Brian Birnbaum pitched the idea for Animal Riot Press to Katie Rainey, his domestic (and now business) partner, in 2018, following a litany of failed attempts (including a near-miss) to publish his debut novel, Emerald City. After roping in software engineer Jon Kay, the trio decided to make Emerald City their inaugural title. (They have also announced upcoming titles by David Hollander, Annie Krabbenschmidt, and Rainey.) The trio wanted to use Birnbaum’s novel to launch the press before asking any other authors to trust them with their work. But Birnbaum also took particular inspiration from Sergio De La Pava, who had initially self-published his novel A Naked Singularity.
Having also attended Sarah Lawrence from 2013 to 15, I was privileged to read Birnbaum’s Emerald City in a germinal state at the end of our time together there; I later received a revised draft in the fall of 2017 that significantly expanded the novel’s scope and the depth of its characters. The novel’s sprawl is difficult to summarize in a one-line grabber, but, beyond the description featured on the Animal Riot Press website, suffice it to say that it’s one of the most electrifying performances by a debut novelist this side of the year 2000—a heartrending tragedy of addiction, an absurdist comedy of privilege and inadequacy, an inter-generational crime saga to rival The Godfather, a disarmingly touching love story, and, at bottom, a book about the ineradicable ties of family.
Earlier this year, as Birnbaum was in the final stages of preparing the book for publication, I sat down with him in his apartment in Harlem—Chet Baker crooning in the background in harmony with the whines of Birnbaum and Rainey’s dog, Rosetta—to learn more about the evolution of his writing and the practical considerations of running a small press.
The Millions: As I recall, you wrote something like three novels before Emerald City.
Brian Birnbaum: Yeah. Very bad ones.
TM: What did you learn by writing those novels, and at what point during the writing of Emerald City did you think that this would be the one to get published?
BB: I didn’t. I knew I was going to try, but here’s the thing: the third novel I wrote, The Material, I did try to get that published—if you call querying like three or four people “trying.” I got responses from an agent and an editor who were saying “Look, you’re 23 years old, and you’re clearly somewhat good at this, but…” So, I realized immediately: this is not it, and I’m not going to go back and hack this again.
TM: So, you wouldn’t want to publish that today?
BB: Oh no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. No way. Even at that point, I didn’t want to go back and work on it. That’s when I started Emerald City. I had just turned 24. So, what I learned was that I sucked. I think most people go into writing with a lack of self-confidence, whereas I went in with a wealth of bravado. But bravado is based on insecurity, so subconsciously I knew I wasn’t that good, but I had to have people tell me I wasn’t that good. Also, with [the second novel I wrote] I had to learn not to imitate David Foster Wallace. I had just read Infinite Jest, right after college, and I wrote like him for a year or two and it was just, you know…you’re trying to emulate your heroes kind of thing. It pushed me off track a little bit because you’re not doing your thing, you’re not doing you. The first novel I tried to write was actually a lot better than the second one.
TM: Can you pinpoint what was bad about these early novels?
BB: A lack of ability to express emotional depth, really. That’s what it comes down to.
TM: So where do things stand with the Emerald City manuscript now?
BB: I am fucking relieved to say that I am done, it’s over, it’s with the book designer.
TM: You’ve locked in the text?
BB: I’ve locked it in, the acknowledgements are there, everything is there. Those last few months were hell, and I’m just starting to come out of that hole where I was really abusing myself to get this done.
TM: To what extent were you inspired by Sergio De La Pava when you decided to publish the book yourself?
BB: Very much so. Sergio and his wife, Susanna, were our role models, and they’ve helped us immensely. Susanna is honestly the brains of this operation. She’s beyond brilliant. She helped us write our contracts for our writers, stuff like that. Sergio’s going to blurb it. I don’t know if I told you, Gabe Habash just gave me a blurb, which was one of the greatest days of my life because Stephen Florida is easily one of my favorite books.
