A roundtable conversation with Mud Luscious Press
As the next installment in our ongoing, occasional series of roundtable conversations, we’re thrilled to present this conversation between JA Tyler, founder and editor of Mud Luscious Press and four authors whose books MLP is publishing this year: Gregory Sherl, Matt Bell, Ken Sparling, and Robert Kloss.
To begin with, share a little about where your book started — how was it initially formed, how long did it take to write, what was your drafting process, and how did you decide when the manuscript was ready to send to Mud Luscious Press?
GS: I wish I could start this round-table differently, a bit more intelligently, but I can’t: My book started as a joke. I was having a hard time with my own work — sick of writing the same poem over and over again, sick of trying to be more important than I was (or still am). I was bored with life, my own words, and I was stressed the fuck out and depressed (none of this seems to change, I am finding, especially in regards to stress and depression). Then, my best friend sent me a torrent of The Oregon Trail. I hadn’t played the game in years, since elementary school years, and everything came rushing back. A couple months later, a book.
MB: I started Cataclysm Baby in the summer of 2009, and probably had a first draft by the end of the year, then continued to tinker and tighten and so on over the next year while I worked on another project. The big change to the drafting process from earlier work was that this was probably the first book where I read aloud from it constantly, at every stage of the process, from initial draft to final: It was important to me that it be made up of speeches or sermons or oral tales, and the best way to ensure that feel seemed to have it constantly being voiced.
KS: When Gordon Lish asked me to make a book for Knopf, I remember being flooded with feeling. Scary feeling. It was the kind of fear you hope for, but, still, it was fear, and I was afraid. You can hear that fear in the book, I think. It’s shiny, like a shiny sheen that glosses over everything in the book and makes it brighter. I think the germ of Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall was nothing but this fear. It wasn’t that Gordon initiated a fear in me by asking me to make a book, because the fear was already there inside me long before I ever met Gordon. Gordon’s belief that I could make a book, as misguided as it seemed to me to be back then, served to open a hole in the container that held the fear that I’d been trying to hide inside me since forever. It was this fear that drove me, and still drives me, to do everything I did or do in this world. At the time Gordon asked me to make a book for Knopf, I was running from the fear. Or holding onto it, is maybe a better way to think of it. I was holding onto the fear the way a little boy holds onto his penis when he needs to pee. But sometimes I get so scared I can’t hold on anymore and I let go and pee my pants a little. Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall is me peeing my pants in little spurts. The drafting process was the process of letting out a bit of pee, and then another little bit of pee. And each time I let a little pee out it wasn’t because I had control over the pee and could let it out a little at a time whenever I wanted to. Each time I let a little of the pee out, it was because I was so scared my bladder just let go involuntarily.
RK: Originally my book was to have a last section about this family and their lives inside of this enormous creature, living off of what floated down the beast’s system, but it ended up being a novel about the American Civil War and the years to follow, the “progress” of our technology, the distance between the wealthy and the poor — with alligators, of course. Most of the book came together very quickly. I researched extensively and the more I wrote, the deeper I wanted to take the book, and so the more I researched — the process of embalming, the Civil War, Lincoln, the technology of the turn of the century, the Gilded Age, 19th century pornography, Henry Ford, Arctic expeditions, actual and mythical alligators. I was obsessed. I wrote, read, drafted and polished, day and night, I thought of little else, spoke of little else, and then one day this book was no longer the book I wanted to work on. Looking back, I realize that was the moment I was done, although I continued to polish for another month before sending it to MLP.
In terms of the editorial process, describe what it was like working with Mud Luscious Press — what was the editorial approach, how much or how little changed in your manuscript during these edits, how long did it take, and how did your book evolve or transform from the original manuscript to its final form?
