Saturday, October 09, 2010

Why I Love What I Do

Jonathan Evison's a cool guy. His first book, All About Lulu did well for Soft Skull when it came out a year or two ago. Now, his second book, West of Here, is getting all kinds of mammoth buzz. It's got the endorsement of some big-hitters, like Ron Currie Jr. who calls it "epic" and Dan Chaon, who refers to it as "a novel of stunning sweep." I managed to snag a copy at last year's BEA, where Evison was doing a parade of panels and signings. Everywhere he went the line snaked around the corner. I'm excited to read the book, it feels grand and ambitious and like a wonderful story to disappear into.

Evison's got his hands in a number of different lit-related things. A couple months back he asked me to contribute to a series he's involved with at the blog Three Guys One Book. I was supposed to discuss the history of Two Dollar Radio, why I enjoy publishing books, and my outlook on the future of literature. It was daunting and vague as I imagine my thoughts on these topics are broad enough to fill a book of its own, so I had to put if off for a while. But eventually I came up with the following:

My Creepy, Run-Down Entertainment

We got started while we were living in San Diego. Eliza and I drove up the coast to Big Sur to camp with our dogs and celebrate our one-year anniversary. We stopped at the Henry Miller Memorial Library where I bought a photocopy of a letter that Miller wrote to random visitors who sought him out at home, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch, and a book that had nothing to do with Miller called The Business of Books, by a writer named Andre Schiffrin. The subtitle was 'How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read.' Schiffrin was the publisher at Pantheon for many years before being shoved out by the new regime at Random House.

My background was in film. I interned at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where I realized if I wanted to take part in any established medium as a writer I would inevitably be forced to devote the next decade of my life to climbing the ladder before I'd be able to work on something that even remotely interested me. So while in San Diego I immersed myself in fiction writing, envisioning the world of books as one untainted by greed and pop culture. The Schiffrin book woke me up. At the time, I was also beginning to feel disillusioned with contemporary publishing, as though my appetite wasn't being sated by the new books that occupied shelves at stores. I spent a lot of time surfing the spines at the local bookshop in search of anything published by the colophons that I had come to trust: Akashic (I loved their Urban Surreal Series), Soft Skull, Dalkey Archive.

I was bartending at the time, earning more money than I really deserved. The bar was across the street from the harbor. Apart from the local crowd, the bar catered to the out-of-town yuppies on their way to or from sport-fishing trips, and the uber-wealthy who'd get tanked on their sailboats in the morning and stop by for a drink after coming ashore, still rocking on their sea-legs. Rich old men don't like to get cut off by the snotty-nosed bartender. I was doing my best to put off the inevitable, and this one particular old drunk knew it. He said, “Don't mind me, I make more noise than a $2 radio.”

It was the confluence of these events – finding the name “Two Dollar Radio,” Schiffrin's book, and immersing myself in the work of some exceptional indie publishers – that served as the foundation and initial impetus to want to start my own press.

I've got a stable of pretty rad memories that really underline that I absolutely love what I do. Coupled with the fact that I’m able to work on this with my wife and brother, makes the experience that much more enjoyable.

I remember the first time I met Rudy Wurlitzer, chatting across couches in the basement of a townhouse while Philip Glass railed on the piano in the room directly above us. I carried everything around in my backpack and didn’t know what I was doing. We didn’t even have a distributor for our books at that point. Looking back, it’s incredible that a writer of Rudy’s stature took a chance with us. He’s someone I talk to on the phone a couple times in a good week, and refer to fondly as my consigliere.

Francis Levy, author of Erotomania: A Romance and the forthcoming Seven Days in Rio, in addition to being a groundbreaking and provocative voice, has become a wonderful friend. In the '70s he worked at Grove Press before he was fired (which I imagine would be hard to do). A few years ago, Francis was kind enough to invite me to meet Barney Rosset (who blurbed Erotomania). We sat around Barney's apartment chatting, before we migrated to a restaurant around the corner. At some point, Barney pulled from the inner pocket of his jacket a worn Russian copy of Tropic of Cancer. He took his time relaying the particular copy's importance, which amounted to him publishing the book in Russian merely to piss off the Soviets since the book was still under ban in the country. And I loved that. His defiant spirit.

More recently, we were in NYC in May for a benefit we put together for Girls Write Now. Josh Mohr had agreed to emcee and flew in from San Francisco. We were going to grab a sandwich before the event, and were meeting at the transfer from the L to the A line. I was arriving from a meeting with an editor at the New York Times Book Review who had told me that they had assigned Josh's second novel, Termite Parade, to review. When I met Josh and his girlfriend, Leota, he asked how the meeting went and I told him. We were both a little stunned. It was to be a first for both of us. We were waiting on my brother, Brian, who was coming from Brooklyn, to meet us before boarding a train to the event. It felt like we had to wait a long time. The subway cars blew humid air in our faces. I think I mentioned how Jack Kerouac stayed up all night and went to a kiosk for the first delivery when the Times reviewed On the Road. Someone, maybe even me, commented that this sounded a lot less romantic. But it was romantic.

I remember meeting Xiaoda Xiao for the first time. We had driven to Amherst from NYC to interview Xiao for a documentary we were producing. The drive north I spent relaying some of Xiao's true-life prison stories to my friend who was directing the video. We were both getting excited. Xiao is a writer I'm incredibly humbled to publish: when he was 20, Xiao was arrested for accidentally tearing a poster of Mao and spent the subsequent five years of his life in a stone quarry. We parked and were walking across his driveway to the house when Xiao emerged from the sliding doors. “You're so young,” he said to me, and then opened his arms wide. He was wearing a Two Dollar Radio shirt I had sent him. That was pretty cool.

For many of our books, I remember reading the submission for the first time. 1940, I sat on the stoop of our bungalow in San Diego. The Drop Edge of Yonder, I was on our fire escape in Bed-Stuy. Erotomania, I sat on the floor in the kitchen beneath the stove making dinner. The Orange Eats Creeps was during the period I played basketball at the local university at 6:30 in the morning. I read the manuscript on our front porch with a cup of coffee after I got home, hoody draped over my head, sore.

And it's incredible the number of really stellar submissions that we have to pass on. It's obvious to me that the important, progressive work that will last, the work that I find myself reading most often, the work that will be celebrated now and into the future, is being done by independent and university presses. You don't have to look very hard: it's evident in the awards being handed out, from the Pulitzer to the Nobel to the year-end best-of lists.

I often come back to the example of Jacek Utko, who transformed newspapers in former Soviet bloc nations into indispensable, profitable products. In speaking of Cirque du Soleil transforming circus arts and applying that ideology to newspapers, he said “These guys were doing some creepy, run-down entertainment and put it to the highest level of performance art.”

Books are a creepy, run-down entertainment. But they're far from obsolete because of the countless independent presses who elect to focus on work that is indispensable rather than gimmicky or what might apply to the mass market. It's the Field of Dreams approach: “If you build it, they will come.” And with the internet (big ups, Al Gore), that's possible.

Now, in our modern age, the sales handles that ring are words like organic, boutique, fuel-efficient, indie. This dude in LA, Roy Choi, opened up a truck that sold high-quality food at reasonable prices and grossed two million dollars his first year in business. Whether a restaurant is “green” or not makes a difference to the majority of customers. The age of microwaveable dinners has passed. The future is bright, and I'm excited to be a part of it.

Eric Obenauf
Sept. 2010

1 comment:

Barbara Browning said...

Best. Publisher. Ever.