Thursday, April 7, 2016

Where Are They Now? Interview With Kevin Shamel

by Lee Widener

 This is a real treat. Today I'm talking with author Kevin Shamel. Kevin was part of the first New Bizarro Author Series crew, and also went on to become editor of the series, so we'll gain some insight into how the series began, and how it evolved in the first few years.

LW: Hi Kevin- To start off, how in the world did you find out about Bizarro fiction, and get involved with it? And how did you hook up with Eraserhead Press?

KS: I found bizarro in 2009 when I kept having stories rejected by traditional publishers for being “too weird”, unless they asked me to butcher them into something more palatable for the mainstream. I got tired of making my protagonists and their worlds normal, or fit into the accepted tropes for horror, science fiction, or urban fantasy. I looked online one day for “weird fiction magazines”, as I was of the assumption that writing short stories was the way into the publishing world (something the very approachable, friendly, and longtime hero of mine Christopher Moore set me straight on about the same time I found EHP, actually). I found Eraserhead’s website, read some Carlton Mellick III and knew these were my people.

I actually submitted the last survey they had on their site to determine if a writer was of like-mind and someone they might want to get to know. It was the last one because EHP was going through some changes right when I found them—they’d just come up with the idea for the NBAS, and started the first Bizarro Bunker. Then all sorts of weird “coincidences” happened.

Rose O’Keefe contacted me soon after and told me that one of their writers lived in the same city (Olympia, Washington) as me— Cameron Pierce. She suggested that I meet him. However, by the time we connected (just a day or two later), Cameron told me he was moving to Portland—like right then. BUT, he told me that he had a friend who lived in one of the black houses (it’s an Olympia thing) who was hosting a reading for him and a few other authors. Turned out that house was at the end of my block. You can read about it from Jeff Burk:


 In fact, if you read that blog post, keeping in mind that I was the photographer and this was the FIRST time I’d ever met these people, you’ll know exactly why I had to work with them. I had no idea how lucky I was to 1-. See the second Meat Magick (and every other one after that!) 2- Witness Jeff’s Shatnerquake performance, and 3- See CARLTON FREAKIN’ MELLICK III perform in a room with only five or ten audience members—that’s something not a lot of people can say. Hell, the moment they piled out of their car with handfuls of burritos before the reading I knew this was my crew. By the time they’d finished dinner, I’d walked home and got my martini-fixins so we could really get to know each other. THEN they performed. I’d never seen anything like it, and I knew it was exactly my style. Also, I laughed until I hurt.
And that was that. I’d submitted writing samples and links to some of my published stuff and we knew we liked each other. Soon Rose sent me an email introducing me to my editor for their new idea, the New Bizarro Author Series, and we got to work.

LW:  That's quite a story! Who was that editor, and what was it like working with him/her?

KS: Kevin Donihe was my editor. It was weird and good to work with him. I had about 20,000 words written on a book and a couple others I’d started, which he’d read and liked, but about twenty-thousand words was about as big as he wanted an NBAS book to be. So I pitched him some ideas until we had one that we both liked and I went to work on it. Took about a week for the first draft, and then Kevin showed me how to expand the good parts. He’s got a tremendous grasp of language, and knew how to turn what I had into an actual book. It was great, really, all around. But such a new experience for me, and definitely enlightening. Carlton was in charge of the NBAS at that time, and I learned a lot from him about craft and later promotion. I remember the first NBAS series as a team effort from all the staff of Eraserhead Press, really. In that year, I learned more about publishing than I had in the ten that it took me to get to where I was.

LW: Tell us about your NBAS book, and what kind of interesting things you did to promote it.