TM: Have you been forced to read more contemporary fiction than you used to, just by virtue of being a publisher?
BB: I just think contemporary fiction is where it’s at. I think fiction is better than it’s ever been. Which is ironic because fiction is technologically faded in a certain sense, but it’ll always be an artifact, it’s always going to be of interest. But at the same time, I think it’s better than ever. It’s like anything—you look at the NBA now compared to 50 years ago and it’s like a joke. The ability now is just through the roof. They’re building on things that have been going on for too long.
TM: Is there anything you’re worried about as you go forward with publishing your first couple of titles?
BB: Some of the little stuff, like I’m nervous that we’re going to launch and people will order our book and it’ll have problems. Like, the book’s going to be fucked up or the ordering process will be fucked up. I just want to make sure we’re legit.
TM: I ordered a Animal Riot Press coffee mug and it came in about seven days.
BB: Not bad. And the good news is we have Jon Kay, and he’s a genius. He worked at Amazon, he knows how to program, so we’re pretty good to go. But those are the only things I’m really nervous about. Obviously, I want to sell copies, but I think that just comes as a product of hard work and putting out good stuff. That’s out of our hands. So, I’m not really worried that much. Whatever happens, we’ll just have to learn from it and move on.
TM: Do you enjoy networking within the literary community? I’ve seen you work the room at KGB Bar, and elsewhere—does that come naturally to you?
BB: Socializing comes naturally to me, social media does not. Self-promotion is tough for me. I’m learning social media, I learned Twitter pretty well, I’ve gotten a shit-ton of followers in a short amount of time—which is good and everything, but I still don’t want to be doing it. I want to be reading and I want to be writing and I want to be experiencing existential things that don’t have to do with something that feels like a job. But that’s the beauty of Animal Riot—we are trying to build communities in real life, we’re founded off the Manhattan reading series, we’re building satellite reading series [in Little Rock and Los Angeles], we’re trying to have events, and that stuff is awesome to me. I love people, and as much as I hate people, I love people.
TM: Did you have to talk David Hollander, your mentor at Sarah Lawrence, into publishing his upcoming book, Anthropica, or was he pretty open to it from the beginning?
BB: He was more amenable than I thought he was going to be. I think Katie handled the initial talks. It took a little while, but I read it and it was amazing. It’s so funny and smart. And more than anything, it’s just something that no one’s done before, it’s actually reading something innovative, and that’s the reason we wanted to publish it.
TM: How does it compare to L.I.E., his first novel?
BB: I think it’s a hundred times better. L.I.E. is great, but Anthropica is…The changes I suggested or whatever he goes with, I think it is only a couple rungs from being a masterpiece, I think it’s absolutely brilliant. And I don’t say this as some fucking proselytizer—this book is not for everyone, but that’s fine. For the people that it is for, it’s going to be a masterpiece. The linguistic gymnastics are definitely on an Olympic level.
TM: Now, as to Emerald City: I’ve read two drafts, and I look forward to seeing the final edit soon. The story is very diffuse on a narrative level. It’s a family saga, it’s a drug thriller, it’s an almost Hoop Dreams-like sports drama, and the whole way through it’s deeply attuned to its characters’ psychologies. Did you think about genre at all when you were writing?
BB: I didn’t. I think if you come at a novel from a genre perspective, you are writing from a different place. I think you’re writing specifically for an audience and to disseminate the book. Which is not a bad thing. It’s more of a business approach. My approach is that I’m writing because I love language and I want to tell a story, and whatever that story calls for is what I’m going to write.
TM: Something that came up when you workshopped parts of this novel at Sarah Lawrence had to do with how you portrayed people of color. I remember a long discussion in workshop about the dialogue, and questions of appropriation and representation. Did you have any trepidation about writing characters of other races?
