A Book is a Place: A Profile of Joe Meno

June 16, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 1 6 min read

coverAt 35, Joe Meno has already published seven books and told Judith Regan – the infamous publisher of books by Jenna Jameson and (almost) O.J. Simpson – “You suck it.” He’s a sincere supporter of independent bookstores and presses, and he values the community of artists in his hometown of Chicago, where he still lives. Last week, Joe Meno came to Los Angeles as part of his tour for his most recent novel, The Great Perhaps, and the afternoon before his reading at Skylight Books, I met him at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to continue a discussion we’d begun via email. We sat outside at the hotel’s Tropicana Bar, and as European tourists breaststroked across the David Hockney-painted swimming pool nearby, June Gloom be damned, I asked, “Did Norton put you up in this glamorous hotel?” (I got married at the Roosevelt, so I know a thing or two about glamor.) Meno said yes; when I asked if nice hotels were one of the differences between his current publisher and Akashic – the small press who put out his previous two novels – he nodded. “But that’s about all that’s different,” he said.

coverIn previous interviews, Meno has alluded to the similarities between Akashic and Norton, and I asked him to elaborate. He described their likeminded editorial processes, first with Johnny Temple and Dan Sinker at Akashic, and then with Tom Mayer at Norton. His first two books, published by St. Martens and HarperCollins, did not get the kind of close attention he is now so grateful for. “The way that corporate publishing is set up nowadays, the editors don’t have time, or they don’t have the inclination, or necessarily the skills, to line edit. They really are like A&R people where they acquire the material and then you’re kind of on your own. They’re not responsible for what’s inside of the book. What I really loved about Akashic – Johnny Temple and Dan Sinker – was that we would sit on a couch and go through each page at a time, line-by-line, word-by-word. Up until my third book, Hairstyles of the Damned, I’d never done that.”

When Meno found out Norton and other large publishing houses were interested in The Great Perhaps, he asked each editor, “What needs work?” Tom Mayer had a lot of ideas, whereas other editors loved the novel as-is. “This is a 400-page book, that’s just not possible,” Meno told me with a laugh. “It spoke highly of what kind of editor [Tom] is, and what kind of place Norton is.” Meno was quick to emphasize that Norton is an independent publisher, owned by its employees, and that, although older and much larger, it holds the same ideals as a small press like Akashic.

I asked Meno what changes he had made to the novel with Mayer’s editorial assistance. Aside from a small structural revision at the opening, they worked most closely on the prose; for example, Mayer pointed out how many times Meno had used the word suddenly. “You get to that point as a writer,” Meno said, “where the story, the characters, all that sound… is in place, and you can look at the language and how words work together. It’s almost like poetry, like William Carlos Williams, where you’re like, ‘How does this look on the page?’ It was great to work on that with Tom.”

There were little things about working with Akashic that Meno had cherished, like being involved with his book’s cover design and marketing campaign, and this level of input has continued with Norton (it was included in his contract, he said.) Meno credits his own involvement for the success of his books with Akashic. He said, “This is a book you’ve spent years working on, and you shouldn’t be cut out from that process. My argument is that no one is going to have better ideas than the person who wrote the book about how it should be marketed and what the cover should look like.”

Meno respects Norton and Akashic not only because they invite their authors into the publishing process, but because they’re not afraid to try new things, and be innovative. Neither will be caught in an outdated paradigm. “It’s a pretty lean year for publishing, and the next couple years will be,” Meno said. “The publishers who survive are the ones who can make changes, and use the technology, but also be open to taking advantage of whatever the authors have to offer.” He said of large, corporate publishers: “They’re almost like printers. They take your manuscript, they print this book and put it out there, and clearly, that’s not working.”

coverIn the ten years since his first novel was published, Meno says he has discovered his own agency as an author. When Tender as Hellfire came out, he thought publishers, “must know what they’re doing, this is their business… but they actually work like people gambling on race horses. I knew as much about the book and how to market it as they did.” He realized that getting in the car and doing a 36-city book tour, as he did for Hairstyles of the Damned, “could have the same result as millions of dollars in ad revenue.” He went on: “There was room for invention. That’s really gratifying to know. Even though this industry’s been around a couple hundred years in the States, it’s by no means all figured out yet. For people like Johnny Temple and Richard Nash, Norton, Melville House, there’s so much room to invent. It took me a long time to figure that out.”