KS: Rotten Little Animals was inspired by a cat fight in a rainstorm that my 12-year-old neighbor Audrey and I watched from my upstairs hall window. She called my attention to two cats doing some sort of Kung Fu across the street. I shit you not, one cat followed the other that leapt over a picket fence, when a wind-gust slammed him straight through the boards. The freakin’ cat didn’t miss a beat and continued fighting the other in the yard when a huge torrent of rain let-loose. The cats were illuminated in the yard as street lights popped on in response to the sudden darkening of the sky. They just kept going at each other. It was amazing. More amazing was Audrey’s observation. During the fight, a meat truck drove around the block three times. We were standing there, watching this insane thing happen and she said, “That meat truck is ruining the shot.” Immediately I had the idea for an animal film crew at work on a cat fight scene when that stupid meat truck ruined the shot by circling the block over and over—and that scene became the opening of the book.

I promoted the hell out of it. The Rotten Little Puppet Show was born after I spent 52 hours with the help of friends and family creating elaborate sock puppets for the characters in the story. During performances, I’d yell out the craziest scene from the book, making the audience be the puppeteers. Zombie-cat puppets were the favorites.
I took car-magnet stock-signs from an online printing company and turned them into free ads for me which I put all over the internet. I ran giveaway contests, had people make their own zombie-cat puppets, worked on gathering reviews and generally trying to figure out Amazon algorithms (which ended up catching the attention of German publisher Voodoo Press, who have since added quite a few American Bizarro books to their list, but who made my book the first NBAS book to be translated and published in another country which didn’t hurt promotion one bit), played on Goodreads, had a funny animal blog and did stuff on Facebook before it was stuff you can’t do on Facebook or you won’t have friends for long—but it was new, then. I worked my ass off on that book, because I had to sell 200 copies in a year (and that’s a lot harder than one would think). I managed to sell over 250. At that time, the prize was a contract with Eraserhead Press.

LW:  Did you work on any promotional projects with the other NBAS authors that year?

KS:  The first year of the NBAS is very different from the rest. We were totally pioneering stuff—trying things out to see if they worked. And we weren’t as close as subsequent years became. It wasn’t really something we did much, and none of us lived near each other. We tried a few things, but nothing that stands out as a real, working, group promotional effort. Most of us genuinely loved each other’s books, and we cross-promoted as much as we could. Of course, we all kind of considered each other competition, too. We weren’t just competing, but we didn’t know yet what a little family (and therefore FORCE) we could become if we threw-in together more than we did. Happily, the experience welded a bond between David Barbee and I that nothin’s gonna break. I saw that happen a lot in subsequent years between authors of the same series.

LW: How did you go from having an NBAS book to becoming the editor for the series?

KS: Well… Let’s just say some changes happened and I was looking to move to Portland. I had worked very closely with the EHP crew for a couple of years, spending a lot of time at conventions with them and doing performances. I’d done Bizarro Bootcamp, which I won’t really get into explaining other than to say that in the time I was with the crew, I learned how they worked up-close and fell in love with their style and ethics. If I had to work for someone, they were who I wanted to work for. Luckily, they’d hoped I’d ask.

Rose and Carlton took me on to learn editing and layout as well as begin the Bizarro Brigade. I spent a lot of time sitting between Rose and Jeff Burk editing manuscripts and learning from them how to work all the software involved in publishing. Once they thought I had a good grasp, I went to work as an editor for the series, along with Donihe, and was placed in charge of the NBAS authors—answering questions, cheerleading, teaching about promotional stuff, helping them organize things, keeping them up to date with sales figures, all the stuff that I’d been through in their shoes.

I was able to scout new talent and help those authors complete their first books—several times from concept to completion. It was a very fulfilling job. I’m happy to have played a part in so many writers starting out their careers. And heaps of them are doing amazing things today.

LW: You mentioned scouting authors and helping them get them in print. Who are some of the authors that came to your attention that you're glad you gave a shot?

KS: My list of "found 'ems" includes Vince Kramer, Gabino Iglesias, Constance Ann Fitzgerald, Shane Cartledge, Tiffany Scandal, Dan Vlasaty... I believe there are more. There are certainly other people I've published that had already been published in other venues (like Justin Grimbol, Tamara Romero, and Spike Marlowe), and really, Gabino was already writing quality articles for Eraserhead Press dot Com and was an established reviewer/professional freakin' journalist, so it's not like no one else thought he'd make a great bizarro author. I just approached him is all. In some cases I pursued these authors, other cases encouraged them to write books. I'm just happy to have given ALL my writers exposure, however much help I have been.

