So You Wrote a Book?
Many years ago, before I was a “real writer”, I envisioned a day when I would have a bookshelf filled with only books by my friends. Today, that bookshelf is about to collapse under its own weight! The So You Wrote a Book? series is my way to shine the spotlight on some of the amazing work being written and to applaud our collective mission to create art that moves us and those around us. Thanks for reading!
So You Wrote a Book? Steven Dunn
Steven Dunn has just released his new book, Water and Power! This book is a literary mosaic, collaging the two contradictory faces of the military: the official face of the recruiting posters and the real faces of the people, including Steven’s.
Nancy: Can you tell us what the book is about in exactly six words?
Steven: Challenging standard heroic/patriotic military narratives.
You call this book an ethnography, which is an anthropological term used when researching and then writing about a different culture. Some might argue that the military is not a culture but an organization. What are your thoughts?
I think it is both, organization and culture, like any work place has its own culture, but with the military you live and work in it. Plus it has its own laws, holidays, rituals, conventions, dress codes, behavior codes, and so on.
I see this book like a literary collage: Army codes, recruiting posters, comics and “official” language are presented as artifacts but also juxtaposed against your story and the stories of the other soldiers. Talk about your choice to go with this form as opposed to, say, a straight memoir?
I didn’t want a memoir because I was more interested in multiple truths instead of facts, so I call it a novel, plus there are some straight up speculative fiction elements. Like people argue over the facts of whether Chris Kyle (American Sniper memoir) killed 200 or 160 people. It’s an important fact, but focusing on those numbers ignores a lot of maybe more important truths about why/how this thing is celebrated and publicly worshipped, and the truth that that is a lot of killing. But mainly, I wanted to include other voices that don’t often show up in military literature, especially from women, people of color, LGBTQ voices, and voices from foreign civilian victims or our wars.
In this book you do a series of anonymous “subject interviews”. Did you find using this kind of source material made it easier to write the book or more challenging? How do you reconcile multiple visions?
Oh my god, yes, more challenging (at first), because I was trying to control it. But after a while of writing it, I knew I had to let the book be a mess, to be wild by letting these multiple visions collide and/or agree with each other, hoping to slow down the automated ways we think about the military. What helped me see this was Joyelle McSweeney’s quote in an essay on genre in Ghost Proposal: “I love when a structure is badly wired and it shorts out and sends up dazzling sparks and all kinds of fatal events.” So this book needed to be a badly wired ethnography that presents itself as one thing but shorts out and unravels into a hot mess (which is a lot of our experiences in the military) that we might or might not be able to make some sense of.
One moment that stood out for me was when one of your “subjects” says that he only joined the Army for the G.I. Bill…and so did all his friends. As a college professor I see many of these students on the other side, “cashing in” their G.I. Bills but also attempting to reconcile and write about their (often difficult) experiences in the military. Would you say this pathway into the military is typical? What would you say to a high school student considering this path for these reasons?
That answer is so complicated for me. I joined for the G.I. Bill also, but chose to go to a private university afterwards, which the G.I. Bill stopped fully funding private schools during my sophomore year in 2011. So it wasn’t completely worth it for me. But it’s been worth it for a lot of other people. So I’d tell a high school student that if that’s the only reason they’re joining, maybe consider a few other options first. But I also know that the military specifically recruits its enlisted members from below the poverty line, so sometimes that’s the only option for people.
You are donating 10% of the author proceeds to the International Refugee Committee. Can you tell us about this organization and why you feel passionate about it?
I’ll give the info from their website: The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is a global humanitarian aid, relief, and development nongovernmental organization. Founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, the IRC offers emergency aid and long-term assistance to refugees and those displaced by war, persecution, or natural disaster. The IRC is currently working in over 40 countries and 27 U.S. cities where it resettles refugees and helps them become self-sufficient.
The IRC conducted operations across Iraq from April 2003 through December 2004. The organization resumed operations there in 2007, and is now expanding programs throughout the country. In addition to aiding displaced Iraqis within the country, the IRC is also providing assistance to Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria, as well as to those granted refuge in the United States
I’m often guilty and ashamed of having been in the military and benefitting from it socially and economically—and contributing to that organization who destroys other economies and people. So it’s important for me to contribute to the IRC, who is doing the opposite of what the military is doing: trying to keep people alive. This doesn’t absolve me or anything, or make me feel less guilty. I don’t know. I feel dumb talking about it sometimes because I haven’t worked it out yet, and don’t know if I ever will.
This isn’t your first book. You also published Potted Meat in 2016. How is Water and Power different from Potted Meat?
Potted Meat was narrow in geographic space (confined to one small town), and more internal, and ignorant of the past and future. It was very much focused on the mess of the present tense. water & power is wider in geographic space (Hawaii, Japan, Thailand, under the pacific ocean on a submarine), more external by including voices and viewing the military from multiple critical lenses. It also brings in histories and speculates on the future.
