My fandom of Jon Frankel’s writing is (somehow! unspeakably!) approaching its ten-year anniversary. I knew years ago, reading a handful of pages at a time as they’d pour in hot from the inbox, that these words needed an audience, and I always assumed they would find their readers. If you read blurbs comparing him to Philip K. Dick or Raymond Chandler, they’re flattering, but Jon’s fiction is entirely sui generis; weird and sardonic and hopeful and relentless and brazen. And, not least importantly, hilarious. When I realised I was going to become a publisher, I knew immediately that his was the first fiction I needed to produce. Here are a few words with Jon Frankel.
WHISKEY TIT: GAHA, with other Jon Frankel novels, takes place in a future where there are just enough different elements to make us uncomfortable about today’s world. No writer likes to be pigeonholed into a genre, but you seem to have settled, aptly, on “sci-fi noir” or “low-tech noir.” What do you think this genre achieves that others don’t?
JON FRANKEL: It has to do with point of view I suppose. When I write sci-fi noir I can view the world through the eyes of a nihilistic anti-hero, one who’s not well-educated but smart in a wise-ass kind of way. I love this character, I’ve written him so often, a sort of trickster, a guy who inadvertently destroys everything he touches. I’m not sure I’d be free to do that in a literary novel. Literary writers write genre work all the time, they enjoy slumming it! David Mitchell, Margaret Attwood, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, the list is long. But there are fewer genre writers writing literary or experimental fiction. I read all kinds of things, and a lot of ‘literary’ fiction, but my voice is freest when I’m narrating crime, when I’m writing romance, or sci-fi or pornography. Prurience fascinates me. I don’t think of it as escapist though. Language and ideas are always there. You can’t read GAHA without thinking about language, about global warming, about the corporate police state that is gestating today in our midst while everyone gazes on in a state of paralysis.
WHISKEY TIT: GAHA is the first volume of the DRIFT trilogy. Can you tell us a little more about the trilogy, without revealing the secrets of GAHA?
FRANKEL: The trilogy is about a family of cloned Rulers of America named Sargon. Sargon 4 is an important but minor character in GAHA. Volume 2 begins with his birth, and ends a little past the point where GAHA ends, and volume 3 will pick up there, with the birth of Sargon’s grandchild. It’s a pretty complicated narrative structure, but a familiar one. I think Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet was an inspiration. These books are set in a world radically altered by global warming and our total failure to deal with it. It posits that the ensuing crisis will destroy even the illusion of democracy we now have. Most of what we must endure these days can be explained by greed, and the maximum short term profit obsession. There is no plan. No one’s in charge.
WHISKEY TIT: What time of day are you most productive? How did GAHA make it onto the page, with a schedule like yours?
FRANKEL:I wish I could write in the morning. That would be my ideal schedule. But I have a day job, and I can’t write at work anymore. I used to write in notebooks and transcribe the work at night. And in the past I’d take time off to write. Now I just work for an hour, an hour and a half, at night, after dinner. You know, come home, clean the kitchen, cook, eat dinner, and crawl upstairs to my garret for a little novel writing. It works. A 4-page night is really good. That’s why it takes me 5 years to write a 380-page potboiler.
WHISKEY TIT: Your areas of interest include – but are in no way limited to – the Vietnam War, cooking, American presidents, maybe a dash of lyric poetry, noir cinema, epic television. I’ve missed some. What’s your secret to separating wheat from chaff?
FRANKEL: Are you asking me, how do I manage to stay focused? I have a lot of intellectual passions, it’s true. I’m a poet, and a blogger, with some real intellectual obsessions. These obsessions express not just parts of my wayward, contradictory personality, but fuel the writing and vice versa. My novels involve a lot of research, and research is one of the great pleasures of being an author. For this book and the last one (The Man Who Can’t Die) I consulted Native American material. I wanted to find indigenous words for plants and animals because Bob is Kawaiisu, a small tribe indigenous to areas north and east of Los Angeles.
When I imagine the future I imagine a time when Native Americans lands are not only sovereign but independent, as the Unites States breaks up into small warring entities. Anyway, I consulted a book on bug eating: Insects as Food: Aboriginal Entomophagy in the Great Basin, and Kawaiisu Ethnobotany. My old friend and partner in crime, Al Giordano supplied me with a fine list of Mexican invective. I also ransacked the internet for Chicano slang, and used some Nahuatl words, as well as Austrian slang. This was just fun. It could become distracting, right? Endangered Species, an earlier book, was always in danger of being overwhelmed by the research, which was in Neo-Platonism, Romantic and Elizabethan poetry, the Kennedy administration and the civil rights movements, the Living Theater. I thought it would come in handy if I ever was able to review books, when I became really famous. (laughs) It got to the point where I wanted to read everything. It’s not enough to have read The Inferno in high school. I had to have the Vita Nuova and the whole Commedia. So focus can be hard, it’s true. I try to keep my eyes on the story. The story will drive out unnecessary detail.
WHISKEY TIT: This is not your first published novel – writing under the pseudonym Buzz Callaway, your drug potboiler fantasy was published by Manic D Press in 1994. Surely you must have picked up a thing or two about publishing in the interim two decades. Share a little wisdom?
