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Sunday, February 22, 2015

An Unfortunately Outdated Interview with M. Allen Cunningham

In this, the third of my blog idea housecleaning, I present an interview I did with M. Allen Cunningham back in 2012, after he had launched his micro-press Atelier 26 with its inaugural release Date of Disappearance. I tried to get the interview published, and had high hopes after I received my first personalized rejection, and then heard nothing else ever from the other dozen places where I submitted it.

In the years since that initial book release, Atelier 26 has published two more books by Cunningham, with a third forthcoming, as well as adding three other authors to their list. Buy there books now here.


Why don’t we start by discussing your shift from traditional publishing at the small press Unbridled Books, to going indie? What do you feel happened between the publishing of Lost Son, and the submission of your third novel, The Silent Generations?

Do you have some time? This might take a minute.
            OK, I guess I should start by noting that Unbridled is, in fact, indie. That is, they’re unaffiliated with corporate publishing, they’re decentralized, and they don’t even keep offices in New York. All good things.
            What I can say about my latest novel, The Silent Generations, is this: it’s finished and ready for print. It’s been ready for more than two years now. An offer was made on the novel back in 2010, and this offer remained in place (generously, amazingly) even as I elected, for various reasons too personal and complicated to go into here, to see what other interest the book might attract. I felt, and my agent agreed, that I had reason for optimism. Then, after a little while, owing to numerous and mostly private factors, there was no longer any offer.
            Meanwhile, the book was making the rounds of big and medium-size publishers. Or, as I came to see it, the book was brushing up against the distinctive silliness of largely New York editors — a few of whom turned out to be barely matriculated twenty-something neophytes appallingly tasked with manning the gates. As their replies rolled in, I got used to hearing obnoxious comments about the author’s “track record,” the inability to make him a “breakout,” etc. — all of which seemed pretty irrelevant. And I began to understand to what extent BookScan does most authors a grievous injustice, not to mention its effect on the overall literary health of the publishing marketplace.
            Generally, too, I came to see what scant reading most of these New York people had done in my manuscript — wholly misinterpreting it through obvious (and faulty) skimming. Amazingly enough, this did not deter most of them in their perceived prerogative to offer so-called editorial insight about a novel which, in their descriptions of it, hardly resembled mine.
            Do I sound offended? Should I not take it all so personally? My position is, I gave them a chance at good work and they couldn’t take their thumbs out of their ledgers or stop their corporate multi-tasking long enough to really pay attention to the quality of the pages in front of them. My position is, I’ve been writing a pretty long time now — I’m not just some head-in-the-clouds amateur defensive about crummy work or reflexively averse to commentary or criticism. I have spent vast amounts of time — more than a decade — developing my work, vetting every sentence. This book alone I’ve lived with and painstakingly worked on for five years now. I know it better than anybody, I know it’s good, and I’m allowed to stand up for it — in fact, it’s a matter of dignity to do so when more than a few of the people subjecting it to such sloppy attention appear to be incapable of composing an error-free e-mail. These are the front-guard editors? My position now is that most writers should get more offended. Our publishing culture needs an earth-shattering shakeup (and e-books are not the answer).     
            I’m talking about a serious rejuvenation of editorial sensibility, an old-fashioned passionate readerly sense of mission! It did exist in this country once, even in the warrens of Manhattan.
            These feelings were all components of my decision to launch Atelier26, certainly.
            Anyway, as I say, The Silent Generations is finished and ready for print. I and my incredible agent stand by it. And I am still, for the most part, keen on it going to a traditional publisher. Which is not to say that I won’t publish it my own damn self if necessary. Anybody respectable out there want a chance at it, though?

So, amid your struggles to get The Silent Generations published, came Date of Disappearance. How did you get involved with USA Projects, and why did you choose Date of Disappearance to be your first self-published / micro-press project?

Last summer I was invited to a reception here in Portland introducing artists to USA Projects. I thought it was brilliant to apply the Kickstarter fundraising model in an online venue dedicated exclusively to the arts and geared toward a community of arts supporters. Brilliant, too, was USA’s offer to match funds for each project. But I was also highly skeptical about the usefulness of the platform for the purposes of my work (or any writer’s work actually). Writing seemed to me all but impossible to present in the visual-dynamic way that the USA site favors: the artist’s video pitch, etc. It just so happened, however, that I’d had this finished short story collection on my hands for a few years, and that my artist friend Nathan Shields had recently finished illustrating it. My plan was to publish it on Lulu or something (never through Amazon, though!). After the USA reception, it occurred to me that the visual component of this book could really help me overcome that challenge of attracting support online for literary work. And if I could amass funds this way, I could publish the thing more on my own terms (design specs, etc) and under my own imprint. Date of Disappearance turned out to be the first wholly literary project on the site, and the fundraiser’s success astonished me!

Preparing Date of Disappearance for print gave you a chance to see the publisher’s side of bookmaking. What did you enjoy about the process of publishing Date of Disappearance?

