When the Believer asked me what could be some good ideas for their Tumblr, I thought, Well, why not ask everyone else for their ideas? Over however long we keep doing this, we will hear from writers, editors, publishers, agents, interns, and PR people, in long and short interviews, usually two at a time. These are all gifted, hard-working folks, and I am happy to ask them for information that you might find useful, helpful, and possibly pleasant. I hope this will provide an interesting resource for writers, though I would be remiss if I did not also direct you to Duotrope, New Pages, Poets and Writers, PEN, and HTMLGiant as sites to check out. Think of this as a kind of conversational space—a safe space, really. It is my honor and you’re welcome.
Love, Nicolle Elizabeth
First up we have friend of the Believer, James Greer. Don’t forget to check out his tour diary, coming in September. You guys know James from Guided By Voices and his new project, Détective, and he is also the retired Senior Editor of Spin magazine and a fiction and screenplay writer (of screenplays such as movies Catherine Zeta Jones stars in). Also, we’re from the same hometown. So I thought: Well, start here.
Nicolle Elizabeth: Hi James, thanks for talking with us. How are you?
James Greer: I’m trying to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables and no ice cream and no wine and while I miss ice cream and wine I feel pretty good.
NE: You are a writer as well as a musician and retired editor. Which came first and which one led to which and which and which and which?
JG: I’ve always been a writer. I guess I’ve always been a musician, too, though technically I didn’t start learning music until I was ten or eleven. I learned saxophone first. My dad had a tenor sax from when he was in a Dixieland band in college. I still have it. It was made in 1919 in Elkhart, Indiana. I started editing because Bob Guccione, Jr. hired me to edit Spin magazine after I met him at a party and told him I could edit things. I guess I can be pretty persuasive when I’m drunk since he hired me in the absence of any evidence that I could actually edit anything.
NE: Would you ever go back to editing?
JG: I’m a terrible editor. I end up just rewriting everything because it’s easier, which is just an awful thing to do to another writer. But sure, if I needed the money and it was the only job I could get. I’m better at editing film than I am at editing writers. You don’t have to talk to film.
NE: How completely different are writing about music and writing fiction?
JG: Well, both are a form of lying, and with both you have to go to a lot of trouble to say anything new and avoid clichés. So not that different, really. At least the way I do it.
NE: How does one even get into editing?
JG: a) Get drunk. b) Be at a party where Bob Guccione, Jr. is.
NE: Your recent project, Detective, is putting out a cassette album— is this true? And do you not see how that is completely adorable?
JG: What an adorable question. Also it’s spelled Détective, which is adorable, too. We are putting out a cassette, or rather a label called Burger Records, which specializes in cassette releases, is putting it out. Tapes are cheap to make, so you can sell them for cheap, and a lot of kids have cassette players in their cars because they can only afford old cars. I have a cassette player in my car. For instance. Also in my house, but that’s because I’m old.
NE: What advice do you have for musicians who are thinking about writing?
JG: Only do it if you have to, by which I mean if your drive to write is so strong you think you might die if you don’t. Never do it just because you want to, or for the money. There’s nothing wrong with getting paid for writing (should you be so lucky), but that shouldn’t ever be your goal. Whenever you start thinking about the commercial potential of anything you do, global warming happens. Fact.
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Giancarlo DiTrapano writes for Vice. He is a contributor to the Paris Review and many fine, fine places, and the editor and publisher of Tyrant magazine and Tyrant Books. Tyrant is known as publishing some of the strongest voices in indie lit. Something I really appreciate in Gian is that he always seems to be getting either in trouble or fired from places, and he gets right back up. (@nytyrant)
Nicolle Elizabeth: What is Tyrant Books?
Giancarlo DiTrapano: Tyrant Books is the book arm of my literary magazine, New York Tyrant. First it was a lit mag, and it still is, but I also started publishing whole entire books, by like: Brian Evenson, Eugene Marten, Michael Kimball, Atticus Lish. And will soon publish Blake Butler, Sam Michel, Scott McClanahan, Ken Baumann, and Marie Calloway.
Tyrant is also what I have put a good share of my time and money into over the past few years. I have made and lost many friends because of Tyrant. I have bent this great country’s laws for Tyrant. I have risked acquiring STDs by volunteering my own body for the good of the lit venture. I have stayed out way too late, way too many nights, head on the bar, with awful, awful people, for the good of the Tyrant. I’ve had way too many conversations standing over a filthy bar toilet for the Tyrant. To what end? Who else does this? No one does this. This is a strange thing to say, but I feel like I am constantly putting my neck out for very little reward. That’s not totally true. I guess there is some reward. But I’m still just going broke over here, spiritually as well as walletably.