FRANKEL: Yeah, it’s become almost impossible. I don’t want to sound bitter and resentful. I have been both of those and more! There’s a lot of despair involved in being an unpublished author. The silence is difficult. I used to want an agent and a for-profit publisher, but my writing is too weird, too difficult to pitch and they don’t seem to like it. If an agent can’t sell a book, why would they try? There used to be a lot of small presses out there that took unagented fiction. Now they’ve become boutique presses, or independents. It’s a relentless process. What has emerged are smallest presses, like Whiskey Tit, that can take advantage of the technology we now have, which has totally changed what is possible. Print on demand, easily bought isbn numbers, ebooks, Amazon etc. mean anyone can publish a book. The price of course is audience. Your audience is as small as your press. Publishing is as fragmented as every other part of society.
WHISKEY TIT: Yes, and the war between the Big 5 Publishers and the passel of independents is far from over. But as a reader, I feel we need to put down our guns and accept both: there are great authors who’d never see the light of day without a traditional agented model supporting them, just as there are authors who write weird post-apocalyptic potboilers that the Big 5 would never be able to place.
It’s not that the major publishers don’t publish great books, they do. It sometimes seems like they let one slip through, like Helen DeWitt’s brilliant, difficult, beautiful The Last Samurai. DeWitt shames most so called literary authors, and except for the hilarious, and filthy, Lightning Rods, she hasn’t been able to publish anything since. Small presses publish material that can’t stand the brutal winnowing process of getting a manuscript to an editor. I have loved many books in the past few years published by small presses. There’s Jeff Jackson’s Mira Corpora, put out by Two Dollar Radio. The books is an intense, surreal coming-of-age story. And the product itself is handsome, recalling the City Lights pocket book series, but with thick paper and a deckled edge. Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart is ambitious, profound and beautifully written. It was published by Soft Skull, who also published Colson Whitehead. Soft Skull read unagented fiction! Marianne Hauser’s a writer almost no one knows. Her work is published by FC2. She wrote a novel about lesbian mother’s back in 1976 called The Talking Room. I’m reading her Collected Short Fiction now, and they are the work of a master. She was in her 90’s when she wrote these stories. Joshua Corey’s Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy published by Spuyten Duyvil, is gorgeous and in the tradition of the European art novel, always a tough sell in America.
Dalkey Archive is a treasure trove of obscurities, but also publishes new work. One book of theirs I love is Iceland, by Jim Krusoe, who has 3 or 4 other quirky, funny, sad books.
There’s Percival Everett. He’s with Graywolf, what I would call an ‘independent’ as opposed to small press, or boutique publisher. His novels are socially engaged, fiercely intelligent, hilarious and eccentric. One thing about him is he doesn’t stick to one genre, he’s all over the place. And, like DeWitt, he writes satire. That makes a writer hard to market. It requires a commitment to the work and the author. Graywolf makes this commitment. That’s why J. Robert Lennon was with them. And then there are authors like me, who can’t survive the winnowing process of the agent even. This is where the smallest presses come in, presses like Manic D Press and Whiskey Tit, that support the work of unknowns, who aren’t MFA or NYC.
WHISKEY TIT: Speaking of, you do realise, I hope, that we’re not likely to make a million dollars with tits both on the cover of your book and in the name of my company. What compels an author to take what feels like a huge publishing risk?
FRANKEL: It’s no risk for me at all. I have never been interested in the money part, though it would be nice, and I’ve had my fantasies. Money can’t be the measure of aesthetic quality in art. I’ve always been in the counterculture, it’s where I belong, where I feel at home. I don’t follow rules. Now, art is impossible without rules, without measure. But I prefer to make mine up. And there is something terribly, boringly tasteful about most commercial literary fiction. Be difficult but not too difficult. And what’s worse is the total lack of originality, or even the belief in it. Plus the hype. Jonathan Franzen, our Tolstoy? Seriously? Have the people who say that read Tolstoy? Likely they have. They don’t care about the truth, just about marketing. I write against that. I use satire, and scorn, to ridicule inane hypocrisies and canons of taste. America is in a death spiral. Authors and publishers are going down with the rest of it.
WHISKEY TIT: What’s the most recent perfect novel you’ve read?
FRANKEL: Middlemarch. It’s wonderful, a romance, with shimmering depths of psychological, philosophical, spiritual speculation and insight. She’s not a poets novelist, she’s a prose writer, a masterful story teller with an unbelievable ability to articulate thought. *
WHISKEY TIT: So which do you like better, Whiskey or Tits?
FRANKEL: Oh, I can live without whiskey, but tits?
* Editor’s note: Jon talks more about Middlemarch as a perfect novel on his blogh, Last Bender.
Jon Frankel’s GAHA Babes of the Abyss is Whiskey Tit’s first released title. It’s a little too big to fit into your cleavage, unless you’ve had lots of whiskey or are better endowed than most. You can buy it from Whiskey Tit, Amazon, or your local independent bookseller through Indiebound.