The process was thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish, including the initial fundraising effort, which tapped into some entrepreneurial instincts I didn’t even knew I had. I liked working with the illustrator, Nathan Shields, on cover design, laying out the flaps, etc. I liked poring over the printer’s paper samples. I liked consulting with the page designer on the font, the illustration spreads, the interior. I liked receiving and opening the cartons of finished books — I’m in love with them, they’re beautiful. I liked wrapping and packaging the first shipments of copies to go out to my donors. I liked stamping each copy’s parcel paper with the Atelier26 logo. I’ve really enjoyed bringing copies around to independent bookstores and talking with booksellers. I like selling the book myself — I never really could have anticipated the level of gratification this would bring. Beyond the incomparable royalty margin (which is itself gratifying) there’s an indescribable pleasure about handing (or mailing) a book directly to a customer. That’s certainly something that’s hard to come by outside of the self-pub model (except at book-signings, to an extent). The whole enterprise has had an old-fashioned, hand-crafted, village merchant quality that gels nicely with my value system as a person and my aesthetics as a writer. I imagine the fun and gratification will only increase when it’s another writer’s work I’m ushering into the world.

Let's discuss Date of Disappearance. In addition to the previously published stories collected in the book, there was the story “Summer.” The notorious film Faces of Death acts as a coming-of-age experience in the story for your young main character. I'm curious, had you seen the film yourself at a young age? The narrator, Harris Gerber, confronts the fake sexual passion of pornography, and the alternately fake and real deaths in Faces of Death - did you have any formative cultural experiences similar to Harris's?

I did see “Faces of Death” at some point in mid-adolescence, under circumstances similar to Harris’s viewing, i.e., a samizdat VHS was obtained by an older sibling. Pretty much everything I remember from my own viewing went into “Summer.” It’s sort of odd for me to talk about this now, because while working on this story and making the allusions to “Faces of Death,” I had no reason to believe that anyone else had ever heard of the movie, let alone seen it. Is it really “notorious”?

I think in the VCR era when we grew up Faces of Death did have that notoriety. I had heard about it being seen by what passed for the underground at my high school. In college I remember a large group huddled around a small dorm-room television watching a scratchy dubbed copy, alternately laughing at the absurdly faked deaths, and feeling doubtful squeamish about the ones that seemed real. “Summer” would be a very different story if set in the Internet age. What I'm wondering is, were there any bits of culture that you experienced that catalyzed you to action as a young man?

I have an old friend I first met in the sixth grade, and to this day he likes to recall my early predilection for heavy movies. I guess it’s true. I dragged him to see “JFK” when it first came out — we must have been in seventh grade by then. The film compelled me to undertake some extracurricular research into conspiracy theories: I remember promptly buying a copy of Jim Garrison’s On the Trail of the Assassins. What I carried away most vividly from that particular movie, though, was the kick-in-the-gut morbidity of the actual assassination footage shown in the courtroom scene when Kevin Costner (as Garrison) says: “Back, and to the left. Back, and to the left,” while replaying over and over the frames showing Kennedy’s head exploding. That image was so horrifically primal, especially knowing that it was real. Around that same late-adolescent period, I watched a number of other films — Dead Poets Society, The Remains of the Day, and (a little later on) Shadowlands — all of which also indelibly reinforced in me the understanding that I was going to die someday. It was a keen understanding that I never managed to shake, not for a single day. And yes, it made me — and still makes me — want to do something with the time I’m given. Thoreau’s phrase, “…and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” which I first heard in Dead Poets Society and later committed to memory along with great chunks of Walden, has been a stern and freeing catalyst for many years. The making of things in words has proved to be, for me, a good way to channel all that life energy. “Summer” is certainly about this kind of frightful awakening moment in one’s youth, and in that sense is highly autobiographical (though I hope the story is funny too). For that matter, my first novel The Green Age of Asher Witherow is also about a young man’s formative reckoning with mortality, his ardent struggle to find something lasting to hold onto.

What was your intention in setting “Summer” before the instant access to titillating and disturbing content brought by the Internet age?

It was a mostly unconscious intention, I think, but now that you bring it up I do see how important it was to the nature of the story as a coming-of-age vignette. First there’s the samizdat quality of the Faces of Death videotape. It has a certain significance as an artifact, a hard-to-come-by thing won by cleverness and stealth — and only for a limited time. This elevates the video’s stature and so increases its impact on the kids watching it. Somehow, if they’d just been able to find the same footage on YouTube (which I suppose one can probably do, now, with Faces of Death), the ease of access would dissipate the punch. In this sense, the leveling effect of the Internet is a sort spiritual/aesthetic problem: when everything is so readily and instantaneously available, nothing is particularly special. We pay less attention. We’re desensitized not only to the horrible stuff, but our capacity to be wonderstruck is diminished. I can’t really put myself in the shoes of today’s youngster who “grows up online,” as they say. It’s so foreign to me. I tend to suspect the daily experience is one of total oversaturation, a wash.
            It was supremely important to require young Harris Gerber to agonize about making the equally pined-for and dreaded phone call to the girl he worships. There is so much wrestling of mind and soul that goes into that simple action. Were “Summer” to be set in the present, he’d have the option of breaking the ice via Facebook, a flirtatious text, or something. With middle school crushes of this kind, it used to be a choice between direct contact or nothing. There was the anonymous love note, sure (a medium Harris employs). But the phone call, or the tête-à-tête was the biggee. Whatever the epistolary preludes, we all knew they didn’t really count. What counted was the direct contact — you couldn’t get anywhere till you had that. As most of us pre-Internet folks recall, that was a delicious — and meaningful — kind of torment. It yielded all kinds of pain, longing, and social- and self-development. Now, given the multitudinous methods of mediating contact, the default of the text message or the act of “Friending,” where does all that juicy youthful experience go? Maybe it’s been translated into that SMS somewhere, but I can’t see it. Is puppy love today flattened by over-mediation, just as kids’ access to culture may be a problem of oversaturation?