You are currently part of a project to bring Potted Meat to film. What is that experience like? Do you have to let go and let the director’s vision take over at some points?
The experience so far has been so damn great and collaborative. The director (Cory Warner) and producer (Flora Ortega) constantly check in with me in terms of the script and the visual tone. They want to stick as close to the book as possible, so whenever I need to let go and the directors’ vision take over, I’m totally fine with it. Which the only thing so far has been some arrangements of some of the stories to work for the film. I’m learning a lot about visual storytelling, and other filmmakers/films that I never knew about. But overall, it’s been cool as hell. My cousin, Drew Lipscomb, is producing the soundtrack, as well as rapping on it too, and some of my homies I grew up with are featured on it: Deep Jackson and C.Y.N. This shit is fire too!
You have published both your books with Tarpaulin Sky Press. Can you tell us about your road to publication and/or your publishing process?
I’d been a fan of Tarpaulin Sky for years, and loved that they published books that were wild as hell, that weren’t following many rules about what I used to think “literature” was, plus I knew they made beautiful books from the layout to cover design to paper quality. Tarpaulin only publishes 2-3 books every other year, so when I saw they had an open reading period, I submitted. Luckily I was one of the books chosen. It was in the contract that Tarpaulin could have first look at my second book, and if they wanted to publish it, I could say yes or no. So I got lucky again, and said yes because I love love love TS.
You are going to be one of the challengers in November 20th, “Fbomb Heavyweight Challenge of the Century” throwdown against Jonathan “Bluebird” Montgomery who said, “I feel confident going toe to toe with anyone at the mic.” The Vegas polls are tied. Can you give us any insights into your strategies for the match and what viewers should expect?
Bluebird, or Hummingbird as I call him (to get in his head), is a super high energy performer, so I’ll let him do what he does, he can flap his wings 80 times per second in the first few rounds, but he doesn’t have stamina, and then BAM, I’ll knock him out once he’s tired. That’s all folks!
Finally: What advice do you have for someone writing their first book?
Take your time, if you can afford it and aren’t dependent on books for income (not that we make money anyway). Take a musician and/or athlete approach to writing in terms of practice. And what worked for me, was to not submit it to 100 places, you know, the conventional wisdom of casting a wide net to better your chances. Tithe to the community: go to readings, write authors nice notes if you loved their books, interview people if you have a platform, review books.
Anything else you want to add?
Thank you for this interview, and all of the great questions. Oh, and I love your new book, and your performances of it.
Awww, thank you! The admiration is mutual. xoxo
Steven Dunn is the author of two novels, Potted Meat and water & power. Some of his work can be found in Granta and Best Small Fictions. He was born and raised in West Virginia.
Visit Steven’s website to learn more!
So You Wrote a Book? Jonathan Montgomery
Jonathan “Bluebird” Montgomery has just released his new book, The Reality Traveler, a pop culture allegorical/philosophical tale with Jonny “Bluebird” as its picaresque narrator and Reality Traveling tour guide! Think Don Quixote meets the Alchemist meets the Guardians of the Galaxy.
Jonny, can you tell us what the book is about in exactly six words?
Do you like old songs too?
When you say the narrator is “reality traveling”, what do you mean by that?
The narrator has a mythological sense of himself and invents all this terminology to express how the world feels to him. Other people seem so different from him he thinks of them as their own ‘Realities.’At the same time he also sees himself on a God-given mission to meet (‘Travel’ to) and relate with (‘Me&You’) as many people as possible. So Reality Traveling pretty much means transcending differences, but it doesn’t come naturally for the narrator at all.
Where did you get the idea for reality traveling?
The whole book is based on a cross country road trip I took to my friends’ wedding years ago. It was like a weeklong whirlwind back and forth from Colorado to New Jersey, visiting everyone I knew along the way. Like one moment I’d be watching TV on the couch with my mom in Ohio and the next I’d be in a bar in New York City with a college friend and the next I’d be on the road again stopping at some middle-of-nowhere gas station in Illinois with a bunch of strangers. They really felt like separate Realities, and I realized how relating with each of them required following totally different sets of rules.
What are some of your favorite realities to travel to/through?
Alone Reality, which is just when you’re by yourself. In the book The Professor, who lectures on all the lessons of Reality Travel, considers Alone Reality a problem because you can’t actually Me&You anyone else there, but I never said I was a good Reality Traveler. I do like taking road trips to far off and exciting places, recently I’ve been traveling a lot to the Southwest. I’m drawn to the Desert.
So originally the Me&You “catchphrase” in this book was MeToo!, a catchphrase you have been using in your books for over a decade, and once the #Metoo movement started you had to make a decision about whether or not to keep it. Can you talk about that?