LW: You worked with Kevin Donihe as co-editors. Was that ever confusing- Kevin and Kevin?

KS: Kevin and I were referred to among staff and authors as, Donihe and Shamel. Sometimes The Kevins. Never Kevin Squared, and that would have been cool. Damnit.

LW: What did you learn from working as an editor for so many different writers?

KS: I learned how to be a better writer, that’s for certain. I learned how satisfying it is to see something in someone’s story that they haven’t yet, and to help them make it blossom. I thought I’d already learned the value of being succinct, but seeing its opposite reflected in others’ writing made me pay more attention to using fewer words—I was also a sort of acquisitions editor, receiving at least one query a day (usually more), many with attached novellas, I saw countless examples of not-great writing. I learned to write in different styles as well, however, having such a wide variety of authors and to appreciate the uniqueness in every writer’s voice. One of my favorite things was editing a scene or paragraph and matching the changes with the rest of the story—almost putting myself into the writer at the time he or she wrote it. Or just steering them toward the outcome that made the story even better than I could have thought. I learned that I have a lot of favorite authors. I think also, I learned how to be an editor. It’s not a job or working relationship, it’s a friendship. You have to really cherish the authors you take on. You have to respect each other, and work well together. I love all the people I worked with. ALL OF YOU!!!!

LW: From your experience as an editor what can you tell someone interested in writing Bizarro, about what NOT to do?

KS: Don’t jump in thinking you know what bizarro is without learning what makes the genre a genre. This is really the only solid, lasting advice I can give. But here’s some that might still apply: Don’t tell an editor that you’ve just written the first/best/only/greatest story about __________. Don’t get an editor’s name wrong—no Ms. or Mr. unless you know for certain, no Kalvin Dondalhees, Gareth Kochs or Dudes (especially to female editors and unless you’ve talked to that editor before or shared a joint in the least). No talking dicks. I know that last one is a joke by now, but it’s not a fucking joke. NO TALKING DICKS. Don’t assume that because your book has messed-up sex, a bunch of explosions and is as politically incorrect as possible, that it’s something for bizarro editors to slobber over. No vampires either, unless they’re better than Dargoth Van Gloomfang, which they can never be. (I’m actually not the one who can say so now, maybe vampires are fine with current editors, but not talking dicks, I know this will never be okay.) But if you don’t know the vampire I just referred to, your chances of getting bizarro right just got slimmer.

Misogyny is unacceptable in bizarro. Actually, any sort of limiting of people as individuals is. If you’re not making fun of it, calling it out as the horrible fucking thing that it is in the world, and saying how much it makes you want to puke, try somewhere else. Bizarro is an open movement—all-inclusive, unlimited, everyone-friendly. We don’t like people treating people (or animals) badly. Don’t try and sell stories about talking dicks, and don’t BE a talking dick—that’s some pretty standard, long-lasting advice.

LW: And what SHOULD they do?

KS: They should read bizarro. They should read it from its beginning to its current incarnation. They should know who the big authors are, and why they are the big authors. They should attend performances, readings, workshops and conventions with bizarros. They should meet the people they want to work with, if at all possible—which is at least possible through social media. They should know who they want to write for and why. They should become acquainted with the various presses, and what they publish. They should be aware of the press’s history, their standing in the publishing industry, their policies. They should read what people say about them as well as what they publish. Research and understand the market. Be polite.

And then submit a great book, idea, pitch, or story to an editor. Make it the best you can before you send it. Make it bizarro: Weird characters in weird worlds with weird problems or whatever story device with which you’re working—just keep it weird. Remember that short story collections aren’t that attractive as a first book, for readers or editors. Remember also that for every twenty brilliant ideas that no one has ever thought of before, only one or two will actually be original enough to pass as original, and they might not be anything an editor wants to spend time on. Just keep trying until you hit the right one.

