What’s in a Cover? Aaron Peck in Conversation with Matthew Stadler
Every Springtime Matthew Stadler, a Portland-based writer and publisher, brings his son to Vancouver for a weekend vacation. Over the past few years, it has become tradition that I join them for a game of pitch-and-putt in Stanley Park, followed by a bowl of noodles at Kintaro Ramen. Over ramen this year Matthew and I started talking about notions of authorship, and whenever I begin a conversation with Matthew, I always look for ways to continue it. I have known him now for almost ten years, and last year, through Publication Studio, he became the publisher of my second book Letters to the Pacific. Publication Studio is a publishing venture, founded by Stadler and Patricia No in 2009, which, in email correspondence, he has described as “a maker and destroyer of books.”
The aesthetic of Publication Studio books is minimal and uniform. All books have their cover stock made from file folders, the title of each stamped on the cover. The only information on the binding is the date the book was printed. In terms of content, the backlist is already impressive and various: Israel Lund’s Not All, But Some, of My Clothes; an edition of Billy Budd, Sailor in collaboration with New York-based Deck Towel; a new translation of Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood Circa 1900; a reprint of Lisa Robertson’s Office of Soft Architecture; novels by award-winning writers like Anna Odessa Linzer and Matt Briggs; a roman à clef by Lawrence Rinder, former curator of the Whitney Museum; a tribute to Thrasher magazine, among others.
We continued our conversation via telephone by discussing his new novel, Chloe Jarren’s La Cucarracha, which is also available through Publication Studio, a book he describes as a “cover novel.”
AP: Your novel Chloe Jarren’s La Cucarracha is a “cover,” and I want to ask you a little about what that means. But before that I want to ask you about the publishing history of the novel because it’s already had a life of its own, in a way, and now after more than two years you’re finally launching it.
MS: While I was living in Guanajuato, Mexico, the local culture center had a box of paperbacks that travelers had left. Among them was A Murder of Quality by John Le Carré, which I had read probably fifteen or twenty years before. I picked it out, read it in a day, and realized that I really loved it.
At the end of the day, I figured that I would be miserable if I sat there trying to write the book I was working on, something I found so hard to do, and I decided instead that I’d rather just write John Le Carré’s book. Not that it was much easier to do, but it was pure pleasure. And so I sketched out the structure of the book and put as much exact detail of what he’d done in his book and then wrote it again, setting it in Guanajuato, with characters that I made up, but every aspect was simply to play his novel again by writing it. I was not writing an homage, nor cleverly answering the plot of an earlier book. I approached it more like a piece of music, as when you play a score, the very same score that that other author played, but you’re playing it with your own instrument.
By the time I finished writing the book five months later, I was psyched, because I thought it was really good. I had also written something that I thought would finally make my agent some money. I’ve had an agent for twenty-whatever years, and she works like a dog to get my literary books published, and she see very little money from all the work she puts in, and I thought, ‘awesome I’ve got this thing, I’ll send it to her, she’ll turn it around and make a paycheck off me, finally,’ and I sent it to her, and she was not very moved. She talked to me on the phone and told she thought that the cover method, which I was so excited by, made it not really ‘my book’, in a sense. Her skepticism undermined my own sense of whose book it was, who had authored it.
But there’s this thing you’re doing, and I want you to talk about it a little more if you can. You’ve gotten rid of authorship in a traditional sense and yet when I read the book I thought ‘these read like Matthew Stadler’s sentences, like the ones I enjoyed so much in Allan Stein.’
I think in the culture, the literary culture, we are often invited to think the author is inventing a world and is creating things from nothing. Anyone working knows that’s not true. I’ve never felt comfortable with the loneliness of that scenario in any part, in either getting praise for being creative, or in feeling isolated by the notion that what I do I do alone. I love music. When I’ve played in bands, playing covers was my super favorite thing to do because you know the song is great already and when you play it, you connect to all these things that shape you and make you want to do this work, but you also add your voice. So I think the device of covering a novel allowed me to directly, and literally, inhabit the work as the player of an instrument, and that instrument is my sentences. I think you are right to locate it at the level of the sentence. I think that’s where I do my composition—at the level of the sentence.
