Go Forth (vol. 6)

This “Go Forth” installation is about KIR: Keeping it Real.

Alexis Madrigal is a Senior Editor at the Atlantic and a writer and the kind of guy who has an anthropological perspective on the technology he writes about yet will sit at a bar with you and say, “Nope, I am a just a guy who is interested in stuff.” 

Ken Baumann is a writer, indie publisher, and actor who recently starred on The Secret Life of the American Teenager. He works tirelessly as an advocate for Crohn’s disease; you may have seen him on Dr. Drew and Good Morning America recently. 

They are two completely different dudes who I thought would give us interesting perspectives on Keeping it Real in publishing. Love, Nicolle

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NICOLLE ELIZABETH: Hi, Alexis. You are a Senior Editor at the Atlantic and also a super cool dude. I thought it would be good to ask you to talk to our readers about how you started in writing and editing.

ALEXIS MADRIGAL: Well, I started as a fiction writer in college. As I recall, my first published work was about a guy who was a salesmen who peed on toothbrushes. But of course it was also about SO MUCH MORE. I tried to write a novel back then, too. Pretty sure it was bad. My thesis advisor was more than sure. So I ended up writing an even worse novella. When I got out of school, I managed a political campaign, worked for a hedge fund, wrote some research reports about videogames, did some weird art projects, got interested in energy, and finally landed a little gig writing about green technology for GigaOm, a big Silicon Valley blog. That led, almost right away, to some blogging for Wired at $12 a post. That’s really where I latched on. Then I sold a book, did Longshot Magazine, met lots of awesome people, and eventually moved to the Atlantic in 2010.

NE: Your focus has been technology. Can you speak to how when one has a specialty they can write about it? 

AM: 1. I don’t really think of myself as a “technology writer,” I’m just fascinated by technology. If I have advice, it’s that you should use your specialty like frigging X-RAY glasses to see past the superficial stories that other people do about the world. It’s not just about knowing stuff, it’s about using what you know to show people something about the world that they didn’t know before. Some of the best stories for people starting out are to use some bit of specialized knowledge you’ve got (about potato bugs or electrical poles or toilets or Rimbaud) and apply it to something mundane and unexpected. How Potato Bugs Transformed French Poetry Forever! That would kill on the internet.

2a. I always trust that when I’m interested in something, other people will be interested in it, too, if I tell the story the right way. I think the worst thing about the freelance process for people is that it encourages you to stop trusting your instincts about what’s a good story. Fuck that. You have to trust yourself. If you want an awesome example, look at anything that Jon Mooallem writes.

2b. WORLDVIEW. You should have one. Not just for your sense of yourself as a human with a (semi-)coherent identity. But because worldviews generate stories. News coming across your Twitter becomes fodder for testing your ideas about how the world works. And that is almost always the basis for a good story.

NE: How important is “being an intern,” or is it not?

AM: Being an intern is not important unless you get in there day one and are awesome. One thing I’ve noticed is that few OWN the opportunity. And by “own the opportunity,” I mean make it known that any and all work that needs to be done, most especially writing, you’ll do it. You’re never too busy. You never need to leave early. You make it clear that you’ve never wanted anything more in your whole life than to write the world’s awesomest 200-word blog post about whatever. I mean, be cool about it, but just WANT IT more than other people. The higher ups will notice. Hustle, motor. These things really matter, especially online where you have to work your ass off all the time forever.

NE: How important is “networking,” or is it not?

AM: If by “networking,” you mean having a bunch of friends in media, then yes, that is important. If by “networking,” you mean sweatily handing out Moo cards at a party where other people are trying to get drunk and have fun, then no. Most media people are nerds. If you know interesting stuff and do interesting stuff, they’ll want to hang out with you.

NE: Is there a good “pitch” template for articles one should adhere to?

AM: I don’t really like pitches that don’t recognize that I’m a human being. My advice: Read the hell out of a site that you want to write for. Seriously, read 50 articles. Search the writers’ names and see which of their articles come up the highest in Google; these were probably their most popular pieces. Familiarize yourself with not just the topic range, but the tone and feel and worldview embodied there (especially in the most successful pieces).  

NE: Anything else you’d like to impart upon us with your wisdom? Also plug anything here, we know you’re “hip to it.”

AM: The most important thing you can do is write awesome stuff, no matter where it is published. Seriously, when people tell me they want to write profiles for the New Yorker, I’m like, “THEN GO DO IT. Have you heard of Blogger.tumblr.com?” I mean, there is absolutely nothing stopping any of us from spending three months with a subject and writing the definitive 10k word piece proving why they are important and fascinating. Except Homeland, bourbon, and laziness. So, shit, write a profile about a lazy alcoholic who watches too much TV. BOOM. Problem solved. (See: Susannah Breslin’s They Shoot Porn Stars, http://theyshootstars.com/)

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NICOLLE ELIZABETH: Hi, Ken Baumann. How long have you been a writer?

KEN BAUMANN: I started to write a series of fantasy novels when I was eleven. I have never taken anything artistic as seriously; since then, writing has felt like an attempt to get back there, to my bedroom, my maps, those races and languages and runes.

NE: Why are you a writer?

KB: Books woke me up. Books are my favorite man-made objects. I fetishize their design, smell, feel. And that they can contain such burning, complex communications is a miracle to me. Art is the most benign cultural practice, and yet art—in making it and attending to it—has an upper bound of personal revelation that is so far away it is basically a horizon. All of this is why.

NE: What is the first book you remember loving, and why?

