A Talk with Joe Meno

Jonathan Casper is too busy searching for a prehistoric squid to realize his wife is falling out of love with him. Madeline Casper studies the pecking order of pigeons at the University of Chicago and has fallen in love with a man she sees in the clouds. Their eldest child, Amelia, wants to be a revolutionary. Their youngest, Thisbe, searches for God, and Grandpa Henry wants to disappear. If he eats a little less each day, if he speaks one word fewer, if he erases enough memories by writing them down and mailing them away, eventually he will be gone from the world. The Great Perhaps reveals the tense, insular worlds created when families split apart.

The Great Perhaps is Joe Meno’s seventh book. He is a novelist, playwright, music journalist and professor at Columbia College Chicago. Recently, MPPL sat down with Mr. Meno and talked about how libraries intersect with his writing process, the future of the book and his newest endeavor, The Great Perhaps.

MPPL: Do libraries ever play a role in your writing process?

Joe Meno: All throughout undergrad and grad school I almost always got the novels, short story collections and any books that were assigned, at libraries. So I spent tons of time at the Columbia library and I spent a lot of time at the Harold Washington.

I also really like the idea of an actual physical place that is dedicated to books, in the way that I really like the idea of a record store where you can get lost. It kind of makes me a little nervous at the preponderance of music sites and the disappearance of record stores and book stores. Libraries themselves are going to be going more digital and there is less of an opportunity to walk down an aisle and see a title or see a book cover that captures your attention. I can’t tell you how many times I just kind of stumbled on a book. I think it is a very different experience, you know?

There is also something about solitude that I think is very important and I think it is almost the complete opposite of the experience of living in a city. There aren’t too many places of solitude. The idea of spending a couple of minutes imagining by yourself seems really important. So a library is kind of like a temple or a church or an art museum and I feel like those places, as technology increases, become infinitely more important. Almost like an antidote.

MPPL: The Great Perhaps is on the Kindle. What is your stance on gadgets like the Kindle or Sony Reader? Will there always be room in the world for the printed word?

Joe Meno: When the Kindle first came out I was really upset about it. Again because I grew up with records and going to record stores and all that changed so quickly. The disappearance of record stores, it happened within years, literally within three years these places disappeared. And I spent all my teenage years and my early twenties going to record stores and now those places are just gone. Yeah it is definitely more convenient to go online, but then again there is this thing that you are alone and that’s the thing about record stores and libraries, there are other people around you and I’m not saying that you have to have these long conversations, but I feel like there are these places and we are missing out on these opportunities for these moments of surprise and interaction with other people and for the sake of convenience. So I’m not worried. I think people have an innate desire, whether they like it or not, to be around other people. Libraries fill that need, especially with the current economy. Those Kindles are three hundred bucks. I don’t know anyone who has that kind of spare money to shell out. That doesn’t even cover the cost of the title you are downloading. Then there are some people, editors and people I’ve talked to, and maybe they have an environmental concern, you know? They are able to read a book without having to create the book and gasoline to distribute the book and I think that realistically in probably thirty, forty years that the book itself, the actually hardbound book will be a lot more like vinyl records, where…

MPPL: It’s collectible?

Joe Meno: Well not just collectible, not like old jazz records, but records where small labels are now putting something out on vinyl and inside the sleeve there is a download code and then you can download the whole thing to your iPod for free. So if you want the actual object, you can have it. Then it is convenient because you also have it on your iPod.

When the Kindle was released, there were a lot of people and they were ringing their hands that this is the end of the book and I just think it is maybe a moment for reinvention. There is no reason why you can’t have both and some people are going to prefer to read on their Kindle and a lot of people are not going to be able to afford it and they just like the tactile experience of actually holding a book.

The other thing, when you talk about the library as a place, to me a book is. It’s like this really interesting thing. It is this place that you take with you and there is nothing else really like it. It is like a portable world and I just don’t get that same feeling from the Kindle. It is not to disparage those things. It is just that it is different. It’s like the difference between an mp3 and actual vinyl record. So it is like this affordable art object. I take everything from the look of the book and the illustrations, really seriously, because that is how I feel. They are these pieces of art.

MPPL: It always seems like you attempt to make affordable art. For the longest while you attempted to keep your books in paperback rather than hardcover. Has your stance on that changed?

Joe Meno: Well, you know, I have had the great opportunity to work with a lot of different publishers over the course of seven books and certain publishers have certain preferences and a lot of it has a lot to do with libraries. A lot of libraries have a preference for hardcover books over softcover.

