Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Q&A with Sam McPheeters

Posted By on 04.11.12 at 03:35 PM

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Like a lot of people I first encountered Sam McPheeters through his work fronting legendary 90s hardcore band Born Against, and I continued to follow not only his musical progression, through groups like the Men's Recovery Project and Wrangler Brutes, but also his burgeoning writing career, which took him from the pages of Punk Planet to Vice (where among other things he contributed one of the greatest profiles of an insane former punk rocker ever committed to print) and eventually the Reader.

Currently McPheeters is on an extensive tour promoting his first published novel, The Loom of Ruin, which is about the angriest man in the world (Philip Montoro reviewed the book earlier today). He's also laying the groundwork for the first issue of Exploded View Quarterly, a literary magazine he's working on with former Vice editor in chief Jesse Pearson. McPheeters hits Chicago tomorrow, when he'll be reading at Columbia College's multicultural affairs multipurpose studio (618 S. Michigan, fourth floor) at 2:30 PM and giving a spoken-word performance at Permanent Records (1914 W. Chicago) at 6 PM. I talked to him by phone as he was being driven across Pennsylvania in a rental car.

How's the book tour going?

Good. There was a lot of very bad suspense over a rental car switch-over we had to do today, and there was a brief moment where we thought we'd have to set up shop at the Dollar car-rental counter in Philadelphia and perform all subsequent readings there, but that didn't happen.

I looked at your itinerary, and it's pretty insane for a book tour. It definitely looks like a really intensive hardcore band tour.

It's weird. I forget that and people keep mentioning it and I get this kind of like sharp twinge in my chest. It doesn't feel like that right now. I mean, I actually had a few friends I had a serious chat with, "Are you sure you want to do this?" And I mean, what's the worst that can happen? I'm unhappy? I mean, I'm fine with that.

Were you like a guy who liked touring when you were in a band?

No. Oh no no. Mostly for one reason. I mean, a lot of other reasons that are just dumb, and I didn't always conduct myself so well, and all the normal stuff of touring. But I also really have a lot of problems with sleep. And that really would always mess me up. And that's still been happening on this tour, but it's different when you don't have to scream and shout in front of people or load amps.

That's gotta be nice.

I really enjoy seeing the country, but after a certain point—I know other people who've encountered it, where you've just kinda seen everything. Yeah, I mean, there are a few things on this tour . . . I've never been to Graceland.

I noticed, following you in the past, there's always been an element of fiction that you've sort of played with, especially like when you started your Twitter and it was just like these little tiny micro stories, but a lot of people who are familiar with your work know you through the stuff you've written for Vice, and maybe for the Reader. I was wondering, what was it like making the transition over to being a fiction writer?

Well for me it isn't a transition now. I started writing—attempting to write—serious fiction over 20 years ago. I had another novel, a very long novel, that I started in 1990. It took me over 15 years. I really poured my heart out into it. And it didn't quite work, and I just got curb stomped by agents and publishers. So in a way, this book was sort of an internal response to that. I realized that I was so deeply bruised by rejection that it was just going to kind of end it for me and for the writing, that I'd let myself be crushed—let that continue and I would wind up in my late 60s just a bitter old man. So that was the impetus to this. And the other part of that is that I realized I was taking the wrong approach. I was writing books for me. But a lot of the art that I like now, bands and, I don't know, fine art, is coming from the opposite approach—it's art on the audience's terms. And even though I've done other band stuff that was on my terms and not audience friendly, I made a very conscious choice in the late 90s to not do that. So then I thought, why don't I attempt to do that with fiction? Why don't I write a book that I would want to read if I were someone who wasn't me who liked the writing of Sam McPheeters?

Well, it seems you have a complicated relationship with being published. I read your essay recently about accepting the book you wrote when you were really young. Could you tell me about that?

Oh yeah. Yeah, I never talked about that at all, with anyone. Any time I would talk about it with someone, their reaction was so baffled and borderline shocked that I felt validated by not telling them. I feel like everyone has something like that—multiple things like that, like when you're a kid you just forget. Like, "Oh yeah, we went on that fishing trip and you almost died. That was weird." It really does seem like everyone has something like that, just maybe slightly stranger.

