21 May 2009

interview: melissa mann

Flogging Reality, Waking in Starlight

Jack Henry: Melissa thanks for taking the time. I want to start with a few questions about your magazine as well as New Media in general.

What was your motivation to start an on-line magazine? And, do you think you could have, or even would have, without the Internet?

MM: Okay, stop the interview. “Miss Mann”?! Holy excessive formality Batman! Nope, that won’t do at all will it. “A post modern anarchist artist” though, well now you’re talking. Yes, I like that. Right, so, where were we. Motivation for starting Beat the Dust.

Well, one thing you need to know about me is I’m a bit of an anorak (American translation: geek. We speak the same language, yet somehow, we don’t! By the way the American spelling corrector jobby thing – it’s a technical term – on this document is scaring the bejesus out of me. It’s like this malevolent force making you screw up on a spelling test). Anyway, yes, I’m an anorak and I did some academic research with this innovation consultancy in 07 to work out what it is that makes some books or moments in books more memorable than others. The aim was to see what patterns, if any, contribute to making certain books stay in people’s minds more than others. We thought if we could identify some common principles that give books the “wow” factor, we might be able to give literature a much-needed kick up the backside, creatively speaking; pave the way for more interesting, challenging, inventive writing I guess. You can read the research paper in full here –


Basically we found that at the heart of what makes a book memorable is some kind of conflict or contradiction, something your brain tells you isn’t right or shouldn’t work and so makes you grapple with the idea, think. I set up Beat the Dust to try and encourage this kind of rule-breaking in writing. I wanted it to be a space that would challenge writers to take risks and try new things and, in so doing encourage more innovation in writing. I guess I wanted to play some part in moving literature forward “cos” let’s face it, nothing particularly new or inventive has happened in literature on either side of the pond for at least a decade, maybe longer, for evidence of that just read the research paper. Ultimately, my main aim for Beat the Dust is for it to be seen as the place to go for cutting edge, quality writing. As for the role of the Internet, well it allowed me to reach a lot of people quickly with my break-a-rule writing message. Without it I’d probably be standing on a soapbox outside Waterstone's every weekend trying to spread the word… to a Labrador licking its balls and a man drooling Special Brew down his anorak.

JH: The goal of this interview is to promote Melissa Mann and Beat the Dust, but to also look at New Media Literature. Do you think there is a revival, or renaissance in “literature” and, if not literature, which is becoming harder to clearly define anymore, quality writing?

MM: Promoting Melissa Mann and Beat the Dust? Ooh dear. Suddenly I feel like a box of cereal… which now comes in 12 delicious varieties, red berries, purple berries and something brown that looks like a berry the manufacturer keeps finding on the factory floor. Hmm, I think I’ll just try to be slightly interesting and vaguely entertaining instead.

A revival in quality writing? Nope, not to any significant degree I’d say. I think small and mid-sized independent publishers like Creation, Murder Slim Press, Snowbooks, Social Disease, Melville House are continually showing their commitment to putting out quality writing and taking risks, e.g. on new writers with something different to say. If there’s going to be a renaissance in literature it will come from independent publishers in my view, but not anytime soon given the current meltdown in the global economy. Incidentally I’m not at all gloomy about the ‘R’ word. To my mind, a recession forces change; encourages people to be resourceful and look for new ways of doing stuff. Things had become way too comfortable I reckon, which breeds’ stagnation and apathy in the world; there’s no incentive for people to be creative. I think it’s in recessionary times like these that artists (in the broadest sense of that word), the true innovators in life, come into their own.

So, yeah, a renaissance in literature, if it’s gonna happen, is more likely to come about through the ef-forts of the smaller indie presses. Mainstream publishers lack vision and have done for years in my view. Like sheep they follow “fashions” in books – mis lit, chick lit, and illiterate celebrity lit – largely dictated to them by the buyers of bookstore chains. Mainstream publishers seem to latch on to trends driven by other media, which is why a lot of new books published are film or television tie-ins. The mainstream is risk-averse and seems to dismiss as “hard to sell” new voices with new and interesting things to say. A classic example of mainstream publishers’ lack of vision is their inability to see the massive potential of short story collections. People today lead busy lives and have short attention spans, which means they tend to ‘consume’ on the go and prefer things in small, bite-size chunks. Short story collections fit perfectly with this type of behavior. If they were marketed properly and themed appropri-ately, they could sell shed-loads of them! Another example of their short-sightedness – in an age where technology has shortened the supply chain in every other major industry, publishing still takes a year or more to make a book and get it into the shops. Luddites! Their idea of streamlining the business is to put out fewer books, play safe with the ones they do (another Danielle Steele anyone?), and cut costs in vital areas, e.g. reducing editorial input, relying on agents to find new talent rather than investing in readers to look for it amongst the unsolicited manuscripts that come in, and devoting less time to things like proof-reading. I read one of Harper Perennial’s hot new releases recently and the number of typos in it shocked me.