There is also this really arcane review system in place where reviewers are more likely to review books if they come in hardcover first. And it’s funny because it is true. I have seen it over and over again with my books. The Great Perhaps got a New York Times Editor’s Choice notice and that’s the first time I’ve had that. I think that the book is really good and everything, but people for whatever reason, have this archaic notion that because it is hardcover it is more legitimate and that is a totally ridiculous idea. So, I love people to be able to afford my books. It makes me honestly really, really nervous to have a book come out in the middle of a recession that is twenty-five dollars and I had a long discussion with my editor at Norton about it. It was ultimately their decision to go ahead with that, but you know in some ways it is the form. Books are so much a part of history and the way you transfer information that sometimes it kind of steps on its own toe or prevents its own development because of these connections it has. I just have a hard time understanding the point of hardcover anymore. Before you could say they last longer if you have hardcover books in a library, but there are tons of paperback books in libraries now and if you were really that concerned about a book withstanding the test of time you could scan it now.

MPPL: Then we get back into a changed experience via reading from a computer instead of a physical object.

Joe Meno: Well you can scan it and print on demand. Hardcover is this weird holdover…like the appendix, you know? It doesn’t really have a function. It is beautiful. The reason we did The Great Perhaps in hardcover was to be an affordable art object, a keepsake. It’s engraved with a cloud on the cover and it is not just this disposable form, but then at the same time it is less affordable than a softcover, but more of an experience. Hardcovers are often times beautiful, but I have complicated feelings about them. I think, again, it is one of those things that with technology in progress you are probably going to see less and less hardcover books, especially with the economy.

MPPL: In general, libraries seem to be ordering more in paperback than they ever have before. Paperbacks used to be secondary copies, if anything, but now with so many small presses and independent workings going on libraries are now giving paperback first editions a chance. Accessibility is key whether that be for paperback or hardcover. Hardcovers will have a hard time disappearing.

Joe Meno: Then at the same time when you are twenty-two and working at a part time job and you want to buy a book, twenty-five bucks is a lot. That is a huge investment especially for something that is a commitment. You don’t know if it is going to be good. Like I said, I have mixed feelings. I think the older I get the more hardcovers I buy. I have a little more money. I love them. I love having them in my house, but to me the goal of a writer is to get as many people in contact with your work as possible and sometimes hardcover is an obstacle to that.

MPPL: Did you know that you keep appearing everywhere?

Joe Meno: Really?

MPPL: A runner-up for the Story Prize against Tobias Wolff and Jhumpa Lahiri. Your nonfiction was in the New York Times Book Review. Most recently a sixteen year old girl came in looking for The Great Perhaps because she had loved Hairstyles of the Damned and The Boy Detective Fails.

Joe Meno: That’s the best. One of my favorite quotes is F. Scott Fitzgerald and he says that you should write for the youth of today, the critics of tomorrow and then the teachers of the generation after that. And I really think that’s true. It really means a lot to hear that you can get someone who has all these other choices and they have all this other stuff going on in their life and they pick up one of your books.

MPPL: Would you discuss why your writing usually has a fantastical or unusual element whether in story or format?

Joe Meno: I try really hard to make each book its own thing. The difference with this book, The Great Perhaps, is that it is very realistic. It is set in a specific time, a couple of weeks in October, with family members who are some of the most complicated characters I’ve ever written and the problems that they have in the family, and the questions of family and what they’re struggling with in their own lives are very realistic. But there are these strange things that happen and the father has this kind of absurd work and there are other things that happen through the book and, to me, it wasn’t a stylistic choice of ‘Oh let’s have something strange happen’ it was, well I actually tried to sit down and write a realistic depiction of the few weeks before the 2004 presidential election. I was trying really hard and the more I wrote the more I thought that there was no way for me to capture what was going on in those weeks without resorting to some kind of surreal or absurd turn of events. That moment, even looking back now, five years later, it seemed like this whole other time in ways, but to be fair, to get to the complexity of what was going on in those weeks, I had to bring in those elements, but I would never want to get to the point where I thought I had to do those things.

