Sunday, November 1, 2015

Where Are They Now? Interview with Patrick Wensink

by Karl Fischer

One evening at The Lovecraft (Portland's premier horror-themed bar and venue) Patrick Wensink gave a reading from his latest release, Broken Piano for President, a political satire of drunkenness, corporate espionage, and fast food. He read through the first chapter and I had to know what happened next, so I bought a copy that night. Sometime later, a cease and desist letter was issued by the Jack Daniels company because the book's cover looked just like one of their labels. The letter was posted online as "the world's nicest cease and desist letter ever" and the whole thing went viral. Patrick's book became a bestseller and now he's training ostriches to perform in an all-ostrich rendition of Oklahoma! Or something.

Patrick is a cool guy and he writes funny, scathing, ridiculous things. In addition to the bestseller, he's the author of Fake Fruit FactoryBlack Hole Blues, and Everything Was Great Until it Sucked. And to think it all began with a lurid short story collection entitled Sex Dungeons for Sale.

KF: Your bestseller attracted attention from many different readers, including folks who seem pretty scathing of small presses, satire, and even the very concept of going viral. Are these just the sour grapes of people on the cultural sidelines?

PW: The internet is powered by sour grapes. If anything good ever happens to anyone, there's always going to be people who want to tear it down. It's the nature of this weird world we live in. I purposely never, EVER read comment sections on places where I wrote an article or was reviewed/interviewed. If someone directly emails me I will happily field their criticism, but the gang mentality of comment boards is poison. Don't fall for it! That's why I never post anything about my family online, there's probably someone out there who would say "Oh, big deal, your kid turned four? I turned four once and my birthday cake tasted better."

KF: What are you saying, Patrick, that my birthday cake wasn't any good? But moving on, how did you come to bizarro fiction and/or Eraserhead Press in the first place?

PW: I lived in Portland for about five years in the early/mid 2000s and I had heard about Eraserhead Press, but didn't have any material to show them at that time. A few years later, I was living in Louisville, KY and I finally reached out to them, ironically.

KF: And how did you get into the NBAS?

PW: I didn't know anyone at Eraserhead when I approached them. I simply did research and queried like I had done hundreds of times before. I had went through this process literally with hundreds of agents and presses who all said no. My work was usually too weird to be mainstream, but too mainstream for weird, artsy, avant garde presses. Eraserhead was a perfect blend of those two. I had sent Eraserhead an early draft of BROKEN PIANO FOR PRESIDENT at that point. Rose (I think it was Rose who wrote me back. I don't totally remember) said that book was interesting, but they wanted something shorter from first-time authors. Then she told me about the NBAS and put me in touch with Kevin Donihe, who was the NBAS editor at the time. I didn't have a 100 page book like they were wanting, so I slapped together a collection of short stories, called it SEX DUNGEON FOR SALE! and Kevin said he would publish it. I owe a lot to that walrus-loving weirdo.

KF: Love for Kevin Donihe is a common phenomenon. How were the writing and editing processes for that collection?

PW: The writing and editing were pretty painless from what I remember. Luckily, I had been a journalist for many years prior and had also written some pretty green novels, so I feel like I had a decently strong voice in place by then. Kevin had great suggestions on cleaning stories up, fleshing them out, etc. What I always loved was that his edits were suggestions that I could take or leave. After having done this for a few more years now and working with other editors, I would say that's always the mark of a good one. You can lead a writer to water, but you can't make them drink. Great editors make wonderful suggestions, but never force them upon the writer. Kevin did just that and the book turned out pretty decent, if I do say so myself.

KF: Tell me about the year you spent promoting the book. Any highlights? What do you wish you could have known ahead of time?

PW: The year I spent promoting my NBAS book has really directed the way I handle my entire career. It was a boot camp on how the book industry works and how freakin' difficult it is. I just read your excellent interview with David Barbee and I love his suggestion of working together. But David is the brilliant optimist that I can never be! Working together is great, but I learned that you also must bust your own ass and be your own advocate because while social media is comforting and nice, nobody is going to help you but you at the end of the day. By that, I mean that I learned that simply having a book did not entitle me to sales, or good readings, or reviews. I learned quickly that I am one of a bazillion other people with a book under my belt, so I had to work hard to turn that book into a cultural sore thumb that would stick out, even a little.

That meant cultivating relationships. I would say that is the most important part of the experience for me. Luckily, like I said, I had a journalism and public relations background, so I knew a little about how this world works. Nobody pays attention to you by simply saying "I wrote this and I think it's good". I learned that it is important to seek out people who review books or buy books and make genuine connections with them on a human level. It is long and laborious work, but it's the kind of grassroots stuff that builds a fan base and a foundation for the rest of your career.

