by Lee Widener
Today we have a real treat! We're talking with one of the founding members of the Bizarro Fiction movement, Eraserhead Press publisher, Rose O'Keefe. Settle in for the duration, readers, this is a fascinating story!
LW: Rose, for this interview I'd like to go WAY back. When did you first come to love books?
RO: I can't remember a time I didn't love books! Even before I could read them, I enjoyed their look, smell and taste. My parents cultivated that love by providing me with access to lots of books and taking me to the library often. My love of fiction started with Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl, Maurice Sendak, Rudyard Kipling, Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Lewis Carroll, Madeleine L'Engle, Shel Silverstein, Ursula K. Le Guin, Frances Hodgson Burnett, E.B. White and C.S. Lewis to name a few authors and also from reading world mythology and fairy tales, which I was obsessed with. I was definitely a bookworm as a kid and would often skip meals to keep reading a book.
LW: How about the love of weird and strange literature? Did that go hand in hand with a general appreciation of the odd and unusual, or was it perhaps the other way around, or something else entirely?
RO: I was born in the late 70s to parents who practiced Transcendental Meditation and were vegetarian, which was very much fringe culture at the time. So, from a very early age I was exposed to a lot of concepts and ideas that most people considered weird or strange. It was my native landscape. So yes, I believe that my appreciation for that aspect in literature comes out of that general perspective. I'm open minded about things. I think what is unique and weird about things is what makes them interesting. It's what gives me something to love about them.
LW: So, you're reading this weird stuff. How, in a nutshell, did that coalesce into something called Bizarro?
RO: Not only did I read weird stuff, but I also listened to weird music, watched weird movies, went to weird art shows and hung out with weird people. I met Carlton Mellick III through this mutual love of weirdness. He introduced me to the world of small press publishing and to a group of writers he had assembled who were all writing this kind of fiction. I fell in love with what they were doing, got involved in book publishing and assumed ownership of Eraserhead Press. I then became friends with other like-minded people in the industry who were interested in publishing these bizarre, surreal, strange stories such as Raw Dog Screaming Press and Afterbirth Books. The kind of fiction we all published shared that common thread of weirdness - the thing that made them interesting. We knew other people like us were out there who love weird stuff and needed a way to easily explain that to people, so we started calling it Bizarro. It was a short and simple way to describe it to others.
LW: And what was your role, initially, in this fledgling movement?
RO: I advocated for people to use the term and started building a community to support it. I described the books we published as Bizarro Fiction and the writers we worked with as writers of Bizarro. I printed "File under Bizarro Fiction" on the backs of our books and encouraged other publishers to do so as well. I created a mail order catalog in the back of the books I published advertising Bizarro books from all the publishers I knew who were printing it. I got the word out about the existence of this category in whatever ways I could. I created the first Bizarro message board and created a central hub for things related to the genre called BizarroCentral.com. I encouraged Bizarro authors to gather at conventions and created events and meetings to bring them together. I created a group for Bizarro writers, publishers, artists, and editors called the BWA and hosted monthly gatherings in my local area. I created BizarroCon, a convention specifically devoted to the Bizarro Fiction. I gave lectures, speeches, sat on panels and taught classes about Bizarro Fiction. Many of these things, I still do.
LW: I've heard the beginnings of Eraserhead Press described as a real DIY, underground punk experience, of books being printed on borrowed or stolen equipment. Can you recall one specific, defining moment that made you decide "I'm going to become a publisher?"
RO: What you say about our humble beginning is true. The company was founded by Carlton Mellick III in 1999 and started as a chapbook and online publisher. I met Carlton in 2000 around the time that he had formed the Eraserhead Press Collective and had decided to print paperback books using a new technology called print-on-demand. The collective was composed of six authors (Carlton Mellick III, Kevin L. Donihe, D. Harlan Wilson, Vincent Sakowski, Hertzan Chimera, and M.F. Korn. - LW). The idea behind it was that each author would play a role in the editing, production and marketing of each of the six books and they would share the profits, with the author of the book receiving a 50% share and the remaining 50% divided equally between the other 5 people. I became interested in what they were doing and I discovered that, while the collective was an interesting idea, it wasn't something that everyone desired equally and therefore ultimately was not a success. I saw the opportunity to take responsibility for the business side of things, become an actual publisher, and let them get back to focusing on the stuff they did best, writing.