JH: Currently, is there a difference in the “state” of literature between the UK and the US? I have always thought Brits are “better” read and more aware of “literature’s” value. Is this a valid statement? Or am I full of shit?

MM: Nah, like I said, I don’t think much has happened to jolt literature out of its state of torpor on either side of the pond in the last ten years. As for the ‘Brit’s are better read and more aware of literature’s value’ argument, well it’s not true I’m afraid. Exhibit A: the Sunday Times top 10 paperback fiction bestseller lists for 2008. It’s littered with safe bets - Ian McEwan, Maeve Binchy, Cecilia Aherne, Patricia Cornwell. There is only one new voice in the top 10, Sadie Jones’ debut The Outcast, but it very much conforms to type in terms of themes, plot and style of writing. Depressing really. Depressing too how unadventurous readers have become. Why aren’t people looking for an alternative, demanding an alternative instead of allowing themselves to be spoon-fed a continuous stream of trash fiction? Again, I’m hopeful the recession will shake people out of their comfort zones, make them look for poetry and prose that speaks to them about things that actually matter, writing that has something to say about their lives and what’s really going on in the world. I’d love to see readers turning their backs on chain bookstores and their bestseller pap, and instead, actively hunting down great writing from more specialist booksellers.

Slight detour but come with me why don’tcha. We’ve been grappling with the terms “literature” and quality writing haven’t we, so I’d like to say something about what I think great writing is, and hence what I’m looking for when I read submissions sent to Beat the Dust. Fundamentally, great writing tells the truth; it tells the raw truth about the real world we live in. To my mind, that kind of writing can only come from writers who know who they are, where they’re from and write with their fists from these places. I think we’ve been celebrating dishonesty, mediocrity and people with no discernible talent, for too long. Again, I’m hopeful that a global recession will refocus people’s attention on what’s really im-portant, what has real value and will weed the crap out of the system.

Are you full of shit, Jack? Well, the human body is essentially a shit-making machine if you think about it, so inevitably, you are, like the rest of us, full of stuff that is either processing or in the process of being, shit. I hope that clears it up – ha! What can I say; I’m a wow at parties!

JH: With the advent of the Internet, access to new writers has become easier. To me it seems there are new blogzines, Web pages, journals, etc. that claim to be “literary” appearing every day. Are there too many Journals? Is it too easy to get published? And, related, has the value of being published been decreased?

MM: Yeah, we’ve reached a tipping point I think, the point where there are too many litzines and not enough good writing to put in them. I fear we’re following a similar trend to celebrity magazines in that respect, much as it pains me to draw such a comparison. There are now so many glossy gossip mags and sections within newspapers covering the same ‘who’s wearing/snorting/shagging/drinking what’ material, there’s not enough content to go in them. The result? Inane stories about ‘A’ and ‘B’ list celebrities – Brad buys Angelina a ginger merkin – and even more inane stories about ‘Z’ list celebrities whose only talent in life is to go clubbing in a short skirt and no knickers in the hope of getting their crotch papped… there’s never a ginger merkin when you need one is there - ha! By the same token, the ‘too many litzines not enough good writing to put in them’ scenario, means a lot of editors are lowering the bar and taking writing that, in their heart of hearts they know isn’t really good enough. New emerg-ing voices are getting into print before they are ready – assuming they will ever be ready; not everyone can write let’s face it – and the more established names have work accepted because they are known and can pull in hits to the site, rather than because the piece they’ve submitted is actually any good. The outcome is 1) some new writers get deluded into thinking they can write when they can’t, 2) there is little or no incentive for established writers to try new things and push the envelope, and so, in turn, no one improves, the standard of writing generally declines and, ultimately literature stays in the same place it’s been for a decade or more. Nightmare scenario.

After spending one depressing weekend at the end of last year, reading over 40 submissions to Beat the Dust and accepting hardly any pieces, I knew things had to change. As I said at the start, the aim of Beat the Dust is to be a space that celebrates inventiveness and encourages cutting edge, high quality writing. In line with that, I’m being more demanding about what goes on the site. I’ve also started commissioning more pieces from writers whose work I like (both new and established names), as well continuing to invite open submissions for most of the issues that go out. I think that’s important cos I’m as keen as any editor to discover a brand new voice and give them their first break.

