A Groping for Connection: Michael T. Fournier Interviews Tobias Carroll
Tobias Carroll is a force of nature. In addition to editing Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Tobias writes article after article about both well-established writers and new and emerging favorites – seriously, something he wrote is probably in your feed right now. And on top of all this, he’s celebrating the release of not one but two new books: the short story collection Transitory (Civil Coping Mechanisms, August) and the novel Reel (Rare Bird, October). I conducted this interview with him via email over the course of a few days in early September. Dig it!
I used to read the odd copy of your old fanzine Eventide that come through Boston in the 90s. It struck me as Having It -- tons of bands I liked, and a review section stocked with all the best new records. How did the zine start -- what gave you the idea that you could pull off such an endeavor?
You're going with the deep cuts first! Excellent. I started doing Eventide in 1996, mostly because I enjoyed reading zines and liked the idea of doing something of my own. My models for it were Trustkill, Rumpshaker, and Anti-Matter, and I opted for a similar blend of interviews, columns, and reviews. Sometimes that got out of hand–I laid out the first issue in Microsoft Word because I didn't know any better, and it took me a few issues before I really got the hang of how to do a proper interview. I've been posting some of the interviews I did for the zine online, albeit very slowly, but I suspect that nothing from the first two issues will show up there.
There was something very refreshing about just....doing this and seeing where it led. And I think that literally doing it myself (for the first issue, at least) emboldened me to try other things–I don't think I'd have started writing fiction seriously when I did if I hadn't started doing a zine several years earlier. And the chain of events by which I had my first connection to a nascent literary scene came through people I met via my zine, albeit through a very convoluted series of events.
I'm also incredibly grateful for all the people I've met through it. One example is Duncan Barlow, who I interviewed for the first issue about his band Guilt. We've stayed in touch, and our paths periodically cross at both musical and literary events. He's contributed some writing to Vol.1 Brooklyn, and he and I have been talking about trying to do some readings together when his novel comes out next year.
Had you done any sort of writing before Eventide, or were the titles you mentioned the catalyst?
Nothing formal. I think I'd written some bad fantasy and science fiction when in middle and high school. A friend and I kind of put together the first issue of a zine -- again, kind of, I think we Xeroxed a total of ten copies, the title was a bad joke, and my first name was misspelled in the final version -- when we were 17 or 18. (Possibly 17 and 18, as I was a year older.) So I had some small experience in doing reviews, etc. But I ended up having a lot of questions for friends as it came time to put Eventide together. Though not enough questions to keep me from laying out the entire first issue using Microsoft Word.
We met in 2012. Since then -- when you and your writing entered my feeds -- I've noticed your output has ratcheted from occasional to ridiculous. Seriously, you're writing for a ton of different places at this ridiculous pace. I know from snooping the internet that you've been freelancing full-time for a little while, which sounds like a great idea but can be utterly terrifying: when did you make the transition? How did you decide it was doable?
I started freelancing full-time in the late summer of 2014. I probably should have made the change a year earlier–long story short, in 2013, I left the job I'd had for the past six years and moved to something new, and it turned out to be very different from what I was expecting. I'd kicked around the idea of freelancing full-time before, but that really (as the saying goes) lit a fire under me and basically forced my hand–I was really unhappy in the situation and regretted the decision I made, and there was a sense of "well, even if I'm not making any money, it's preferable to this."
In addition to freelancing, you run Vol. 1 Brooklyn. How do you find the time to pay rent, create art, and run the page? What's a typical day like for you? Is there such a thing?
I don't really know that there is a typical day for me. Mostly, I'm trying to balance freelancing, my own creative work, and work for Vol.1 Brooklyn, which can be something of a juggling act. As I type this, I'm also in the middle of teaching a two-week course for LitReactor, so that's also in the mix right now.
It's tough. I don't always get as much done as I'd like, and generally my creative work ends up being what loses out in terms of the timing. Some of that's just been weirdness around this particular week, though. I think I was very productive with some work in progress -- revisiting a novel, working on a new essay -- last week. So it's tricky.
There's also the larger juggling act of occasionally venturing outside and interacting socially with other people. Sometimes that can be going to coffee shops and bars; sometimes that's meeting people to see live music; sometimes that's watching soccer. I think it's probably no coincidence that my fondness for soccer has increased even more since I started freelancing--leaving the apartment to watch New York Red Bulls or Tottenham Hotspur games gives me a reason to be out with people regularly, which is very good for my mental health.
Vol. 1 Brooklyn is a great read because of its inclusivity: everything revolves around a common core, but you feature tons of writers who don't get a lot of time and space elsewhere alongside some more well-known authors. How do you strike the balance?
From its earliest days, I think Vol.1 Brooklyn has had a good sense of covering a lot of different work. Jason Diamond established that template early on, and so it's been very easy to use that as a kind of guideline going forward for my own contributions to the site as a writer and editor. For me, I find myself thinking back to my days of doing Eventide–a lot of the bands that I would interview were those who I might not have seen interviewed elsewhere. About seven years ago, before I was involved with Vol.1, I did a series of interviews on my blog with different writers, largely because I was curious about certain things and figured that the medium of a formal interview wouldn't be a bad way to find these things out and then share them with others who might have also been wondering. While I do think I've changed a lot since the mid-90s–and even since 2009–that curiosity seems to be here to stay.
Am I correct in assuming that Transitory is a collection of the shorter stuff you'd been working on since your pre-freelance days? I remember it's a contest winner. What was that process like? Are you the kind of writer who enters lots of contests?
To be honest, I don't enter a ton of contests. I have entered a few in the past, partially because, as a writer without an agent, it's been one way to get a manuscript looked at.
