Demons in the Spring

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A Book is a Place: A Profile of Joe Meno

At 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.In 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.”In 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?Joe 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.

The Millions Interview: Joe Meno

Joe Meno’s most recent novel, The Great Perhaps, is a beautiful and entertaining tragicomedy about the Casper family: scientists Jonathan and Madeline, their complicated teenage daughters, Amelia and Thisbe, and Jonathan’s father, Henry, who is willing himself to disappear, speaking fewer and fewer words each day. Meno is the author of four other novels, including Hairstyles of the Damned, and his most recent story collection, Demons in the Spring, was a finalist for the fifth annual Story Prize.The Millions: I had this sensation when reading The Great Perhaps that its form was continually unfolding and revealing itself to me. For instance, we’ve got an elevated third person narrator that also manages to swoop deeply into various characters’ perspectives; we’ve got short narratives about various Casper ancestors; we’ve got Jonathan’s father Henry writing letters to himself about his past – and so on. This sensation of formal evolution was exhilarating, perhaps because it never felt inaccessible. Did you plan to write a book that shifts in these formal ways? And why these particular narrative choices?Joe Meno: When I first started writing the book I had no idea what it was about or how to tell it, other than I wanted to try and tell the story of a family in the weeks leading up to the 2004 election. After I finished the first draft, I realized the book was about complexity, and the need for it, and how terrified we, as Americans, seemed to have become of anything complicated or uncertain. As I started rewriting and organizing the book I realized that in order to get to the complexity of the character’s lives, I would need a structure that was also complex, so I started using different forms for each character as a way to develop who they were – Jonathan, a paleontologist, has various abstracts from his published scientific journals, his wife, Madeline, an animal behaviorist, has her chapters structured like field notes, their daughter Amelia, a budding Marxist, has excerpts from her angry anti-capitalist rants in the school newspaper, their other daughter, Thisbe, has these very violent prayers she has made up, and their grandfather, Henry, has these letters he writes to himself as a way to rid himself of his connections to the past.TM: There’s a notion in your novel that cowardice and failure can be inherited. Do you think the book supports or disproves this theory – or does it do both?JM: Actually, I did a lot of research looking at the theories concerning the heredity of personality traits, and there’s a lot of evidence that our behaviors are not only influenced by role models like our parents, but also by the genes they pass on through these structures called epigenes, which is fascinating and also really, really horrifying. I think, in the end, that all humans, who on some basic level are all genetically related, have the very real potential for stunning acts of cowardice, and at the same time, the possibility for kindness and bravery. When you think about the last eight years of our country’s history, you can see obvious examples of both, oftentimes committed by the very same people. The characters in the book all prove they are affected by a real sense of fear, and by the end of the novel, they all have a chance to face their cowardice, which in their own way, all of them do.TM: There’s also a theme of familial roles in the book, and for the Casper family, a pattern of going outside of their prescribed boundaries. For instance, Madeline decides to tell her eldest daughter, Amelia, about a sexual moment with a work colleague, and, at one point, Amelia goes to watch Jonathan teach because she longs to see him as a professor rather than as a father. I wonder, starting out, what your notions of this particular family’s traumas and dysfunction were. Did these characters change as you wrote them?JM: I think one of the reasons the family in the book is so unhappy is that each of them, in their own way, has decided that there is one thing in life that will help them understand everything – for Jonathan, it’s this squid, which he thinks if it can be found, will help prove the theory of evolution. There’s Madeline and her ideas about social dominance, and Amelia and Marxist politics, and Thisbe and her troubling sense of religion, and Henry, who is trying as hard as he can to escape the complications of history. It took me a long time and a lot of writing to figure out how they worked on their own, and then together. What becomes apparent is how lonely they are in each other’s company, because they’re all failing to see how none of those perspectives