Dark Corners is a new pulp magazine that most in the Circle of Trust probably know about by now. Its debut issue includes pieces by Will Viharo, Alec Cizak, Tom Pitts, Chris Leek, Warren Moore and many more. I got a piece in there as well, and I’m eternally grateful to mastermind and PhD of modern pulp Craig T. McNeely who runs the show over there. It’s more of an anthology of the latest goin-ons in the pulp world, much in the same spirit as The Booked. Anthology and Warmed and Bound–a veritable who’s-it-what’s-it of the past year of fellas and fellettes putting works out to expand the pulp/noir empire.
Dark Corners Vol. 1, Issue 1 is available in both print and digital here.
Craig was open to a re-printing of an interview he did with me for the issue, so that can be found below. I really liked this interview because Craig forced me to look hard at the past few years of writing, years in which I went both a little insane and broke new ground. But descending into the underbelly will do that to a guy.
1a) Talk about your writer life. Bring us up to the writing of Tongue-Cut Ninja. What were your influences?
Tongue-Cut Ninja came shortly after I moved home from my third stint in Korea, where my wife and I had to go now and again to maintain profitable employment. We were living in an apartment just off the river in Minneapolis. Real cool area, and I was not yet employed and I was at the tail-end of a pretty defining creative shift. Writing was going terribly. I didn’t really feel comfortable moving back to Minnesota where I’ve consistently had trouble getting full-time employment. I was between jobs with no real prospects. Artistically, I was just in the blahs. It was hot as hell that summer and after a little over a year of searching, I accepted that the direction I was going with my writing wasn’t the best. It just didn’t feel right.
Up until that summer, I had spent the prior eight years primarily submitting stories to literary journals I didn’t read. I felt very shackled, less free to write what I really wanted. And these were all self-contrived rules. I was writing in a way I thought came off as “literary,” a way that was approved only by the ghosts in my head. Success in the writing world was starting to look a lot like killing myself for months on a short story, sending it out, collecting 30+ rejections, and then scratching my head when it was eventually accepted somewhere. Or scratching my head if it was never accepted. Very little joy in any of it.
My memory is a little fuzzy because my wife and I were transitioning so much during this time. I know I was still operating a character-driven literary criticism blog that was meant to be a spoof on popular indie-lit blogs at the time, but it was more like me yelling at myself about writing. That blog really propelled my creative shift. It was what pushed me over the edge. Don’t know if it was a mental snap or what. But after that, I knew I was going to be a different kind of writer.
Tongue-Cut was written summer of 2011. It had to’ve started through a conversation with Christopher Coffey, a good pal of mine and a fantastic illustrator. We’ve collaborated on a few things, and I was always trying to figure out a way where he and I could work together. My guess is that I asked him what the deal was with the different origin tales for Splinter (90s movies vs. cartoon) because he has an encyclopedic knowledge of a lot of things, especially comics. He said something like, “Well, you gotta read the comics because that’s way different.” He gave me this hefty stack of TMNT works (his library is extensive), and I learned that there was no cohesion between any of these origin stories, so I figured I had room to write my own.
That piece was strange because every day it was like a different voice trying to tell this story, so I just rolled with it. Wrote these quick, snappy passages with little thought to what, where, or how it should go. After I would write a passage, I’d talk to Coffey to give him an idea as to where the story was going. He’d suggest some things, saying more or less, “Wouldn’t it be sweet if …” And we were off. I’d write a scene, he’d imagine an illustration. Eventually we had enough to start a website on which we published one section per week with an illustration.
We got no hits, but Coffey and I were having fun with it. Then, like a lot of my projects, it just went away for about two years. In early 2013, I returned to it, having gained some design chops, and realized we had enough content to put together a little novella, so I did that.
We even contacted Eastman and Laird at one point to see if they’d just be interested in reading it. One of them got back, said he wished us well with the project but they didn’t even have rights to the TMNT property, Viacom does, so there was really nothing we could do with it if we wanted to sell it. But he did say we could call it fan fiction or change all the names and call it a ninja tale. It was important to us that this was a TMNT story because of our boyhood love of the franchise. So, two adults invested tons of time, money, and effort to create a piece of fan fiction that fourteen people have read. Maybe a couple of others online.
However, it was totally worth it. And it’s still free. I’m out of print editions as the company I used to print it went out of business and I can’t do the POD off Amazon without selling it. So, I’m not sure what to do with it now. PDFs for everybody!
