Gary Amdahl and his pet squirrel, Dr. Sugerman, reflect on the current crisis in book publishing.
Welcome to Converminasations, the first of what I hope will become a regular feature of Vermin on the Mount: conversations with future Vermin performers and members of the Legion of Vermin. The first guest is Gary Amdahl, a transplant to Southern California from the Midwest. In 2006. Amdahl's short story collection Visigoth won the Milkween National Fiction Prize. He followed that up in 2008 with I Am Death, also from Milkweed, a "collection" of two very unusual novellas. As you'll soon see, he's been keeping busy...
JIM RULAND: What are you going to be reading for us on April 5?
GARY AMDAHL: I thought I’d read seven or eight explosive pages jam-packed with family fun from “Peasants,” which is the other novella in the I Am Death collection. Here’s why: I get to use my award-winning southern accent in the service of a character who’s a crazy entrepreneur, grandson of a Huey Long style politico, and an outright genius who can’t keep his shit together or his ass out of mental institutions. He’s got nearly total recall of the complete works of every philosopher sociologist theologian psychologist since Erasmus and he cannot shut up. Lives with a hair dresser in a trailer in Orlando and calls up my main character (tellingly named Rasmussen, isn’t literature fun) to lecture him on Emerson and Jungian heroes, such as Rasmussen’s boss, who is secretly channeling big money to the crazy genius, who in turn seems to have a Svengali-like hold on this dopey but undeniably effective funding mechanism, and “the collapse of the consciousness into sensitivity,” which is how he refers to shit murderously hitting the fan. It’s not something you hear on The Office or in any office, but I did in mine. Got it all on tape. But it’s not a documentary: more like The Office as if written by Henry James who is also a womanizing alcoholic.
JR: It’s been nine months since I Am Death was published. How do you feel about it?
GA: I Am Death is simply a book that has not gotten its due. Oprah has repeatedly denied she knows anything about it, even though it’s a Negative New York Times Bestseller that hasn’t sold many thousands more copies in thirty languages around the world. This is a book that friends have moved proactively on, helping friends steer clear of it. I offered free copies to my students and only got a couple takers. No, this book, this green island, this I Am Death is not dead, and I am going to prove it by reading the mad scene from it, along with the death of Ophelia. And I haven’t even begun to speak of the prescient splendor of the pre-Sopranos Chicago mafia novella…
JR: Where did that story come from?
GA: A friend of mine, Jack Hayes, was a reporter for the City News Bureau in Chicago in the late 80s. One of the “capo di tutti capi,” died, and there was a scramble for ascendancy. Jack started to work on a story about it, then got a job as Midwest Correspondent for Life Magazine. He said, “Maybe you can make a novel out of this,” and gave me a pile of raw material, background stuff, deep research, transcripts (some of which in the novella are real, some of which are not). Raw isn’t the word: rich, and for me, incredibly provocative. I had a pretty limited understanding of the mafia: bad TV shows and Coppola’s great movies. Scorsese’s Goodfellas came out in 1990, and it was both revolutionary, generally speaking, and perfectly timed, specifically for me. Nicholas Pileggi adapted his book for the screenplay, and he was somebody Jack had talked to. Two things happened for me: I began to see Mafiosi as ordinary men (old hat, I know, in a post-Sopranos world, but this was circa 1988-1992) and their “criminality” as just one end of the spectrum of ways in which human beings govern themselves. Chicago’s municipal government was particularly saturated in that way, and it was easy for me imagine a couple of smart, powerful, deluded, abusive men thinking they could go legit in a big way, that they could move from coercion to actual governance. (Blagojevich and Burris are just another couple chapters, fairly banal in my view). I was really eager to write a fable along those lines because my jaw was still hanging on the ground over “Iran/Contra” and the way an explicitly illegal government had slipped in place behind our legal government. I was also browsing in early American economic history, and was interested in the way the ethics of the local marketplace had been shattered when technological revolutions in transportation and communication made marketplaces effectively ungoverned by a local, human-scale sense of right and wrong: violence is inherent in commerce, and the mafia seemed like a completely natural extension of business.
JR: I'm curious about the novella format. You can do more things in a novella than you can in a short story, but you get your resolution much faster than you would in a novel. They seem like an accidental medium and are viewed as short stories that went long or novels that ran out of steam. Do you agree? Did you set out to write novellas?
