After recently featuring his story ‘Dwarf Meth Madness, Again’, it felt like the right time to sit down and chat to Mr Konrath about the writer’s life…
HST: In some ways you could be considered a blogging pioneer, keeping a journal back in the day. How do you view the current blogging landscape? With sites such as tumblr presenting an ideal of who somebody wants to be, rather than an idea of who they actually are.
I think the personal blog as a form of writing is more or less dead. Most of the current “blogging” is not creation as much as it is consumption and selective content retransmission. I think Pinterest is the apex of this; it’s nothing more than people rebroadcasting images to other people. The only writing that’s even possible is sharing a JPEG of a pithy new-age quote in a fashionable font.
There’s definitely the issue of person versus persona, but I think that’s been going on for a while. I mean, a decade ago there was this huge trend of some anonymous Vegas stripper’s blog that would get tons of traffic, and then it turns out it’s some middle-aged dude who’s a plumber in New Jersey or a dumpy housewife in Iowa. What’s odd now is that this has become the norm, and with sites like Facebook and Twitter, everyone adopts a new persona, and that’s pretty much acceptable behavior.
I still blog, mostly as a self-therapeutic thing, or to archive the emotions or environment of the moment, so when I look back at it a few years from now, I have a record of it. But I don’t waste time on SEO or promotion of it, and sometimes I think I should, but to me it’s mostly a by-product of the actual work.
HST: You also published ‘Summer Rain’ through iUniverse, the print-on-demand publisher. What was the response from peers and fellow writers when you decided to Fleetwood Mac-it (go your own way) as opposed to approaching a publishing house or agent?
In the year 2000 when I started self-publishing, print-on-demand authors had roughly the same amount of respect as high-profile pedophiles or prison rapists. But at that point, I’d already worked as both an author and editor for Macmillan, on computer books, and I knew that going with a publisher was at best a crap shoot, a chance to end up in the hole on an advance and in indentured servitude for a few more books. I also knew it meant I’d lose all control over the material, and have it sit in a pipeline for years and get worked over by yes-men and suits.
I think my friends were happy to see the book in print, but it pretty much got a no-sell from any other ‘real’ writers. These people, of course, are now all champions of the Kindle self-publishing model and are on the “publishers are going to die” bandwagon. I’m sure after the bottom falls out of Kindle publishing, they’ll all form small presses, and then angle to get bought out by large conglomerates. Take a look at the music industry for an example of this circle of life; it goes through the same DIY to indie label to big label to giant corporation and back to DIY again every few years. Record labels are dead and dying now, but I’m sure there will be some huge twist that makes them relevant again in ten years.
HST: ‘The Earworm Inception’ is a jambled information mess that I wouldn’t advise anyone to read after drinking caffeine. I imagine a lot of things go through your head during the writing process, I think many writers can suppress such a bombardment of lunacy, you seem to embrace it. How did these stories come together?
I’ve been chipping away at a successor to Rumored to Exist for years, and I still am, but I’ve started writing these shorter collections and I really like this model. Stand-up comedians are a big influence at this point, and I like how somebody like Louis C.K. will develop a new hour of material every year, and constantly integrate these small bits into a larger, cohesive work. Then he records it, puts the video on the web for five bucks, and starts over again.
I like that term, “bombardment of lunacy”, because that’s pretty much what I try to channel. I want to write books that are like the old Monty Python TV show, where I can get into some number about a gorilla librarian, and get some laughs out of it or explore the form a bit, and then jump over to a series of insane letters to the Daily Mirror. I like having a structure that enables me to do that.
Hunter Thompson was also a huge influence, and I always liked how he could take a specific rant, like something about Nixon, and then wrap it in a story about some drug-addled friend bitching about the Redskins. A lot of the stories in Earworm involved gluing together observational or opinion writing with some dementia involving a fictional persona. Like I could have written a straight article about the release of the Kindle Fire, but instead I wrote one about a drunken phone call from Governor Rick Perry complaining about how he couldn’t get his collection of housewife gangbang pornography into the cloud.
HST: Characters in your stories seem bogged down, unable to swim against the tide. Struggling with the pace and chaos of modern life. Do you empathize with your characters, do you also want to exist tranquilly in your own headspace?
All of my characters are ultimately me in that regard. I suffered from a general depression in my teens and twenties, and that slowly morphed into more of a general anxiety or anger, or at least an inability to be a shiny, happy citizen. I’m fine with that, though, as long as I can get it down on the page. I think there’s a part of me that wants to find whatever drug or life technique or practice that would turn most of that off, but at this point, my chief complaints are just the time management issues. I’m not angry at the chaos life imposes on me in that I take it personally; I’m mostly angry when it takes up my time.