1b) What were your primary successes and failures?
This is a touchy one, but I’ll be as honest as I can with it. A lot of my work for the past few years, since the creative break, has felt failure-ish if you look at success as gaining readership and sales. I do feel better about what I’m creating. It’s more honest to the type of writer I am, but very few people are really into it. I nab some interest here and there, but for the most part people look at my projects currently out there (Buffalo, Tongue-Cut, and City Kaiju) and either ignore them completely, or only mention this work as a departure from my “real work”, the short stories that some folks have enjoyed. Basically, the past few years of work for me have been put in a bin relegated for side projects–not part of my serious work. Either way, it feels a little dismissive, but I think it’s hard to really understand these projects on a reader’s end. Lord knows I’ve had trouble explaining them.
Buffalo is a dime novel. Nobody knows what dime novels are because they came out of fashion nearly a hundred years ago. They’ve fallen so far out of relevance, they were actually deemed extinct by a critic in 1904. But it’s the original pulp. Tongue-Cut is Ninja Turtle fan fiction and no matter how many times you say, “But you just gotta read it to see that it’s not the turtles tag-teaming April O’Neil in the news van, but a fairly experimental meditation on how two dutiful warriors come to a tragic crossroads at a time when their way of life is no longer viable,” you just won’t convince anybody that it’s something other than the gutter swill of the fiction community. And City Kaiju was such a mess when I was creating it that when I did mention it, all I found myself talking about was its intrinsic disaster-hood. Not the best way to garner interest. Also, the moment you say superhero and monster in the same sentence you’re immediately written off as “One of those writers.” Which I guess is genre, which can be like a curse word among certain circles.
But that’s judging success on gaining readership–which is important because writing hardly exists without communion–but that’s not the only kind of success there is in the long life of a writer. Despite losing money on these projects and connecting with an audience so select I know them all by first name, I think these works are still successes. I was most artistically free while writing them. The few folks who do dig these works are, like, really into them. True fans. I think these works honor and represent the crazy and unintelligible desires that define who I am as a person, the part of my artistic self that somehow gets in touch with that child-like reverie of this strange, strange world we find ourselves in—a world filled with contradictions our dumb lump of gray matter will never understand. We exist here. I don’t know why. But the fantasies I create are something I can sort of understand and other people sometimes understand them, too. Create, commune, be eternally confused.
Then again, if I didn’t define success in this way, I’m not sure what I’d have as a writer. You always have to be doing it for the work first. When you create in service of the creation, it’s a perpetual machine deriving energy from nowhere, and I think that’s what makes it magical and why some people think it can be a holy experience. I don’t believe in that kind of holy magic, but I get why people elevate their language around truth-seeking art.
2a) One of the things that is always amazing about your books is the attention to design and layout. What are your influences here?
There were only two times in college that a professor pulled me aside and was like, “You’re really doing something here.” One time was for an essay class, but the other time was for an art class. I took intro to 2D art just to fulfill a requirement, and I could not leave the art room for however long a semester is—4 months? I felt guilty being in there because I was letting my other studies slide (not that I was a great or committed student), but I was so captivated by Cezanne’s work, I just kept repainting his clown piece—the abstract one because he has a series of these and I didn’t really dig his work when he leaned toward realism. It was one of the few times I ever worked with a sense of purpose for any course work. I didn’t have this kind of endless energy for my writing courses. I didn’t do it for anything else. Only this 2D art course. When the professor pulled me aside, I don’t think he saw talent, but he probably saw a kid who was willing to put the time in to make sure the piece was as good as he could make it. He said I should consider majoring in art. I didn’t. I majored in English.
I tell my wife now that I wish I listened to him. But I didn’t even know design or art schools existed until well after I graduated. They were never on my radar. Even if they were, I don’t think I could’ve afforded it or had anything to put in my portfolio. I thought college was this one particular thing, and by one particular thing, I thought college was one particular school, St. John’s University. I loved it there, but I didn’t do any kind of searching. I never really considered what sort of activities made time disappear or gave me a sense of purpose. Working on those paintings was one of those things. And writing is one of those things, too, but I have to work much harder at that. I was raised Catholic, so if something feels good, it’s in me to immediately label it as wrong. Writing is a perfectly difficult activity that feels like work, so it must be right, right?
