thechapbookreview

Josh Maday Interviews Mike Heppner

Back in June, 2010, I reviewed a chapbook entitled “Talking Man” by Mike Heppner here at The Chapbook Review. First, I read the piece on its own, without knowing anything about the work or the author beyond what I read on the chapbook itself. Then I did some investigation and learned that the chapbook is one part of a four-part writing/publishing project of Heppner’s. The project is described on Heppner’s website:

The four novellas were written between 2007 and 2009. Three of the four were released in full over the past year. One cannot find the entire project in a single location, however it is possible to collect and read the project in its entirety. Part One, Talking Man, was published in September 2008 by Small Anchor Press. Part Two, Man, was released in December 2008. Five hundred photocopies have been left in random locations across the United States for readers to find and comment on. Part Three, Man Talking, the third in the series (but the first to be made available), can be read for free here.  Part Four, Talking, is a piece of writing; it’s also a contest.

Mike Heppner was kind and generous and patient enough to talk about the project and his experience with big and small publishing.

Josh Maday: You have published two novels with a big publishing house, and now you’re engaging readers in a much different way and with a different kind of writing in the Man Talking project. Will you talk about the genesis of the project and what led you to these alternate channels of reaching an audience?

Mike Heppner: The novella “Man Talking” came at the end of a number of years working in a more introspective vein than my first two novels. I was looking for a more personal, less contrived means of expression. I also realized that with the lack of industry support came a certain creative freedom. The other three sections, “Talking Man,” “Man,” and “Talking,” were all afterthoughts. Initially “Man Talking” was to be a stand-alone work, but once I started writing “Talking Man,” I began to see connections forming and grew the project from there. The alternate means of publishing and promotion simply came from the fact that I had this multi-part work that could be promoted in stages, and the question became how to do so in the most creative and attention-getting way possible.

Maday: It’s interesting how, in hindsight, the evolution of a project like “Man Talking” could not have been planned better than growing organically out of the convergence of a few crucial situations, e.g. the internet, your writing taking a new direction, etc. And, of course, chapbooks have been around for a long time, but the form has seen a revival in the past few years (due largely to the internet, it seems). What do you think are the major factors that contributed to making the project possible?

Heppner: Specific to my project? An awareness of the lack of my commercial viability due to industry realities and the nature of the writing itself; also coming to the acquaintance of Jen Hyde (founder of Small Anchor Press) at the right time–her enthusiasm as publisher and editor bolstered the project in its later stages. In the years between Pike’s Folly and Man Talking, one of the frequent refrains I heard from publishers was that they liked my work and felt confidence in my continued success, but…. “Sorry, got to pass on this one. Maybe send us something else next year. (So we can reject it for the same vague reason.)” I began to realize that the problem wasn’t with the writing per se, but that I wasn’t presenting a sexy enough package (in marketing-speak) to publishers. Sexy marketing angles are important even to small presses, perhaps even more so. So I began working in a more deliberately outgoing way, even as the writing itself because more introverted. Funny, that.

Maday: You say that you “began working in a more deliberately outgoing way.” Do you feel like you were allowed to write for yourself rather than the market?

Heppner: If so, it was simply permission I’d granted to myself based on my awareness of the commercial writing market’s disinterest in my work.

Maday: Do you think the renewed interest in the chapbook will prompt big houses to consider trying to get in on the growing demand and absorb the indie publishing aesthetic in the way that the indie DIY clothing fashion has become something available in the mall?

Heppner: Only if they can find a way to make money off it. You mention a growing demand, but you have to understand that you’re still talking about a very limited niche-market that doesn’t register on the scales of big publishing.  I always tell people that the problem with publishing is that there IS no problem with publishing. The people in commercial publishing have no motivation to reform their industry. Yes, people are getting laid off and money is being lost, but from a business perspective the solution to that is to become more crass and more oriented toward the bottom-line, not less. So as artists, we can’t look toward commercial publishing for answers. The fact is, what we do does not have broad-based appeal in the culture at large. It’s debatable whether challenging fiction has ever had that kind of appeal. We can cry about it and say it’s not fair, or we can just accept it as reality and move on. I can’t expect someone who’s ga-ga over the latest Dan Brown to have the slightest interest in what I do. If you’re that easily led, then God help you. But to answer your original question, if chapbooks can work as a marketing tool to lure potential readers toward making bigger purchases, then I’m sure commercial publishing will jump on it.