KB: The Berenstain Bears and the Big Road Race. It was something about the colors. Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher made me cry. Beyond that, I loved the Redwall series, the Shannara series, the Wheel of Time series. I loved Stephen King, especially The Gunslinger, which I remember reading underneath a rack of clothes in JCPenney’s in the Mall of Abilene. But there are two books that supremely fucked me up: A Confederacy of Dunces and Cat’s Cradle. A Confederacy of Dunces was read mostly in the hours at my desk in English class, having already read whatever required muck in the textbooks, and I remember feeling so elated and alive in a uniquely adult way—the book felt both dirty and necessary, like air. And Cat’s Cradle taught me what philosophy was, and how deeply it could infect life and slant it so.

NE: What drew you toward publishing?

KB: The ease of publishing on the internet, to start. I was incredibly excited about & involved in this particular section of the internet, populated by writers with blogs, chapbooks, and online literary magazines. I felt I could design and present people’s writing in an interesting way, so I learned to code and made No Posit. Then Blake Butler and I decided to try a print journal, and that became No Colony. And then Blake passed me a manuscript that he was excited about, sort of hinting that I should start moving on the desire to start a press, a good nudge, because that manuscript was The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney by Christopher Higgs. I read the book, started the nonprofit paperwork, and sent Chris an acceptance letter within two days. Sator Press emerged. And now I’ve just published Sator’s third book, and its second debut novel, Confessions from a Dark Wood. I feel the happiest when I’m working for & with writers.

NE: Is the rumor about you and Blake Butler (I love him) flying to Paris to ask Dennis Cooper (I love him) for wisdom true? People say you were asking for permission, what were you asking?

KB: I wanted to go to France and Italy a few years ago, and invited Blake to go with me, knowing it’d be weird and fun to travel around with a brother. We hung out with Dennis in Paris, but no permissions were asked, and no wisdom was solicited. Dennis, being a human being I could not respect more if I had eight minds, is of course wise as fuck but would never buy someone saying that. We talked about a lot, and I learned a lot, but no, there was no grand plan or aim beyond being humans together.

NE: You are someone who has a professional life removed from the publishing world. (PS: Secret Life of the American Teenager was great). How do you balance the two, or are they intertwined ethereally and practically for you?

KB: I’ve pursued acting way more intensely and professionally than writing in the past ten years. My family moved me, due to my want, to Los Angeles to be able to act in film & television, and now I know I can work in film & television in more than one capacity, which is nice. You can write books anywhere; fortunately—and I say fortunately because Los Angeles is an awesome city—you must live in Los Angeles to steadily work in the American film & TV industry. So acting has been this pursuit that has oscillated between providing artistic challenges/pleasure, and, on the other side, money. I became significantly more expensive to keep healthy recently, and now I’m married to the person that I care about more than anything in the world, including my own health, and we have a dog that must be fed, lest we let him eat our neighbors, and so money is mandatory. With acting, I’d like to hover in the middle of those poles, being paid and being emotionally satisfied, ideally with occasional severe spikes towards aesthetic thrill. With writing and publishing, my only aim is to live in the aesthetic pleasure dome. All of these relationships may change, but that’s what works for me now.

NE: What do you see as the future of publishing and how would you like to be involved with it?

KB: I think that we’re as much in the future as we will be in ten years, regarding publishing. Music, the most ancient and species agnostic medium, will always take the brunt of the wave for the rest of us. I’m not as familiar with its history as I’d like to be, but it seems that in the last few decades, musicians have gone from being beholden to technicians, publishers, and distributors to be heard by diffuse crowds, to being able to craft, publish, and disseminate their music on their own, to no ill effect. Sure, it’s harder to make money when you’re not a machine in a massive apparatus designed only to make money, but artists will figure it out. A recent example: Death Grips, pissed at their huge label, leaked their album. It gets downloaded and listened to millions of times. Death Grips books an international tour, sells out everywhere, has new fans like me that are now obsessed, and their label drops them. Do they give a shit? Probably not. They won, and will continue to win if they prioritize their audience. As long as publishers give people want they want without operating at a deficit, they’ll stick around. But I foresee more authors publishing without presses in the future, as they learn how to do all the other shit—design, promote, distribute—like musicians have.

NE: Where do you see the current modern literary canon?

KB: That’s a question. I’m not in academia, so I don’t know much of the English canon, what’s taught in school, beyond the old and older books. But I’ve been mostly bored by the popular books over the last five years, except for The Road and 2666, if 2666 was truly popular. Anything that could comfortably be put on the “vaguely dissatisfied in Connecticut” couch—that excellent phrase courtesy of Dennis Lehane—isn’t interesting to me. I want to read writing that hits at every level, attempts to break patterns & human expectations towards story and language. I read Neuromancer recently, and get the fuck out of here! That book is great! There’s an example of something innovating on every level, while still maintaining enough of the common structure to please. Or David Markson, who deserves artistic sainthood for his work. 

NE: Have you seen shifts in both form and content in your time actively involved in this dialogue? 

KB: Not so much. I’d go with SAME AS IT EVER WAS on the macro level. But if you pay attention to individual work, there seems to me a huge current of energy that’s charging literature right now, both in its generation and its consumption. As the experience of being a human in an industrialized society becomes even more connected, so connected as to be distended with reliance, some bloated cancerous universe of circuits and trips and buttons and feeds, reading outside the internet might feel radical, even more radical than it already feels. To engage with one mind, one effort, one lonely will… I’m excited to know that the devotion to literature will grow, and its importance will rise in the face of the instant networks. Silence is going to become more sought, and might just become transcendent without the trappings of religion—on a massive scale—for the first time in recorded history. Ooh boy.

NE: You and I do not share the same physical ailment, but we are both people who live every day with one. You have done much work in the public eye as an advocate for people who suffer, whether it be your time on Dr. Drew or Good Morning America, you bravely share your story. What would you say to those who suffer similarly?

KB: Laugh, laugh, laugh.