Visiting us this month at Vouched is Adam Robinson, editor of Publishing Genius Press and author of Adam Robison and Other Poems and Say, Poem.
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Baltimore writer and man-about-town Dave K. just released stone a pig, a collection of short stories. It was part of his MFA program at University of Baltimore (disclaimer: this is the same MFA I went through). The requirement for the program isn’t just to complete a manuscript, but to publish it as well. Dave’s book is great. Below we talk about what it is and what it’s like to have to publish a book this way. (Oh, and I forgot that it was supposed to be an awful interview. My questions are as bad as ever, but Dave’s responses are as generous and smart as everything else about him.)
How does the term “steampunk” apply to typical story elements like plot, character, setting — particularly in relation to your book?
Oh, man. Steampunk is kind of a weird animal to describe, but it generally combines an anti-establishment tone (hence the “punk” part), optimism about human potential, and speculation about how modern conveniences would have been achieved by Victorian/Edwardian technology. The plots and characters of steampunk literature tend to be as grandiose as their surroundings, which has led people like Charles Stross to accuse it of whitewashing the nastier parts of that era and focusing on rich guys in airships.
Would you describe stone a pig as steampunk?
My book, which I do consider to be steampunk, was meant to oppose that criticism by focusing on the grittier, darker stuff going on during that time, with the tech functioning as a surreal but familiar element of setting (a technique I borrowed from Philip K. Dick). My characters are at odds with their culture, but not out of a no-gods-no-masters sense of rebellion – rather, the people in my stories are very alienated, and they’re trying to overcome that sense of alienation to act in a more communal way, for good or ill.
One of my professors prefers to call my work “Dickensian futurism,” which is an awesome term that I can’t use because I sound like a tool whenever I apply it to my own work.
THE BOOK: DESIGN AND WRITING
Do you have a favorite part of the book, something you’re most proud of, something that you think you really nailed? Can you say what it is?
I think the design of the book – the cover, the page layouts, the visual elements – looks great, better than I’d expected or hoped. Some people see mixing graphic elements with prose as an artful dodge around bad writing, but creating those images helps me put the words together because I’m seeing what my characters see.
Yes, I love the small touches, like the illustrations that go along with the titles. Did you draw them? What about the other images — where’d they come from?
The title images were picked out from my school’s graphics library, but the larger pictures are heavily manipulated photos and/or illustrations from the public domain, mixed with some grunge textures and smaller, hand-drawn elements. The only immediately noticeable thing I drew was Dr. Cornelius’ head, which is affixed to a Victorian man’s photo portrait. I can’t really draw well enough to illustrate the kinds of stories I write, so that kind of trickery was necessary.
I really like illustrations in general, and I think they add to the reading experience. They’ve added to mine over the years, that’s for sure. Sometimes they’re impossible to separate from the text – I can’t think of John Bellairs without thinking of Edward Gorey, for example, or Hunter S. Thompson without Ralph Steadman. Claudia Rankine has some interesting text/graphic pairings as well.
Do you have a favorite story in the collection?
I think the title story is my best one. It has the best character arc out of all of them, I think, and the most complicated protagonist. It was also the hardest one to write; I basically rewrote it from the ground up and kept very little of the first draft.
Yes, “Stone a Pig” fits nicely into what you said about how you try to approach the more humanist elements of steampunk. How concerned were you with saying something about racism in that story? Your treatment is subtle, but I think it goes beyond just the Marxism of what I imagine would be prevalent in “Dickensian futurism.”
That story was very influenced by contemporary media, actually. The Occupy movement had become suddenly relevant when I was rewriting that story, and they were getting beaten up by cops for no real reason and asking some very uncomfortable questions about race and institutional racism and privilege, and the way crony capitalists force everyone else to fight over their table scraps, and how all that stuff spurred the corruption that sent our economy into the crapper. The Tea Party had also introduced an uncomfortable racial dialogue of their own, and had exposed a throbbing vein of discontentment and spite in the national character by doing so. It reached a point where I felt like I had to channel what I was seeing into something, even if it was in a way that didn’t make sense to anyone but me. I didn’t want to be didactic, but I also didn’t want to ignore it. And to a certain extent, I couldn’t.