HST: To earn your crust you work as a ‘technical writer’. Please provide us with a job description.
The most buzzword-free description is that I write documentation for developers utilizing huge middleware products that are used to glue together systems for cloud computing. About half of the job involves translating developer-speak into English, and the other half deals with the production side of things, like “we have 5000 documents named UNTITLED01.DOC in a directory and we need to make them into a wiki and a PDF” sort of things.
I started studying computer science in college, and after the advanced math killed me, I started taking writing classes. When I barely graduated in 1995, a friend of mine pulled me out to Seattle to work for a company that had just been consumed by CompuServe, and I fell into the career at the start of the Internet gold rush.
It’s not something I define myself with, but it’s been helpful in that it’s kept a roof over my head for many years. Without the steady paycheck, I’d either be unloading furniture trucks, or trying to hack out horrible genre fiction just to sell copies. It’s given me the freedom to do what I want, and I’d rather be exploring some new frontier with fiction than churning murder mysteries to keep the lights on.
HST: You’ve been around computers for decades. Could you step ever step completely away from them, live like Thoreau, escape from technology?
I think about it from time to time. About ten years ago, I bought 40 acres of land in the mountains in Colorado, with vague plans of eventually building some Unabomber shack out there, growing my own food and going off the grid. I’ve never done anything like that before; I think I went camping maybe three times as a child, and it was at a place with electricity and showers and running water, so it’s not like I know how to hunt or forage. I mostly found it cathartic to live in Manhattan and surf the web for these crazy survivalist web sites that taught you how to build a house out of hay bales and leftover beer bottles. Realistically, I’d last about three days.
HST: I’m about to read ‘Rumored to Exist’. Set the scene for me. Tell me about the book?
It’s a loose storyline told in a series of 200 vignettes, essentially about someone deep in this almost-post-apocalyptic near-future world, trying to find the meaning of life. My initial intent was to write a book as if you surgically removed 200 memories from a person’s brain, like you’d remove random inodes from a hard drive, without knowing the context of any of these chunks. Our existence is defined by that context, and without it, you couldn’t tell if you were staring at someone’s subconscious or repressed memories or dreams or fantasies or distortions based on actual events.
Part of this experiment was to see if I could create something approximating a novel with each of these pieces being essentially stateless, but with the whole collection providing some kind of narrative. But I also wanted to break away from the idea of a plotted novel and have this thing you could flip open to any page and start reading and be entertained.
It’s still a lot of fun for me to look at the book after ten years and wonder where the hell half the ideas came from. At one point, I produced an annotated version, with footnotes all over the place, so if you didn’t know that Brian Robertson only appeared on the sixth Motörhead studio album, you had the background information. I don’t have that for sale anymore, but sometimes I wish I had the technology to do some bizarre hypertext Kindle special edition, sort of like if Nabokov had a Macintosh when he wrote Pale Fire and could dump it all into some online multimedia disaster.
HST: How have your writing habits changed over the years?
When I was single, I threw a lot of hours at writing, but in a very unfocused way. Bukowski was a big influence early on, and I always respected his stories about how he’d start writing at the same time every night, and I felt that as long as I started plowing away at 9 PM, I’d get there.
Now I’ve become a lot more focused about my goals, and I think I’ve got the routine down a bit more. It took me seven years to write Rumored, and it was just shy of a hundred thousand words, but that probably involved writing a million words and junking 900,000 of them. I’m pretty sure I could write it now and only throw out a half-million words, and most of those would end up in other books.
From a practical standpoint, the biggest changes were switching to Scrivener in order to catalog and outline my ideas better, and I started taking notes using my phone. I’ve written a lot more about that stuff on my blog at rumored.com, so I won’t bore you with details.
HST: You used to run your own Death Metal Zine. What drew you to the genre? Personally speaking I could never go beyond thrash during my metal years; anything after thrash seemed a bridge too far.
My biggest influence was my long-time friend Ray Miller, who always knew about these insane underground bands and would turn me onto whatever was the next thing. So I made this progression from Rush to Iron Maiden to Metallica to Slayer to Napalm Death to Entombed to all of the Swedish death metal in the early 90s. I never went much further than that, like never fully immersed myself in the Black Metal stuff, and I think having to review all of these demo tapes for a zine burned me out, too. (Twenty years later, he’s still plugging away at it, over at metalcurse.com.)