Oh hey, look at that, a wood pigeon on my balcony drinking from a puddle. How do they do that? Their beaks don’t look like they have any kind of suction capability do they. Maybe they have like a tiny vac-uum mechanism inside or sommink. Ha – welcome to my world!

JH: Along with all the new outlets to get published in periodicals, there seem to be a number of new presses. With the slow death of big publishing houses in the US, is small press the future?

MM: Maybe wishful thinking to think we’re witnessing the decline and fall of mainstream publishers, but I definitely think the global recession will sort out the men from the boys. Difficult market condi-tions require businesses to show imagination and balls in order to survive and thrive. As I said earlier, I don’t see those qualities in the big publishing houses. I suspect their response will be to baton down the hatches, cut costs in vital areas (as seems to be the case currently at Harper Collins in response to their crushingly bad first quarter 09 financial results. Murdoch making a loss – don’t that give yer a warm feeling inside!) and become even more risk averse in the type and number of books they commis-sion. Small presses on the other hand have shown a greater willingness to take on edgier literature and can get it out into the world much quicker than the big guys. Creativity and speed are key survive and thrive strategies I think. What small presses lack though is the financial clout to market their books as widely as you need in order to sell in the volumes necessary to make a healthy return. I reckon what small independent publishers have to do now is look for different, inventive ways to attract money to fund their activities. This is something I’m currently working on at Beat the Dust.

JH: In running my own press I have experienced a number of issues that could contribute to the demise of a journals and/or press. What do you think is the biggest challenge your journal faces?

MM: The biggest challenge Beat the Dust faces is my low boredom threshold to be honest. I have the attention span of a gnat, which is why I’m continually trying new things on the site, e.g. inviting guest editors to take hold of the reins to shake things up a bit, having featured writers, running serializations of longer stories and themed issues, broadening the content etc. I promised myself when I launched Beat the Dust that if it ever started to feel like a chore then I should adios the hell out of there and do something different. Frankly if the editor is bored with the output, you can guaran-damn-tee the reader will be too. I came close to packing it all in at the end of last year (a nation mourns - ha!), but then I got a second wind, came up with some new ideas and Beat the Dust is good to go for a while yet.

JH: Is there too much product? Too many chapbooks, too many web sites, journals, etc.?

MM: As I mentioned earlier, I think we’ve reached a point where there are too many online litzines (and fewer print lit mags cos potential buyers think why should I buy a mag when I can read stuff for free online) and not enough good writing to put in them. I think it’s worth reminding ourselves that we may all “have a book inside us” but not everyone has the skill to get it down on paper. Just because humans have the dexterity to hold a pen and string words together by moving it across the page, that doesn’t mean we can all write. I think the ability to write, to express yourself through words in a way that engages the reader and entertains, is a gift and an art. To my mind, it’s the responsibility of editors to celebrate and promote this art, which means reading submissions with a highly discerning eye at all times… and if that means not putting out the magazine when you planned, or not updating your litzine for months because the submissions haven’t been that good, then so be it.

JH: Okay, switching gears, just a bit. My original intention for my inquiry revolved around the evolution of “literary movements.” I wanted to compare the evolution from the early 20th century to today. While it has evolved into a broader inquiry to the importance of New Media, I learned from my research that groups such as the Brutalists and Off Beat Generation came into existence due in part to social networking. In your opinion, is there a new literary movement afoot?

