13 June 2006

interview : ted pelton

Lance: Some might say it's pure self-destructive lunacy, in the current socio-economic environment, to try to launch an alternative press. What motivated you to do just that with Starcherone in 2000? What have you enjoyed most about it? What have you found most difficult?

Ted: The main impetus at first was to get my own book published. I’d won an NEA in Fiction but despite sending out my work all over for years and years I remained in the strange position of being an award-winning but essentially unpublished writer. So one day during a time when I had been undergoing an unrelated, life-changing experience, I said, Why not, and started Starcherone.

Slowly, it became more than that. Ray Federman asked me in 2001 if I could reprint The Voice in the Closet, which had long been out of print. I think Federman is a terrifically important writer, as any number of national audiences outside the US (France, Romania, Germany, etc.) attest, so I jumped at the chance. Two years later we incorporated as a non-profit and a year later we adopted our current 4 books/year schedule.

What I have enjoyed most about it is that it was in some way all ridiculously easy–that for the amount of money that one might have otherwise used to buy a middling car, one can become important in the world of literature, or at least in the certain select part of that world I had always cared about and admired the participants of, whether one calls that avant-garde or small press or whatever. The importance didn’t really translate into much for which one could supply data. But nevertheless, very suddenly, people were talking about the press, teaching and discussing our books in some impressive universities, and for the first time in my life I began to have the flattering and uncanny experience of people already knowing who I was before I met them in person and actually seeking me out–and as well knowing my work. I was on the radar.

At the same time, what I have found most difficult is how entrenched the true mainstream, hegemonic discourse of Literature is–that while it is easy to break into the avant-garde, which after all is not a single place, but multiple, ephemeral environments always in flux, there exists this other definition or characterization of contemporary writing that is truly bound up with money, class, and corporate power. I already knew these things in an abstract way, I’m sure. But I think I had also always naively credited the literary world with values that transcended these base concerns–art was a province where the assumptions of power were dismantled, critiqued, and a new world, at least potentially, gestured toward.

But now I see that The New York Times doesn’t write about our books not because they don’t think our books are good enough, nor even because our books are not geared to a commercial marketplace (because there are arts that The Times does acknowledge that are esoteric and rarified tastes), but because we are not part of the establishment that they are trying to uphold–an establishment which includes the (dying) New York publishing industry, and in which someone like John Updike is considered a major artist. What was an ART to me has been revealed as a business and a constructed and protected social strata. I really feel in many ways like a true dissident–and there is of course a thrill in this–in that I am sure there is an active effort in these places (include Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, etc.) to ignore what we do. I have seen The Times, the paper of record, flat-out LIE about contemporary literature, how it is made and produced. But the frisson of being an enemy of the establishment is ultimately overcome by the tedium and disappointment of seeing what continues to pass for American Literature among these people and among the people they report to, because obviously we’d like to reach the large audience of smart people who read The Times and don’t realize that there are alternatives to the construction of contemporary literature one finds there.

Lance: If you could offer three bits of advice to someone reading this who might be interested in starting his or her own press, what would they be?

Ted: One, join CLMP, the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. This will not only give you a measure of credibility and community for your enterprise, but it will gain you inclusion of the CLMP listserv, which is the best resource available for any question you might have about publishing, an open forum where you can network with people all over the country who have been doing this for years. You will have a thousand questions, in time, and there’s no single source for answers, the technologies and other factors are changing so rapidly.

Second is a piece of old-time advice I saw in a short essay by Robert Creeley in Was That a Real Poem describing the early days of Black Mountain Review back in the 1950s. He said that when he started BMR, he wrote to Pound asking for words of guidance. Pound wrote back that just as verse is comprised of a constant and a variant, a magazine should be likewise constructed. Have roughly half of your content be from people whose work you know and trust. Then have the other half–and I still remember these phrases from when I first read the essay at least 20 years ago, when I edited my first magazine–“be as hogwild as possible, so that any idiot thinks he has a chance of getting in.”

With Starcherone, that’s translated to our making certain that works that come to us either through our contest or our open reading period have a place on our list. Even though there are particular writers and traditions we seek to uphold and maintain, we’ve always wanted to make sure we also provide a way for new talents to break out, people unknown to us. A press that just publishes friends or acquaintances or members of a designated crowd or writing program doesn’t do much good, I don’t think, even when the work is generally strong. The 50% figure has worked out pretty well to date: 4 of the 8 single-author titles we’ve done, excluding my own book, have been by debut authors. “Idiot,” by the way, is Pound’s word, not mine.

