos pretty easily. A large operation, on the other hand, has to absorb all the hits, and if one of their larger projects fail (most aren’t profitable), it can result in something costly being axed, like author advances for future projects (totally based on some article I probably misunderstood because I was reading it while hungover).
But the thing we indie joints have to deal with is that we don’t have a marketing department. We don’t have publicists. Our writers usually don’t have agents. The distribution channels remain twenty years behind the current market, and this is something we have to worry about because 50% of book sales are still physical books. How do we get our books (most of which we don’t even see or hold) from POD X to Bookstore Y & Z? These are things the big boys have figured out and streamlined over the course of 150 years of publishing dominance. Even though two dudes can make a beautiful book, we’re still only two dudes trying to get people to read these book.
And all this is dictated by the many-headed beast that is the vast reading audience who continues to get their stories any way they can ... a lot of times without having to pay for them. This beast is unpredictable, savvy, and goddamned crazy. Especially now. But this uncertainty of how this whole industry will shake out—if it ever does—is exactly why it’s so vibrant and exciting to be a writer, editor, and publisher these days.
The writing community can be its own worst enemy at times. What are some of the issues you see cropping up? Solutions?
I see little camps being built all over the Internet that are rallying around such-and-such genre or certain writers, and even eschewing some of the fantastic influences that have come before us. It seems more often the case that these camps crop up based on those writers they refuse to read rather than those writers they’re actually reading.
For instance, I’m sure you can find a vibrant Facebook group that is called “I hate Franzen” or something like that, and there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of very intelligent readers and writers expertly eviscerating a highly touted writer of American literature. Hell, I even created a character-driven blog, now book, called the Ficstructor that dealt in this kind of vitriol, and, yes, he ashamedly hated on Franzen for no other reason than jumping on the “Hate Franzen” bandwagon, which happens among our clans quite often.
And it’s all just territorial bullshit. Makes me feel like we’re still dumb animals going around pissing on things and calling it our own.
With social media the insularity has grown more acute. What is now known as “literary” seems to be this dried-out turd of a definition that’s been shrink-wrapped and preserved by MFAers who refuse to grow beyond Joyce Carol Oates after graduation. And I like Joyce Carol Oates, but we gotta stop trying to be her.
And on the same token, I can’t visit genre threads for too long before I see someone saying that MFA stands for Major Fucking Asshole … and this is being said by people who hold MFA degrees.
Further, there are indie literature blogs that I plain don’t understand. Like, they’re speaking an entirely different language and their message boards are extremely active and filled with just terrible things writers are saying to one another, using this pseudo-intellect, trying outsmart and castrate one another while couching words like “tautological” in their insults.
And I just don’t get it. The anonymous commenter culture pervades even our own, and I feel like our writer/reader culture should be somewhat elevated, but one visit to any blog and you see that it’s not. We’re trolls with a slightly better vocabulary. Is it because we spend too much time alone in our apartments?
It makes me want to eat an entire block of cheese.
The places where you do not see this, however, is at actual brick and mortar book stores. At libraries. At readings. At bars. We are such a cordial and friendly bunch of bushy-tailed feel-gooders when we’re drinking pitchers of Premium Beer, but it’s like we go home, get depressed, and just start letting the bullshit fly onto our online communities.
We feel protected behind these screens. We feel unknown and powerful.
We gotta start walking out our front doors, going to the local bookstore, and seeing that we’re just a group of nice people trying to do the most passive, peaceful, and beautiful thing of all: sharing the written word, which is to say that we are acknowledging one another’s humanity, with all its terrible and enlightening contradictions.
The social media is…
Social media is a thing I don’t quite understand. It makes me feel both loved and inadequate.
I feel loved when my mother, mother-in-law, and wife like a Facebook post that, more or less, says, “I have worked for years on this thing and now it’s a real-live thing that you can enjoy too.”
I feel inadequate when I see a writer/rival, that same day, post that his coffee pot is empty and this blurry image of his empty coffee pot gets 75 likes and 30 comments.
Comparing my three likes for my life-long pursuit to the 75 likes for a half-thought through shtick makes me feel as empty and bean-burned as that supremely popular coffee pot.
Share some information about your work with us:
This past year has been pretty productive for me as I moved out to California a year ago, and I basically just don’t get out very much. I’ve been trying to unearth those works that I’ve squirreled away in my files, and which I made grandiose promises to myself about at one time. Now, finally, I’ve decided to get them done and out in some form or another so other folks might enjoy them.
