What William Gillespie Knows: Keyhole Factory
Novelist and publisher William Gillespie weighs in on indie publishing, experimental fiction, why he didn't go the adjunct route, and together, we develop some new slang.
William Gillespie has published 9 and 5/6ths books of fiction and poetry under six different names. He has hosted a number of eccentric radio shows, most recently Rock Geek F.M. with his wife Cristy. He runs the independent publishing house Spineless Books. Prominent collaborations include 2002: A Palindrome Story in 2002 Words, with Nick Montfort and illustrations by Shelley Jackson; and The Unknown, with Scott Rettberg and Dirk Stratton, a book and hypertext novel (co-winner of the trAce/Alt-X International Hypertext Competition, as judged by Robert Coover). He holds an MFA in electronic writing from Brown University and works for the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Illinois. He is having a baby in 21 days.
His new novel, Keyhole Factory, is one of the most inventive and absorbing books I've read in the last year. Through a web of voices it tells the story of the simultaneous death and rebirth of the world. I was pleased to have a chance to quiz him on it and some other things we're both interestedd in.
-- John Warner
John Warner: This is not the first time that Keyhole Factory is being published. Explain.
William Gillespie: I started writing it in 2000. I finished a draft in 2005, and began to collect rejection letters from agents and publishers. Around 2009, I read somewhere that one of the ways we destroy our own esteem is by not following through on a project we love—and realized I’d finished a book and left it for dead in a filing cabinet. So I had friends proofread it and published a run of hardbacks through my press Spineless Books. I was encouraged by the fact that people who didn’t owe me any favors, and who were not English grads, read the whole thing and liked it. The book attracted some interest, notably from Davis Schneiderman, was taught in a class, reviewed, and was listed in the Nobbie Awards right between Patti Smith’s and Keith Richards’s books (that’s worth some cred, right?).
Then Gary Heidt contacted me because he’d quoted me in an essay. I noticed that he was a literary agent who’d represented Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional World, and I asked if he’d like to see my novel. He took it on, collected some rejection letters—some of which soared with praise before the penultimate “but”—until Jack Shoemaker, the man behind the gorgeous North Point Press who’d recently obtained Soft Skull Press, decided to take a cautious gamble. And thus decades of often discouraging work were followed by a stroke of luck.
JW: With Spineless Books you were in the indie press publishing business before the indie press publishing business was cool. I’m curious how you see the evolution of the phenomenon as digital tools make it easier than ever to “publish” books.
WG: I can give you the emails of six people willing to hold forth ad nauseum about the digital revolution in literature, so I’ll pare my response down to one thought.
For me, at first (1998), print-on-demand and electronic publishing offered an exciting degree of control. If I fixed a typo, or made a revision, I could immediately update the website or change the text in the next small print run. I didn’t have to insert an erratum slip into a thousand offset books. I had a living text that could change over time. Soft publishing.
But now (2012), when a book’s published through Amazon or LightningSource or Lulu (and I don’t know how many entry points there are), the electronic book seems to go into a worldwide network of outlets—appearing as ebooks, POD titles, online Google books, Espresso Book Machine products—and shows up for sale by dozens of unknown and iffy vendors on Amazon, B&N, and even Ebay. There’s no way for me as publisher or author to track this, to ensure I’m being paid my nickel on the dollar, to know the book hasn’t been pirated by an employee in the network, to check that the cover color is correct, or to know that when I fix a typo in the book and re-upload it to the POD company, that this proper spelling is then disseminated to all endpoints.
That promise of control is lost. If one’s goal is pure exposure, this network is bliss. But if you have a stake in overseeing production quality or tracking revenue, the digital revolution may have passed you by, and your best bet is going back to the old model: a print run that sits in your basement while you wait for the next person to mail you a check.
JW: The party line is that the digital tools are setting we writers free, free from the constraints of traditional publishing, free to capture more than our “nickel on the dollar.” Are you a skeptic, or a cynic?
WG: I'm with the party. Commercial and academic publishers won't support the range of our country's literary activity, even our best poetry. Desktop publishing, the internet, digital short-run printing -- these tools allow literature to flourish.
JW: If memory serves, you did some graduate studying of writing, but you didn’t then follow the traditional route of looking for a teaching job, or attaching yourself to the creative writing academy. And yet, you work in academia.
WG: I have three degrees in creative writing -- fiction and electronic (with some political playwriting, theory, and poetry coursework). I finished an MFA at Brown and applied for 200 jobs, resulting in two phone interviews, one MLA interview, and a borderline nervous breakdown.
JW: I can relate.