Keep writing.

LW: What's been going on since you stopped editing for the NBAS? I know your life has been through some pretty major changes.

KS: That was three years ago now. I’ve been splitting time between the US and Australia—lately mostly Australia (where I live with my lovely Australian wife, Anna). I’m working on getting a visa that allows me to work here and come and go as I want, so I can split more equal time between the two places and see my kids more. It’s proven a bit of a task, but we’re working on it. I’ve been keeping busy with four stepkids, our new dog, battling in-laws, mourning dead spiders, spending time outside, working the now-harvested garden, getting this latest book of mine all prettied-up, and all the weird projects I’m working on. I’ve been producing things, but I’m not yet able to sell them anywhere, so I’m saving up my new lines of products for when I can hit craft fairs, launch websites, etc. I’m making zombie cat sock puppets. I’ve been playing fashion re-designer and have a line of hand-sewn clothing I’m calling, Punked Up Clothes. I taught myself lost-wax casting a couple of years ago, and I’ve been making fine silver jewelry using stones that were my dad’s or that I’ve found. And of course, I’m writing. Always writing.
LW: You have a new book coming out soon. Tell us about it.

KS: I’m very excited for this one. It’s called, Not Safe For Kids, coming out this month! It’s an illustrated children’s book for adults. It’s full of bad advice, wrong facts, and confirmation of childhood fears. I tell people it’s like if you left  your kids with your drunken brother who lives in your mom’s basement who you had to use as a babysitter in an extreme emergency when not a single soul, even that guy you sometimes see sitting by the dumpster talking to himself, could watch your precious little ones and he told them “the fuggin’ TROOF, more or less, damnit, are you gonna pay me for this or what, only two outta three are cryin’ or hurt”. Or as my son said, when he was eight, and I read it to him aloud, “Can you imagine if actual kids got a hold of it?”

LW: Your book's cover and interior art are by Jim Agpalsa. Tell us about working with Jim. What was your process like? Did you just give him the manuscript after it was completed, or was it more of an organic process?

KS: This book is by both of us.

I awoke at 4AM one day and starting writing. By 10:00 I had the text. I went out and had a smoke, and imagined the first little entry illustrated. I went back inside and emailed it to Jim, asking if he’d be interested in drawing it, and then if maybe he’d consider working with me on a whole book like it. He said he liked the idea. The next day he told me that he’d read the story to his young daughter and she asked if it was true. He said, “Yes.” I knew that we’d make a great team. (I already knew that, anyway. Jim’s illustrated some shit for me that hasn’t been published yet. He’s a great artist, and anyone is lucky to have him on their creative team. He’s also a really good person, and super cool.)

I sent him what I’d written and he turned it into GOLD. Seriously, without Jim’s illustrations, this would not be a book. With them, it’s magickally wicked. I think he and I make a fabulous team. He took my mean little entries and translated them into gorgeous illustrations. The cover is a colorized version of one of the interior illustrations that Jim reworked a bit. This is a truly beautiful book, and I’m seriously proud to have a hand in it.

I was allowed to go crazy with the interior design and layout of this book, and I had an amazing time pushing myself into new things with the coaxing of my publisher and final editor on this project, Rose O’Keefe (who also designed the cover). I hope people like it.

At any rate, this couldn’t have happened without Jim’s amazing art and us being in synch with each other. I’m hoping we can bring similar things into being in the future. Jim is a good friend, and a great pleasure to work with. Also, one hell of a fantastic artist—check him out all over the Bizarro world.

LW: This has been a blast, Kevin! Anything else you'd like to add?

KS: I’d like to thank you for thinking of me for this interview series, and for asking such great questions. I hope I didn’t go overboard in my answers. Best of luck to you, Lee, in your future publishing life. And to all of the NBAS authors. I know how tough it is. I also know you can do it.



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