Throughout my conversation with Meno, the words “sameness,” and – perhaps its antidote – “invention,” came up repeatedly. One aspect of the publishing and book world that Meno doesn’t like is its uniformity. “What’s acceptable or worthwhile or deemed literary is so narrow,” he said. He continued:

There’s a sameness to the book covers… there’s an aesthetic sameness to the way books are being sold, the kind of books that are put out, the content. There’s a sameness to the background of the writers – how many novelists graduated from Columbia… or Iowa. There’s a sameness to the style, and what New York publishing deems serious. [The style] is heavily realistic. It’s become increasingly in years bent more towards memoir, and almost journalistic. The era of inventive writing, writers like Vonnegut, Pynchon and Barthelme, outside of McSweeney’s, is almost non-existent… If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you write a certain kind of book, a certain tone, a certain style.

The more I write, the more I’ve come to realize that books have a different place in our society than other media. Books are different from television or film because they ask you to finish the project. You have to be actively engaged to read a book. It’s more like a blueprint. What it really is, is an opportunity… A book is a place where you’re forced to use your imagination. I find it disappointing that you’re not being asked to imagine more.

Meno made it clear that many of the writers he admires, like Tobias Wolff and Aleksander Hemon, write in a realist style; it’s simply the lack of diversity that bothers him. “I get nervous when it’s all the same,” he said. “There are plenty of writers who I admire who work outside of those boundaries but few of them are published by big houses, and few of them are known in America. They’re certainly not being reviewed in the New York Times, and excerpts aren’t being placed in the New Yorker. And I also think there’s an aspect of age and generation. As new media comes into it, there’s going to be shift.”

The Great Perhaps, then, can be read as an attempt at complexity, both on an aesthetic level, with its many storytelling and formal devices, and on a thematic one, for its characters – the five Caspers – are trying to figure out this complicated, scary world without relying on dogma or easy answers. The novel, Meno said, is an attempt to answer the question: “How do you live in a world without having to rely on absolutes?” Of course, the novel never posits one simple solution; that would defeat the purpose of asking the question in the first place. Meno did say, however, that the historical sections of the book (which explore Jonathan Casper’s cowardly ancestors, as well as cowardly moments in American history), are meant to show that “questions of courage and fear aren’t limited to just our era. We seem to be motivated by fear a lot.” Could this be one reason for publishing’s refusal to reinvent? What are they afraid of?

coverJoe Meno seems more than willing to try new things in his work, to stretch his expectations of what he can do as a writer, and what a book can be. “When my first book came out, I was 22, I was working at a head shop. I couldn’t believe someone was going to pay me and put my name on the book! That was the extent of my ambitions. Now of course [I] want my work to be seen as worthwhile, to be taken seriously.” Referring to his most recent short story collection, Demon in the Spring, with its inside jacket made from beautiful firecracker paper, and a different artist illustrating each story, he said, “The book doesn’t have to be just one thing. And increasingly we’ll have to find other ways of approaching what a book is. There’s room for artfulness… What’s terrifying is that you know every time you’re starting over, but that’s also what’s really rewarding. And why you keep doing it.”

I enjoyed talking with Meno; even when discussing the flaws of the publishing world, he never lost that tone of hopefulness, that excitement for the alternatives. He seems to bring this desire for change and inventiveness to everything, even his teaching at Columbia College, where the writing classes are “process-oriented,” meaning the students meet for over four hours to write, read published work, and exchange positive feedback. (This sounded amazing!) As with everything else, in the classroom, Meno values diversity and inventiveness. What can we learn from one another if we’ve all read the same books? “The basic premise of storytelling is trying to make a connection with people who are different from you,” Meno said.

That night, after Meno’s well-attended reading (he shared the stage with local writers Jim Ruland and Margaret Wappler), a few of us went for drinks at The Dresden. As Meno sipped his Blood & Sand (The Dresden’s signature cocktail), legendary lounge singers Marty and Elayne serenaded him in honor of his new novel. “Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…,” Elayne crooned. We all felt hopeful.

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.