BB: If you can’t write about other races, then the only way this conversation ends is that you can’t write about anyone but yourself. However, if you think that just because you listen to hip hop you can write black characters, you’re sorely mistaken. You have to have experience. You should be able to write about whatever you want, but it has to be good. And I think this is a necessary conversation—if I had chosen to write from the perspective of one of my black characters, that would have been a huge risk—and that’s still something I’m considering for my next novel project, and I have to ask myself, how do I deserve writing about this?
TM: As I recall, you discovered David Mitchell while writing Emerald City.
BB: Very early on.
TM: Did he change the way you write the way Wallace did?
BB: I think he’s probably my favorite writer. Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet are pure masterpieces. He’s operating on a level that I’ll never reach. He changed the game because he was the first maximalist writer I read who, paradoxically, reined me in. He’s writing these sparkling sentences that are really punchy, really cogent, and I loved him as much as I loved Wallace, but it was so different. It’s more mature in a way, and where I want to be heading now. Same with Rachel Kushner. She’s a maximalist writer but she’s doing it in a compacted way. The Flamethrowers was revolutionary for me. I think her prose, especially those first hundred pages, are just like—whoa.
TM: You’ve talked on the Animal Riot podcast about your experience in an MFA. You chose Sarah Lawrence because David Hollander was teaching there, but it seemed like you didn’t totally buy into the MFA experience in terms of your development as a writer.
BB: And in hindsight, I totally buy into it. Which I have a problem with saying, because I hate these kind of monetized systems that are just pumping out writers who will never see the light of day. But I will say that my MFA experience was extraordinary. Sarah Lawrence was the best school I could have gone to. The culture we had—not only on campus, but also our own little culture on Stillwell Avenue…it was perfect: being removed from the city, being forced to write, the time that they give you to write, instead of loading you with all this bullshit.
TM: I want to end by returning to something you said earlier. You mentioned that fiction is technologically faded. So how do you feel about the future of books, given that you’ve launched a literary press?
BB: I think writing will become obsolete when we are able to directly access our brains. It’ll be like Hieroglyphs—they’re beautiful, but we don’t need that shit anymore. People will still read books; they’ll be fascinated by them. But I’m not being pessimistic or cynical about writing itself; it’s served a purpose that can’t be overstated. And I’m more than overjoyed to be starting a small press. I think it’s still completely necessary, because we still run on fiction. That’s what the human race runs on because we don’t know what’s going on in our minds.
The New York Public Library announced their eighteenth annual Young Lions Fiction Award, which is “given annually to an American writer age 35 or younger for either a novel or a collection of short stories.” The 2018 finalists are: Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, Venita Blackburn’s Black Jesus and Other Superheroes, Gabe Habash’s Stephen Florida, Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho, and Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart. From our archives: Habash and Zhang‘s 2017 Year in Reading entries.
Over the last 13 years, the Year in Reading has collected the book recommendations and musings of some of the most brilliant readers and writers working today. Looking at the series over time it becomes an instrument of measurement, not only for tracking the way the site itself has grown and evolved, but for recording the big books of the moment, or the books of yesteryear that readers never tire of discovering anew. It can also capture–in a glancing, kaleidoscopic way–the general mood of the professional reading public. The 2016 Year in Reading was in some respects pretty grim, as contributors tried to reconcile reading, at its heart an intensely private, personal passion, with the requirements of being human in a world where bad things persist in happening.
This year I’d like to focus on the good things. The Year in Reading is my favorite thing we do at this site, and I’m so grateful for the writers who gave generously of their time to participate. I’m grateful for the dedicated readers who navigate here every morning and give the site a reason to live, and for the supporters who are helping us secure the future. This is our 14th year, and 14 years is an eon in Internet Time. The Millions won’t survive the heat death of the universe, but it has already stuck around longer than at least some bad things will.
A lot of our 2017 Year in Reading contributors were anxious and tired and read less than they would have liked. The good news is that they still did a lot of excellent, engaged reading. The good news is that there are more exquisite and important things to read than you’ll ever read in your lifetime. The good news is that books are still the vehicles for inquiry, revelation, devastation, and joy that they have always been.