Design didn’t really hit me until I had to learn it for a job I fell into. I picked up some rudimentary InDesign bits here and there to get through the job, but then Jason Stuart and I were at the stage of putting out Buffalo Bill in the Gallery of the Machines. Jason made a cool cover for it and we put it out as an e-book. Then I went to Denver to visit some friends who surprised me by bringing me up to Buffalo Bill’s grave out on Lookout Peak. There’s a museum up there and they have all these Buffalo Bill dime novels. I had seen them on the Internet when researching Buffalo, but I had never seen them up close. Once I saw them, I knew I had to have something that looked like that for the cover. I didn’t know how to use Illustrator, but the job I had at the time gave me a laptop with Illustrator on it, so I taught myself. Spent hours and hours and hours trying to do the simplest things. Eventually, I made it work. I started doing design work for friends after that and got pretty obsessed with it.
Still, I don’t know a thing compared to real designers. I’m more of a desktop publisher. I can get stuff that’s workable and looks good enough. My current position is pretty design heavy so I’ve gotten better over the past couple years. Good enough to finally feel comfortable putting together full novels and finally redesigning Buffalo to be a true dime novel with proper dimensions and a great historically accurate cover design.
I even got to see an extensive collection of Buffalo Bill dime novels up close at the Stanford libraries. It was so great paging through one and getting to see how they designed the works back in the day. However, it was a little tragic because every time I turned a page, the spine crumbled to dust. They were the cheapest form of publishing 100 years ago so they don’t stand the test of time too well. I got about halfway through one, closed it, put it back in the plastic sleeve and told the librarian that they needed to digitize them otherwise there’ll be nothing left for the next pulp aficionado who visits the collection.
2b) Do you think that other authors should be paying more attention to these things?
The greatest thing about knowing how to design your own publication is the creative control you have. I can put my books out and I know they’re going to look decent. It’s one of the skills that is just good for a writer to have. Writing programs would do well to add it to their curriculum because putting works out on your own is one of the many ways to get published, and I think one mistake writers make is that they narrowly define paths to publication, the way I did before my creative shift. Also, you learn basic things when you have to push your work. It’s a great lesson in humility. You see your reach. You see who’s down with what you do. You see first-hand that there is no money in it. But you meet other writers. It forces you to engage. Writers should do it just to see the process and have an understanding of it, learn the realities of the publishing landscape, and be empowered by it.
If you’re writing a lot, you’re going to have works that you know aren’t going to be for the masses. Having the skills to bring these works to your niche audience is very important. It helps keep that long conversation of literature going … better yet, it’s these works that you create for your small audience that may someday change the conversation. The more you’re creating the works that aren’t generally accepted the more you’re necessitating diversity within the form.
3) What is the history of City Kaiju? Take us from concept to completion.
I’m amazed it’s complete. It’s not perfect, but it has two covers, a little over 230 pages between them, and 60,000 words fill those pages. The conception was awesome, though. Me and Coffey drinking beer in his Uptown apartment in 2008. It was early December in Minnesota, which is a beautiful time. Neither of us was working much. We probably were just killing time until we could head to some bars down the street, maybe with plans to see a band we loved, Ouija Radio, at the Uptown Bar. So we spent that afternoon writing comic book proposals.
City Kaiju was one of those proposals. I knocked out a few scripts in the ensuing weeks. Coffey quickly realized multi-paneled pages take way longer than scripts. Then I started writing it as a novel. It failed on many occasions (2009, 2011, 2012, 2013) only to be resurrected each time. It was like this yearly thing.
I had to write out a Superman character central to the narrative at one point. I had to completely throw out all the comic book scripts, which were at one time supposed to be symbolic of its roots and maybe even be deemed “experimental.” Its most dire moment was when the front half didn’t make sense with the back half, so I had to sluice the first 40,000 words into the gutter and start again.
I had to rewrite for style reasons. Some chapters had years of growth and change between them, even though only minutes pass for the characters. Like, the opening chapter is from 2013, while the second chapter is from 2009. I had to adjust for my personal change as a writer as best I could in the revisions. It was crazy. This book was written pre- and post- the creative snap, which is why I remain so uncertain about it. Maybe why it comes off as a little manic. Maybe it doesn’t come off that way. I dunno. No work has ever baffled me so thoroughly. Not only its creation, but most baffling of all has been my hegemonic desire to put it out against an organic process that has repeatedly failed, suggesting that I should throw it out. And I did throw it out on many occasions. But I’d come back to it, and then it became this thing where I felt like I was too far along and there was no turning back.