The first was this project called the Beerbox Narrative. It’s a story written on 24 label-sized selections that can be read in any order. It’s a piece that you both perform and read during an event called a “Jamboreading.” The first Jamboreading was done back in 2009 to great success. Very few things in my apartment were broken. You can find all the guidelines, the story, and printable labels for your own beer bottles here. (http://beerboxnarrative.wordpress.com)
The next project I rolled out was finally putting a perfect-bound tombstone on my character-driven blog, “The Ficstructor.” This book recounts the trajectory of an angry writer trying to come to terms with what he thinks was the worst decision in his life—trying to become a writer. It’s now a book. There are some notable interviews in it with Matt Bell, Andrew Sullivan, Adam Robinson, and Jon Chopan. The book is free if you want to print the PDF or read it on ISSUU, otherwise you can buy the terribly formatted ebook or the really, really good looking paperback. (http://theficstructor.wordpress.com)
A project I’ve been very pumped about is this fan fiction novella I wrote that explores the origins of Splinter and Shredder from TMNT fame called TongueCut Ninja. Fan Fiction continues to be the bastard child of the writing world, but I embraced the heck out of it and loved doing it. I grew up loving the Ninja Turtles but always felt like the origin story of Splinter and Shredder was poorly explained, namely I was never sure what exactly happened at the dojo so many years ago that led Oroku Saki to become evil and Hamato Yoshi to become good. This story takes place well before all the mutants, as it explores the lives of Oroku Saki and Hamato Yoshi in their human form as they train to become who they would ultimately become. It really reads more like a meditation and it’s been well-received by those who have read it, but, of course, it’s fan fiction so I can’t sell it, lest I be sued. In fact, admitting its existence could very well be a mistake because Viacom may be on my ass. If you go to the site, you’ll see that I’m giving away free printed copies of TongueCut Ninja. I’m down to seven. So, if you’re the first seven to request a copy, I’ll put one in the mail for you. You can also print the PDF for free or read it on ISSUU. (tonguecutninja.com)
Lastly, we at Burnt Bridge just re-released Buffalo Bill in the Gallery of the Machines as a dime novel. Dime novels were the precursors to modern pulp and comic books. Historically, they were cheap weeklies that were sold for a dime to thirty cents. To maintain this tradition of cheaply printed story, Burnt Bridge is selling the Buffalo Bill Re-Issue at a drastically reduced price, and, yes, you will receive a printed version that you can roll up and swat flies with. It’s available now on Amazon for 5 bucks, but the more authentic version will soon come out through IndyPlanet for 3 bucks. So, stay tuned or go get any of the three versions on Amazon right now (the pulp and ebook editions are still available).
What is one question you are sick of being asked—not in interviews, but by individuals who know you write?
I don’t get asked many questions about my writing to be honest. Most folks I meet are fairly surprised that I write. Those who know me, know I write, but we don’t have lengthy conversations about it. Perhaps I’m a bit cagey about it.
I’m a Midwesterner from Minnesota, raised with Polish Catholic principles. We tend to be pretty quiet about the things we care most about.
I’m delighted whenever anybody discovers I write and asks me questions about what I do. I find myself being filled with terror when I talk about it, though.
How do you deal with negative reviews?
I’m one of those lucky writers who is so unknown that I’ve never received a negative review.
It’s easy for me to say now, but I would welcome that kind of attention. Means people are at least reading your work.
How much reading do you get in, and can a writer excel at his or her craft if they do not read?
As much as I can. I ride the bus and read on the bus. Allows for nearly two hours of uninterrupted reading time. It’s why I love public transportation.
I have absolutely no idea how a writer could excel at his or her craft without reading. Do writers do that? I do find that I read less when I write. My schedule is such that I only have so much time to spend on creative pursuits. When I write a lot, I’m reading little. When I read a lot, I’m writing little.
When does self-promotion cross the line and become a nuisance?
As an unagented writer who has to do all his own self-promotion, for better or worse, and who still has no idea how to promote himself, I love when I see artists promoting their own work. It’s what you have to do when you don’t have a publicist or a publisher or anybody really going out of his or her way to celebrate what you do. And if you’re putting your time in, you likely care about your work at its deepest level, which mitigates that self-conscious feeling you get when you mention it now and again.
Every once in awhile a blog post will appear about a story of mine … or sometimes I’ll get a Good Reads review for Buffalo … but if I’m not mentioning my stuff, it will go unmentioned. I just hung out with an artist friend of mine, whose work I totally love, but he said to me he hates when he sees people post their works on social media. I do that weekly, so it was hard for me not to feel the sting in those words. Nowadays, you simply can’t be passively waiting for an audience to come to you. There’s too much noise. Too many options. You can easily get lost in the crowd. Believing that your work is so great that people will just flock to it like moths to a flame is, in a way, it’s own kind of arrogance as well.