Finally, third, don’t be discouraged; specifically, don’t be discouraged by poor sales. Books are hard to sell, even for the big New York houses. What was initially very frustrating to me was to discover that although a lot of folks will talk about how they support small press literature, it is terrifically deeply ingrained in the American character to look for bargains and discounts, and this desire may well supercede all others among my fellow citizens. So that even one’s friends, the ones you expect would be quickest to make sure your enterprise recovers its costs and stays afloat, frequently try in every way they can to get the books from your struggling little non-profit for free or in trade, etc. Don’t be angry with them; Americans can hardly help themselves from behaving this way. Stay persistent.

Sadly, a great deal of your time will almost always be given over to raising money. Accept that. And don’t feel bad if you have to play guilt cards on people to pry some cash out of them. As someone who is devoting so great an amount of your time and energy in the service of art, and not in the least to making a profit, you are always beyond reproach, an angel flying too close to the ground.

Lance: You're a writer as well as a publisher. Malcolm & Jack, your first novel, is due out next month from Spuyten Duyvil. It's a wonderfully hip, energetic imagining of a meeting between Jack Kerouac and Malcolm X, with cameos by the likes of Williams Burroughs and Billie Holiday, during the late forties and fifties. That is to say, it engages with a re-envisioning of the past, a fictionalization of history—something we've only touched on glancingly in this blog so far. Would you talk a little about how such a project shaped your dynamic use of point-of-view and narrative structure? What interested you about reshaping yesterday?

Ted: Thanks for reading it. Every person who reads one’s work feels to me like they are bestowing a gift. There are a number of things to say in response to your question. For one thing, I wanted to write a book that tried its best not privilege any particular gender or racial perspective. Now of course this is an impossible task, to remove one’s experiences, as it were, to become so utterly the negative in negative capability, to disappear, and I’m not even sure one would ever want to entirely disappear, but I certainly wanted to have different voices drive the novel. The novel has narrators who are black and white, male and female, straight and gay. I don’t do this in the old sense metafictionists used to be after, of virtuosity. I’d never want to make any such claims, and I find them really cloying and self-aggrandizing in a way that’s not only off-putting but I think destructive to the art of fiction writing, how it’s received.

So I don’t view every different style or voice I can ventriloquize as a writer as an achievement, another victory; rather, I view everything I’m not particularly good at representing or creating as limitations. For years I have been trying to do better, forcing myself to things I don’t do well, to decrease my limitations, to escape myself. That is a great joy to me as a writer. To make a metaphor, I can’t experience sex as a woman in real life; I am not a woman. Yes, I could I suppose go out and approximate it in those creative ways people do in their lives, dressing up, blurring boundaries, but that isn’t me, for one thing, and, for another, it seems like it would always come up against limitations. I’m also not unsatisfied with who I am; I’m just curious about things I’m not. As a writer I can satisfy this, and it’s particularly good to hear that I got this or that thing right. That’s one thing I’m after, anyway. To me that’s a big part of what literature is and does–tells you what it’s like to be other people.

Another part of the reason, I think, besides the simple thrill of being “other,” is democracy, what it really means. Malcolm X is my countryman; he is an inspiring figure in my history as an American citizen, even though I am so-called “white.” It’s funny that literature, which is supposedly a sophisticated art form, finds itself hamstrung by things that many popular art forms really have no problems with, and haven’t had for years. The Rolling Stones played Howling Wolf more than 40 years ago, respectfully, and found themselves and their own sound in doing that; there are many such examples in music. But when I was writing this book, many people said to me, “Ooh, you’re going to get into trouble for writing as Malcolm X. People are really going to be angry with you.” None of them personally had a problem with what I was doing, but there were all these “that’s not allowed” assumptions going on. I feel like the true nature of democracy is to some extent to dismantle the simpler assumptions of identity writing, and I think it’s shameful how aesthetically conservative literature has become, where everyone’s assumptions about novels, certainly mainstream publishers but even readers presumably interested in “innovative” writing, presuppose narrative as, first and foremost, barely disguised confession. I think writing certainly does have elements of confession, but words aren’t interested in the truth, to quote Creeley again. Maurice Blanchot also told us this, among others.

Anyway, there was another aspect to your question, about remaking the past. I think this was basically just a side-product of writing about my heroes, Malcolm X, Jack Kerouac, Billie Holiday, and, sure, Alfred Kinsey. And it was also certainly prompted by political resentments against a generation of politicians who have now pretty much passed from the scene, though not entirely–and certainly their assumptions haven’t. I was interested in taking on the 1940s, the period of the development of American Empire. I mean, yes, we fought a war that saved the world from fascism, not rhetorical but real fascism, and that was wonderful and necessary, but what has followed from that, the national valuing of war, has been disastrous, and keeps repeating.