I am really happy with the short story collection Demons in the Spring because half of them are surreal or absurdist and the other half are very, very autobiographical or realistic. The writers that I admire, most are not one to limit themselves to one particular style, so to me it is like a challenge that is really, really frustrating because every time you start a book you have to invent a whole new language and the weird things that happened in The Great Perhaps, those surreal moments, they were very, very different than in The Boy Detective Fails which is way more cartoony. Even the language and the forms that you use. What makes it really interesting is that you are kind of starting from scratch every single time and then it actually gets harder because you are like, ‘Well I already did that thing,’ I already did things with the text and making different shapes on the page and I’m not going to go back and do that again or I did a book of very short chapters and so now I’m going to go do a book of longer chapters and the more books you write the less you have to explore so you don’t repeat yourself. So it actually forces you to be way more aware and sharper and that’s great. I feel like the kinds of constraints that you put on yourself as any kind of artist usually have great results. You take that form and use it to create something new and interesting. It is difficult. Every time you start a new book, in the way that I work, you have to invent the form from scratch and make something fit. But that’s what I love and I would hate to get to a point where I think I have run out of ideas or I have gone back to this one thing over and over again because it “works” like writing a sequel or writing something that has the same exact feel as something from before and because some people really, really love one book and hate the next one. There are some people that love Hairstyles and they are really devoted to it and thoughtful about it at readings, but they will be very honest about saying ‘I didn’t like The Boy Detective book.’ And it is really interesting. There are people who get really attached to one book and the next book is not going to be like that one and each time you start over, but it is also with a new audience.

I think there is a group of people who like that idea that ‘This guy is gonna give me something a little bit different every time.’ There are certain things: ideas, approaches, questions and even certain images that I seem to go back to again and again. Stylistically and structurally they are different, but there is definitely a core group of people who like that reinvention and there are other people who, my gosh, I just feel so lucky to have anybody like one book, let alone two. You know? I mean yesterday I got on the train and I saw this person reading Hairstyles of the Damned and what an amazing feeling…somebody is reading my book and if that’s the only book of mine that he reads and likes that’s fine. I would be totally content.

MPPL: Are there any bookstores that have been a key part in your development as a writer?

Joe Meno: Quimby’s. Quimby’s has been so incredibly supportive and has done so many events and I’ve worked so closely with those guys and it feels like home. The more I travel and the more bookstores I visit…It’s really nice because it is almost like in every town there is a bookstore that is similar to Quimby’s, but not quite. That place is its own unique world. You know? That’s how willing they are to work with writers and showcase their work. They are incredibly supportive. And it is an experience, going into that store. You really can’t keep your eyes focused on any one thing. I go to readings there all the time and I’m listening, but a lot of the times your eye is moving from one book to the next and then there’s like this weird Japanese erotica and then amazing art books and then comic books and novels and it is like walking into someone’s imagination which is nice and interesting.

MPPL: Earlier on you mentioned working with five publishers over the course of seven books. What are the criteria you use for the publishers you work with?

Joe Meno: I think the more I publish the more narrow and developed my criteria have become. I sold my first book when I was twenty-two to St. Martins and I was just happy, overjoyed, that someone was going to put my book out. I had no criteria. The only criteria was… ’Are they gonna let me put my name on the cover?’ Even money. Nothing. I didn’t even care about getting paid. Well I did, but that was all secondary. I had worked on this book and just to see it come out in print I felt completely blessed and grateful and I was so young I didn’t know any better. I completely didn’t know anything about publishing. We have these amazing classes at Columbia now, but in the early 90s, I really wasn’t informed. I was happy that somebody put my book out and that’s pretty much all they did. There was no publicity, which was fine.

Then with the next book, again I was still pretty young and didn’t have a real firm grasp on how the industry worked and it was with a bigger publisher, Harper Collins, and the money was better and there was a publicist that was assigned to me and I was like ‘This is amazing.’ It took me a long time to figure out that as a writer I am most happy when I am involved in the entire process and not only writing the book. My argument is that artists need to be involved in the entire process and these great things happen when the publisher allows or invites the writer to have conversations about the cover or about marketing and touring and things like that and so the industry has built opposition. Most corporate publishers really don’t want you involved in any of those decisions. And now after working with Akashic and Norton they’re very similar. They are both independent. Norton is the oldest independent in the country. They have a very similar ethic with keeping the writer involved in the process. So that’s really a deal breaker to me. Am I going to be able to make decisions about the cover, about touring, about publicity and things like that?

MPPL: Whether you are writing about young adults or complex stories about war, there is always a little bit of beautiful heartache in your books. Why?