MM: Not sure about new, or the word movement for that matter. Reminds of me of this guy I worked with who used to stand up in the middle of the office and proclaim “a bowel movement beckons!” Any-way, am guessing that’s not the considered response you were hoping for is it, Jack. Okay, let’s look at the two literary groups you mentioned. The Brutalists launched themselves onto an unsuspecting world in 2006 via Myspace with an anti-literary establishment type manifesto that spoke to writers and read-ers alike. They attracted to them and fired up a lot of other writers whose stuff wasn’t getting a look-in with mainstream publishers. The Brutalist manifesto was a call to arms, a drive to get poetry and prose with more truth, balls and energy out into the world. They were fresh, put their money where their mouth was and got their gutsy writing out into the world via their own chapbook – Brutalism One: No-where Fast - and litzine - Straight from the Fridge. The founders Tony O’Neill, Adelle Stripe and Ben Myers timed it perfectly, had a strong, compelling message and used emerging social networking technology to spread the word to the right people, i.e young, receptive, early adopters who were up for it, i.e. keen to listen and ready to get on board. Textbook marketing really. My observation re the Off-beat Generation (great name!) is that it’s less defined as a group, and maybe a bit less explicit and vo-cal in its aims and objectives. The Offbeat Generation essentially describes a looser collection of non-conformist writers alienated from mainstream publishing who communicate, collaborate and organize themselves through Facebook, Myspace, 3:AM Magazine etc. I think The Brutalists were amongst the first, if not the first, to pave the way for like-minded, non-conformist writers to rally together and sup-port each other’s efforts to get the words of an overlooked generation of writers out there. Now, in the last six months or so, we’ve seen developments in social networking technology, which have enabled groups of writers with common and distinct aims and objectives to set up their own online communities, e.g. Outsider Writers, Epic Rites, which both use ning technology. Things like Blog Talk Radio too are also helping to bring writers together and get the voice of the underground lit scene, its energy and pas-sion, heard by a much wider audience.

I think the challenge for any movement is to stay relevant, keep creating, keep getting across a strong compelling message and, more importantly know when its time to die and reincarnate in some other form; the punk ethos essentially. On a similar note, is it me or does Myspace feels like it’s dying on its feet? The technology is really slow and clunky and it always seems to be two steps behind what Face-book and ning are doing in terms of functionality (ha – did I mention I’m a bit of an anorak!) Yup, change or die, people!

The last point to make about literary movements is to say how important it is to see the members of it doing well. The fact Tony O’Neill with ‘Down and Out on Murder Mile’ and Chris Killen with ‘The Bird Room’ have been given the chance to get their work out to a more mainstream audience, provides hope to everyone in the underground lit scene. Part of what keeps a literary movement alive, what keeps writers writing, is hope.

JH: In the US we had poetic/literary movements germinate around magazines such as the Black Mountain Review, which evolved and/or melded into the Beats. How important are outlets such as Beat the Dust and 3:AM to the dissemination of new theory/ideas/etc? (This may seem like an ob-vious question, but I am still not sure how to phrase it. I just wonder if these outlets carry the influence or the writers?)

MM: On BBC Radio 4’s Zadie Smith-curated Today programme

[you can listen to it here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_7802000/7802605.stm],

Hari Kunzru, Stewart Home and Tom McCarthy discussed ‘what is the avant-garde now?’ and 3:AM Magazine was mentioned as an example of it. I reckon 3:AM is, and has been for some time, an impor-tant voice highlighting the cutting edge activities going on in the literary underground. ‘Whatever it is, we’re against it’ – again another strong compelling message that’s gonna connect with and fire up any non-conformist reader and writer. As for Beat the Dust, well I’ll leave it for others to judge its contri-bution to the underground lit scene. At the very least I hope people see Beat the Dust as a litzine that practices what it preaches. We look for creativity, rule-breaking and risk-taking from our writers and I hope that, in the way it’s grown and developed since it began in Oct 07, Beat the Dust can be said to have shown the same qualities.

JH: Your website has a bookshop. I think that’s a great idea. Has it been successful? Do you think there will be a day when there’s a central Web site, along the lines of an Amazon that read-ers could turn to for underground writers? Or would the goal be to get broader distribution?

MM: Yeah, I set up Beat the Dust Bookshop as a one-stop online shop offering adventurous readers some of the best underground literature out there. I wanted to play a part in helping small indie presses and writers reach a wider audience. Beat the Dust has been enjoying around 31,000 hits a week of late so that’s a lot of the right kind of people passing through the doors. I also wanted to make it easier for discerning readers to find great writing, save them having to hunt around all over the web for it. I would describe sales as steady – C+ could do better. Then again I’m ambitious and a perfectionist (a killer combination!) so I guess I would say that. Put it this way Amazon and Borderstones ain’t losing any sleep over lost market share… but come the revolution! I really believe there is a need for an online bookshop like this and that the potential for it is huge. To sell more books I need to increase the market-ing so more people - not just those tuned into the underground lit scene - are aware of Beat the Dust Bookshop. Much more profile raising is needed to ensure it’s top of mind when people want to buy a book. Think of how much e-marketing you get from Amazon encouraging you to keep visiting the site… a lot, right? That kind of ongoing, targeted marketing takes a great deal of time and money though obviously but I have a cunning plan to address this that might just work. Watch this space or another one that looks a bit similar i.e. white, kind of vacant looking, expectant…

JH: Last couple of questions…In the broadest sense where do you see New Media Literature going? In a micro perspective, what’s the future of Beat the Dust?