The names of our 2017 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as entries are published (starting with our traditional opener from Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson later this morning). Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry — we’ll run three or four per day. And if you look forward to the Year in Reading every year, please consider supporting the site and ensuring this December tradition continues for years to come.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage.
Eugene Lim, author of Dear Cyborgs.
Edan Lepucki, contributing editor and author of Woman No. 17.
Sonya Chung, contributing editor and author of The Loved Ones.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer and author of Station Eleven.
Nick Ripatrazone, contributing editor and author of Ember Days.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor and author of City on Fire.
Janet Potter, staff writer.
Louise Erdrich, author of LaRose.
Ahmed Saadawi, author of Frankenstein in Baghdad.
Jesmyn Ward, author of Sing, Unburied, Sing.
Jeff VanderMeer, author of Borne.
Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Book of Joan.
Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You.
Carmen Maria Machado, author of Her Body and Other Parties.
Kevin Young, author of Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News.
Yoko Tawada, author of Memoirs of a Polar Bear.
Danzy Senna, author of New People.
Jenny Zhang is a poet and writer.
Matthew Klam, author of Who Is Rich.
Paul Yoon, author of The Mountain.
Julie Buntin, author of Marlena.
Brandon Taylor, associate editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and staff writer at Literary Hub.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer and author of Home Field.
Matt Seidel, staff writer.
Zoë Ruiz, staff writer.
Clare Cameron, staff writer and author of The Last Neanderthal.
Il’ja Rákoš, staff writer.
Ismail Muhammad, staff writer.
Thomas Beckwith, staff writer.
Michael Pollan, author of Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.
Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop.
Robin Sloan, author of Sourdough.
Juan Villoro, author of The Reef.
Chiwan Choi, author of The Yellow House.
Scaachi Koul, author of One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter.
Gabe Habash, author of Stephen Florida.
Ayobami Adebayo, author of Stay with Me.
Kaveh Akbar, author of Calling a Wolf a Wolf.
Kima Jones, founder of Jack Jones Literary Arts.
Vanessa Hua, author of A River of Stars.
Hamilton Leithauser, rock star.
R.O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries.
Rakesh Satyal, author of No One Can Pronounce My Name.
Kristen Radtke, author of Imagine Wanting Only This.
Nick Moran, staff writer.
Lydia Kiesling, site editor and author of The Golden State.
Anne Yoder, staff writer.
Michael Bourne, staff writer.
Tess Malone, associate editor.
Bill Morris, staff writer and author of Motor City Burning.
Kaulie Lewis, staff writer.
Myriam Gurba, author of Mean.
Patrick Nathan, author of Some Hell.
Morgan Jerkins, author of This Will Be My Undoing.
Michael David Lukas, author of The Last Watchman of Old Cairo.
Jamel Brinkley, author of A Lucky Man.
Shanthi Sekaran, author of Lucky Boy.
Kara Levy, fiction writer.
Patty Yumi Cottrell, author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace.
Heather Scott Partington, NBCC emerging critic.
Paul Goldberg, author of The Yid.
Simeon Marsalis, author of A Lie is To Grin.
Kevin Barry, author of Beatlebone.
Laura Turner, writer.
Sarah Smarsh, journalist.
Kyle Chayka, writer.
A Year in Reading: Outro
How do two writers live and write together?
The answer changes through time. In her introduction to The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy, Cathy Porter describes how Sofia laboriously copied Leo Tolstoy’s work: “After the baby had been put to bed, she would sit at her desk until the small hours, copying out his day’s writing in her fine hand, telepathically deciphering the scribble.” When reading Sofia’s diaries, kept from age 16 until she died in 1919, it’s hard not to feel her creative frustration. “To each his fate,” she writes. “Mine was to be the auxiliary to my husband.”
Historian Alexis Coe writes that being married helps academics get ahead, but only if they are male. In the Lenny Letter, she expands on her findings from reading the acknowledgements in books, “male historians often call wives research assistants while female historians say husbands were patient/encouraging.” Her article is a fascinating look at a selected history of literary couplings, from the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald to Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne.