I started the book following on the heels of the Reagan-Bush years; Reagan and Bush were both of that war generation. Malcolm and Jack were both part of an underground in the 1940s that became the different parts of the powerful counter-culture discourse of the 1960s. I wanted to meditate on the 1940s mythmaking that fueled the rise of conservatism in the late 20th century and trumped 1960s pacifist and socialist impulses. Remaking the past is something everybody does. It is the job of fiction writers, I think, to clarify this. Reagan isn’t in the book, but he so clearly exemplified this: I mean, in his stories, as was well documented (see Gary Wills’s book on him, for instance), he believed he actually fought in the war, even though he had worn the uniforms only in war films, and believed as well he was actually present at the liberation of the death camps, so powerful and convincing had his narrative reconstructions about these events been.

So in Malcolm & Jack we’ve got American Empire, hegemonic national narratives, historical crimes (as Malcolm never stopped telling us), and a bunch of sexy people at the heart of it–why shouldn’t I enjoy the activity of remaking the past? Susan Sontag says somewhere that the past is the greatest, most tantalizing imaginative space we have. It’s supposed to be stable. Of course, it isn’t at all; it’s all stories, being remixed and recreated all the time.

Lance: In a recent comment here on Coetzee's Disgrace, you wrote: "I would contend that while innovation is a path to the beautiful, it is beauty itself which is the goal, to my mind." Would you please expand on that a little? What, by your lights, constitutes innovation in fiction? And what do you mean when you say "the beautiful"? How did such an aesthetic impulse inform your writing of Malcolm & Jack?

Ted: I think I’ve already now gone into that in the rest of that thread on the blog, and I can’t help it that I remain a sucker for Romantic constructions of the purpose of literature. It seems real enough to me to talk about beauty being truth and learning as an artist to trust that sense, given one’s own particular historical and aesthetic circumstances, which are always changing, it’s true, and should always change; nevertheless, beauty and the search for beauty, the desire to make beauty, is a constant. It even sounds maudlin to me to hear myself speak this way. But beauty, as you pointed out in that thread, can be embodied in a work of hideous ugliness such as Samuel Delany’s Hogg, which is so brave, so uncensored, so transgressive, indeed so uncomfortable, that it becomes an aesthetic experience of a very high order.

How this impulse informed Malcolm & Jack? I wanted it to be a good book, so I kept trying to make it more beautiful in fulfilling the tasks it had created for itself. Billie Holiday not being able to sing because she’s in jail for drugs she takes because she’s miserable about her life and, goddamn it, oppressed in white America, allowed to appear on a marquee at a hotel club but having to enter the hotel through the back door, and then finding herself in an interracial affair in the segregated jail ... I wanted to create such complex situations out of little-appreciated histories in a way that fit my sense of the complexities of lived experiences–beauty is truth, and truth beauty. That’s all I know, as the poet sez, and I’m sorry some find that a maudlin or politically unsophisticated construction. I want to move thoughtful and sophisticated readers; part of that is political, certainly, but, as Williams says, bad writing never helped anyone. Beauty is what makes a political art successful or not. What is beauty? You tell me.

Lance: In your posts about alternative publishing here, you come across as a born optimist. Does that hold true with respect to where you see the enterprise in, say, another ten years?

Ted: Jesus, I don’t know. I am an optimist, it’s true, but I think I’d have to be a pessimist to see myself still doing this same thing ten years from now. I’ve always liberated myself from such things after a certain amount of time; I love my life and my own writing too much to remain so long serving (and I do mean serving, not as a jail term, but definitely in the sense of service) as Starcherone’s director.

Ten years from now, in 2016, I would hope, optimistically, that Starcherone still exists, and that I will have passed on guidance of it to someone else. But it is also true that I can’t foresee a time when I will willingly let Starcherone die. I owe that to our authors. Starcherone can’t get its books into Barnes & Noble coinciding with release dates, with coordinated advertising campaigns and orchestrated reviews to maximize sales over the short-term, so what we do offer authors is that their books will stay available and that we will keep talking them up and pushing them, with our books’ shelf life measured in years rather than months. That requires us to stay in business. Literature is a long-view art form; it is perhaps the most difficult art form to consume, so time is always needed to allow a book’s audience to be nurtured and developed, particularly when the work is new and challenging and requires its audience to learn how to read it, as is the case with practically any new innovative artist in fiction.

That’s the drama. Will I escape my own creation eventually and get back to my own life and writing (make no mistake: Starcherone takes up hours, weeks, and months, and most of that time is not spent creatively)? Or will I sacrifice the greatest part of my creative years to a larger cause that in the end even I will see as having been fruitless, pointless, a useless and unappreciated waste of time and energy that in the end becomes no more than a footnote in a very large history of our literature, if anyone in the end ever cares about that again?

Who knows? In any case, even if I was born an optimist, I have studied other subjects over the years since, in school and on my own.

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