Interview: Jonathan Messinger
Posted by: Keir Graff
The short stories in Jonathan Messinger’s Hiding Out offer what Booklist reviewer Mark Eleveld calls “a sliding scale of solipsism”: characters retreat, hide, obsess, find themselves in the wrong situation, and struggle to connect. In my favorite story, “Hiding Out,” a lonely guy sends e-mails to himself, reluctantly attends his bloviating boss’ birthday bash, and is suspected of–then recruited for–corporate espionage (sort of). But here’s how Eleveld sums up the book:
Messinger’s stories are aching, not bleak, and the collection, wittily and expressively illustrated with Rob Funderburk’s line drawings, is fun, engaging, and a bit more than thought-provoking. A fresh, spot-on debut.
Blogrolling alert: Messenger interviewed me for Time Out Chicago, where he is the Books & Poetry Editor. But just as he was interested in the story behind my use of a pseudonym, I was interested in seeing what he had to say about being an author who is also an editor and a publisher (he is Co-publisher & Editor-in-Chief of Featherproof). Our interview took place via e-mail.
So what did you want to be first: writer, editor, or publisher?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer, since I was a kid. In college, I was a journalism geek, so I did a bit of everything: wrote for the weekly paper in town, edited and published an “alternative” campus magazine (you know the kind: lots of attacks on the administration, gonzo journalism about the french fries in the student center). So now they’re all pretty inextricable for me and each one satisfies some part of my control-freak nature.
What challenges do you face as a writer who is also a book review editor and a publisher? Or, conversely, what opportunities does this present – do your multiple roles work in your favor or against you?
I’m still figuring this all out, to be honest. The writer and book review editor dynamic doesn’t really affect me too much, though I do believe that constantly and consistently reading critically has helped my writing.
As a writer and a publisher whose press has published his own book, there are obvious stigmas that I have to overcome, but I’m not too worried about that. I’m of the opinion that if you’re truly interested in working independently, as Featherproof is, then you have to view what you do as independent of the assumptions of the (for lack of a better term) mainstream. So if the assumption is that my book is only being published because I’m a partner in Featherproof, then I can’t really be upset if people think that means my book isn’t strong, because that assumption isn’t really part of the equation for me.
In the end, I think the quality of the book is the only thing that’s going to help or hurt me. I’m not a member of the critic’s circle or anything, so my connections with other critics are slim to non-existent.
Have your other roles tempered your expectations as an author?
Tempered is putting it kindly. I get piles of books delivered to my desk every day, and I’m sure it’s far less than what national pubs get. So I know what I’m up against.
As a reviewer, how do you think you’ll respond if you get a bad review?
Let’s hope that’s never a problem. No, I did get one mixed review already, it said some nice and some not-so-nice things, and it was an eye-opening experience. I read it as an editor of reviews, a writer of reviews, and now a subject, and three out of three of my split personalities agreed: they didn’t like it.
I just felt like it didn’t review the book on its own terms, but rather in a sort of category the reviewer had put it in ahead of time, something I try to avoid. But if I’m being honest, my embittered author side might have been shouting a little bit louder than the rest.
Does reading and interviewing great writers inspire or intimidate you?
Mostly inspire. I’ve learned a lot from the interviews I’ve done (talking with Lydia Davis, who intimidated the heck out of me, was like getting a free writing class). But I’ve found the authors who are lesser known to be better interviews, because they’re not as prepared, and tend to give more thoughtful responses. I interviewed a famous author once, and I called him in the early afternoon, and the first thing he said to me was, “It’s beautiful outside, but I’m stuck in a hotel room all day doing interviews.” That wasn’t one of my best.
When you’re interviewing authors, do you find yourself talking to them as an author yourself?
No, I don’t think so. At least, I never say, “I write fiction, too, you know.” Because that seems like it’s breaking down a wall, and maybe like a weird sort of bragging. I’ve had authors ask me if I write fiction, maybe because of some of the questions I ask, but I generally downplay it. That may be where the intimidation comes in. I’d feel ridiculous saying, “Why yes, Mr. Chabon, I too am a man of letters.”
Which authors do you read for your own pleasure?
Well, I rarely get to read strictly for pleasure anymore, but when I do, I am a huge Lydia Davis fan, as I already said. George Saunders, for sure, and Brian Evenson. I love Paul Auster, as well. On a recent vacation, I took David Anthony Durham’s fantasy novel, Acacia, which I loved. That felt particularly decadent.
The title of your book suggests a theme to your stories, and reading the stories reinforces that notion. Did you set out to write stories on a theme or did the theme become apparent only later?
I definitely didn’t have a theme in mind when I started out. I had about 30 or so stories that I looked at for the collection, and began weeding them out one-by-one over the course of about four or five months. Each story was eliminated for its own reason – wrong tone, strange fit, or just overall weakness. The theme really emerged when I started putting the stories in the order I wanted, and actually read the thing as a whole. It actually surprised me.
If you could choose only one story for people to read, which one would it be?
Probably the second story, “Bicycle Kick.” The title story is my favorite, but I think “Bicycle Kick” hits on all of the things I was working on in the book – themes of isolation, death, finding humor in sadness, etc. And there’s a long, ludicrous description of adult-league soccer.
Tell us about your acclaimed Dollar Store reading series.
Well, we’ve been going at it now for three years, once a month at the Hideout (the best bar in Chicago). I give a piece of junk – what I like to call evocative crap – to a fiction writer or comedian or playwright, etc. They then take that junk and make something wonderful out of it. My pal Abraham, who plays in the great Chicago band Baby Teeth, improvises 30-second recaps of everyone’s story on the piano. It’s all a lot of fun. We’ve sold out for two years running. We’re going to take a short hiatus so Abe and I can work on some projects, but in the meantime I’m taking it on tour in the fall and winter.
Which book has had the least influence on you?
I’d say Guardians of the Galaxy, issues #1-#25. I read this comic when I was a kid, getting into it at issue #1 and really, really wanting to like it. It seemed like a big deal to get in on the ground floor of a new title. It involved a futuristic Captain America character who led a group of alternately purple- and green-skinned heroes against evil aliens, and the like. Given those ingredients, it should have been the most influential book of my life. But beyond what I just said, I can’t remember a thing about it. I think one of the characters was really hairy. And they had an all-silver cover at one point. But even when I was 13, I knew that was just a lame and desperate plea for my attention.