are mutually exclusive, and how we need all of those ways of understanding to make sense of the complexities of the world.TM: The book’s terrific first line, “Anything resembling a cloud will cause Jonathan Casper to faint,” echoes throughout the novel, and I found myself noting each varied cloud reference. For example, Madeline follows a man-shaped cloud, and the younger sister, Thisbe, in an exalted, erotically charged moment with a friend, notes the “cloudless field hanging above them.” Are all these diverse cloud references examples of “a great unknowable entity” as mentioned near the end of the novel? Am I meant to desire a simplicity of metaphor, or symbolism, and not get it? How conscious of the cloud imagery were you as you wrote this book?JM: I think because the book is so expansive and follows five main characters and several centuries in the family’s overall history, I needed something to connect the different family members, and the image of the cloud became the thing that made the most sense. The first line, like the book itself, was definitely influenced by Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. In the intro to his book, he discusses how writing an anti-war novel is like writing an anti-glacier novel. For some reason, that idea haunted me: what was it about a glacier? The more I thought about it and the more I wrote the book, the more I realized that what I think he might have meant is that war, like all human conflicts, is unavoidable, it’s part of the way the natural world works, and so it’s inescapable. I used a similar image – a cloud – which is also part of the natural world, and is also pretty impossible to avoid. The other thing about the cloud is that it’s amorphous, ever-changing, unclear, which speaks directly to the way all of the characters see the world in which they’re living. To me, that’s what’s necessary or beautiful about the image: they’re the physical manifestation of the idea of uncertainty or complexity.TM: One of the two epigraphs is by Kurt Vonnegut: ‘One of the great American tragedies is to have participated in a great war.’ The novel takes place in 2004, during the presidential elections, and Madeline in particular is troubled by the war in Iraq. How and why did you work these real current events into the scope of the story?JM: I actually began writing the book thinking directly about the war and then the book grew from there. For me, as I look back over the eight years of the Bush Administration, what most strikes me is how cleverly they used fear over and over again to push forward their agenda, and how, over and over again, we as Americans allowed ourselves to be manipulated by this fear, especially during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, and then again during the weeks before the election. Like Madeline, I was completely uncertain about the war in Iraq: I was unsure of whether it was right or wrong, like most of the country at the time, and part of me, I think, was hoping not to have to think about it at all. My recollection is that there was very little debate and with some distance, I feel particularly ashamed of how fearful as a nation we had allowed ourselves to become. Writing the book was a way for me to try and make sense of the choices we made or didn’t make.TM: One of my favorite aspects of your book is the humor and tragedy with which you depict the teenage lives of Thisbe and Amelia. At one point, Thisbe prays, “Dear Lord… let the wire in my bra poke through my heart,” which is just, well, awesome. Are you, in fact, a teenage girl in disguise? How did you get inside these complicated – and very different – young minds?JM: I am not, in fact, a teenage girl. But I am writer which is pretty darn close. Amelia was based somewhat on someone I knew and worked with, at least as a starting point. As I was working on her character, I realized how angry and unappealing she seemed and so I felt like I no choice but to add some humor to temper her rancor. Thisbe, in secret, is kind of my favorite character in the book. Although she is really confused and definitely a kind of zealot, what she really wants is to make sense of her family and herself and her feelings towards Roxie, a classmate. I think she’s a pretty fair example of why evangelical Christianity is so appealing to some, because in the end, it’s based on a search for understanding through love. This is also why it is so insidious and threatening as well. Like Thisbe, trying to oversimplify the world only undercuts what seems so miraculous about life in the first place.TM: And, because this is a book site, I must ask you: What’s the last great book you read?JM: Mickey Hess’ non-fiction masterpiece, Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory. It’s about an assistant professor who’s forced to take all these weird day jobs – ice cream man, house-sitter, actor at a haunted house – while he tries to negotiate the transition from one part of his life to the other.