WG: Having had a taste of working as an adjunct with low pay (which I can accept) and no job security (which I can’t, primarily because it shows that the institution isn’t interested in giving its students experienced teachers), I rethought this trampled path. I thought, if there are so many people competing for these teaching jobs, then the universities must not be under pressure to make the positions worthwhile. And I also thought, becoming or trying to become a professor seems to rule out any future career change inasmuch as it leaves one over-educated (with an implication of arrogance and inability to function in a team) but bereft of marketable skills (except perhaps working a photocopier). So now I enjoy a university library and a university gym, spend 8–5 M–F having biologists correct my graphic design, and pursue literature in a vacuum. I hope my bosses don’t read this. You aren’t putting this online, are you?
JW: As far as you know, it’s just you and me talking over email and everything we say is just between us and the government agency that snoops all electronic communications.
I’m wondering if your relationship to academia, working with scientists, has had an influence on your writing.
WG: I love biology, but, sorry to say, some days working for scientists I learn more about narcissism than about science. Still, it’s nice to be in a branch of the academy that has sequenced the genome and might someday cure cancer, thrombosis, or failed embryo implantation. That stuff is easier for me to get behind than the Victorian novel, and gives me more to write about.
JW: If someone asked me to describe Keyhole Factory, I would say it is “crazy ass.” (And I mean that as a compliment.) You play with perspective, with layout and design, with illustration. The narrative is told in fragments that piece together a portrait that’s plenty unsettling, but not without some glimmers of hope. How do you see the book?
WG: I would hyphenate “crazy-ass.” Otherwise it means you're saying my book is ass. David Foster Wallace tried to teach compound adjectives to me but got discouraged due to my then-unresolved relationship with hyphens.
JW: Maybe we could turn “ass” into the new slang for something good. Rather than saying something is “the bomb” (which we probably don’t actually say anymore), we can start saying that good things are “ass,” as in, “that chocolate cupcake I had today was totally ass.”
WG: There are methods to the madness, but “play” is a fun description of what I did. Regarding glimmers, I see it as a hopeful story, in that the sudden near-total extinction of mankind offers hope for survival of the ecosystem. My book is ambivalent whether it’s about a virus that kills humans, or about humans as a virus killing the earth.
JW: Sometimes I wonder if all writing, at least all compelling writing isn’t just a form of play, of first entertaining oneself in an effort to entertain an audience. Is that the same as being an “experimental” writer? Are you an “experimental” writer? Does “experimental” writing even exist? If it doesn’t exist, what do you call writing that seems “experimental?”
WG: To return to my work with scientists, let’s talk about “experiment.” In a scientific experiment, you follow a meticulous procedure and observe the result. You must be able to describe the procedure, and every precaution must be taken to ensure its purity. You attempt the experiment multiple times, perhaps changing parameters, and achieve reproducible results.
In experimental art, I say, you likewise follow a meticulous procedure, but the results are, one hopes, irreproducible. Ernest Vincent Wright’s novel without the letter E Gadsby is different from Georges Perec’s La Disparition (which is different from Adair’s A Void).
They key here is that the experimental writer can, and will, explain what she did. For the author to claim that Harry Mathews’s Cigarettes or Christian Bök’s String Variables is written using undisclosed or “proprietary” techniques disqualifies the work as experimental by this definition.
Because, I say, as in science, the purpose of your literary and artistic experiments is to add to a body of collective knowledge, not to promote the scientist as some inscrutable genius who did some secret things with test tubes full of vowels and consonants and made a bunch of acrid smoke or an inert colorless poem similar to mud.
An experiment in art demands rigor—it’s not just getting drunk and banging your head against the keyboard.
JW: What your 5 favorite “experimental” novels?
WG: Here are six experimental (by my definition) novels I think have outstanding literary value, but I am reverse-engineering the experiment.
Denis Johnson, Jesus’s Son: Write a collection of short stories in which the reader can neither prove nor disprove that the protagonists are all the same person. Extra credit if a reader unfamiliar with the book cannot figure out a thing about the author, even whether they are male (“Dennis”) or female (“Denise”).
Thomas Bernhard, Extinction: Write a novel in two halves, each one paragraph, in which the first half is all interior monologue with no action, and the second half is action, like a toy being wound way too tight and then let go. Extra credit for Nazi anxiety.
Julio Cortazar, Hopscotch: Write a novel in which the chapters can be read in two different, explicitly stated orders, such that the ending is radically different each way. Extra credit if the writing is heartbreakingly lovely.
David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress: Write a novel in short, digressive paragraphs, that manages to avoid asking or answering the story’s silently screaming central questions. Extra credit if the book is infuriatingly unreadable the first time, and deliciously seductive by the third.
F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby. Write a novel in which the first-person narrator is the central character in the story, whose point of view the entire story is told from, but who somehow manages not to be the protagonist. Extra credit if this narrator, who writes beautifully, has no interest in writing.
Cormac McCarthy. Suttree. Write a difficult book that William Gillespie nevertheless reads five times, and cries each time from an emotion he can’t name.
Thank you John. It's been ass.
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