I don't remember any of the highs from that year, honestly. I remember all the lows and have learned from them. I remember driving 3.5 hours to a coffee shop reading in Nashville and finding out they closed early without telling me. I remember saying, "Screw it," and doing a guerrilla reading on the sidewalk in front of the shop and selling more books than the previous time I had read there, actually. I remember all the mistakes and the heartbreak, because I learned not to make those mistakes and be tougher in the future. The NBAS program gave me that chance to learn and I still use those skills today.

KF: I'm exhausted just hearing about it. Looking back, how would you say the NBAS has affected your career?

PW: Okay, I just spent a bunch of space being Mr. Pessimistic, so I'll take this opportunity to let out my inner-David Barbee and be optimistic! My NBAS experience is 100% of the reason I have any career right now. Like I said, nobody wanted to take a chance on me before that. All the failures were good, because it made me stronger and helped me better understand the book business, but having someone put their faith in you, like Eraserhead did, was priceless. That confidence that says, "Yes, I am doing something right that someone cares about," is like a crawling across the Sahara on your stomach for days and finally finding a glass of lemonade.

True story: the first email I ever got where someone told me they loved the book was from Cameron Pierce, who was also just starting his career. I met him at that year's Bizarro Con and we hit it off. The next year, when my NBAS boot camp was over and Eraserhead graciously offered me a book contract, Cameron said he was starting Lazy Fascist Press and would I like to put out books with him? Cameron has been my biggest supporter pretty much my entire career and it wouldn't have happened without NBAS. I have put out three books on Lazy Fascist, including BROKEN PIANO FOR PRESIDENT, which was an Amazon bestseller and got featured in Forbes Magazine, New York Times, the New Yorker and NPR's Weekend Edition.

The skills I learned about promotion and hard work during my NBAS tenure carried over into my post-NBAS career because writing and publishing never gets easier. Even after all that surprising success I still have to fight for myself. I have a book agent now and even have a children's book coming out through HarperCollins in 2017, but I still bust my ass the same as I did when SEX DUNGEON FOR SALE came out.

If you know your punk rock history, I often compare book publishing to Henry Rollins' epic memoir GET IN THE VAN. Black Flag worked its way up the indie ladder to be the most important band in the country and still they had to sleep in a cold van and eat dog food when they ran out of money. That's because when you make art you have to fight hardest for yourself, because even when people love what you do, you have to put in insane hours and sweat to move ahead. My NBAS time was a lot like Rollins' GET IN THE VAN. I ate a lot of figurative dog food to keep making my art and getting the word out about it.

I am grateful to Eraserhead for putting out my first book, but I am most grateful that they expected me to work my ass off to get it in front of people. They are like a tough but fair parent! Publishing is really freaking heartbreaking. But rewarding if you stick with it.

KF: All this talk of hard work leads me to an important topic: burnout. It's a common problem in the arts and, a la your coffee shop story, not every opportunity is actually an opportunity. How do you temper working hard with working smart?

PW: I avoid burning out by juggling projects. I work passionately and hard on a book/article until it hurts to look at it again and then I put it in a drawer for a while and work on something fresh until that becomes painful, then I go back to the old work and see it with fresh eyes and start the process over again.

Always write something you are proud of. Don't try to write something to meet an audience or make someone else happy. Any time I have done that I have been embarrassed. Working hard on something you are proud of is the best definition of working smart in my book. That being said, don't be a jerk who won't take advice from editors. Just take the advice you think will make your work stronger.

KF: As an unconventional publishing model did you think the NBAS would reach it's seventh year and counting?

PW: Yes! I didn't consciously think about it back in year one, but it does not shock me. Just like everything Eraserhead does, NBAS is a very pragmatic publishing idea. There is a reason other indie presses go under all the time and Eraserhead goes forward. Rose is a passionate publisher, of course, but she has the business smarts to help Eraserhead, NBAS and all the other imprints remain self-sufficient.

KF: Any specific pieces of advice you'd want to pass along to the newest of the New Bizarro Authors?

PW: I will keep with my theme of being a killjoy today! This is my favorite piece of advice to give writers: "Congratulations, you just climbed this huge mountain. What a victory! But, oh damn, now you can see there's a bigger mountain behind that one." Meaning: You are always climbing uphill. Savor any victory you get, but don't stop moving because there's always more to do.

KF: Are you at least living your bliss, Patrick?

PW: I think you can gauge from my grouchy answers that I'm not a bliss-living kind of guy. Ha! I am very pleased with the way my writing career has progressed since my first book came out through the NBAS, but I have this constant fear that the bottom will fall out at any moment, so that keeps me motivated to keep working hard, the same as when SEX DUNGEON was freshly minted. I try to never lose that sense of hunger.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, this was a joy to read. Keeps me feel froggy about the future. Ina good way.