At any rate, Tyrant is a deep devotion.
NE: How did Tyrant Books begin?
GDT: Tyrant Books is an extension of New York Tyrant, a tumor on top of a tumor that grew naturally. Through the writers of the stories in the magazine, I was introduced to their novel-length manuscripts, so wanted to publish those as well. There is a small responsibility that comes with publishing a collection of twenty stories by twenty different authors, but when you take on a whole entire book by someone, then the deal gets a little more intense. You begin to lose sleep over doing your best for the book. You’ve been entrusted with something that took someone a serious amount of time and grief to produce and, well, there’s just a lot more riding on all of that person’s time and grief, you know? I’ve worried myself through many sleepless nights. I’ve gotten rashes. Lorin Stein gave me some good advice about how to deal with that, though (the worrying, not the rashes). I am greatly indebted to that man, and in a strange way, kind of in love with him.
NE: How long has Tyrant Books been going?
GDT: Couple of years now. A lot of down time in between all of that, though.
NE: How did Tyrant magazine begin?
GDT: While interning at FSG, before I got fired, I made a couple of friends and we thought it would be fun. I can remember picking up the lit mags from that period and being really depressed about most of them. I had some money, so we offered a prize, placed some ads, got some help/advice from Lish, and next thing I knew we had an issue. A first issue is tough, though. You’re asking someone to submit to something that doesn’t yet exist. Lish was a big help with that. He told us to tell certain writers we wanted that he had sent us and so the stories were proffered with little to no resistance. Very indebted to that man. Richard Nash has also been an indispensable help to Tyrant. So yeah, looks like Lish, Stein, and Nash are my very own trinity of Delphic oracles.
NE: How long has Tyrant magazine been going?
GDT: A couple of years longer than Tyrant Books, because I started the lit mag and then I started doing whole entire books.
NE: What kind of writing is Tyrant interested in?
GDT: This question is so confounding (learned that word from Lord Jim because Marlow says it). I have never been able to explain why I like what I like. I’m no good with talking about writing, and that’s just what this is. I publish stories and books that I like, even love. They feel good to read. Or feel strong to read. I do appreciate it when something has been worked on. I’m not saying if you spend a lot of time on a story that it will be good, but maybe it helps and is a respectable thing to do before making someone try to read it? Anyway, after a while, you can just tell whether any real attempt at beauty has been made on the page with only a simple glance. Like even from across the room, the very shape of the graphs on the page, from too far away to make any wordsense, but close enough to see the shape of the blacks and whites and to know something good in there is stirring around.
GDT: Why what? Why do I publish what I like? Because why would I do anything else? Why would I publish something I didn’t like?
NE: What is Tyrant’s stance on literature, as a whole? It’s an easy and simple question, really.
GDT: Our stance? Buffalo.
Or you could say that Tyrant’s stance on literature as a whole is not unlike the stance of a Puerto Rican hooker-boy who is very far from home, nodding out with his face pressed against a bar’s bathroom toilet divider, his hands on his hips, pinga in a glory hole, just wishing that he had a fresh stick of some kind of minty gum to chew on. He smells awful, but has beautiful teeth. He is not “making plans.”
NE: Are Tyrant books/the mag available in print as well as online, and where can one find both and/or either/or?
GDT: The mag is only in print for now. All of our titles from Tyrant Books (besides Baby Leg by Brian Evenson) will soon be available in ebook format as well.
NE: What are Tyrant’s plans for the future, aside from taking over the world?
GDT: Hopefully, to keep putting out the magazine, and to keep putting out books. Though I don’t see any room for growth. I don’t want things to ever get too loose, you know, so I have to keep it a certain size. With myself as the only constant element, there have been many incarnations of the Tyrant, and many people have come and gone (as I’m sure many more people will continue to come and go). Luke Goebel is responsible for our tenth issue. He guest-edited and handled all the getting of the stories and did an ace of a job. He shot down many great writers to secure such choice content. That’s never a fun or easy thing to do. Rejecting a good-but-not-great story isn’t something that gets easier over time. It was good to hand the entire issue over to Luke because I think when too many people get involved, even more than one, then the work, or vision, or whatever, always gets watered down. Luke alone can put together a better issue than Luke with me. That’s why journals created by an entire committee of editors can seem so washy. A collection of a single person’s choices is more apt to have character and to be more attractive as like, a thing. We’re not stopping yet, are we?
