Shya Scanlon interviewed me on Facebook:
Shya Scanlon: As an author, blogger and founder of Chapbook Review, you are a rare breed: someone who seems as comfortable reviewing fiction as you are writing it. Do you think authors have a responsibility to share, discuss, and promote work not their own? Do you personally feel a responsibility to do so?
John Madera: First of all, thanks for setting up this tiny interview series. Sometimes I think of Facebook as “Fakebook” so it’s great to see something that has a little more dynamism. As for all the stuff I’m up to, I feel like I’m at my best when I’m juggling all kinds of plates. They all intersect, play off of each other, and cross-pollinate.
As for responsibility, I think writers, in order to be called writers, must write. How often and how much, I wouldn’t presume to say or demand. I don’t think that a writer has a responsibility to share, discuss, and promote work that isn’t theirs. Writers who choose to work in total seclusion and isolation without a care for anyone else is fine with me; what matters is the quality of their work.
As for me, I feel it’s less a responsibility but more something that brings me great pleasure and teaches me so much.
Shya Scanlon: In your Rumpus review of Jamie Iredell’s Prose. Poems. A Novel., you cite his “lyrical observations of nature” as the most impressive aspect of the text. Reading your story in Opium 9 entitled How to be Happy and Free, I felt like the narrator’s observations while in the park played a critical role in developing the character–perhaps more so than… See More the “plot”, which mostly evolves later in the piece. Would you say there’s a category of fiction that is “observational”? Can observation stand on its own in fiction, or does it need to buttress or be buttressed by plot?
John Madera: Great question. And I’m afraid if I really dig into it, this tiny interview will turn into a wooly mammoth. But the short answer is yes, fiction need not be concerned with plot in order to be compelling, nor, for that matter, does it have to include every element of fiction. Fiction is not built from a checklist of rhetorical strategies. I like Gary Lutz’s answer to what he thinks about when he is asked about plots, that is, burial plots. However, I love fiction that is story driven, a story built on anticipation on what comes next. It’s another kind of artifice, and as long as it’s well made I’ll coast along with it. “Observational” fiction, as a category, is as useful as any kind of categorizing. It gives us another lens or frame to have a discussion about it. And yes, it can certainly stand on its own.
Shya Scanlon: A story you published in elimae, “Something, Fathered In the Wastes, Wormed Within the Body”, is almost baroque with strange imagery and language. Even more strangely, though: its form resembles a traditional story, as if you’re intentionally frustrating or upsetting expectation. For a piece like this, do you begin with an organizing principle? Or do you let the work direct and redirect your attentions?
John Madera: Back to stories based on observation for a second, dense or elliptical observations can propel the work, keep the forward momentum, much like page-turning plots, and they can also make you linger on the ideas expressed, lose your place, unsettle you in ways that plot-driven stuff usually doesn’t.
A story like “Something, Fathered In the Wastes, Wormed Within the Body,” is me overtly playing with the materials of language. Words generate other words there. I deliberately unraveled sentences to take apart elements from them to use throughout the narrative. When I wrote it I wasn’t thinking about anything else at all (well, except for the random, disconnected thoughts that came into my mind) but really letting every word inspire the other, talk to each other, consume each other and then vomit it up, only to be regurgitated again. It surprisingly turned into a story. I wish there were more venues for this kind of stuff.
Shya Scanlon: Convince me that Big Other isn’t just a poor man’s HTMLGIANT.
John Madera: Actually, considering that two of Html Giant’s contributors at a major press, Big Other might just be a second-class version of that site. Seriously though, Html Giant was one of the inspirations for Big Other. At its best, HG is an engaging venue of highly-literate writers and art, film, music, and book lovers who are totally invested in art, creativity, and in broadening the horizons of what is possible. Sam Pink, one of the HG’s contributors, once asked for some criticism, and, if I remember correctly, what I addressed was some of the sloppiness there, the mean-spirited stuff that did little or nothing to promote dialogue, empty rants and such. The self-referentiality, self-aggrandizing, and sophomoric aspects of it is tiresome at times. And its profound gender and racial imbalance in both the postings and the commentary is troubling. At times, it feels like an all-boys club who like to spin their wheels, to rock out with their cocks out. Let me restate though that Html Giant is a vital resource which I still check out, although less frequently. And also, Jimmy Chen’s posts are usually brilliant. Blake’s posts range from being nice button-pushers and community broadeners. And Roxane Gay is an excellent and long necessary addition to the line-up. And we share a contributor: Christopher Higgs!
One of the purposes of Big Other is to broaden the community, increase the dialogue. There are just too many voices out there for there not to be more of these forums happening. I’m hoping Big Other will grow to include more unheard voices from diverse ethnicities and nationalities, to include voices from the LGBT community. And I hope that it inspires others to create their own venues.