Bruce Holsinger, a novelist and academic, also searched acknowledgments and found many examples of male authors thanking their wives for typing manuscripts. People continue to share examples on Twitter using the hashtag #ThanksForTyping. A click shows there are many women of the past century who might find Sophia Tolstoy’s words familiar.
While a word processor changes dynamics, the way a work is attributed often reflects a power relationship between two authors. When a couple are both authors, the relationship is often colored by the politics of their day.
In 2017, many couples are striving for a more equal balance of power in relationships. There are as many ways this can play out as there are couples, but I want to continue the conversation. How does a modern couple balance the domestic with a literary life?
Julie Buntin’s Marlena is one of the most energetic and vibrant debut novels released this spring, which Kirkus calls, “as unforgettable as it is gorgeous.” Her partner, Gabe Habash, just published one of the breakthrough debuts of the summer, Stephen Florida. NPR calls it, “starkly beautiful and moving.”
I was intrigued to learn that Buntin and Habash are partners and live together. While I assume they both do their own typing, I wonder how this particular modern couple make it work. By email, I asked them about reading each other’s work, egos, money, and solitude.
The Millions: Gabe, did you know Julie was a writer when you first met?
Gabe Habash: Yes, we met in grad school. We had a craft class together, and I was immediately struck (and probably a bit intimidated) by how smart and perceptive she is. But we didn’t actually have any workshops together so I didn’t read her writing until after I graduated. By then she was starting what would eventually become Marlena. I’m grateful I get to watch how she shapes her work. It’s amazing.
TM: Julie, you knew Gabe was a writer when you met. Did you consider this a good or bad thing?
Julie Buntin: Soon after we started dating I realized that we weren’t going to have a problem with competitiveness when it came to writing—I’d dated a writer before, and that had been an insidiously toxic problem, but Gabe and I never had that issue. Mostly because of him, I think—Gabe is immune to comparing himself to other people. It’s very strange and I envy it. I am not immune, but am trying to get better.
TM: Is Gabe the first reader of your work?
JB: He is. It’s a bit of a crutch. When I was deep in revisions of Marlena, after he’d already read it a couple times, I would sometimes send altered drafts to my editor without showing Gabe, but for the most part, he sees everything before it goes out. I’ve delayed submitting things to the point of missing deadlines because I want Gabe’s take first.
TM: Is Julie the first reader of your work?
GH: Yes, she’s always been my first reader. I wrote the first 50 pages of the novel and showed them to her to find out if it was bad. I wouldn’t write any more until I knew she liked it because I respect her opinion more than anyone else in the world—if she says it’s bad, it’s bad. Julie is just as good of a reader as a writer, if that’s possible. There are numerous reasons the book is dedicated to her.
TM: Has she or he ever said anything about your writing that you wished she hadn’t?
JB: Gabe’s going to be embarrassed that I’m sharing this, but I showed him the first few pages of a new novel a while back. He said: “You can do better.” In general, I appreciate that we’re at a place where we don’t need to dance around anything, but that work was a little raw for a fully honest assessment—still, I’m glad he told me what he really thought.
TM: Do you believe Gabe when he praises your work?
JB: I do. Gabe is a bad liar, and I think my answer to the previous question gets at the directness of how we talk about writing.
TM: Do you ever feel threatened by the success of Julie’s novel?
GH: Honestly, no. Our books are so different and I love Marlena, so it never felt like they were competing against each other. Also, just watching someone work at something so hard, putting years into it and going through really challenging moments with it because it’s a vital part of her life—it’s impossible for me to feel jealousy or to feel threatened when I saw that because I knew how much telling the story meant to Julie.
TM: Marlena was blurbed by Lorrie Moore, is an Indie Next Pick, and was selected by The Rumpus Book Club. For a debut novel, it doesn’t get much better. Did you ever worry that Gabe’s book might not be as well received?
