Friday, March 28, 2008
INTERVIEW WITH ROB WOODARD PART III
Here's the third and final installment of my interview with Long Beach writer/publisher Rob Woodard. These questions deal with the publishing side of things, along with some insight into his novel "Heaping Stones," which I highly recommend for those interested in an honest depiction of love, Long Beach and the struggles of being a writer.
Woodard also discusses his role as a publisher with writers Dan Fante and Tony O'Neill and the difference between wearing the writing hat versus the publisher hat. Each book, like "Heaping Stones," is honest and gritty and definitely worth checking out.
PS The picture to the right is of Woodard and Fante after a reading at Open in Long Beach. I was there. It was good. If you weren't, you missed it.
J: Why did you decide to start a publishing company?
R: It’s something I’d been thinking about for a very long time. Writers are getting reamed artistically and financially and the increase of infotainment and less about anything worthwhile that small publishing houses are necessary to counteract. There needs to be an underground culture with an outlet. There were plenty of examples for me to follow. I’ve always been a huge fan of City Lights from San Francisco. It’s one of the absolute jewels of American culture. Southern California sort of had that with Black Sparrow Press, but they moved up north eventually. I always wanted to do a City Lights type thing here, but I didn’t want a bookstore attached to it. I didn’t want to have to pay rent. Growing up, my biggest influence was not anything to do with literature; it was SST Records. I grew up a big fan of the Minutemen, Black Flag and the Meat Puppets. They said, “Screw you, I’m going to put it out myself.” The whole DIY generation just messed me up for my whole life. From a personal level, I wrote “Heaping Stones” and thought, “Looking at the current publishing climate, nobody’s going to touch this book. They want ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding.’” They don’t want anything real. I started looking at writers I admire. Henry Miller, who was publishing him? A little tiny press in France. Charles Bukowski? They had to create a press because nobody else would touch him. I sent it to publishers and they liked it, but didn’t want to publish it or spend money on somebody they’d never heard of. I had to claim my freedom and not go through gatekeepers.
J: What about from a technical side? Who edits your work? Things like that?
R: That’s a problem. “Heaping Stones” is filled with typos and things that wouldn’t have happened if I had taken my time. It was my first time, but it doesn’t bother me. That’s part of its charm. Someday when it goes into a second printing, the first will be worth more money because it’s the typo version. They’re not major typos, just things that wouldn’t have slipped through if I was paying attention.
J: How did you find Dan Fante and get to publish “Don Giovanni?”
R: I ran into Dan’s work right before I started writing “Heaping Stones.” I’d heard of him, but never read him. I’d been an avid fan of his father’s for years, but never read Dan. John Fante’s biographer Stephen Cooper was teaching a seminar at Long Beach State and I took the class for the hell of it. I mentioned to him that I was a big fan of Dan’s and Stephen gave me his email address. I contacted him and within a week, he invited me to Santa Monica, where he was living at the time, to get coffee and talk about literature. We started talking and he volunteered to read a draft of “Heaping Stones.” He was an informal editor and we kept in touch.
J: Were you surprised he was open to meeting with you?
R: It was weird at first because he looks so much like his dad in the face. If you read John Fante’s books and the dialogue, Dan’s kinda like that. Dan talks just like the dialogue in his own books. So that was interesting. And it’s always a little freaky when you meet someone you admire. It took about six months or so emailing back and forth before I finally got comfortable with the idea that he’s just a person.
J: So what about Tony O’Neill. How did you meet him?
R: Tony I met indirectly through Dan. Tony interviewed Dan and I wanted to use a quote from that on the back of “Don Giovanni.” Dan gave me his email, but I went to his website, where I read a lot of his poetry. It was one of those moments where I read a poem and a half and knew he was head and shoulders above 90 percent of other writers. Plus, he was writing the kind of stuff that I felt Burning Shore Press should be publishing. I was lucky enough that he allowed me to write the intro to his book. It was so real I knew I had to publish this guy and I knew he wasn’t going to find a publisher very easily. It happened within a day or so.
J: His book has a definite theme. Was that the goal or did that just happen?