Usually when I write anything, no matter its length, I’m in that story from start until end. This one didn’t work that way. Each time it failed and I returned to it, it was like being startled out of a dream and then going back to sleep and trying to enter that same dream. That never works. The moment you fall asleep—or in this case hypnotize yourself enough to reenter the narrative—it’s something else. The interruption destroys it all and you have to start over. So it ended up being this piece cobbled together from pretty disparate elements.
And I don’t know why I never really pushed to ask anybody to read a draft before I published it. I had this sick desire to just be like, “I want to see what I can do in a vacuum.” So that’s what I did. I never thought anybody would be interested in it enough to finish it. It was spiteful, brave, and stupid all at once. I don’t get it. Seriously. This is why writers need agents and editors. You get to a point where you’re allowing your own creative energy to eat itself. It’s rabid, dumb, and mean, but sometimes interesting work comes from this.
City Kaiju was a mess. Still might be a mess. But it’s a beautiful mess, and maybe a nonsensical mess.
4) The character of Bram is very well drawn and, as a reader, you really start to care what happens to him. Is there any of you in any of your characters?
Oh, yes. Bram and Spanker, and to a lesser degree Steve and Ji-Hoon, are really what kept the novel somewhat tethered together. Though I routinely lost the dream due to struggles with the creative process, I never lost touch with who the characters were. Bram and Spanker, especially.
It’s great to hear that you cared for Bram. That is always the goal as a writer: find a way to get your reader to care for your characters. That’s how the door is opened to the world. It’s the wardrobe to Narnia. I was unsure about that. I thought he might be a little too underdeveloped because the time between his creation, or more accurately, the time I spent away from his creation seemed like it could really dismantle any believability I might’ve established in an earlier draft.
It’s difficult to say where the influence for a character comes from because often there are so many sources—personal experience, people you know, pop culture, long-established tropes—but in that work Bram was the closest to me because he is this straight man in a fantastical world that touches on the absurd. He navigates this world perpetually shell-shocked. He doesn’t worship it like Spanker, he doesn’t hate it like Ji-hoon, and he doesn’t try to destroy it like Steve. He’s resigned to it, the way most of us have to resign ourselves to our day-to-day.
There’s a moment near the end of the book where, I think, Ji-hoon just loses her shit on Bram. She’s pissed that he seems so accepting of it all and a little distant, distracted from this world that’s gone to shit. Almost OK with that. That felt real close because on occasion I’ve been accused of not being as engaged as I should be in a particular moment. It’s like shutting down. It’s a sensory overload kind of feeling and I think to outsiders, they see an individual ignoring the world, or turning away from it, when really it’s the opposite. So much is being taken in, your brain just scrambles and in order to preserve yourself, or your sanity at that given moment, you just sort of stop—or blank out. You haven’t disappeared at all, you’re there, but it takes a little extra time to process, and then you can re-engage. Of course, you completely lose track of what anybody has said or done during that time, but you piece it back together.
That has caused some problems for me. It’s a little more severe than just zoning out. You literally lose a connection. But also, this tendency to slip away to somewhere safe is the same place I go when I’m really in the meat of a writing session. The volume on the world is turned down. All colors disappear. And you’re just somewhere else entirely. It’s Spanker’s moon cave. This strange sense of safety, but not the warm kind with a blanket and a hug and a kiss. It’s a cold feeling. Desensitized and dark and quiet. Alone, but very OK with being alone because not only has the world disappeared, but the incessant chatter in your head is gone. The negative thoughts. The fears and regrets. Ego has no place there. It wouldn’t even make sense. It doesn’t have the right language.
So, I guess, not only in the characters, but in the narrative itself, I was working with these ideas of how to process a world that’s destroying itself—maybe destroying itself is not quite what I mean—but a world that is becoming a place that is incredibly resistant to human understanding. It’s not really about survival—because most of the characters aren’t overly concerned about living—but it’s more about preserving their desire to continue to interact with a world that can be such an awful place, where stepping out your front door, waking up in the morning, or walking down the street is the bravest thing an individual can do with his or her life. It’s about the decision to be with the world at all costs. Not to save it. Not to fix it. Just to be there when it’s happening.