The Most Anticipated Books of the Rest of 2008

As we reach the year’s midpoint, it’s time to look at some of the books we are most looking forward to for the second half. There are many, many intriguing books on the docket for the next six months, but these are some of the most notable. Please share your most anticipated books in the comments.August: Chris Adrian wowed readers in 2006 with his post-apocalyptic novel The Children’s Hospital. That novel’s ardent fans will be pleased to get their hands on a new collection of stories called A Better Angel. The collection’s title story appeared in the New Yorker in 2006. More recently, Adrian offered up a personal essay in the New York Times Magazine about getting a tattoo.September: Philip Roth remains tireless, and his latest effort arrives in September, less than year after Exit Ghost garnered seemingly wall-to-wall coverage. With Indignation, Roth takes readers to 1951 America and introduces a young man, a son of a New Jersey butcher, trying to avoid the draft and the Korean War. An early review (with spoilers) offers, “Indignation is a sad and bloody book, and even if it delivers nothing particularly new – indeed, most of Roth’s books could be retitled Indignation – it is a fine supplement to Roth’s late achievements. And we learn a lot about kosher butchery.”Norwegian author Per Petterson collected a number of international prizes and upped his name recognition with Out Stealing Horses, which appeared to much acclaim in English in 2005 and won the IMPAC two years later. I read and enjoyed his In the Wake, which was written before Horses but appeared afterward in translation. Of that book, I wrote, the “boundary between madness and loneliness is plumbed to great effect.” Petterson’s latest to be translated for American audiences, To Siberia, is his second novel. Like Petterson’s other novels, To Siberia is inspired by his parents, who died in a ferry accident along with two of his brothers in 1990. A snippet of an excerpt is available at the NYRB (and more if you are a subscriber).According to our Prizewinners post, Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 book Gilead was one of the most celebrated novels of the last thirteen years. Gilead arrived 24 years after Robinson’s debut, Housekeeping, but Robinson’s latest, Home, comes after only a four-year hiatus. As Publishers Weekly first reported, “Home shares its setting with Gilead, and its action is concurrent with that novel’s. Characters from Gilead will also appear in Home.”Kate Atkinson is bringing back her reluctant detective Jackson Brodie for a third book, When Will There Be Good News?. An early review on a blog is mixed, and apparently he has a wife in this one. (Not sure how all the Brodie fans will take that!)Garth writes: “David Heatley’s My Brain is Hanging Upside Down is a graphic novel that takes readers deep into the uncomfortable psychological undercurrents of everyday American life. Like Chris Ware, who gave him a prominent blurb, David Heatley is a double threat with a pen: both words and drawings are adventures in style.”Garth writes: “Indie stalwart Joe Meno delivers Demons in the Spring, a new collection of 20 stories, each of them illustrated by a leading graphic artist.”October: John Barth, one of the leading lights of American fiction, has a new book on the way. The Development is, according to the publisher promo copy, “a touching, comic, deeply humane collection of linked stories about surprising developments in a gated community.” A story from the book “Toga Party,” appeared in Fiction magazine and in the Best American Short Stories 2007. There’s not much on the book just yet, but “Toga Party” won some praise from readers.Also making October an impressive month for new books will be Death with Interruptions by Nobel laureate Jose Saramago. Though the book will no doubt be allegorical like many of Saramago’s works, the title is apparently meant somewhat literally as the story involves eternal life.Garth writes: “Ingo Schulze’s 2005 tome, New Lives, finally reaches American shores, in a translation by the magnificent John E. Woods. According to Schulze, it concerns an aesthete who finds himself plunged into the sturm and drang of capitalist life. Die Zeit called it ‘the best novel about German reunification.’ Period.”John Updike will follow up one of his best known novels, 1984’s The Witches of Eastwick, with a sequel, The Widows of Eastwick.Sara Gruen of Water for Elephants fame will return with Ape House. It “features the amazing bonobo ape.”November: Garth writes: “Characteristically, Roberto Bolaño throws a curveball, delivering 2666 a massive final novel that both does and doesn’t match the hype surrounding it. I haven’t decided whether or not it’s a good book, but it is, indisputably, a great one. I devoured it in a week and haven’t stopped thinking about it since.”It’s not every year that we get a new book from an American Nobel laureate, but this year we will get A Mercy from Toni Morrison. The promo description on Amazon is downright mysterious, offering this brief blurb: “A new novel, set, like Beloved, in the American past.” But she has been reading from the book at various events and Wikipedia already has some details, though these appear to be pulled from promotional material as well. We can glean that the novel will take place in the 17th century, the early days of slavery in the Americas.Please let us know what books you are most looking forward to for the second half of 2008 in the comments.

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