R: He was in the middle of an incredibly fertile period. When I met him, he had at most half the poems finished. He was writing and would send them to me. Day after day I’d open my email and there was another poem. I read them and gave him some feedback, but he was on such a roll there wasn’t much I could say. “Oh, this one’s only 10 percent better than your last totally great poem.” When he told me he was coming to the end, I made two piles. One was poems I wanted for sure and the other wasn’t for sure. Then I started arranging them. They fell into three categories naturally. I’m hoping Tony becomes really famous someday so I get credit for being this great editor. But probably not. I took all the LA poems and put in the first section. Then he had all these poems written later, in New York or London for the most part, and put those in the end. In the middle he had oddball poems that were kind of political, more angry, less about his heroin life. It was the easiest editing job on Earth because he’s so talented and he was in a place where everything was clicking. Even though I’m the editor, publisher and wrote the intro, I did those things because I think it’s not just a great book, it’s an important book. Twenty years from now people will look at it as a major landmark for American poetry, even though he’s English. It’s just a matter of time. It will find its audience eventually.
J: Tell me the difference in publishing and writing.
R: For me they’re intertwined. I don’t think about publishing when I write. That’s part of the freedom – I don’t have to think about that. The problem with today’s writers world is the writers and publishers are two different camps and they’re hostile toward each other. Publishers are there to make a profit. Eventually it has to break even or I can’t keep doing it, but as long as Burning Shore Press gets there and stays there or gets to the point where it’s not losing too much money, I’ll keep doing it. I’ll do Burning Shore Press for the rest of my life if it’s not costing me an arm and a leg. There are times when publishing takes up so much time it starts hurting my own writing. That’s when I get frustrated. But also a result of the fact that it’s so new. It’s me with some friends who help. Eventually, I’d like to take on a partner who’s better at the business, technical side of it. I’d like to be centered around editing and book design.
J: Tell me about the process behind writing “Heaping Stones.”
R: I came out of a personal crisis that I’d been waiting for my whole life. I was finishing my master’s degree and I had been accepted into the PhD program at UC Santa Barbara. All of a sudden, the fact that I’d been using these degrees to hide from writing started coming to a head. I had to make a decision. If I got my PhD, I was going to be an academic anthropologist for the rest of my life. You can’t serve two masters. That was it. It was a tough decision because I knew I had the ability and background, but I’d never produced any writing that was worth a damn. I had to leap off the cliff or live the rest of my life as a lie. That’s a pretty tough decision. I turned UCSB down at the last second and they were freaked out. They’d never had anybody turn them down that late. I was also going through a horrid relationship that was ripping me apart. I had no idea if I was coming or going. Perhaps I was throwing my life away. I was throwing away a lucrative career, but I had to write something and I knew it had to be a novel. It had to be something sustained. I had no idea what I was writing about. I knew I was writing about somebody who was doing the same thing I was doing, making a break. So I made him a writer trying to find himself through women. Eventually I realized I was making the change by writing the change. I wrote a book about a guy changing while I was trying to change, which is very unusual in literature. Most people write about things after they happen because it tends to become journalism. It was such an intense experience that I was able to pull it off. I can only think of one other book like that, and that’s “Tropic of Cancer.”
J: How long did it take to write?
R: I don’t remember exactly. Once I got on track, it came quickly, but I made a 200-page wrong turn. I became a pussy essentially and started lying. I started dressing it up, making what I thought it should be as opposed to what it really was. Then I started freaking out even more. I quit this other life to write this book that failed. But I knew there was a kernel. The book was there, so I stripped it down to 20-something pages. And those formed enough that I worked it out.
J: One similarity I’ve noticed between “Heaping Stones” and the excerpts I’ve read from your upcoming novel is that both protagonists are in relationships with much younger women.
R: I think it’s an 11-year difference in the new novel. But there were problems between the man and woman in “Heaping Stones.” I played with the idea of the Rachel character being in the next novel, but she can’t be because of the epiphany the character has at the end of “Heaping Stones.” Soon after that, she’d be gone. “What Love Is” isn’t a sequel because you can read either book in any order or read one and not the other, but the events follow the same character but they take place before “Heaping Stones.” “What Love Is” is about love as a chemical addiction. The characters do not function sexually because they don’t really like each other. It’s purely chemical. They’re locked in this hellish relationship. It’s a descent into hell, just a different type of addiction.
J: When is this book coming out?
R: The book’s been done for a couple years. It’s just a question of money. I’m in no hurry because I spent the last year and a half paying attention to the publishing company and not my own work. Now I’m trying to sell “Heaping Stones” and getting people to read that book. It’s not time sensitive or anything. I don’t know what people will think. There’s hope in “Heaping Stones,” but there’s no light in “What Love Is.” There’s no light in addiction. I think it’s a better book.
J: Most people don’t write about love as an addiction.
R: I go for the Frank Zappa view that love songs are bad for our mental health. What we think of as love is need and coveting. You don’t hold on to love. Most love stories are bullshit because they’re about need and not recognizing that. “What Love Is” is a love story in the sense that it honestly tackles what real love is from the angle of what it isn’t.