MM: Mystic Melissa pulls out her crystal ball and peers into its glassy depths… actually it’s a paper-weight I bought in Morecambe (sleepy seaside town in the North West of England) with a sign saying ‘Come to Happy Mount Park’ inside. Jeez Jack, I haven’t got the foggiest first clue! Faced with global economic meltdown, polar ice caps turning to mush, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and terrorist groups breeding like bored rabbits, we’ll be lucky to make it into next week! Ahem, okay that was my ‘we’re all doomed, doomed I tell you!’ answer. Seriously though – for I fear I must on occasions – I reckon new litzines will come and go, with the lifecycle of that coming and going, much shorter than was previously the case. Why will the lifecycle be shorter? Well readers aren’t stupid, they know the difference between quality writing and crap writing so they’ll only keep visiting and tell their friends about the zines they think consistently post the best poetry and prose. The litzines that endure will be those that fight the urge to post any damn thing just to fill their pages, that stretch writers to produce their best work (which means editors making time to give valuable feedback where they see potential) and that keep looking for new, different and interesting ways to get great writing out into the world. As for Beat the Dust’s plans for the next year or so, well I could tell you Jack but then I’d have to kill you. Oh okay, as it’s you. Beat the Dust is gonna be doing some groovy things with audio, co-hosting with 3:AM Magazine the literary event of the goddamn decade in London on 24th April, as well as doing some serious flirting, nay engaging in some serious pump and grind, with the print medium…

JH: Any thoughts you want to add about New Media Literature, poetic movements, small press, and/or Journals or Presses the consumer should be aware off…

MM:…Beat the Dust Press is preparing to spring forth and join the hallowed ranks of small indie publishers out there in lit land. Yup, we’re getting ready to crank up a real printing machine and make proper books. Online is all well and good, but holding words in your hands, feeling the weight of them, that’s something else. As I hope people have come to expect from BTD though, Beat the Dust Press is gonna try and do things a bit differently. Some elements of the way the press is going to be run will be a first in the literary world I think. Whether the plan’ll work is anyone’s guess but you gotta be in it to win it, right. Anyway, I’ll leave it at that for now, Jack as I’m slightly paranoid someone’s gonna beat me to it and steal my thunder. In the words of Monty Python, “infamy, infamy, everyone’s got it in for me” – ha!

JH: Thanks for putting up with my questions. I greatly appreciate it. Final question, and most important: What’s coming up with Melissa Mann?

MM: Cheers for interviewing me, Jack. Twas my first time! So yes, what’s coming up with Melissa Mann… interesting turn of phrase… you mean in the non-vomit sense, right? Well I’m currently knee-deep in a long short story I’m writing for an anthology. It’s collaboration with two other writer-type dudes. Not written something as long as this for maybe two years so it’s great to be able to stretch my legs a bit. What else? Well, I looked in my notebook the other day and realized there are some poten-tially exciting ideas in there ripe for development writing-wise. My notebook is a big thing in my life. When I see something or hear something interesting, it goes in my notebook. Anything that makes my brain twitch, goes in there. So, once I’m done with the long short story or maybe when I need a break from it, I plan to tackle some of those ideas.

Around October/November time last year I changed my approach to submitting work, and decided not to submit as much online as I was. Instead I thought I’d focus on trying to get my stuff in print more. I aim to write at least one new short story or flash piece or a couple of poems a week if possible, so be-cause there are fewer opportunities to get in print out there in lit land than there are online zines, I’ve built up quite a back catalogue of unpublished poems and stories in the last five or six months. Basi-cally then I need to get my arse in gear and sam them all together into a couple of new collections and start pimping them round the publishers. Not my favorite activity it has to be said, pimping my work, but gotta be done; no one else is gonna do it for you, after all.

Aside from writing and Beat the Dusting? Well I’m good at grafting (a working class Northern term for working hard) but not so good at relaxing, so I reckon I should have a go at going on holiday some time soon. I feel an adventure brewing… cockle-picking in Morecambe maybe - ha!

… by the way, that pigeon? Still on the balcony, still with its beak in the puddle, puddle as big as it ever was. It’s official, birds are crap at drinking – yup, you heard it here first, people. Another exclusive for Jack Henry to add to Dan Fante and Tony O’Neill on Rob and Jack America! Who’s the daddy?!

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