“Jeremy’s apartment had a view of the Manhattan skyline. He paid $100 more per month for it. He walked to the window, pushed the curtain aside and peeked out of it the way a little old lady waiting for the mailman might and saw the saucers over midtown. They were still there. Jeremy even wanted to say “Still there,” aloud, to himself, but could not because of the aliens. The aliens made his throat dry. He wanted ginger ale but had drunk the last of it yesterday and the stores were open but the aliens. Jeremy wanted to talk to somebody but if he went down to the bodega the man behind the counter would say something about the aliens. So Jeremy drank a handful of tap water – he didn’t want to dirty a glass because that would remind him of washing dishes and the aliens.”
-Nick Mamatas (April 29th, Razor Sept. 2003)
RRM: When dealing with known historical figures as fiction characters as you do in your upcoming Move Under Ground (Night Shade Books, May 2004) what degree of literary license do you allow yourself? What, if any, legal ramifications are involved?
NM: I did try to keep to what was known about the characters – especially Jack Kerouac himself, plus Neal Cassady and William S. Burroughs — and to accurately portray their attitudes and what they might have said, if granted Buddhist superpowers and trapped in a world of Lovecraftian horrors. Of course, with Move Under Ground, everything is seen through Kerouac’s eyes, so ultimately everyone else is what he perceives them to be. Then we have the aforementioned Buddhist superpowers and the Lovecraftian horrors. So I had a fair amount of license, simply based on the fabulist setting. I’m sure I’ll get a number of angry letters from Kerouac fans saying “He would never do/say/think that!” Of course he would, were he a bodhisattva and in the clutches of The Elder Gods.
I’m actually a bit more concerned about my use of the Cthulhu mythos, which has just as many nutty cultish fans as Kerouac. I use the mythos as a metaphor for the American Dream, which may be seen as limiting its “cosmic awe” to its fanbase.
As far as legal ramifications, using the deceased as characters in novel is a well-known practice. My publisher is taking care of the Lovecraftian side of things.
RRM:Of what manner and magnitude of research did you conduct for your Move Under Ground characters? Do you attempt to create a simulacrum of their actual personality or their literary portrayal?
NM: I reread On The Road, Doctor Sax (Kerouac’s fantasy novel), The Dream Quest Of Unknown Kadath, but other than that mostly just left myself open to what the universe had to offer. I came across the USENET newsgroup dedicated to the Beats by accident, read a bunch of posts, and made note of the perhaps apocryphal anecdotes being passed around. When I flipped through an issue of Rain Taxi and saw a review of Jan Kerouac’s biography, I sucked that down too. When I would take the Long Island Railroad to visit my folks in Port Jefferson, I paid careful attention to the scenes outside my window at the Northport station. A story about Hoboken I stole from my grandfather. The Discovery Channel just happened to run a show about the history of the development of drift nets. A random web search told me about the elevated portion of Manhattan’s West Side Highway that existed in the 1960s, but not today. I asked a friend who lives in Colorado what driving to Kansas is like (really boring, she said). I remembered Goodland from its moment in the media when 9/11 lead to its airport playing host to hundreds of extra people. When I was closing on my house, I saw that my hipster lawyer had a biography of Burroughs, and I’d read random pages while he gabbed on the phone or argued with the other lawyer. This was all stuff I would have come across anyway, but that was notable only because I was writing Move Under Ground.
RRM:As a published writer without an MFA do you have any strong opinions concerning the advantages or disadvantages of the university writing courses? Have you ever found a marketplace less receptive to your work due to your educational credentials?