It’s a two-sided sword. Being an unagented writer who does all his own self-promotion and a lot of his own self-publishing and design work, I’m able to get works out. The problem is, I get to see what happens after those works are out there and how little attention they are actually receiving. If someone hates a cover or if they hate the formatting or if they think it’s poorly edited, that’s all on me.
I wish I could blame my publicist or the marketing department or the design team or my agent, but frankly I don’t have that luxury. If my works don’t sell, the buck stops at the tip of my fingers.
I’m an unknown writer who gets totally blotto excited at any kind of attention whatsoever. This interview is a huge deal for me. In fact, it’s my first interview.
The only time I’ve seen self-promotion as a nuisance was when a writer came down on me and few others for not sharing or promoting his work. You can’t blame others if your work is simply not taking off. That’s over-confidence, delusion, and ultimately sad.
Which is why I have to keep coming back to that idea that works are worthwhile for their own sake. The TongueCut Ninja project is this piece that I literally can’t sell. I’ve invested a huge amount of time and energy and money into creating it. Marketing logic suggests that this has been a complete waste, while artistic sensibility suggests that it was one of the best creative endeavors I’ve ever pursued.
What projects are you currently working on?
With Burnt Bridge, we’re doing the final edits on a book we have yet to announce, but we are ridiculously excited to be putting it out. The writer is absolutely fantastic. I couldn’t believe he agreed to chance a work with us as we don’t yet have a track record of putting books out, but our enthusiasm to introduce this story to our crowd of pulp-revivalists has just got me very pumped. He’s a new voice to the usual faces, but he’s been around for quite awhile and I think everybody will be really pleased. We hope you all like it.
Personally, I am finishing up final edits on MokuMan, this superhero/monster novel I’ve been working on for the last few years. I got the cover pretty much designed as well. I just need a few trusted readers to tear it apart so I can rework it for the galleys. I hope to get it out sometime next year.
Stubbornly, I’m still trying to get my collection to be seriously considered. I started as a short story writer. I still think of myself as a short story writer, so I’m always working on new stories to round out a collection I’ve been writing for 10 years. All the stories have been swapped, rearranged, trashed, and resurrected, but I keep piecing that together and sending it out.
Lastly, I just started another novel. I don’t want to say much about it, but I was asked by an acquisitions editor to start working on it. No contract, no deal. I don’t know if this is reflective of the way the market is going or if this editor knows me so well that he knew I wouldn’t say no to the prospect of writing a novel that could ultimately be abandoned at any stage. Also, so many things could fall apart on my end before my deadline that it’s hardly worth mentioning, but I got the characters, I got the story, I got the voice and it’s feeling good. In the end, if the publisher doesn’t take it, I’ll still have a novel-length work that I’ll be happy to have pursued. Because that’s my only goal: keep creating.
What is one thing about you that would surprise the readers who do not know you personally?
I play a lot of video games.
Is there anyone you’d like to give a mention?
A writer friend of mine from Minnesota, Evan Kingston, is serializing his novel, Slash. And not only is he serializing it as an ebook, he’s making beautifully hand-crafted fanzines for each of the seven episodes. If you can get your hands on one (or all seven hand-crafted zines), definitely do it. It’s a project I admire on every artistic level. You can find Slash here: http://slashserial.com.
Christopher Coffey, an illustrator and creative brain-trust partner in all the weird projects I do, is a really great contact for book cover illustrations. He’s got this awesome pulp sensibility that I think a lot of our crew would enjoy. He illustrated TongueCut Ninja and you can find a number of works over at MartianLit who he does art for. MartianLit is this awesome online magazine that publishes stuff I think you all would enjoy as well. Coffey just did the cover for their debut title Dead Animals by CS DeWildt. Check out Coffey’s work here: http://martianlit.com/search/?s=coffey.
Of course, Jason Stuarts’ 16 Tons is going to come out next year. I am lucky enough to be one of his early readers and I can’t wait to dive in. His previous two books, Screaming Woman Road and Raise a Holler, are works I admire greatly and for anybody looking to see what this pulp-revival business is all about, I’d direct them to those two works because they basically define what modern pulp is.
What is in your “to be read” pile right now?
Jerbus Lord, I’m finally finishing Underworld by DeLillo. That thing is long and awesome and I’m a slow ass reader. It’s been great though. I especially like the scenes with Lenny Bruce because I like anything about stand-up comics. I have an unfounded theory that writers are stand-up comics who are afraid of people.