Maday: What has the response been to the project? The writing?

Heppner: Uniformly positive, so far as I can tell. I haven’t really heard a harsh word about it. My two conventionally published novels attracted their share of nasty reviews, but often when you work for a corporation you absorb some of their karma. It happens and you can’t take it personally. Most of the response to “Man Talking” hasn’t delved much into the writing per se, but the half-dozen or so critics who’ve reviewed it either in whole or in part have generally been positive and supportive.

Maday: Do you wonder if the concept of the project might overshadow the actual writing?

Heppner: Do I worry about it? God no. Josh, when does that NOT happen? Dan Brown? How about Ulysses? Here’s how it works. You write a book. In your heart of hearts you know that the book has integrity. You also realize that the quality of the writing is not a selling point in of itself. So you do something sensational to call attention to it. A bunch of people will casually glance over and say, “Oh, neat,” before passing on to the next item. A few—five percent might be a lot to hope for—will actually bother to read the thing itself. And so you’ve won, you see. The “concept” has served its purpose.

Maday: What, if anything, are you hoping to accomplish with your experiment? To grow a new readership? To gain fresh marketability in the eyes of big publishing houses?

Heppner: First and foremost, to connect with readers. The novellas in the “Man Talking” series are good stories and worth a look. To illustrate some realities about publishing. To gain fresh marketability, yes, but only toward the end of being able to continue to write for readers, which at some point means getting involved with publishing. It doesn’t have to be on a big level for me, though.  I’ve done big.

Maday: You mentioned earlier that the work in Man Talking is more introspective and “less contrived” than your earlier work. Can you talk more about that?

Heppner: My plots have gotten simpler over time, and that cuts down on some of the surface static. My first novel, “The Egg Code,” was a heavily-plotted book that involved a certain amount of jury-rigging to get it to hold up. The best moments tended to focus on the characters’ personal struggles rather than the byzantine world I’d designed for them to live in. My second novel, “Pike’s Folly,” kept the plot in scale for the most part, though it had its rickety moments as well. All of the unpublished work I’ve done since “Pike’s” tends to be more character focused, which I suppose is just another way of saying the plots don’t overwhelm quite so much.

Maday: I’m curious why you have made part of the project free and easy to find (the free pdf download), part of the project available in limited quantities and at a price (the Small Anchor Press chapbook), part of the project extremely rare and difficult to track down, and part a vague contest that will be even more difficult to engage with. What is the reasoning behind these avenues of engaging the potential reader?

Heppner: It’s actually one of the aspects of the project that I find most interesting. Part of what I’m exploring is the value that people assign art. In other words, “What’s it worth to you”? Do your feelings about the piece of art change depending on whether you can access it for free at the click of a button, or if you have to pay twenty dollars and wait for it to come in the mail? Can a piece of art still engage even if you have no real practical means of accessing it; if the work of art remains essentially a withheld idea? (And remember, that’s the case of any number of worthy books that never find their way to publication.) I should add a few things: the four sections of the project can be read independently of each other, so the reader of “Man Talking” isn’t missing any crucial information because they haven’t read “Man.” It’s also always been my intention to one day publish all four sections together in a commercially available volume; interested parties should contact me through my web site. Lastly, someone actually wound up winning my contest; a very nice guy named Dan Pope guessed the answer correctly (go to mikeheppner.com to see the contest rules) and I’ll be hand-delivering his prize later this month. Dan will receive a copy of the Small Anchor edition of “Talking Man,” a copy of “Man,” a copy of “Man Talking,” and a unique handwritten edition of “Talking,” making him the only person to actually possess all four sections. I’ll be making a short video of presenting the prize, which will be on the web site in the months to come.

Maday: Would you publish more of your work in chapbook form in the future?

Heppner: Only if it made sense given the nature of the writing. I’m also happy to write without publishing. It’s not my loss, after all.

  1. […] – The novella “Man Talking” came at the end of a number of years working in a more introspective vein than my first two novels. I was looking for a more personal, less contrived means of expression. I also realized that with the lack of industry support came a certain creative freedom. The other three sections, “Talking Man,” “Man,” and “Talking,” were all afterthoughts. — Mike Heppner in The Chapbook Review […]

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