I had the pleasure of catching up with author/publisher Adam Voith while he was on tour with singer/songwriters Damien Jurado and Dave Fischoff. He sat down with me and answered a few questions about his new book Stand Up, Ernie Baxter: You’re Dead and his thoughts on small publishing. Adam is also the author of a collection of short stories, Bridges with Spirit. He put out both works through TNI Books, the publishing company he runs out of Seattle.
JC: The indy-lit. scene takes more than a few tips from indy-rock – going beyond promotion like buttons and tours and into the veins of the writing. Are we just a bunch of nerdy, wanna-be rock stars?
AV: Well, maybe I used to want to be a rock star, but I don’t want to be a rock star anymore so I don’t think so. But I do think there’s a definite sense in the world of small publishing of the indy-rock spirit – people are starving for an outlet that mirrors independent distribution and has more magazines covering the work. The structure that’s set-up for indy-rock works and people are able to sell their products in a way that’s not disgusting and make real money that can allow more stuff to come out.
It’s really weird – on tour Damien and I have been talking about the connections a lot. He invited me to come with him after listening to a bunch of old spoken word stuff and just reading about some of the stuff that went on before the sixties with music and writing converging and I think he got excited about it. It seems to work pretty well, it seems like people at the shows are willing to listen to someone read as an opening band or in a band spot. Which leads me to believe that if a distribution system were set-up that could reach these people, they would be interested in buying books.
JC: The TNI micro-distribution scheme seems a lot like the street-teams that up-and-coming bands use. Do you see this as a solution to the problems distribution poses for small publishers?
AV: You know I have no idea if I see it as a solution since I just started doing it and there are only a few people participating. Yeah, it’s like a street team which I guess works. Sometimes I feel that street teams are a little bit weird, like they’re trying to exploit people’s friendships. I’m trying to present this thing in a way so that that doesn’t happen.
I don’t know what my issue is with street teams. I just wouldn’t want to exploit people’s willingness – I hope that people are doing it ’cause they’re psyched about the books.
JC: Are you fed up with the normal distribution?
AV: I’ve never even gotten in with the normal distribution. Some of the bigger distributors can get the TNI books and they order them sometimes but I never know where they’re selling them – I’m not in contact with the people. But the smaller distributors are great. There’s a guy in Atlanta with a small distribution company called Stickfigure – he distributes stuff and he sells a good amount of books for me, a small amount but a great amount – it’s really noticeable.
The micro-distro is just like a small distribution set-up on a smaller level, just person to person exchange – there are no companies involved or anything. It’s me to some guy who wants to buy it, some girl who wants to give it to her boyfriend for Christmas or whatever. It just seems to me a really direct way to do it, ’cause the bigger stuff just doesn’t seem to work. I’m just not selling books in chain stores so it’s not that important for me to pump through that way. If I were really selling books through distribution companies, I would love to keep sending them my books. But if you send them your books and the books don’t sell, you end up losing money. There are fees and when the books are returned they’re damaged and it’s just a big Riga morale. Hopefully, with micro-distro, the books will actually get into the hands of people who are going to read them and maybe pass them around further from there.
JC: How did TNI get started – did putting out Little Engines necessitate starting a publishing company or was it the other way around?
AV: I started with my own book and I didn’t have any plans beyond that, but it wasn’t too long after that I decided I wanted to publish other people’s work. I put out my first book via TNI because I wanted to do it myself and learn how to do all the publishing stuff. Shortly there after, I started helping people with ideas that they were running by me, developing the ideas into something that could come out in a literary form. I just got really psyched on working with other people. We did a children’s book that came with a 7″ record. With another, Damien did a CD of all tapes that he found in cassette players at thrift stores. There’s Camden Joy’s book, a writer from the Boston area who’s really awesome. And there’s book we put out about a Japanese baseball player in Seattle. Then there’s Little Engines, which is a magazine anyone could submit to.
JC: Did you have any qualms about publishing yourself, like with the stigma that kind of comes with that?
AV: I didn’t know about the stigma a whole lot but I started to find out about it really quickly. I was always used to people doing zines and stuff on their own and just putting out records on their own or downloads or whatever. So it wasn’t that hard to just be like “well yeah, self-publishing’s maybe not the best way to do it or the most conventional way to do it, but it can be done and it can be done well.” People do put out their own records and they’re good records. A lot of people make their art and then they take it to the public on their own. Self-publishing is taboo for some people and some magazines and papers won’t write about books that have been self-published. It’s just for right now, for me, it makes sense. And so it’s a way that I can get it going.
JC: Ernie is an everyman with a secret night-life. What’s your double-life – publisher/writer by day, ninja by night?
AV: Actually, publisher/writer by night most of the time and during the day I have a job booking tours for bands. I spend probably 60% of my time doing that and 40% of my time writing or publishing unless there’s a new book coming out, then it switches. They’re separate but they also meet up in weird ways a lot of times. I go on tour with people, I sell a lot of books at rock shows, so it’s kind of all meshed together.