Joe Meno: I don’t know. It’s really odd. It’s not consciously that this person is going to be sad and this one’s going to be funny. I guess it is just how I experience life and it’s what I find in the books that I love. Faulkner or Toni Morrison or Barthelme. Their writing, there is an element of tragedy but at the same time there is black humor that offsets it. It is just like the music that I love. It doesn’t rely on one particular tone or one particular mood and it moves in-between. Like Faulkner, he is my favorite writer because he does that so well. He moves from these terrible tragedies to moments of grotesque humor and you laugh in spite of yourself and that is really important to me in this book. The whole book is complexity and why we need complexity and history and politics and I needed to and wanted to write a book with complexity in it. The complexity of the characters emotionally and the mood. It is also more than enough to read four hundred pages of sadness and heartbreak. There have to be moments that offset these tragedies and challenges that these characters go through.

MPPL: Or else you end up like Cormac McCarthy. Very good, but very dark.

Joe Meno: The Road is a complete masterpiece, but some of his other work, his earlier works, are so grim that they are really not enjoyable. I mean I can appreciate the writing and the language and what he is doing, but they are not enjoyable to read. I don’t mean it as an escapist, but there is a level of engagement where you are connected to the characters and Blood Meridian, for example, to me is beautifully written but so over the top gruesome that I finished it because I felt like I had to not because I wanted to. I don’t even know though. In The Road there is a scene where they share a can of Coke and the dad lets the kid have the can of Coke and it’s beautiful and so poignant and a touching moment. And that’s probably why I like that book so much more because it feels a little more even and balanced. They eat bacon or whatever, ham, in the basement and they are happy. It is typical for the writers I love to have that dynamic tone or quality to their work.

MPPL: Were there any particular bands that you listened to when you were writing The Great Perhaps?

Joe Meno: Yeah. It was definitely the Beatles. Revolver. The White Album. They came out in ’66 and ’68. The White Album is really expansive. There are four different singers. There are so many different styles of music. The kind of songs that are poppy and ballads and weird, early proto-metal like “Helter Skelter” and country and “Rocky Raccoon” and it tried to contain everything and I love it for that. I mean, I don’t love every song on the double album, but I love their ambition and their intent to do that. Then they also swing wildly from “Revolution” to some totally absurd song like “Honey Pie” where it is so weird and cartoony. I felt like I understood why they had decided to do that. There was a lot of art made in the ‘60s like Slaughterhouse Five and all the early work of Thomas Pynchon that has the same expansive quality where it is surreal and funny and strange and set in a specific historical moment. In The Great Perhaps you have the family riding in the car in the first chapter of the book and they are listening to “Yellow Submarine.” There were a lot of reasons why I picked that song. Jonathan’s search for the squid, but also it is about how I feel the characters are cut off from the rest of the world and each other. They’re in their own little, hermetically sealed world and there is also this really disturbed song playing. It is completely ridiculous and so I wanted to try to translate some of those ideas into a book.

MPPL: Continuing on with music, there are rumblings that you are possibly writing a musical?

Joe Meno: I did!

It’s great. It was commissioned by Signature Theatre in Washington DC and it was an adaptation for The Boy Detective Fails, which I had already written as a stage play. It was performed here in Chicago right before the book came out. Signature Theatre commissioned me to write a new script and I worked to collaborate with a composer and lyricist named Adam Gwon from New York. In July we went to DC and worked with ten actors on work-shopping the show and building it. Then they did one staged performance where they had scripts and everything. It was great and so the company will produce it one year from now in October which is amazing. It will have an eight piece orchestra and it will be really beautiful and the music is incredible and it’s like everything I loved about working on the book but with this really lush music. It was an amazing experience and it was one of my favorite collaborations of all time.

MPPL: Do you think it will ever play in Chicago?

Joe Meno: I don’t know. We’ll see. These guys, Signature Theatre, just got a Tony Award for Best Regional Theatre and that is all they do. What they do is build a show and then try to send it to New York or these other places. I will definitely keep my fingers crossed.

MPPL: To wind down with a final question, what would your perfect library look like and contain?

Joe Meno: I love the Harold Washington. I love the architecture. I love the big bronze owls and then there’s the Brooklyn Public Library. They are both amazing to look at and to behold. To walk inside. It is an older building, in Brooklyn, and it has this great mood to it. The Harold Washington is amazing, but it is a newer building so it’s a little more modern. But both of those are some of my favorite pieces of architecture in either city. Outside of Chicago, I have been to some, but those are the two that live on in my platonic idea of what a library should be.

MPPL: Maybe add a spiral staircase or two to the Harold Washington…

Joe Meno: Actually, that’s funny because I think there is a spiral in the Brooklyn one. It has a different feeling than some libraries which were created in the last ten years and look a little more functional. It is a temple. It is totally a church of books, you know? I just really like what that means, you make this beautiful building because what is inside is so important.