GA: Yes, I set out to write novellas. The misunderstanding of them (I agree with you, either stories that are too long or novels that aren’t long enough) is tragic, a vicious circle of categorization and commodification and uniformity of product that no longer makes sense to anybody but which we can’t break free of. I hear people talking about wanting to make an investment of time, I guess, and a minimal kind of attention, in a story when they buy a book, and the novella, I dunno, makes them feel like they’re not getting full value on their entertainment dollar. It’s horrifying and stupid. Imagine a gang of Russian financial wizards (bright boy bankers and slavically suicidal hedge funders, with “an interest in the arts,” telling Tolstoy that “The Death of Ivan Illych” is, at 40-45 pp., neither fish nor fowl and therefore unpublishable: pad it, Leo old man, or gut it—all stories can benefit from cutting, da? Or the learned playboys who sold out to the world media congloms (exception: the late great James Laughlin and New Directions) straightening Saul Bellow’s lapels, “Saulie, Seize the Day looks so…I dunno, slender propped up next to Augie March, I mean, come on, fella, you see what we’re saying…we want a man’s book. Novellas are for women’s magazines.” And anyone suggesting Joyce’s “The Dead” is too long or too short ought to be sentenced to live without that masterpiece for ten years. It’s all categorizing (a means of escaping the thing itself by naming it) and marketing (“Readers don’t want to buy novellas, sorry.” WELL WHY THE FUCK WOULD PEOPLE DRAW THE LINE THERE??? “I don’t care how good it is, seventy-five pages leaves me feeling uneasy….”
JR: For a while, it seemed like novellas anchored short story collections either to give the collection more gravitas or to showcase the writer's potential as a novelist. What is the role of the novella? Does it have a future?
GA: Hard to say what has a future in the book biz. I mean, maybe even books don’t have a future in the book biz. But I gotta believe there are cycles and swings of the pendulum like everywhere else. Stories will be judged as either good or bad or somewhere in between, not as fictitious or non-fictitious, as a novel or a novella, as true or false. Actually: the distinction will be made, must be made, between true and false, just not along the lines of the current “fake memoir” scandals. There are truthful novels and fraudulent memoirs. Bullshit is bullshit. Tastes will change and markets will follow or vice versa, or they won’t. Maybe we’ve got decades of suffering ahead. I luckily consider myself primarily a reader, a reader of old and forgotten books, so unless they are burned or quarantined, I’ll be okay. As a reader. As a writer…? Murky period ahead of x-rated infantilism. I will have to create a new marketing niche, “Old Adult,” or just go all Emily Dickinson on everybody.
JR: Well it's not like mainstream publishing is all that receptive to short story collections either. I suspect it's all driven my marketing, which needs to be able to describe a book in seven words or less, like a freeway billboard. They can't sell it if they don't know what it is.
GA: It’s true. Editors and Publicity Directors get two minutes to pitch each book in their catalog. It’s worse than Hollywood. In Hollywood, you can say picture this and it’s actually meaningful. Book biz, you just throw your best seven words at the center of the room and hope somebody hears it. Mainstream publishing is receptive to maximized profit, like every other (short-sighted) corporation currently dragging the USA down the toilet. Used to be an extremely low-overhead biz, with profit margins at 1½-3%. If a book sold well, you had a steady, slow, small profit stream (Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered is one of the greatest books I have ever read.); if it didn’t sell well or sold outright awfully, like Moby-Dick, say, you took a small one-time loss. Now, in the wake of the global media empires thinking for a horrifying moment that books could profitable just like every other kind of entertainment, we have huge overheads that must be fed with profit margins beyond 15%! As much as 20% or christ, who knows what the top is. We know what the bottom is: it doesn’t work and mainstream publishers are being handed their asses like automobile-makers. But the worst part is: to get maximal profit, you have to be able to predict your biz. To predict, you need to standardize your product and streamline its manufacture. You, for instance, enter into agreements with large chain bookstores: they will feature your books if you can guarantee minimum sales and bigger discounts than you give to independent stores. The chains begin their horrifying lives having virtually every book currently in print, on their shelves, waiting for eager readers, luring them in, we’ve got it all, step right up, everyone’s a winner, bargain’s galore. Once they’ve established what kind of book sells best…the rest are disappeared. Just like dissenters in any fascist state.
JR: I think one of the misperceptions people have about writers with more than one book published is they think the writer's got it all figured out, they know the lay of the land. But publishing is like the Grand Canyon. When you're standing at the edge you can appreciate its majesty. Hell, you can almost see the other side. But once you go down into the canyon it really starts to open up. It's bigger, stranger, and much more baffling than you realized.
GA: Unless you’re a corporate entertainment product specialist who pumps out the same bullshit book after book—because, don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming the writers, who are just trying to make a living, nothing wrong with that, because people eat bullshit up like it’s mashed potatoes and gravy. Real writers do not know from one sentence to the next, much less from one book to the next, how things are going to shape up. Real writing is about finding out what comes next, not recording predictable fluctuations in the plot as per previous analyses, not taking dictation from Bozo the Clown at Random House.
JR: Is it true that you were once a motorcycle racer? Did you have to dress like those guys in the A-Ha video?