NM: Oh boy, my favorite subject! I think the MFA system is the largest Ponzi scheme in academia today. It’s the hardly published teaching the possibly unpublishable how to teach the courses that they’re taking for the next generation of suckers. Of course, the best MFA programs from rich schools pay off for their graduates, but everything is always easier for the petit-bourgeoisie in the first place. As for the other 85 or so graduate programs in creative writing that have erupted like a skin rash over the past few decades, they are essentially valueless for the students, though of course they are important for the university system. I base this evaluation, by the way, on my years of reading the slush for Soft Skull Press (the smaller the bibliography, the more the submitter harped on the degree), on the forty or so writers I know who have MFAs and my comparisons to the forty or so writers I know who do not have MFAs. The MFA is largely useless, but their popularity can be explained I think, by looking at their political economy. MFA programs are a production-centered system:
1. Visiting writers, who make occasional “guest” appearances, are cheaper than tenured faculty. Many programs will have only a couple core faculty and fill out the bulk of their program with big names who drop in and mutter while toying with the frayed sleeves of their cardigans to a roomful of drooling sycophants. Check out the ads in any issue of Poets & Writers.
2. Little investment. MFA programs need no lab space, no additional physical plant (idle classrooms are sufficient) and no construction. As a new program, payroll is on the low end of seniority/advancement scales.
3. The college literary journal can be produced cheaply enough, especially with free labor drawn from the students and a prestige economy for submitters. Any college that can produce a course bulletin (you know, all of them) can produce a literary journal and fill it with good writing for nearly nothing.
4. No shortage of suckers. Everyone’s got a book in ’em, after all. Grad programs in writing hit the triple digits a couple of years ago, and there are still many more applicants than slots. Given the intersubjective nature of assessing writing, there is no compelling reason to keep anyone out of all programs.
Thus, we have a system dedicated to keeping costs down and margins high. How is this best done: picking one thing and sticking to it. This in turn explains the “workshop style” realism and why most MFA programs don’t teach popular fiction genres, Teaching fantastic genres might require courses on research or even basic scientific literature. Teaching historical fiction or mystery would also require some interest in subjects other than the authorial ego. Exclusively teaching students how to write stories about what happened to the author the day before yesterday keeps the curriculum and budgets lean. It also dovetails nicely into the undergraduate work in literature many students have already done.
So, writing programs are profitable, easy to start, and don’t have to show any results in the marketplace. Woo! Some do show results though, but generally these are schools for the bourgeoisie anyway, and results tend to happen for a bourgeois whether he or she studies hard or not.
What are the advantages of the typical MFA? If you can go for free (fellowships, work paying for it, NOT loans) and get a higher pay grade at your day job for having a grad degree, why not make it an MFA? If you want to bed not-very-intelligent intellectuals, it’s a perfect dating pool, though you could do as well simply by stalking an off-campus bar and making a show of frowning over a Nathaniel West paperback.
As far as not having an MFA, it hasn’t mattered one whit to me. I mostly publish genre material, whose publishers don’t have that ideology of credentialism, and my forays into the mainstream have been effortless, to be totally honest. Nobody has ever asked to see a degree; they want what’s on the page. And how could they not – the reading public is not impressed with a degree; it wants an entertaining and enlightening read.
RRM:So are you really a slumlord or what? A slumlord that enjoys wrestling? What do you do to pay your rent?
NM: Well, I own property in a poor neighborhood. I’m actually a very nice landlord. I bought one house with the help of an FHA loan, so only needed a 3% down payment. I collected rents from the other apartment and from my roommate, and those monies paid the mortgage in full, so I lived for free. Since I was in the house for two years, when I sold the place I didn’t have to pay capital gains tax on the profits, some of which I poured into another house to perform the same trick again. As far as the rest of my income, I write feature articles for magazines like Razor and the Village Voice, do a little “academic ghostwriting,” and do some freelance editorial work. The fiction is slowly but surely starting to make a difference to my budget. I’ve sold a couple of stories to Razor, a second-tier slick that pays well; I’ve reprinted short fiction in both genre and mainstream magazines (double-dipping is another advantage of genre-crossing); the collection 3000 MPH In Every Direction At Once(Prime Books, 2003) got me some well-paying work in comic books; and I have the advance from Move Under Ground.
I also live very humbly. Health insurance? Nope. New clothes? I have my relatives trained to buy me black jeans in bulk for Chistmas. CDs? Heeeeeelllloo Kaaza! Going out drinking? I stay home and sit at my kitchen table, sipping tiny bottles of airline booze while singing along to Greek rembetika songs on my shortwave radio. Night after lonely night. Yes, you too can be a fulltime writer.