You were how old when the book was published?

Twelve.

That's precocious.

Yeah. Like I said, I wrote it with Mark Steese, who was 19, and he was my best friend, and we met at a school that is its own very long book in and of itself. Later, he became my stepfather, so it's a really weird story. And when I tell the details, people's reaction made it too much of a pain in the ass, you know? Like, "Well, that one required too much context. I'm just going to hold off on it." And I think I knew I was, in a way, holding off, so I might get some impact out of it. And it just seemed like the right time to have that story out there as well. The other bookend is this new book that I have, if that makes sense.

I'm kind of curious—"The Loom of Ruin" is the name of your book and also the name of your blog—which came first?

The book was originally The Loom of Ruin, and then in 2007 I hit a wall with it. There was a structural problem I couldn't figure out, and there were a couple of characters that eventually got taken out. I had the title and didn't know what to do with it, so I started the blog and that was going to be it. Originally, the blog had a point. The blog was going to be—I don't even know what the hell it was going to be. It was going to be about weird, armageddon stuff, I don't even know—I just picked the name. And then there was a phone call, some IT person, something regarding my domain, and he's like, "Your domain sounds like a really weird science fiction novel." And I thought, "Thanks, dick. Now I can never use it." So this had a different title up until two weeks before it was published, and then my editor, Jesse Pearson, who also was the guy I worked on Exploded View magazine with and is also my editor at Vice, said, "You really need to change this. You need to change it to The Loom of Ruin. The title right now is not appropriate." And he was correct. I’m very, very glad I followed his advice. I think that's a good example of trying to be very flexible and not too married to or precious about anything. So I'm glad I was able to execute that. I'm not always able—I'm too inflexible with my ideas. I'm not that way now. Now, the goal of whatever I'm doing needs to be to just get that thing done, and not my artistic vision 100 percent, because it's not possible, usually.

I also come from a DIY background, and there's a big difference between going from writing your own zines to working with an editor. Having the ability to give up things that you're kind of in love with or whatever, being able to give those up is so essential to being a writer.

Yeah, it's crucial. It's a really hard trick to wrap your mind around. I don't feel like I'm 100 percent there. I've still done freelance pieces with new editors where bad times occur, and that's really rough because your name is attached to it. I can make corrections to my blog, but that really runs into an Alan Smithee kind of thing, like I'm really dispelling the entire piece, which is counterintuitive to me getting freelance work in the first place. But at least with a novel, it's different. There's a larger scope and it more or less says I wrote it, just with a lot of small changes.

Tell me about your relationship with Jesse. You guys have gone from—it seems like you got a lot of really great stories out through him, and now you guys are working on Exploded View. And he was on your tour, right?

Yeah, he was on the tour for like a week. It was great. It was good that we had a week to get to know each other's quirks and stuff. I've had a really, really great experience working with him as an editor. I was a little sad when he and Vice parted ways. Even though the timing of this magazine in my life is clearly incorrect—starting a magazine and doing a 40-city book tour is not the correct thing to do—this was the time for us to make this happen. We're clearly the people to make this. This is going to be an extremely bitchin' magazine and it's going to be a lot of work. So it's really good that we've had, I'd say, a little over two solid years of working together and then just continuing—I wouldn't say immediately after he left, but soon after he left—figuring all the ins and outs of how we're going to do this project.

Is there anything you can tell me about what the magazine is going to be?

It is a literary magazine with a strong emphasis on graphic design, a very strong emphasis on photography. Literary meaning long-form journalism essays, fiction, nonfiction, humor—there's like five more things it's got a strong emphasis on. I guess I'm still ironing out the elevator pitch. There's a zone that's uncovered right now between saccharine, twee literary magazines and super-serious, no-graphics, no-frills, chore literary magazines. So we want to be right in the middle of that zone. Something you get and that you're excited to get and want to read it, and it's dense and there's a lot of stuff you can turn to and there's a lot of people that you really admire who are selected in it. It sounds very ambitious, now that I'm saying it like that.

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