LW: Just from my own, personal dealings with you, Rose, it's obvious you are driven to affect positive change in everything: your own life, the lives of people around you, and the world in general. Where did this spirit come from? Is being an entrepreneur a natural outgrowth of your personality, and had you tried any business ventures prior to Eraserhead Press?
RO: Thank you, Lee. That is a lovely compliment. My parents and grandparents were entrepreneurs. They taught me that if you want something to exist in the world, you create it. I want to create the most beautiful and interesting life that I can, which means engaging in something bigger than myself and making a positive impact on other people. The thing that has made the most impact on my life is the books that I have read. I want to share that experience with other people. I'm also an outspoken advocate for self expression and work to create safe spaces for people to express themselves and feel appreciated. I got involved with Eraserhead Press when I was 25, and it was my first official business venture. But getting people excited for something, gathering them together and making it happen is something that has come naturally to me my whole life.
LW: In a world where publishers, especially niche publishers, come and go at a moment's notice, to what do you attribute Eraserhead Press's success and growth?
RO: Persistence. Failure is not an option. Eraserhead Press exists in the service of art and human connection. We develop real and lasting relationships with the editors and authors that we work with and the readers of our work. They are the whole point. Eraserhead Press and all of its imprints exist because of the authors and the readers.
LW: Let's move on to the New Bizarro Author Series. What led to the creation of the NBAS?
RO: At the time we created the NBAS, we had already established a reputation for introducing readers to authors they fell in love with. And when you're crushing on an author's work it's like an addiction, once you're hooked, you get itchy for your next fix. So, much of our production schedule was focused on new books from authors we had already worked with, in order to keep their readers sated. We created the New Bizarro Author Series in order to provide an introduction for new unknown writers.
LW: Has it been worth it?
RO: Yes. The New Bizarro Author Series is entering its 8th year of annual releases and has acquired a following of its own. Readers look forward to the newest "batch" each year. The writers are embraced by the community and given support and encouragement for their work. It's become almost a rite of passage in some senses.
LW: What have you, as a publisher, learned from the NBAS?
RO: The importance of a support network for new writers. Most writers starting out have a difficult time connecting to people who understand their particular set of challenges as new writers. By assembling a group of them each year, they bond with each other and navigate through it together. It makes the experience a lot easier and a lot more fun. Not only that, but everyone who has been in their shoes before, the NBAS authors from previous years, are willing to offer their insight and support, expanding that network each time.
LW: Any favorite memories from NBAS history you'd like to share?
RO: From this series, some of the strongest voices in Bizarro Fiction have emerged over the years and gone on to publish more books and make an impact on the genre such as Patrick Wensink, Kirsten Alene, David Barbee, G. Arthur Brown, Justin Grimbol, Eric Hendrixson, Vince Kramer, Spike Marlowe, Kevin Shamel, and Michael Allen Rose to name a few. I am extremely proud of all of the authors in the series and am grateful to them for trusting us to help them make their debut to the bizarro audience. It's always a special time each year when the new books are born. There's nothing better than the look on an author's face when they see their book for the first time.
LW: What's in store for the future of the NBAS?
RO: This Fall, we have four new releases selected by our editors Kevin L. Donihe and Garrett Cook. The authors that you can look forward to are: R.A. Roth, Sean Thompson, John Wayne Comunale, and Nicholas Patnaude. We are thrilled to welcome them to the series and will be announcing their books in early October.
LW: For a writer looking at breaking into Bizarro, what advice can you give them, in regards to the NBAS?
RO: Your unique voice is important! Read Bizarro Fiction and write the book that only you can write. We are looking for people with their own distinct flavor of weirdness and we're willing to take risks. Don't wait for us to ask you to do it, send your books to our editors. They will be waiting.
Rose O'Keefe with just a few of the people she has inspired: