Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Interview: Ben Parzybok

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Benjamin Parzybok is the creator of Gumball Poetry, a (now defunct) journal published through gumball machines, the Psychic Book Project and the Black Magic Insurance Agency, a city-wide mystery/treasure hunt. His projects have twice been selected as Best of Portland for the Willamette Week: "Best Guy Who Walks His Talk" and "Best Quarter's Worth of Culture." He is the author of Couch.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, can you tell us more about yourself (anything you're willing to spill)?

Sure - I like stats, and manage to have half a dozen numbers I'm following at any one time. Speaking of numbers, the number 47 is a number that occurs with unusual frequency in my life, I believe, and I'm not the only one: http://www.47.net/47society/

Some day I'm going to write a story about that.

I like to stay busy. Here are a few of my larger projects:

Project Hamad - projecthamad.org
Gumball Poetry - gumballpoetry.com
Black Magic Insurance Agency - blackmagicinsurance.com
Walker Tracker - walkertracker.com

there are a few others on my website ideacog.net. I find I'm happiest while in a project. Other than that - I love to travel - I've lived in Taiwan and Ecuador, and have traveled extensively through Central America and parts of Asia. I live with my partner, Laura Moulton, and our 2 kids in Portland, OR. We have 2 chickens, a cat and an ant problem.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

We used to have to write a short story a week in my fifth grade class which we were then required to read out loud. It was terrifying and absolutely thrilling. I think it was then, having just invoked some laughter from a crowd of 5th graders, that I first envisioned the glory of it all. But I didn't become serious about writing until midway through a B.S. in Physics in college when I apparently had some kind of meltdown and took 32 credits straight of playwriting. It's been downhill from there.

What are some of your favorite books or who are some of your favorite writers?

I have a lot - but Haruki Murakami, JRR Tolkien (& also thanks to Peter Jackson), Cervantes, Cormac McCarthy and Rick Moody were inspirations, directly or indirectly, for Couch. Independent People by Halldor Laxness is a book that just blew me away. I can't help but note that none of those are 'humorous' writers, or write books that in any way would be considered 'funny', while most reviews of Couch call it a funny book. I don't know what that means.

Is Couch your first novel? What were some of the difficulties in writing the book?

Couch is my first published novel. I have two other manuscripts that I kick the tires of occasionally to see if they'll run. I may retire them to the junkyard or get back in to drive, it's hard to know. The largest difficulty in writing Couch was when I decided to let it cross genres. I didn't know I was going to do this - I'd not yet heard of Slipstream/Interfiction/New Weird when I was writing Couch - and I had a lot of anxiety about going a different direction than I'd imagined myself as a writer. I think it was a freeing process - doing what I really wanted to do - but at the same time I'm not sure I knew it would end well.

How did Small Beer Press end up publishing your book? Did you have to pitch it to them or did they "stumble" across it?

Apparently mine is the first book they pulled from the slush pile. I queried and they asked to see the full book - and some time later they picked it up. It was not a quick path to writing for me - I started my first book in 1994. Couch was written in 2002. I've had a tremendously good time working with SBP. And, while there's a country that spans between us and it's apparent that in sending emails to them, there's a section of the network between us where all messages must be carried on the backs of stubborn African Hippos with other things on their minds, it's hard to imagine respecting them more as a publisher.

Do you consider yourself a genre writer or more of a fiction writer in general?

I like genre writing - the first 10 gazillion or so books I read were fantasy and science fiction. However at some point the adults in my life ganged up on me and told me to start reading 'serious' books - and so I tore through literary fiction for years. Where would I like my books put in a book store? I think I'd lean toward literary fiction since on average I spend more time in that section to find books I want to read. I think the category of literary fiction is less restrictive and one is much more able to digress from the story line into some interesting corner of the world just for the purposes of exploration, and so for that reason I'd rather be on that shelf. A ton of really great work is being done across multiple genres now, though, and so these labels can be restrictive. When I was seeking a literary agent for Couch - I got the complaint that it 'crossed genres'.

What other avenues of literature are you currently pursuing? Or is it more of marketing your book as of late?

I'm working on another novel and I write some short fiction as well.

I absolute love the book's cover and the aesthetic sense of your site, ideacog. How much control did you have over the book's cover? Do you have a particular design philosophy?

SBP and I talked about the cover a fair amount, though the design is all Andi Watson (www.andiwatson.biz, a graphic novelist in the UK). I very much wanted the cover to show movement and a sense of journey, and I think he did a kickass job with that. I wish I had a design philosophy, that sounds like a fantastic thing to have.

With regards to your site, why the name ideacog?

Ideacog is in some ways a remnant of the past - I registered it in the year 2000 while thinking of a good name for a general purpose web development business. But primarily it's been the home of many, many projects over the years - some small web experiments, some larger-scale activist or art projects. And so in that way the name still fits - I've always liked the image that in any kind of machine there's a cog whose job it is to industriously churn out ideas.

What's the appeal of poetry for you?

When I started the literary journal Gumball Poetry in 1999 I was reading a ton of poetry - at one point I thought that poetry had saved my life (specifically Jim Harrison's "Letters to Yesenin" which I see was recently re-released by Copper Canyon Press!). I found it discouraging that most of my friends didn't avidly read poetry - it seemed to be an art that they thought of as a sort of punishment one endured in high school. And so I wanted to create a distribution format that would make poetry appear in a surprising place - to take it out of its element and make it read again. GBP was a great project and I think we succeeded in a lot of ways. But as with most projects, there comes a time where you want to move on.

What do you consider a good poem?

I love to be surprised. But, as with fiction, a lot of good poetry you just feel in your gut. You don't even know how it really works. You're reading along and suddenly, wham! A line has twisted in a way not thought possible or a situation was set up that opens you to the core.

What were some of the challenges in running Gumball Poetry?

I found the slush pile to be a challenge. We would read thousands of poems for each issue - it's hard work, and it's hard work deciding what you like best, and it's even harder agreeing with the other editors on the best work. Without fail we'd winnow the pile down to 20 poems, get them all set, and then someone would find some absolute gem in the slush pile - sometimes a poem that we'd already rejected! I remember calling up a poet to tell her to ignore the rejection letter we'd sent, we were taking her poem after all. This may have been a problem with our organizational abilities, of which mine are certainly not legend, but it's also hard to read successive poems while keeping a clean palate for each.

Another problem, as with most literary journals, is how it is supported. We derived enough income from GBP to pay the printing costs - but certainly not for our time, interns, marketing, etc. To fold and stuff the poems into the capsules (along with a piece of gum!) we'd throw massive stuffing parties, paying in food and drink. We never positioned it as a way to make money - but in the end, money needs to be made to survive, and from your remaining time you choose the art you want to pursue the most. In our case, we (my wife and I) decided to head back to our own writing.

There's a lot of creative projects on your site. Do you find yourself sticking to only one project at a time or is it a multi-tasking mash-up?

I work best when I do only a single project at a time - or perhaps one big and one small. What happens in my brain when I'm not explicitly working on a project is very important - and with too many projects the brain gets distracted. Most of my ideas come when I'm out taking a walk or just before sleep or when I'm commuting. And with these, I know my brain has been quietly working on it while my conscious mind has been elsewhere. When I wrote Couch - I wrote five hours a day, every day, for 5-6 months straight.

How much time do you usually spend on the Internet? How has it contributed to your creative expression?

Ack! I've been disrobed! I spend copious amounts of time on the Internet. I'm a web developer, for one. I read a ton of blogs - Google Reader says I subscribe to 216 feeds, which I manage regularly (trimming and adding). This has helped my creative processes - I never imagined it possible to feel so utterly in touch with the rest of the world, with the zeitgeist. And yet... and yet I think really serious work is only done when you shut the world off completely, allow yourself to deeply explore the parts of your mind you're afraid to explore. I enjoy multi-tasking - I find it a kind of high - and yet I don't believe it's good for me. When I wrote Couch I was in a small apartment in Ecuador with no Internet access, and it was a tremendous boon to productivity.

In your opinion, how has the Internet changed or affected the publishing industry?

Hmm - this might be a better question for my publisher, though it's been great fun reading a book, and then finding that author's blog (in some cases) and current posts. For example - Matt Ruff has an incredibly minimalist blog, but I like keeping tabs on him all the same.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Work doggedly. If it feels like it's not working then it probably isn't - trash it and start on something that feels good to write. In my first book I wrote all the parts I was excited about writing first and kept a tally of the parts I thought I needed for the book but dreaded writing - when I came back to the parts I dreaded I realized 1) If they weren't fun to write, they turned out flat 2) I didn't need them after all.

Anything else you want to plug?

It looks like my next big project will be another Operation Peachblow (the 6th) - a sort of caper/treasure hunt/alternate reality game put on by the Black Magic Insurance Agency. It happens in Portland, OR around May 2009. blackmagicinsurance.com And I blog at secret.ideacog.net

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