Metal always had an appeal to me because I grew up in this cultural void where everyone was listening to Vanilla Ice or Garth Brooks or whatever manufactured nonsense was being distributed at that point. And metal combined horror movie gore and Tolkien mythology and codified it in this very galvanizing and against-the-grain lifestyle, which included not only the music, but the leather jackets and black t-shirts and ripped jeans. And I was a bit of a hoarder, so there was this OCD thing about having to get every album from a band. Or for a while, I was trying to buy the entire Earache discography, even the bands I hated, just because they numbered the damn things like comic books. It’s an easy vortex to get pulled into.
HST: As a Star Wars fan in your youth, what have you made of George Lucas’ consistent attempts to tarnish his own legacy?
I don’t know. I mean, part of me feels like writing a 5,000-word answer to this question talking about how he’s obviously gone insane and he’s going to re-edit The Empire Strikes Back and replace every pivotal scene with a song and dance number, and there’s a certain sadness to it, almost like when you watch Ozzy Osbourne, who at one point was the prince of fucking darkness, and now he’s just a mumbling sidekick for his wife, who apparently wants to become Oprah Winfrey or something. And maybe it’s because he had kids, or because of money, or because he’s surrounded by yes-men, and his job is to interface with suits, not strap on a Bolex and take on the world, or smoke a bunch of dope and read about the mythology of ancient Incan tribesmen and spin it into a science fiction context.
But there’s also a part of me that lets it go. I mean, Star Wars was a huge part of my childhood, but it’s something I have to simply remember and not try to continually live. I don’t follow the new stuff or the re-releases, and I have to make peace that it’s like that patch of woods where I used to play as a kid, which is now a strip mall. You can’t go back.
HST: Who is Mark Leyner, and why should we care about him?
He’s a postmodern author that had some brief success in that early 90s burst of pomo popularity that quickly flamed out. He was one of the original founding members of Fiction Collective Two, and probably their most commercially successful. He’s a brilliant, intelligent mixture of bizarre humor, satire, absurdism, and pure mania encapsulated in these twisted, non-traditional narrative forms. While reading most experimental work is daunting at best, Leyner lays down incredibly accessible yet hilarious dementia. He had five books in the 90s, all incredible, and then fucked off to do script punch-up for Hollywood movies that never got made for a dozen years after the pomo bubble burst. He just released a book, The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, which is pretty genius, but reviews of it have been brutal, mostly because it wasn’t a book of vampire stories written for autistic twelve-year-olds.
Leyner is by far my biggest influence, not only because he produced this entertaining and boundary-pushing fiction, but because like William Burroughs, he produced this genre-bending, unclassifiable, indescribable work. I struggled for a while trying to figure out my genre, and went mad trying to write “straight” science fiction or literary fiction, which bored me to tears. It wasn’t until I gave up on this and decided I needed to write Jon Konrath fiction, like Leyner writes Mark Leyner fiction, that I started becoming productive.
HST: What legacy will your Generation X leave?
It sounds glib, but I’d say the Internet. We can’t take full responsibility – the ARPANET and packet switching came out of the 60s and 70s – but it exploded in the 80s and 90s, and now history will be defined as the pre-Internet and post-Internet eras.
I remember in grade school, a teacher asked us to name a product that wasn’t made out of oil, made from machines that used oil, or transported to us in vehicles using oil, and of course, you can’t. I think the Internet is the same way now. I remember in 1992 or 1993, I tried to get my email address printed on my bank checks, and the bank fucked it all up, put spaces before the @ or after the dot or something. Now, I don’t think there is a single package in this house that doesn’t have a URL on it. It’s like if you lived in a world with no vowels, and some joker came up with a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y, and everyone started using them overnight. It’s a complete paradigm shift.
HST: You either are in, or are planning to visit London soon. What will you be hoping to see, or indeed have already seen?
I’m only in town for a few days before heading off on a longer trip to Germany, but there are basically two things. First, I expect this total lockdown police state thing to be going on because of the Olympics, with platoons of armored and jackbooted police forces on every corner like some kind of Pink Floyd video. I think I’m pretty desensitized to this, after living in New York during and after 9/11, but it will be interesting to see, and there’s probably a story in it.
The other thing is that I’m interested in the food. Everyone’s giving me shit about the food, but the Food Network is like my pornography now, and I’m constantly watching shows where Gordon Ramsay won’t shut up about the gastropubs. And I’m a huge fan of Indian food, and I’ve been told some of the best of it in the world is there, so I plan on doing some serious damage while I’m there.
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