Writer in Residence · 05/13/2011

Interview with Joshua "Fireland" Allen

Joshua Allen has been publishing fiction online for as long as there has been an “online”. In the early days of the internet, when it was mostly just song lyrics and Under Construction gifs, his website Fireland became a mecca for people craving something new from this medium that hadn’t quite defined itself yet. It often wasn’t clear if the stories he wrote were fiction or non-fiction, but they were always imaginative, hilarious, deeply entertaining, and totally unlike anything else that had come before.

Since then, he’s gone on to incubate one idea after another with an almost furious refusal to slow down, from the anonymous cubicle rage of The House of Wigs, to Theophrenia —a self-published collection of short fiction for the Kindle, to building a maritime world of violence and mystery at Chokeville, to his newest site, Ten Sexy Ladies, where he provides bizarro reviews of everything, ever, from a taco to koala hugs. His stories have been written about or linked to in every major newspaper and blog. He is a writer living in Denver, but it has been clear, from the very beginning, that the internet was made for him, and vice versa. He is a full-time dreamer, and a friend to all children, everywhere.

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So as I understand it when you’re not busy blowing minds with the things you create for the internet, you work as a freelance copywriter.

Your information is eerily accurate. I quit my job as a copywriter about a month ago and am now doing basically the same work as a freelancer.

Do you work from home?

I have go into the office a few times a week for meetings and the like, but otherwise yeah I’m at home. Last week I realized that I hadn’t left the apartment in three days, which is bad enough, but worse was that I didn’t even notice it had been that long.

Do you do both Work writing and Personal writing from home, at the same desk, at the same computer, or do you have some way of separating the two?

Yeah, same desk, same computer. I guess I still separate Work and Personal by time of day. Even though my schedule is much more flexible now, I’m still basically on call from 9-5 for work stuff, so the personal writing happens in the evening. Which works out because my brain doesn’t really kick in until mid-afternoon anyway.

Does your personal writing pay any part of your bills?

No sir. 99% of what I’ve written online for the past 15 years has been given away.

I imagine your copywriting work is very deadline-driven, whereas your internet writing is maybe not so much.

Definitely. I prefer set deadlines and rigid routines, otherwise nothing ever gets done. So I tend to give myself deadlines for personal work, or a regular schedule, e.g., I want to post something new Monday, Wednesday, Friday.

Where do you derive the motivation to put things on the internet every day, with only an imaginary/un-enforceable deadline hanging over your head?

I was just asking myself that this morning. Today is one of my personal deadlines — I was planning to put up something new tonight. But as I thought about what to write I was all: Why am I doing this? To get some validation? To get “discovered”? To feel like I’m accomplishing something with a minimum of effort? It’s probably some combination of those things.

You’ve got 40k+ followers on Twitter. I’m guessing 10k-ish on Tumblr. You’ve been writing things online with unmatched regularity for 15 years. Your writing has been mentioned in places like the New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR. There’s probably no way to quantify how many thousands of people have read and enjoyed something you’ve written. Do you consider yourself successful?

I guess I’m successful at writing one-liners on Twitter but that’s not a particularly fulfilling form of success. At the moment, I don’t really have a clear vision of what success might mean. I feel like the time I’ve put in writing stuff for the internet has been one long throat-clearing, but I have no idea what I’m going to finally say. Ugh these questions are bumming me out.

What’s something that you wrote that you were surprised by how popular it was, and what is something that you thought would be more popular.

The essay about the ideal song length was one of the more popular things I wrote, and I thought it was a pretty dumb idea as I was working on it. But I think people were more taken with the concept than the actual piece. The internet likes bold, dumb, specific proclamations that it can argue with.

I was hoping Wiretap Follies would do better than it did. But at the time you said that the era of designing a little site and telling your mailing list to come check it out is probably over, which is true. You have to bring these things to people’s doorsteps and be smart about it.

Does that happen often, mis-gauging how something will be received?

I think I’m getting better at predicting that. If I had to make a gross generalization, I’d say the internet prefers truth—or at least the simulation of truth—over something that is clearly made up. But I’m pretty regularly surprised by what clicks with people.

So you’re saying the stuff you post on Twitter is TRUE?

Hand to god.

You have a zen-like detachment from the conversational aspect of Twitter. Any time you post something people reply to it even though they know you’re not going to respond. How difficult is that? Have you ever been like “God damn it just this one time I need to respond to this nonsense this person is saying.”

A couple times, but whatever, nobody ever got anywhere by starting a dialogue on the internet, that’s what I always say. I did start a separate account a while back for the purpose of using Twitter like a normal person, to say hi to celebrities or whatever, but I never ended up doing anything with it.

What inspires you?

I like things where people create a world — and world here can mean whatever, a story, an album, a TV show — and just go whole hog. Imagining it down to the last detail, making it internally consistent, creating a place that the reader/listener/viewer can really live in for a while.

What kind of creative opportunities and projects have opened up to you because of the writing you do online?

Really everything in my life these days has stemmed in one way or another from either people seeing my work online or people getting to know me online. Most of my friendships and relationships and job opportunities have come about from that. I haven’t done tons of projects with people, however, because I’m pretty bad at collaborating—I think maybe Knowledge for Thirst has been the only major thing?

Do you have any idea what’s next, or what you might be working on a year from now? Or are you always totally focused on the project in front of you.

Neither? I guess it goes back to me still figuring out what I’m doing. So I’ll come up with an idea, make it happen, do it for a while, then get bored or frustrated by it not taking off and abandon it for something else. I have a very whiny, reactionary approach to creativity. I’m sure you remember back in the day when I redesigned fireland.com every other week and deleted things in a hissy pique.

What is a “a reactionary approach to creativity”?

I mean I’ll do a project and then get sick of it and start a new project just out of spite for the old project. Like, I want to punish the old project and rub its nose in its failure. So I guess that’s one way to stay productive.

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posted by Kevin Fanning