And to be fair, Victorian/Edwardian America was dealing with similar problems; the advanced mechanization of steampunk probably would have only heightened those tensions and divisions.
The story certainly doesn’t come off as didactic. I don’t think I would have recognized the Occupy movement as a starting point, but now that you mention it, I see it clearly. The story as a whole, though, is subtle and pitch perfect. You never give away too much. There’s a lot of depth to it that seems to come simply from well-written sentences. I mean, you never even say explicitly what happens between Pickett and the slasher, but it’s very easy for the reader to sense what happened. Can you talk more about how you “rewrote it from the ground up”? What was it like at first?
Returning to the influence of media, some weirdo in Fairfax, VA really was running around slashing women on the backside, and he was dubbed “the Fairfax Butt Slasher” for his efforts. The story started there. It’s a very Victorian crime, in a way – it reads like something born from repression.
The first draft just didn’t have enough tension – Pickett was too much of an observer and didn’t have enough agency, and there was an actual robot policeman who just clonked around uselessly because his programming was too basic to be trusted with a gun or any actual police responsibilities. Cool idea, but it didn’t do enough. The story needed a lot more tension, and Pickett needed something resembling a character arc. Both of those things required scrapping the first draft entirely, save a paragraph or two, and starting all over again.
So I started thinking about why he was the only cop with any serious ambitions towards catching the slasher. Why don’t the other policemen care? What else is occupying their time? What role should robots play in this story? You know, the same questions every writer asks in a second draft.
Pickett’s journey is admittedly a shallow one, but he’s the kind of guy who sees himself as a problem-solver, and the brutality of his fellow officers opposes that. Pickett also spends more time interacting with the immigrant populations local to him, specifically through their food, which further disinclines him from abusing them.
So you made this book as a requirement for your MFA thesis. Would stone a pig be different if it weren’t made to fulfill a requirement? I mean, would you have changed the content or had more of it, or taken more time, or tried to go a more traditional path to publication?
It absolutely would have taken longer to write, and it probably wouldn’t be as good because I wouldn’t have had my thesis professors and classmates guiding me and cheering me on. When it’s done right, taking on that kind of project as part of an MFA is a privilege, because you have an automatic support network of people who think what you’re doing is worthwhile and really, really want you to succeed. Out in the real world, those resources aren’t nearly as secure.
I would have certainly sent the manuscript out to publishers, and would have only considered self- publishing if no one was interested, which also means that the collection would look and feel different than it does now. How it looks and feels is a huge part of its identity, and I’m not saying that someone else would have done a better or worse job than me, but it’s hard to imagine what someone else would have done with it. That whole book design process was a really personal one.
So you consider it to be self-published?
The book is self-published, yes.
What are your plans for it?
Right now I’m just focused on selling copies and getting it reviewed, and I may use it as a launching pad to get some fellowships. If it goes into a second printing, which has a decent chance of happening, I’d like to take it on the road and do a mini-book tour. I do love readings, after all, and it’d be a fun way to see what other literary scenes are up to and sell my own work at the same time.
I’ve also considered sending the collection to writers whose work I admire, even if I have no connection to them, just to see if they’ll read it, and make more connections that way. Hell, why not try and get it on Penguin’s doorstep? A friend of mine used his short story collection, which is up for an award, to drum up interest in a novel he was working on. Since I also have a novel to work on, and other novels I’d like to write, maybe his approach could work for me. It’s a lot to think about, but I’m glad I came away from my MFA with a collection of stories that leaves me with so many options.
How did you feel when the books arrived and you opened the box and saw what you had made?
I felt two things. The first was relief, because I’d been worrying about what the final book was going to look like for at least a week and a half. I hadn’t expected that, having never sent anything to a printer before this point, but having someone else making your book outside your supervision is maddening. What if the cover’s too small, I kept thinking. What if the pages are out of order? What if this box they sent is full of dead mice and not books? And so on.
But really, what I felt was pride. The book looks even better than I’d hoped. One of my classmates said it was weird to have years of grad school boiled down into 100ish pages of words, but my book has the exact 100ish pages (106, counting front and end matters) I want to represent my pursuit of an MFA, and myself as a writer. Plus, now I know I can do it. Put out a real book, I mean. And I can keep doing it for as long as I want to. That’s huge.