Monday, December 7, 2015

Where Are They Now? Interview with Michael Allen Rose

by Karl Fischer

Michael Allen Rose has been something of a mentor to me ever since meeting him five years ago. We've had many online conversations and I can always count on him to lend a sympathetic ear or talk shop when questions inevitably arise about this weird and wonderful world. One time, while I was visiting him in Chicago, Michael didn't even bat an eyelash when I asked to poop in his toilet (having arrived only five minutes ago for a party). If that's not hospitality, I don't know what the word means.

Michael is playful, empathetic, and affable, but he wears multiple hats, not all of them lighthearted. In addition to his writing, he is a triple threat performer, having worked in comedy, theater, and music. He sings in an industrial band, Flood Damage, and contributes to Dirge Magazine. He is the author of Boiled Americans and Declension, but it all began with Party Wolves in My Skull.

So, Michael, what's it like having such a fantastic beard and warm personality?

It's pretty great! Thanks for asking! My beard is silky and easily pet, but I always warn people that if they're not careful, they can get lost in it. My personality being warm helps the beard grow, as beards do best when planted in warm, moist personalities. It's a symbiotic relationship.

It's time for my favorite history question. What brought you to bizarro fiction and/or Eraserhead Press?

I had been out of school for a couple of years after finishing my MFA and was working a job that I had begun to hate here in Chicago. I hadn't done anything creative or new in far too long at that point, and during that lull often found myself thinking that I'd blown my creative load. Maybe all I had left in me was working a day job for the rest of my life and wishing I'd been more persistent, more talented, more connected, something. To shake off the ennui, I decided to give NaNoWriMo a shot. It actually ended up being a form of therapy, as I'd spend my lunch hour and occasionally slow work days picking away at a comic novel titled "The O And I." To my surprise, I finished it, but I had no idea what to do with it. I'd had some success as a playwright, but of course the submission process is very different in writing for the stage, where you're looking more toward production than publication. I'm a crazy avid reader, so I started thinking about small press publishers I knew of, and looking them up online.

Just a few years before I'd accidentally tripped over bizarro. The old Bradley Sands edited magazine "Bust Down The Door and Eat All The Chickens," popped up on my radar in graduate school, as I was a big fan of absurdist lit. Then, I found Carlton Mellick's "Satan Burger" through my love for Danielwzski's "House of Leaves," and Chris Genoa's "Foop!" through Christopher Moore's "Lamb," thanks to the Amazon recommendation engine, and thought maybe these Eraserhead folks would appreciate my thing, whatever that was. At the time, the Eraserhead website had this strange survey on it, so I filled it out, sent it off, and kind of forgot about it.

A mysterious survey, huh? And how did you get into the NBAS?

Several months later, out of nowhere, I got an email from Rose O'Keefe, saying although they didn't think The O And I was neccessarily the kind of thing they published, I did sound like the kind of person they like to work with. She suggested I come out to Portland OR for the annual Bizarro con, which at that time was getting ready for its 2nd year. I took the gamble and it changed my life. I met so many amazing people, from editors and publishers to authors and artists, and of course the energy there re-charged my creative battery. Not only did I figure out through them that there were any number of venues for my writing style, but also I took Carlton's workshop on high concept bizarro and ended up in a class with people like Jeff Burk, Kevin L. Donihe and Garrett Cook who made suggestions and gave me some encouragment on a little pitch I'd come up with. That pitch ended up being published as the book "Party Wolves In My Skull" a scant two years later.

How were the writing and editing processes for Party Wolves in my Skull?

I have always been better at writing short stories and fragments, so I actually ended up sort of taking an episodic approach to writing the novel, looking at the smaller arcs in the story as complete pieces and stitching them together in ways that made sense. John Skipp once told me, when I'd asked him about how to overcome my difficulty with longer work, that then I should make that weakness a strength and if I write episodes best, then write episodically. Donihe, who was my editor on Party Wolves, was also very helpful in helping trim the fat and shape the overall arc of the book. Again, coming from the theatre world, I'm used to collaboration, and I like to think I'm pretty easy to work with, so that helped the process overall remain very smooth and positive.

Tell me about the year you spent promoting the novella. Peaks and valleys. What do you know now that you wish you could have known then?

It was very helpful, coming from a performance and music background. I was able to utilize a lot of the tools of self-promotion I've discovered over the years in other forms of media to help build my brand as a writer. I also learned a lot that year through trial and error. One of the best things I discovered was that being personal in your communications and being transparent is extremely helpful. Nobody wants a sales pitch. They want connection. They want to know that you're looking at them as a potential fan of your brand, not an open wallet. I reached out to lots of people personally, told them about the book, about what it meant to me, listed various ways to support my art, and tried to cross promote with other mediums such as touring rock bands and sideshow acts, burlesque performances, spoken word and poetry communities, etc. I truly believe that nice guys don't have to finish last. Being kind is a strength, and if you treat people with respect and love, they'll want to work with you more. That leads to more cool art. Who doesn't want more cool art in the world? Just jerks.