I do love professional wrestling, though it has been in the doldrums since the WWE bought out its competition and became a monopoly.
RRM:If you don’t mind me asking- who are these ladies mentioned in the 3000 MPH In Every Direction At Once dedication? Night after lonely night indeed!
NM: Three exes. I met Lynn in ’97 and she moved in the day after we met. She was totally insane – I, on the other hand, am the standard of sanity for all the Roman Empire, naturally. She got me into trying my hand at writing fiction and got me back into reading popular genres as opposed to simply waiting for the Big Book Of The Month as decreed by The New York Times. She is a writer as well; he wrote stuff for Disinfo.com and has a story in What The Fuck: The Avant Porn Anthology. She also vowed to let me move in with her and take care of me when I go totally insane. I’m thinking by August I’ll be bugfuck.
Mandy I lured in from Berkeley, California for six months but she couldn’t stand the East Coast, so she went back. She never liked my writing, as mentioned in the dedication. She also disliked the enormous number of items on the menus of all-night diners. That’s when I knew it wasn’t meant to be.
Jody I dated for only a little while but we just kept hanging around one another as if we were dating anyway. Much better that way. She’s also in California now (I believe my exes are congregating in the East Bay and forming a religious cult of some sort) and is procrastinating writing her dissertation on the romantic lives of disabled women by writing lots of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfiction. Her favorite is “Spaith” fanfic, which refers to sexual liaisons between Spike, the bad boy vampire with a soul, and Faith, the “evil” working-class slayer. In our own relationship, I was Faith! I think…
RRM: When selecting the pieces for 3000 MPH In Every Direction At Once did you consider your entire body of work or limit your scope to work produced 2000-2003?
NM: Actually, Microsoft made that decision for me. Their crappy products shat on me every few years, so I have no files for anything I wrote before 2000. I switched to Mac recently after Lynn drove me to the rich people mall in Central Jersey where they have a Mac store. The one piece that perhaps should have gone in the book but didn’t was my Village Voice article “Elven Like Me,” about the Otherkin. Otherkin are people who believe themselves to be elves, dragons, or other mythological creatures. I didn’t include the piece because it had been reprinted a bit too widely at the time. I also already have enough hate mail from dragons-in-human-bodies and High Elves to suit me for now.
RRM: Were these pieces chosen due to relevance to each other or general quality?
NM: Relevance to what? There is a thematic line connecting all the pieces, whether essay or story. Jody summed it up with “Boy, it sure would be great if there was hope, but there’s not, so fuck it,” but I don’t know if I agree with that. All the pieces have to do with a changing world and the anxiety and opportunities change represents.
RRM: Which of your books do you feel would server as the best introduction to your work?
NM: 3000 MPH, as it runs the gamut: semi-scholarly stuff, trash talk, fiction, experimental texts, etc. There is a sort of bizarre tendency I noticed once the book – which is mostly reprints – was complete. The more straightforward the piece, the smaller the venue it originally appeared in. I’m apparently being groomed to be the Official Weirdo.
RRM: As a writer of both articles and fiction- which do you find easier to write? What do you prefer to write?
NM: Non-fiction is much easier for me, and I used to prefer it greatly, though I’m starting to finally get the hang of fiction, and pushing myself to improve and diversify my fictional technique. I think I still prefer non-fiction as well, as it can have a more direct cultural impact. It tends to get a much larger audience and about ten times the money, so that’s handy.
RRM: How long would you say you’ve been “professionally” (arguably, submitting work for publication) writing? Did your work always gravitate towards science fiction and fantasy?
NM: I started submitting work in 1996, with my friend Kap Su Seol. It was political work: Kwangju Diary, which was published in 1999. I started selling articles and essays regularly in 1997, though had a few pieces before then; I placed my first piece when I was 17 in a little zine called The Long Island Alternative. With fiction, I started submitting in 1997, and sold my first story in the first week of 2000.
My fiction has always gravitated toward the fantastic. We’re in a rapidly changing world, and SF and fantasy are the best ways in my toolbox of expressing and exploring that change. I would no more limit myself to the genre constraints of bourgeois realism than I would to writing in the first person/present tense. SF/F is a crucial element in satire as well.