JB: I have never doubted for a second that Stephen Florida would be well received. Even when a number of major publishers passed, I had no anxiety about it eventually finding the right home—Gabe did, but I didn’t. I don’t think it’s blind wife faith either—I hadn’t had that same certainty when his previous novel was on submission. After reading Stephen Florida I felt a flicker of jealousy—he wrote a book that alchemizes his talent and experience and deep thinking about literature into a novel that’s exhilarating to read. If anything, I feel a little smug about all the good reviews it’s getting. Like—told you, world!
If anything (please forgive how pretentious this sounds), I worried that his book might be taken more seriously from a critical perspective, because Marlena is about girls and Stephen Florida is about boys. That doesn’t seem to have been the case, at least not so far, but I did wonder if that was going to be an issue. I’m still not sure how I would have handled that.
TM: Writing and books aside, what do you both love to do?
GH: We like to take walks like old people. We watch Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks. Some day, I swear, I will get her to like video games. We both like horror movies, which Julie will point out to you is some study’s number one metric for determining relationship compatibility.
TM: You both work in publishing and are writers. Is it ever too much?
JB: It can be. Sometimes we get home and we’re eating dinner and we go from talking about our books to talking about books that he’s reading or assigning for review to talking about books on submission at Catapult or something I’m editing or a writer I want to get to teach and we have a moment where one or the other of us snaps and is like, no more books. Please, enough. And so we try to introduce spaces into our lives for other stuff. It can be overwhelming. Sometimes it feels like we’re always sort of working. But most of the time it’s nice to never have to translate why doing this work matters so much to me.
TM: What about money?
GH: As writers who also work in publishing, we are obviously very rich.
Julie, I think, needs writing on a daily basis. I go through long periods in which I barely think about it, and then write all at one time. So having no day job I think is more for Julie—she would use the time, whereas if I weren’t in the middle of a project I would just wander around like a vagrant, wondering how to fill the hours.
JB: Oh, this is a hard one. I would be lying if I said I never thought about this. It has occurred to me that in some ways I’ve made my writing life harder because I’m married to another writer, instead of someone with more financially-driven ambitions. Gabe is better at balancing his work life and writing life—he’s more of a daily chipper, less of a binger—and as much as I love my job, I feel like I am giving something up every minute that I am not writing. But maybe I would go crazy if I had that time. Or maybe I’d have finished another book by now! Who knows—like most writers, I’ve always had a job or two or three and squeezed writing in somehow.
All this said, I’ve learned a lot about writing from Gabe, from his edits on my work, from the process of editing his. There a lot of writer couples. Maybe once you become accustomed to the benefits of having an in-house reader and editor, not to mention someone who challenges you to think more deeply about how and why you write, I don’t know, those things become more important than a pension. We’ll see if I feel the same way in 20 years.
TM: What is the best part about living with another writer?
JB: Never having to explain why you don’t want to go out.
TM: What is the worst?
GH: Whatever plans you might have, they can get eliminated at any time if one of us is in the writing fugue. You just have to accept that your plans are canceled in that instance.
TM: Do you understand Gabe’s work better than anyone else?
JB: I don’t know that I understand it better than anyone else, but I do think I understand how it came to be better than anyone else. I look at the first page and I can see ghosts of cut phrases, all the thinking that went into making the book what it is—it’s a privilege.
TM: Do you understand Julie’s work better than anyone else?
GB: I have no idea! You’ll have to ask her. Julie understands my work better than anyone else.
TM: What is your favorite thing that the other has ever written?
GH: The last chapter of Marlena is two and a half pages. I think about it all the time. It’s contains everything that came before but also opens the narrative up; I love how it shows the story is longer than the book itself.
JB: I love that first page. It starts, “My mother had two placentas and I was living off both of them…” and ends like this: “I believe in wrestling, and I believe in the United States of America. I am a motherfucking astronaut.”