GS: The biggest change, I think, was with the individual aesthetics of the poems. This book is part of the novel(la) series, but let’s be honest, it’s a poetry collection. Linked poems, for sure — there’s a love story with dysentery, much syphilis, hearts hearts hearts — but it’s poetry. Some of the poems in older drafts had different lineation or spacing. Enjambment (I hate that word, fuck that word), but yeah, maybe some of that was different. For sure though, there was an obvious lack of cohesiveness in the look. That was fixed, so the collection felt more sincere? That’s probably not the right word, but I liked writing that word so I left it there. It was more than just a cosmetic thing; I can’t explain it. At first, I was confused by this — what does it matter how the poem looks on the page? — but now it makes perfect sense. Always do what J.A. Tyler advises you to do. Also, the last poem in the collection had a big edit, which made it not suck (that was also from the brilliance of Mr. Tyler).
MB: I’d been done with the writing for well over a year by the time we sat down to work on it, and so was able to come back to it fairly fresh. David McLendon of Unsaid and I had worked on the book together already, and I think we had it in a good place, but that time away allowed me to work with MLP to tighten some of those final screws: there were two sections in particular that I remember needed something slightly more, that I hadn’t been able to figure out, and I finally got those to a better place during the final editing process. That might have been the bulk of the big edits, but I did a lot of small work at the sentence-level too. J. A. Tyler provided a strong final round of suggestions on the book, and it’s definitely better for it.
KS: I wanted to keep the manuscript of the original Knopf publication pretty much intact and MLP respected that, and managed to work very creatively to produce something new that remains true to the spirit of the original, and I’m very grateful for that.
RK: We’re still working on the book, so I can’t say with too much authority how much has changed, because it’s still changing. I think our approach has been focused on tightening and fine-tuning the prose, rather than playing with the story. Probably 4,000 words cut from what I submitted — and I know we’ll cut and reshape much more before we’re done. Something from nearly every sentence it seems. And it’s been a marvelous learning process, just to see that so many of the words I thought were needed to establish a tone or a rhythm really weren’t required. Plus, it’s always good to gain a sense of what your tics are, the easy phrases you go to rather than pushing the language.
Each of your books is in a different state of publication — The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail has been out since January, Cataclysm Baby just released this month, Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall will release in August, and The Alligators of Abraham will release in October — as such, how are you feeling about the release of your book or its impending publication, what does it mean to have this book out in the world, and what you are hoping the book will do or achieve in the coming years?
GS: I’m beyond ecstatic about the release of The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail and how it has been received so far. I couldn’t ask for more. If more happened, I don’t think I’d know what to do with it. I’d probably hide bits of it and look at it when night became morning. Where would I hide it? My medicine cabinet is already so full. My car barely works. I don’t trust strong winds. I can tell you I didn’t expect this much good to happen, at least not this quickly. Cross that last part out: I didn’t expect this much good to happen, period. I can only hope that people continue to enjoy it and word of mouth spreads.
MB: Other than being proud of Cataclysm Baby and grateful to MLP for being such a good publisher to work with, I’m not sure I think in these terms very much: I don’t know what it would mean for the book to “achieve” anything, or that I think books are supposed to, at least in the way that I read the question. All I hope is that readers enjoy the book, and that it moves them and maybe even changes some of them in some minor or even major way. All those things happened to me during the book’s writing, and I’d love it if some version of the same happens to its readers.
KS: The reissue of Dad Says by MLP represents a multiplication of the person who wrote the book nearly 20 years ago. And, every replication of the person who wrote the book represents the potential to reanimate that person who wrote the book. The person who wrote Dad Says will exist again each time someone picks up a copy of the book to read it. Then that person who wrote the book will disappear again until someone else picks up the book to read it. I’m not sure if I’m more preoccupied with the possibility of the repeated resurrection of that frightened person who wrote Dad Says, or the unavoidable, repeated disappearance of that person. The fear, which I still feel today, arises most definitely out of the disappearance part of the process, which makes me think my eagerness to see the book repeated is a kind of morbid desire to feel, over and over again, that fear of disappearing over and over again.