RRM: Do you tend to read more genre writing than traditional “literary”? What kind of books did you read as a kid?
NM: I probably read slightly more fiction in the literary mainstream than SF these days, actually. Contemporary American realism is good escapist fun: rich honkies and their not-very-important problems, with final chapters nearly always dedicated to therapy or to just having the protagonist sit down and begin to write the novel the reader is nearly done reading. Ah, closure, just like a happy couple setting sail arm-in-arm at the end of a lusty pirate romance novel. I read more experimental literary stuff as well.
SF and F I read very selectively. As a kid I consumed space operas, horror novels, and quest fantasies like cheap candy. Now I am much more interested in what SF fans call “literary SF”, and contemporary fantasy. It’s a minority current within a minority current, though. “Literary horror” is rare too, so I pounce on it when I can find it. Oddly, one can find it in strange places: Tom Piccirilli’s The Night Class for example, is a mass-market paperback you’re more likely to find in a drug store than in a university library, but it is very sharp. After three decades I’ve learned not to judge a book by its cover. Anything by Gary A. Braunbeck, but especially his memoir Fear In A Handful Of Dust is worth seeking out as well.
RRM: On your fan site you offer the WWNKD? comic strip (via Kynn Bartlett’s site) – what other comic projects have you been involved in? Is this anything for which you might pursue publication?
NM: I loved superhero comics as a kid, though I stopped reading them in college. In the past few years, with the rise of indie comics, I became very interested in them again. I did an underground comic with Squidworks of Colorado, and am working on a comic called “One Billion Bodies” for Media Blasters, which imports exploitation films from Japan and Europe. “OBB” is based on the film Flesh For The Beast, except mine is all about Dadaism and Surrealism instead of, uhm, titties and blood packs. I’d love to do more comics; I hope to use OBB as a calling card.
RRM: What do you make of this case? Would Nick Mamatas Vote For Nassau County District Attorney Denis Dillion In 2001?
NM: Nope. I don’t vote for candidates from bourgeois parties, it just encourages ’em. The specifics of that case I know nothing about, so won’t comment on it. My main problem isn’t with corruption and abuse of power, but with the way power is framed and used even under normal circumstances.
I’m working on an extended essay, in fact, called The Case Against Voting, which argues against “lesser evil” voting and for taking all that labor union and progressive money that gets poured into the Democratic Party and using it to launch truly independent movements. We had 500,000 people on the streets against the war in early 2003, but how many of them are going to vote for Dean or Clark, who are both pro-war and pro-occupation candidates, their rhetoric aside? If those half million people were involved in a social movement instead, it wouldn’t matter who the President was, as even Republicans have offered up reforms.
In the essay – which is still looking for a publisher — I even do a “blind taste test” by listing a series of position planks and asking the reader to guess who I am discussing. It’s a trick question: center-right President and war criminal Richard Nixon had a set of positions (national healthcare, minimum guaranteed income, drug treatment, personal antipathy toward abortion that accompanied expanding its legality, and expansion of Affirmative Action) that mirror “left-wing looney” Dennis Kuchinich’s positions. That’s what lesser evil voting gets you: with each electoral iteration, the lesser evil grows. We’re now at the point where the far-left of the Democratic Party is the center-right of the previous generation’s Republican Party.
RRM: How wasted will you be this New Year?
a) designated driver/post-alcoholic
b) drink or two
c) drink or two /w misc. pills and/or marijuana cigarette
d) WASTED (all caps and double-underlined)
e) saying embarrassing or hurtful things
f) breaking things
g) passing out randomly
NM: B, E, and F. E and F are par for the course when I’m sober. I’ve never been a huge drinker, actually. It’s those little airline bottles. I was going to see Jane’s Addition at Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Eve, but the fuckers cancelled the show.
About the author:
Ryan Robert Mullen is the author of Naughty, Sweet Boy (Word Riot Press) and a columnist at Get Underground. He maintains a website at ryanrobertmullen.net.