Shya Scanlon: Okay, one more question about writing, and then I want to ask you about music. The Chapbook Review seems to really be filling a niche. I remember when you first started it up we went back and forth a bit about whether or not to review “e-chapbooks.” They’ve since been derided on a post at HTMLGIANT. What do you think now: are e-chapbooks self-contradictory, or a viable, vital form? Or both?
John Madera: Another thing, I think what’s missing from both sites (Html Giant and Big Other) is any kind of real, direct engagement with politics. I’d like to see some dialogue, for instance, about the Obama administration’s War against Afghanistan, continued oppressive presence in Iraq, its ongoing bombing of Pakistan, etc., and the lack of a viable health insurance plan, and on and on.
As for e-literature, Stephanie Strickland has the most sophisticated response to what an e-book really is. She writes:
E-poetry relies on code for its creation, preservation, and display: there is no way to experience a work of e-literature unless a computer is running it—reading it and perhaps also generating it.
This “rule” is important for what it rules out: e-books, digitized versions of print works, and other word-processed documents, on- or offscreen. Today all communication is computer-mediated, except for face-to-face encounters and handwritten, typewritten, or letterpress sheets. Print books are made from digital files, as are newspapers and films. Print is but one form of digital output. What is meant by e-literature, by works called born-digital, is that computation is required at every stage of their life. If it could possibly be printed out, it isn’t e-lit.
I remember that post about e-chapbooks at HG bothering me at the time, but I’d have to go back to see what it was exactly that bothered me. It might have been its snarkiness, the writer’s grandstanding.
But here’s where I stand: call it what you will, but unless it’s short, I usually won’t read it on a screen (but I may print it out, if it’s great) and I certainly won’t review it. A hardcopy must be sent to me, whether it’s a chapbook or a freaking door-stopping tome.
John Madera: Oh, I should also mention that The Chapbook Review desperately needs more reviewers. I’ve got so many beautiful books crying out to be reviewed.
Shya Scanlon: You’re involved in music enough for an entirely other interview, but we only have one question. I must say I was a bit surprised to hear the “funk” influence in Mother Flux – since I one might liken bass/rhythm to plot in fiction as a kind of stabilizing, driving force–something you seem interested in avoiding in prose. Do you look for different things in music than you do in literature?
Incidentally also, I believe the main issue with “e-chapbooks” from the blogger’s perspective (Justin Taylor), was he felt chapbooks are inherently limited in production, so an “e” version was paradoxical and thus invalid.
John Madera: This is a good question. First of all, writing fiction came out of my music, my lyric writing. On Divine Day Formula you can see how the lyrics went (notice I’m avoiding the word progressed) from more abstract things to story kinds of things.
Making music is a much more fluid practice for me than writing words. I can disappear with ease and feel like a conduit, although that’s probably illusory. Also, the music on Divine Day Formula, though it’s all written by me, came to life through collaborations. There’s a lot of interaction between myself and the other musicians. Since that time I’ve taught myself how to play drums and bass so I could conceivably put out a record where I play everything. Actually, I did that (well, the drums are programmed there) with my Music Inspired by Light Boxes. It’s a direct response to literature, a musical or “rock opera”, for lack of better terms, of sorts.
There are so many things that music does for me that are different than what literature does but there are just as many ways where they converge. I’m not sure though if a direct correlation can be made between a genre of music (in this case, funk) and a rhetorical strategy in literature. Unfortunately, since I’ve only published seven pieces of fiction, I would say what’s out there isn’t representative at all of what my obsessions are, what my range is. For instance, I’ve completed a 350 page fantasy novel, a historical novella, a weird, language-y novella, some longer speculative fiction things, and stuff that would fit, albeit uncomfortably, within the realist genre.
Shya Scanlon: Based on your level of productivity, I don’t doubt it for an instant. Thank you for participating in this Tiny Interview! If anyone has any questions for John, please use this space to ask them. Also check out his website for more info.
John Madera: Thanks Shya. I really enjoyed this and thanks for all of YOUR bridge-building efforts. And yes, ask me anything Facebook friends.
Alec Niedenthal: great interview, john! i’m so glad i got to read and champion your story in opium 9. it’s stuck with me. i reread it every now and then. do you have any plans to publish the novels that you have stowed away?
John Madera: Thanks Alec for sifting my story out of the submissions inbox and batting for it. Thanks to Todd Zuniga, as well. And it’s humbling to know that not only have you read it but you’ve reread it. As for my novels, there are no plans other than rewrites and then enduring all the rejection notes.
Alec Niedenthal: my sincerest pleasure. i don’t expect you’ll have much trouble getting books out there. i look forward to reading them, whenever they appear.
John Madera: It’s encouraging to know you think so.