Publication Studio is a radical rethinking of the way not only books are produced, with a new kind of technology, but also the role a book has in a person’s life. Could you elaborate on what led you to develop something like Publication Studio?
If you are producing books one at a time, and “on demand,” that is, for a person who wants to read and own the book, it means that the only pressure shaping this work and the distribution of it is the conversation around the book. It’s radical because it actually returns to the root of literary culture, which is the relation of reader and writer. And if it’s successful as an economy, it is because it can displace the poorly functioning economy in which people have to sell books regardless of interest. You know how that goes: you’ve made a certain number, and they need to sell. The fact is, the majority of book sales come from selling books to people who don’t read them. And great—I’m all for the subsidy—but ultimately a healthier relationship might come from paying attention to people who read and then trying to provide books for them. And that’s what you can do, if you’re making books one at a time. I started Publication Studio to physically make one book that I could hold up and say, ‘you have got to read this book’. And that was Larry [Rinder]’s, in the first instance, but then it became a number of other books.
And now your own. I was wondering if you could return to the bibliography, to use the correct term, of Chloe Jarren’s La Cucarracha and relate it to the development of Publication Studio.
So given my editor and agent’s enthusiastic reply that they would be looking forward to ‘a Matthew Stadler novel,’ I felt confused about the authorship of my book that was then called La Cucarracha. And I decided I thought it was a good book, but I wasn’t sure it was a ‘Matthew Stadler book.’ So I published it under a pseudonym, Chloe Jarren, and the pseudonym is an anagram, of course, of somebody else’s pseudonym. I used lulu.com because I knew how. I don’t think I’d done a book on lulu before, but I’d certainly used their infrastructure and knew how it worked. That allowed me to then tell a hundred friends, ‘Hey, I wrote this book, it’s on lulu under a pseudonym. If you like it, tell other people about it’. By doing that, around three hundred, less than four hundred, books sold. And I had some nice conversations with friends who read it and liked it or didn’t like it. About a year passed, I’d say, maybe less than a year, before Dennis Cooper sent me an email saying that it was a good book and essentially calling me on my bullshit by saying ‘it’s obviously your writing, why don’t you publish it under your name?’ This came at a time when I was ready to hear him.
I then wrote a new afterword, explaining the method and the origin of this pseudonym, some of the narrative I just told you, and when Publication Studio began, I put that book in the catalog, that is, the old La Cucarracha with the new afterword, and titled it Chloe Jarren’s La Cucarracha. My mother bought some copies. A year or so after we first put it in the catalog, I formulated a set of strategies to use Publication Studio’s method of production as a way to feed more conventional markets for novels. And so, the 2011 “launch.”
And the launch is rather unique: they’re all ticketed events at which local chefs will produce a meal for the attendees, with limited seating; there will be drinks; the book is included in the ticket price; and I’m assuming you’ll give a reading. I like the idea of creating a public space that is bound by a book, being the thing that brings people together, for conviviality, whatever. You’re doing a tour but you’re not going to be reading in Barnes and Noble or something like that. This approach announces its confidence that your work, or any other Publication Studio title by extension, should be taken as seriously as, say, a Jonathan Franzen novel, and yet it understands the kinds of relationships it’s making on a more micro level.
First let me say, that books suck as a commodity, but that books are superb and unrivaled as a public literary space, as a space of literary culture that is social and shared. Printing one at a time, or in small numbers, we’re able to let the book function as a public space in almost any setting. In my case, I find that forty or fifty people at a table can actually enter into a single relationship if you arrange the table right, get them facing each other, and get the right book in the middle. The events we’re hosting in twelve cities this summer will each put La Cucarracha in the middle of the table and one copy in the hands of each person there. I think that such a setting is the social life of the book. People think of bibliophiles as solitary. ‘Bookish’ is even a term for an anti-sociability. But, in fact, for people who read and are excited by literature this is exactly the setting in which public life transpires: loud and drunk and impassioned, facing one another. The other settings, which are designed to move commodities, do not capitalize on the strengths of literary culture. They position people as consumers and audience. Nobody who reads really reads that way. We’re simply taking these aspects of literary culture and these potentials with a book and putting them centre-stage, because we can.