USA Project contributions not only helped publish Date of Disappearance, they helped you found the press to publish it. Can you explain your vision, and what is next, for Atelier 26?

From the start I envisioned Atelier26 as a beaux arts, belles lettres kind of enterprise. Completely boutique in nature, and yes, necessarily quixotic. Hence the emphasis, with Date of Disappearance, on the finest design standards, the incorporation of visual art, and the book as being a personal, keepable art-object (signed and numbered). Add to all this, too, the very important element of making Aterlier26 titles available for retail exclusively through indie bookstores (no Amazon!).
            It’s been great fun to produce my first title, a volume I can be proud of in all these respects. But my main and most passionate objective with Atelier26 is to champion the fiction of other writers. At the moment I’m in the early stages of working with my first author, an accomplished novelist whose work I hugely admire. It’s extremely exciting to me.

You have been quite vocal against the rise of e-readers and electronic publishing. How has publishing a short story in e-book format changed, or confirmed your opinions?

I wouldn’t say I’m on any kind of cultural campaign against e-reading devices, per se (though I do detest them personally). What I’m against, if anything, are the dogmatic technophiles — or, more often, technocrats — who tend to dominate the conversation about where reading, writing, and publishing is headed. This is a conversation being had, if at all, online — which explains its common “rah-rah gadget!” substance. The technocrat’s dogma holds that the world is destined for the absolute conquest of the screen and its pixels over the page and its ink. Why it must be a question of conquest, rather than useful and reasonable co-existence, no one ever says. It’s a tiresome, self-serving, empty, and ultimately scary kind of hallelujah.
            While we’re on the subject, I might as well say that I’m also against the abject surrender of some readers who accept that other default perspective on this subject, which goes like this: Books are wonderful, we love books, but they’re doomed, like vinyl, to become scarce, overpriced specialty items. That, to me, is a scenario that ought to give any self-respecting reader the dystopian creeps. (C’mon readers, put some fight in those dukes!)
            E-books have their virtues, and there’s a place for these, they should not be discounted. But digital text will never be an adequate wholesale replacement for the printed page, for about a bazillion reasons. My main concerns around the rise of e-books have to do with:
            a) the creepy atmosphere of “inevitability” that has been, let’s face it, socially engineered by technologists through online mass media — I’m referring to the instilled consumer belief that every aspect of life ought to revolve around a digital gadget, that books are simply old media in need of updating, etc. (see Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies);
            b) the widespread neural restructuring effected in readers as they adapt to the digital intake of text, and the ways this may considerably weaken (as neuro-scientific research indicates it does) the important cognitive processes long fostered by print reading (see Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows);
            c) the unavoidable issues of privacy violations — wherein digital content providers know exactly what we’re reading, how much time we spend reading, where we stop reading any particular work, etc.; (see Amazon’s Kindle privacy policy)
            d) the effects of c. as a market-research phenomenon and a determinant in what books — print or digital — the increasingly timid publishers of today choose to publish (witness the innumerable abundantly gifted and seasoned novelists who can’t get their latest books published);
            e) the evolutionary move toward an outright confusion of literature and data (see item d);
            f) the extreme manipulability, or as Jonathan Franzen has called it, “radical contingency” of digital text. Here today, vanished tomorrow. Words that say this one minute, and that the next. The dangers posed by such an unreliable, disembodied medium goes mostly unremarked (but see Orwell’s Ministry of Information);  
            g) the leveling of independent bookstores and, by extension, the disappearance of the kind of vibrant idiosyncratic local culture a great bookstore can encourage (see your own neighborhood);
            h) the further empowerment of Amazon. Consumer passivity in the face of this rapacious company and its frightening CEO has got to end!
            It’s worth noting that none of the above issues show any sign of going away.

            I did recently publish my short story “Sight Unseen” as an e-book. Doing so hasn’t really changed or confirmed my feelings. It’s been fun to know that the story is now available to people instead of simply sitting in a drawer. There’s much to be said there about e-books. They do offer, in a way, a certain empowerment to writers. Except that they also serve to depreciate the perceived price value of a book … oh, but I could I go on forever. …

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