RK: This is my first novel and for someone who has dreamed of writing books since he was a little kid, that’s enormous in itself. But it’s also very special to be associated with this particular press and with this specific group of writers. Also, I’m very proud of the book, I think it’s better than anything of mine that is out in the world (by far), and I’m looking forward to people reading it, to showing it off. As for what I want it to achieve, I’m not sure. I’ve thought about that a lot, actually. How many thousand books are published every year and how many of those are even worth remembering five minutes later? So, I suppose, at the heart of it, I just want the book to find an audience that cares about it, that holds onto it, that doesn’t forget it happened.
Lastly, give us a little sense of where you are headed — what are you working on now, what projects do you have on the horizon, and what are some of the long-term goals as an author?
GS: This September, Monogamy Songs will be released from Future Tense Books. After that, so much white space. I recently completed a new poetry manuscript, The Bible by Gregory Sherl, where I rewrote the Bible. I wrote it in order to try and understand my faith and where it was headed and why I always felt so fucking confused about my heart. I wanted to write about something besides fucking, though fucking found itself all over that book anyway. I don’t think I found any answers in the poems, but I like the poems. Also, I wanted to put my own name in a book title. That seemed badass. I am also in the early stages of my first novel, which is slightly frightening — something that goes on longer than a page or two. Or maybe I will retire at the end of the year. Hide in a state that doesn’t deserve to be considered a state. I don’t know. If anyone wants to read the The Bible by Gregory Sherl, email me. I’ll just give it to you.
MB: I’m in the final stages of a novel, and then, who knows? I’ve got another book started, and I’ve got a project that needs me to do some research. It’s been a couple years since I wrote a new short story, and so I’ve been itching to do that too. By the end of the summer, I’ll be free to work on something new for the first time in years, so it’s hard to say what I’ll do with that freedom. Hopefully something better than what I’ve done before, as that’s really the only long-term goal: to keep getting stronger, to keep giving the reader more.
KS: I’m doing a project called The Serial Library which is a series of handmade books, each with a unique text, each of which I loan to someone who has agreed to loan it forward to someone else after they are finished with it. I’m hoping the books will be loaned forward again and again indefinitely. I don’t think there will ever be a lot of people interested in reading what I write, but there seems always to be a few people who appreciate what I write. As much as I’ve often, against my better judgment, felt like I want a broader readership, I don’t think it would serve any real meaningful purpose to have a lot more people reading my work. I don’t even know if there is such a thing as a meaningful purpose associated with what I do. If there is a purpose, it must have something to do with plunging back into that fear that captures and repels me simultaneously, and I want to make that the core of what I do, both in terms of writing what I write when I am sitting alone writing, and in terms of creating what I create and send out into the world. For me, traditional publication has come to feel too much like the multiplication of a single instance of fear, and then a strange kind of monitoring of the statistical response to that multiplied fear, like measuring success based on the number of units sold, the number of reprints, the number of good reviews, the number of award nominations… It’s like deciding a website is great by looking at the Google analytics without even glancing at the content of the site. I don’t know if my serial library will provide me with an escape from the traditional system of putting myself out there that publishing has come to represent for me. It’s really too early in this little serial library project to say anything about what it might come to mean to me. I might never come to any conclusions. I might just abandon it. But I’m in the middle of it right now.
RK: I’m currently finishing a novel called In the Shadow of the Mountain of an Angry God, which feels pretty far from The Alligators of Abraham. With Alligators I was listening to contemporary classical music, abrasive, shrill sounds, waves and waves of static. At one point I pledged I would write the most violent book ever written. This book has been a different mindset. I’m listening to Brahms, to Bach, to Hayden. I wanted to write something beautiful. So, we’ll see. I don’t know what will happen five minutes from now, but I intend to keep writing novels. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, it’s what I love doing. And what pushes me at this point is the ambition of writing a truly great novel, a novel that will last and last. Maybe that is out of my grasp, but I may as well try.