NE: Why does Tyrant publish anything at all?
GDT: Not to make the world around me more of a world that I would want to live in. Not to make any kind of change at all, because that’s impossible. Not for the money (ha, obvs). Not because I feel the need to do something. Not because I’m any good at it. Not enough people read the shit for there to ever be any great effect (I remember being dumb enough to think that a book could change the world). I guess that there have always been a few people who do really read the stuff and enjoy it, and maybe I do it for them. Like feeding a small group of insects that might be facing extinction? It’s good to keep a portion of the population a little tweaked on fine lit, what with life being so strange and changeful. That small group of people who read the stuff might actually turn out to be a very important part of your immediate society. Or it might not. It probably won’t. It definitely won’t.
NE: What are the responsibilities involved in being a publisher—as in, do you just publish whatever you want or do you consider the readership, etc.?
GDT: I don’t consider the readership. I’m not dumb. If I considered the readership, then I would publish books that I know more readers would love, so more readers would buy the books and I’d get rich as Nazis. I guess some people really do love it, but way more don’t, either by not knowing about it at all (the obvious majority), or by being repulsed by the writing in some way. It wasn’t until the third or fourth issue that someone pointed out to me how dark Tyrant shit is. Not just on the surface, but underneath too. I hadn’t even noticed. But I think there is more dark stuff being written because it’s easier to do. To write a happy and hopeful story is much harder to pull off without sounding like a simp.
NE: What even is good writing?
GDT: I feel like saying that what I call good writing is just the writing that I like. Though I have in the past, like a lot, and probably still do occasionally, I can’t say what’s good or bad writing. So much depends upon your age and condition and location and the weather at the time of reading something, I think. That’s for most things. Some books are undeniable in any situation. Those are the ones that stand out. But the extent of me talking about writing is usually, “Hey, you read so-and-so? She’s pretty good.” And that’s about all. When people say, “Oh, he’s a great writer, I just don’t enjoy reading him,” it’s like, what in the hell do they even mean? That the syntax is done good? That the punctuation is done real good? That big words are used good? I like things, and I don’t like things. Some things touch me, where others don’t. I’ll tell you that I don’t like something, but I won’t go any further than that anymore, I don’t think. What I truly enjoy are the times when I’m talking with someone and then you both realize that you’ve read a certain book that you both love the hell out of and you just kind of big-eye each other but then don’t say anything else at all.
NE: Well it’s just that sometimes I think—okay, no, a lot of the time it seems like commercial publishing can be behind the times in a way, which why even is that, and do you think our generation of writers and publishers can change that?
GDT: I intensely believe that most Americans, our immediate and potential audience, are suffering through some kind of dark ages. I am terrified of middle America, but mostly because I can’t carelessly kiss my boyfriend in public there. And if I do kiss him, then I have to worry about someone wanting to fight me. That can certainly add a thrill and make a kiss all the better, but it’s not something one would want to deal with on a daily basis.
NE: Will asking that ruin my career when people read this?
NE: Why do mean people win?
GDT: They don’t. It just seems like they do. Everyone can be mean. But I think that because a lot of people (like myself) are just really easy to fuck over, and if doing that (fucking them) doesn’t bother you, then the world can be an easy place and you can get where you want to be by screwing over your friends. But if you’re into screwing friends over, then where you’re trying to get to, like the “winning” position or whatever, is probably not a very chill place to be. In fact it’s probably majorly unchill. The most difficult chore is to try and always be fair and mostly kind to others without letting them step on you. I have yet to learn how to do this. I’ve been betrayed and shit on by so many people, people to whom I’ve given over myself completely, that it got so not funny anymore, that it went full circle and became funny again. I can’t help but trust people, and I feel like this is a mistake that I will continue to repeat until I die.
Nicolle Elizabeth is a first-generation college graduate from the middle of nowhere and is a contributor at the Brooklyn Rail, Bomb, and a whole bunch of fine places. She is the poetry editor at Word Riot, also a bike mechanic, and you should follow her on Twitter because she is a cornball: twitter.com/thismighttank.