GA: It’s true that I intended to. I went from a nearly straight-A student to a nearly straight-F student, and was in real danger of not graduating from high school. I was working in a warehouse so I could a buy a van to cart my motorcycles around and enough speed to keep my tongue raw and my eyes bugging out. I had an Ossa shortracker and a primitive Suzuki motocrosser, stock, but a racing machine. I had them long enough to feel real speed and to learn that I was not nearly as dedicated or capable a mechanic as would be necessary to be even competitive as a back-marker. I had zero aptitude for the hard work of racing. I was, as Mark Van Doren said of the Shakespeare who animated Macbeth, into “sensation and catastrophe” (a theme, by the way, of AMBBB). Wasn’t exactly clumsy with tools, but not what I would call competent either. Haven’t seen the A-Ha video. Am I very much not sophisticated? Very old? I had authentic “motocross socks” made by Hang Ten, which I think was mainly a surfer biz….
JR: How is writing more dangerous than riding a motorcycle?
GA: Riding a motorcycle, you generally hurt only yourself—and that’s when things go wrong. When you write, you hurt people near and dear to you, without meaning to, without wanting to, and even in some cases without even knowing it—and that’s when things are going well. The damage I may or may have not done, may yet do, to myself honestly doesn’t register in me. I feel like my psyche, my soul, is there to be put in jeopardy, to go, as the Buddhists say, to the places that scare it—if of course the pursuit is of truth and beauty! Then I am quite sure there will be some serenity, in the end. If I trash my mental health in hopes of becoming rich and famous, well, I deserve mental disease. But my loved ones…? The pursuit of truth and beauty sometimes strikes me as pitiless, remorseless, and mean….
JR: What are you pursuing these days?
GA: I am publishing a novella called “Across My Big Brass Bed” in Agni Review this spring, which will cover my sex life from 6-12, when I get it on (this is 1968) with my social studies teacher. I am continuing the story and making it a full-blown (heh) novel, featuring in part two adolescent love-life and motorcycle-racing which culminates in me murdering—accidentally—some gal’s estranged husband; and then moves on, part three, adult love-life as a street bandoneón player attempting to arrange and perform all of Bach’s cantatas on bandoneón, flute, guitar, with occasional singing. I read a piece of it to the Creative Writing and English faculty and their students, out here at U Redlands, where I live, and I stupefied them all with the length and complexity of the sentences. They’re good sentences, man, don’t get me wrong, I stand by them—they’re just not right for a saloon reading series…you know, I’ve got my cock in my social studies teacher’s mouth, and in another part of the sentence I’m rhapsodizing about Karl Popper’s great pre-hippie book, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Hard to follow. I could rehearse but I think it’s still going to be a slog.
JR: I wasn't aware that 6-year-olds have a sex life.
GA: That’s GOOD. Keep thinking that.
JR: Do you have another novel in the pipeline?
GA: Across My Big Brass Bed joins another novel, The Daredevils, which I thought was done but is being revised, and they make up the first two parts of my “Anarchism Trilogy.” The third novel is called The Treaties and is set mainly on an Indian reserve in northwestern Ontario, Grassy Narrows. There are no character or plot carry-overs, but I just realized that all three are about people trying to live free of coercion: good coercion bad coercion indifferent coercion, the whole system. Better to dream and wander, and starve if that’s what it comes to, but do not under any circumstances command or obey.
JR: What's The Daredevils about?
GA: Set in San Francisco and Minnesota just before and after the U.S. entry into WWI. Main characters are a “mill girl” from Thread City, Willimantic, Connecticut, somewhat along the lines of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn in her precocious intelligence and personal charisma, who starts a stampede strike more or less accidentally and gets taken up by IWW organizers on their way to the big strikes in Lawrence, MA (wool-workers), and Paterson, New Jersey (silk-workers), who meets a motorcycle racer (1912-1916 was the hey-day of steeply banked board tracks) via the radical crowd centered around Mabel Dodge, John Reed, Big Bill Haywood, Max Eastman, etc. They leave New York, set up shop in San Francisco, and meet a young aristocrat—easiest reference would be to the Kennedy family, who wants to be—is—an actor. Acting is not necessarily incompatible with politics, but our aristo is honest. He wants to be an honest actor. With greasepaint and footlights and rehearsed lines and hammy gestures. Despises even the Progressive Bull Moose politics of his family (and his father’s friend T. Roosevelt), falls in love with the mill girl as the motorcycle racer slowly succumbs to the quite horrible physical beating he has taken as a daredevil and consequent addiction to…yes! Morphine! After the Preparedness Day Parade bombing in San Francisco (patriotic prelude to US entry into the war, blamed on “anarchists” (read: labor organizers) Tom Mooney and the less reputable but equally innocent Warren Billings, they all end up in Minnesota, which a shadowy but fully-sanctioned “watchdog” group turns the state into a fascist playground in the name of…? Yes: homeland security.
JR: What's the most unusual reaction you've gotten at a reading?
Don't miss Gary Amdahl at The Mountain Bar, Sunday April 5 at 8pm.