JC: When you started Ernie Baxter, did you envision having illustrations for the book or did the idea come up as the book evolved?
AV: It came up about mid-way through. I started the book a long time ago and I just wrote it in chunks during different periods of time. I didn’t really care about comic books and I’m still not this giant comic book guy, but there’s a couple that I really liked, and I had an idea to use comics in Baxter. And then Little Engines was taking comic submissions and with the third issue this guy submitted a one-page comic that I was really into. I started talking to him about whether he’d ever illustrated someone else’s writing, and he said he hadn’t but he was interested in it. I sent him the first stand-up routine that I had done and asked him if he thought he’d be into it and he was psyched and he looked at the other ones and thought he could do something with it and that was that. Everything was decided after a few e-mail conversations with the guy.
JC: The format for Ernie Baxter is unusual with comics, high-school love notes, and first person and third person narration making up the book. How important was it for you to experiment with style?
AV: For this book it was really important. It wasn’t necessarily “Oh I want to go out and make this experimental novel” cause I think the story is a story and it reads really simply, it’s not confusing and difficult. I wanted to write somewhat of a light-hearted, fun book that had some meat to it – a story that could be read quickly and enjoyed in parts and chunks, which is sort of the thing I did when I wrote my first book which is a collection of short stories that are tied together in different ways.
Baxter is a linear story but when I was writing it, I wrote the routine before the story and wrote them in different time periods. But the other aspects of the book that come off as experimentation really comes more from things like the comics, which just sort of came out later and we decided to go with it. Then there are letters and the different image stuff – Chris Pew the designer helped come up with those ideas and made them his own. I guess it is really unconventional, but my main goal was to write a novel that just made sense and was nice to read.
JC: One of the most interesting aspects of the novel for me was the role wealth and class played for the characters. Kyra takes her parents’ money but despises her dependence on it. Dain and Kyra’s parents pretend to be good country folk but they’re really quite happy being independently wealthy. Ernie, however, seems to be relatively indifferent to money.
AV: I didn’t think a whole lot about it in terms of class. I don’t know why that happened, really. In the book I don’t really explain much of why the main character’s not at home anymore. There are little points here and there, but I just wanted to create a place where it was just a bad scene for him. He was run out of his own home, in a way, so I had to create some situation that just didn’t fit in that little town in Indiana – which would be these rich people moving in. I wasn’t really trying to make a big statement – I grew up a middle-class kid and had a great upbringing in the suburbs. I’ve got no complaints. It’s not like I have a vindictive heart in any way toward people who have money.
I think Ernie Baxter himself comes across as indifferent to money probably because the book takes place after he’s dead. How I think about it is that he’s given up caring about a lot of things that happen on earth.
JC: Ernie’s comedy seemed to be a subtle cultural commentary for me, exploring the inadequacies of our expectations. How do you see his unusual comedy style fitting into the impression he gives to family and friends of being just a regular guy?
AV: The character didn’t actually perform or write any of those things. It was Ernie Baxter’s mother who wrote them all. You don’t have to know that necessarily, but if you do know it, it makes him a different character, because in the long-run, he is just a normal guy, he is just a postman. And maybe that’s why Kyra wasn’t interested. For the most part, I just imagined him telling his mother things about his life, like how he’d eat poorly and she’d turn them into these things that would make someone else like Kyra care about him again.
The first two skits she starts with things that Kyra knows about which are his eating habits, just things about Ernie that Kyra would not question because she remembers them. The idea of the book was basically that his mom wanted to be a grandma and that’s the only thing she really wanted, so she’s going to try and be involved with Kyra’s child’s life even though it’s not her blood. So everything kind of grew out of trying to make that concept work.
JC: I’m trying to think if my next question works – did you write Ernie Baxter with the intention of exploring culture or did the larger themes just arise from the plot you had in mind?
AV: I think that still works as a question. I wanted to talk about different things for sure – there are definitely cultural references, obviously. I think the language is really familiar and simple. I wanted to talk about important stuff and I tried to do it in a way that isn’t heavy handed. The illustrations are kind of quirky, so they help. I intended to tell a story but also do some commentary for sure.
JC: What’s on your bookshelf and in your CD player right now?
AV: In the CD player – Centro-matic, Hella, Coldplay, Spoon, and then John Vanderslice. Damien has an amazing CD in the van of old interviews with the Beatles and old demos, like really bad demos of their songs and its really cool to hear it.
On the bookshelf – this guy named Jim Lewis wrote a book called Why the Tree Loves the Axe, which I’m reading for the second time, he’s an awesome writer. I just finished reading The Winter of Our Discontent, which I thought was really good.
JC: Where’s TNI books headed next?
AV: Next is going to be this tour and I’m going to do a tour in June to keep promoting the Ernie Baxter books and see how that goes. And we’ll be putting out Little Engines Issue 4. And after that, I don’t know – I don’t really look ahead more than one book because you never know.