As for the stories in Transitory, they cover a lot of years–the oldest was written in 2006, and the most recent was finished in late 2015. The collection doesn't contain everything that I wrote during that time, and if I'm lucky enough to have a second collection come out, there will be a few other stories that were written around the same time included in there. In terms of getting this collection together, Civil Coping Mechanisms announced an installment of their Mainline open reading period in early 2015. My friend Sean Doyle, whose book was released on CCM last summer, encouraged me to submit something; both he and my friend Michele Filgate had suggested a short story collection, and so I sat down one night, looked through what I had, and figured out a group of those stories that seemed to fit together well thematically. "Yannick's Swiss Army" and "The Independence Shipping Company" were added later, after a discussion with Civil Coping Mechanisms publisher Michael J. Seidlinger, as was the section in the back where I discussed the origins of the stories.
Your new book -- your second in the past few months! -- is titled "Reel". I assumed – incorrectly – this was a Jawbox reference. What's the actual origin of the title?
It comes from a couple of different places. The original working title of the book, ages upon ages ago, was "Broke-Ass Words," which never quite seemed to fit the book. I liked Reel because of the multiple implications of the title. There's a cinematic quality to it; there's also a literal aspect to it, as one of the main characters does a fair share of stumbling around the streets of Seattle. In the fall of 2010, when I was pretty deeply into working on the novel, I saw the writer Joyce Hinnefeld read at WORD in Brooklyn; a passage from the book she was reading reminded me that "reel" can also refer to a dance, and that really clicked with me–that the movement of the Timon sections and the Marianne sections of the novel weave in and out of one another's way.
Somewhere in there, I was also reminded of the Halo Benders song "Virginia Reel Around the Fountain," which–in the way that Doug Marsch and Calvin Johnson each sing verses that have almost nothing to do with one another–also kind of parallels the structure of the book. (Also, it's an incredible song.) That said, some of the lyrics to the Jawbox song of the same name line up with the themes of the book in a pretty eerie fashion, so I'm a little bummed that I can't claim that as an influence.
Your punk/zine background was obvious to me in your characterization of Timon, who's a character whose work as an authenticator involves scrutiny. When I was first getting into punk, I spent a lot of time trying to connect dots which sometimes weren't entirely there by poring over thanks lists in records and trying to track down bands and zines that were so endorsed by artists I liked. It's not the same, exactly, but it was an element that made a lot of sense for the character.
I can definitely relate to the connecting of dots. I'm an only child, so (unlike a lot of my friends) I didn't have an older sibling to point me in the direction of interesting bands when I was younger. So I'd definitely say that my discovery of punk/indie rock/college rock was very haphazard. A friend of the family who lived in Washington, DC, pointed me in the direction of some good bands in a letter when I was 14 -- Operation Ivy and the Pixies and Fugazi. But I think I also got lucky in that I was just going to high school when Nirvana happened, which meant that virtually every piece on them contained references to other great bands that either came out of the same scene or were cited as influences by them. And, yeah, I would totally get catalogs from different labels and would order stuff based on the descriptions, which is how I came to own, say, The Monkeywrench's first album. And The Walkabouts' Scavenger. An early version of the first chapter of Reel was published on Vol.1 Brooklyn under the title "Revolution Come and Gone," which was a nod to an obscure Sub Pop compilation that I ordered somewhere along the way.
The verification thing also ties in with a weird bitterness that comes from the time in college when I tried to take an art history class. The short version is that there had, apparently, been a pre-requisite for it that hadn't been noted the previous semester, and the professor teaching it told everyone who hadn't taken that to leave so as not to, some variation of, waste his time and ours. (And so two-thirds of the class left.) So I think whenever art shows up in something I've written, there's a weird, "No, fuck you!" aspect to it based on one really minor thing that happened to me when I was 20 or 21. Which is a little ridiculous, but it's gotten me this far.
It wasn't a conscious thing, but when I think about it, Reel is in some ways an inverted take on some of the same themes as the story "Twenty Minutes' Road" that's in Transitory. Both involve a young man from the east coast who moves to the Northwest, is fixated on art in some way, and ends up being damaged by it as a result. Both have a lot of different things going on as well, but I think it's safe to say that some of the same concerns are there.
A common thread in "Reel" and in the short stories in "Transitory" is right there in the name -- a groping for connection. Characters try to connect but miss each other in varied ways. Has this theme been a common one in your work, or is it a recent development?
Reel is very much about the lack of connection -- both in terms of how the stories of Timon and Marianne weave around one another and in the section where Marianne and Elias go on their road trip. To an extent, the lack of connection that shows up is one aspect of a larger theme that I try to wrangle with, which is whether certain characters are, in their own way, emotionally fucked and incapable of progressing past a certain point. (I also think that some of the way connection works in Reel has to do with the manner in which it was plotted and written, which is a whole other story.)
There's a Rick Moody novella called "The Carnival Tradition" that was hugely influential on me in terms of dealing with the ways its characters did and did not connect. That said, I don't necessarily think I could, or would want to, deal with trying to sustain that kind of....absence over the course of a longer-form work again. Reel, to my mind, involves a lot of things not happening, which I think is great for one book, but might get old after a while.
Michael T. Fournier wrote about the Minutemen's "Double Nickels on the Dime" for the 33 1/3 series. He's the author of two novels --Hidden Wheel and Swing State -- published by Three Rooms Press, and has written for the Oxford American, Pennsylvania English, Vice and Razorcake. He lives on Cape Cod with his wife Rebecca and their cat. More at michaeltfournier.org and @xfournierx.