Was the MFA worth it?

Sticking around in academia did a few things for me, besides just allowing me to avoid the real world for a few more years. For one thing, it forced me to write a lot, which is always an obstacle for me. People, editors, publishers, teachers, whatever... waiting on things from me work a lot better than any self-imposed deadline that I can blow off. I hate disappointing others. I'm used to disappointing myself. So yeah, it gave me regularity and ended up pushing me to put out a lot of content. It helped a little bit with networking too, I suppose, but that was when I was concentrating mostly on my theatre work and writing for the stage, which although still holds some interest for me, is only one of many arenas I've been playing in these past few years. I guess the bottom line is, you have to want to be there, in graduate school. Otherwise, if you're there because you don't have a better plan, or think it will make your career somehow, you're going to fail, drop out, and get a job refining dryer lint into tiny statuettes for tourists somewhere near an arts district or something. Was it worth it? Hm. Have you seen my lint sculptures?

Quit shilling for Big Bohemia, Rose. Tell me more about your cross promotional stuff, like performing with bands and burlesque shows. Were you able to reach new readers through these disparate channels? Did the performances have to be thematically linked in some way?

Being a multi-threat artist in this community has been nothing but a boon. Watch how multi-threat I can be: Hey, Karl, I'm going to pull off your nose AND I'm going to misfile your taxes AND I'm going to tell a platypus that you don't like his bill, and they have venomous claws, so there.
As a musician, performer, author, occasional burlesque guy or model or living prop or designer or yeller at pigeons, there are a lot of plates to spin at once, but when you pay attention to your overall aesthetic and what your personal vision is, you learn how to get people interested in your output as an artist, as opposed to one piece of art you've created. Carlton Mellick III, Jeff Burk and Rose O' Keefe at Eraserhead talk a lot about this, and I spread their gospel whenever possible. You want people to become fans of your particular brand - we all have one - and when they do, they're going to check out everything you do. In that sense, you're not selling people a book, you're selling them you, and if they like what they see, they buy your stuff, follow you around, make up showtunes about you, and more. Having toes in multiple worlds has opened many doors for me, from doing readings to open for rock bands to selling my music to people who are drawing me when I model, and many other combinations.

With all this talk of community and cross-promotion, it almost sounds like you don't believe people can just anonymously submit the next great American novel and earn a career off being inherently better than everyone else.

I think that's possible. It's possible in the same way that it's "possible" for someone to get discovered by the Disney channel as a precocious pre-teen and be shuttled to super-stardom by a trillion dollar company until the inevitable nervous breakdown where you're suddenly known for walking down the street with your pants around your ankles wrestling an invisible leprechaun. It's easy to forget that those "it could happen to you" stories are one in a million. Kind of like people who play the lottery who don't know anything about statistics. So sure, you could be discovered through sheer talent and luck alone, and have some magical unicorn angel kitten rainbow person float down on a cloud of cotton candy sex and bestow upon you advances and signing bonuses and cars and houses and weiners and boobs, or whatever you're into. But the likelihood of that is infinitely small. I'm going to bank on being cool to people, and doing as we did in grade school, making friends and learning shit and not being a dick-a-saurus. It works. It's a long game, but you like yourself at the end of the day. And having friends who do amazing things is pretty awesome too.

The Meritocracy Police won't be pleased when they hear about this. Looking back, how would you say the NBAS has affected your career?

The NBAS opened many doors for me, some of which I didn't even realize existed. It's allowed me not only to establish a career as a published author but helped to cement connections with other publishers, record labels, bands and musicians, performance artists, dancers and all sorts of other awesome people I now work with in my various projects. It's a challenge, but in a great way as it is designed to show EHP and the bizarro community how much an author cares about what they're doing, how innovative they can be with their promotions and marketing, how involved they can be in the community and as a citizen of the writing world, and of course what they're like to work with. The text of the book itself shows talent and ideas and skill, but there is so much more to being a creative than that. If nobody knows you exist and you give them no reason to care, then you may as well stay home and wear a little hat that says "author" on it, and read your stuff to your goldfish. Nobody owes you anything, including respect. You earn it by being repeatedly awesome.

Would you say that you are living your bliss?

Sometimes I'm afraid I'm living someone else's bliss, but probably. Let me know if you meet anyone who's missing some bliss.

Well, I mean, I could always use extra.

Your bliss is in the mail.

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