I wrote a whole essay on it here.Letting Go of ‘MeToo’
But additional thoughts for right now… I guess I connected with the phrase ‘me too’ because it was so commonplace and simple you almost didn’t realize the true beauty of it, and I wanted to draw attention to that. But because it was so common it was also foolish to feel like I had any ownership of it. I’m a supporter of the #metoo movement, but isn’t it weird how a phrase once so common and generic now means something so specific?
This isn’t your first book. You’ve also published Taxis and Shit and Pizzas and Mermaid. How is The Reality Traveler different from your other books?
Taxis & Shit is a book of poetry and stories. Pizzas and Mermaid is a book of mainly stories. Those are collections of open mic pieces, designed for performing during a 3-5 minutes slot.
The Reality Traveler, on the other hand, is a novel. The earliest versions were started while I was still in grad school a few years before I was really hitting the mics. It’s always been sort of this ongoing secret project which was more difficult to share in public because it was too long and too much would be out of context.
I think the shorter pieces in my earlier books individually are more poetic and pack a more aggressive punch, but I’m more proud of The Reality Traveler because I was somehow able to coordinate like 150 short episodes at once, interweaving several themes into a cohesive narrative. It took 13 years and was a huge focus of my creative life.
You have published with indie presses as well as self-publishing. Tell us about the publishing process for this book?
In the past I had friends with small presses who helped me. For The Reality Traveler I made an attempt to find an agent or a publisher, but nothing came of it. But I’ve always felt like conventional publishing is really weird and try to question everything we take for granted about it. We really seem to tie our self-esteem into some stranger deciding you’re a good enough writer to sell your work to other strangers. Is that really why we make art? It feels more natural that I’m just writing for myself and people in my community who really get me. Any greater ambition just seems to lead to suffering. So I actually put up the novel on a website for free this spring, posting one episode every day for a few months, and it was a spiritual exercise in not trying to care too much how many people actually viewed it. But the problem was I didn’t feel like the blog style format was a very reader friendly experience, so I decided to put it in print. And it’s pretty easy to do these days, and I did basically everything myself. I feel like I’m putting a picture on the fridge in just a more elaborate way. I think I’m okay with whatever result comes of it.
You have what’s being called a “SuperConcert” set up for the release of this book on November 10th in Boulder. What’s a SuperConcert? What should we expect? I heard Bono might be there?
The recorded voice of Bono might be there…
But yeah, Bluebird, the main character in The Reality Traveler, is a MusicMan Traveler who Me&Yous via The Great List of Old Songs, or at least tries to. The whole book he’s trying to get people to relate to this mix he made of old radio hits, with some disappointing results. In a way it’s about the naivety that I think a lot of kids who grew up in the suburbs in the 80-90’s shared, that pop culture would be enough to bring us all together. But in another way those songs can be pretty damn Me&You-able with certain people.
One of my favorite things ever is the Live Aid Concert from 1985, in which all the superstars of the day performed together for the cause of African hunger. So I wanted to do a mini version of that, where we get as many local musicians together for the cause of my novel, ha. There are 19 songs on the Great Trip Mix and 1 song on the Anti-Mix, and various bands will be doing live covers for most of them. I’ll be singing Journey and Springsteen. There will also be DJ Davi-D handling the rest as well as adding in his own flair.
Rather than just doing a typical book reading and having it feel all literary, I want it to feel like a party, a celebration for the completion of this thing that I spent so much effort on for so long. I’ll read some, but it will mainly be about the music and people having a good time.
You are also going to be one of the challengers in November 20th, “Fbomb Heavyweight Challenge of the Century” throwdown against Steven “Fatback Freddy” Dunn. The Vegas polls are tied. Can you give us any insights into your strategies for the match and what viewers should expect?
Steven Dunn is doing awesome right now and rightfully so. He may have more publications and awards and teaching and speaking opportunities and so forth, but I feel confident going toe-to-toe with anyone at the mic.
Finally: What advice do you have for someone writing their first book?
Every day I see advice from all these writers on social media, stuff like ‘read more’ or ‘write everyday.’ There’s a phoniness to it. It seems like advice they’re giving themselves, but they act like they’re some kind of authority for others. What if we got past this idea of caring whether your writing is good or bad? No advice anymore. No rules. Just do whatever feels right for you. If publishers think you suck and don’t like it, so what?
Anything else you want to add?
As the Goddess of Faith, The Guardian Angel character from the book would say, “It’s Alright, Baby!”
Jonathan Montgomery was born in 1980 in Akron, Ohio. He’s a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. His previous books are Taxis & Shit and Pizzas and Mermaid. He teaches English at Front Range Community College and lives in Boulder, Colorado.