INTERVIEW with Shawn Mitchell

Check out Shawn’s interview of me at his blog.

Shawn Mitchell is a writer, blogger, MFA candidate, and the recipient of a lifetime subscription of books from Two Dollar Radio. He earned his lifetime subscription by getting the Two Dollar Radio logo tattooed on his arm.

How did you hear about the lifetime subscription offer at Two Dollar Radio, and why did you decide to go for it?

I don’t remember how I heard of it, but I think it was through The Rumpus, or Stephen Elliot’s Daily Rumpus e-mails. Or, through a Facebook post by Two Dollar Radio. I think I’ve seen the deal mentioned in all three places.

I also don’t know how to explain the slightly irrational decision. The gimmick appealed to me. They have a good logo. They publish good books, but I’d only read part of The Orange Eats Creeps, so I can’t even say that I was already a huge fan. They seem like good people with a good mission, and they publish a nice-looking book.

I found myself asking my friend Ruthie Awad if she’d tattoo it on me, then I e-mailed TDR and they said go for it, then I had set up a time to do it, then I showed up at Ruthie’s place. Felt like it was out of my control almost at a certain point, or maybe I was casting it that way so I could place the blame elsewhere. Ruthie’s mom is a tattoo artist and so is Ruthie. She has the chair and all the equipment in her kitchen. She’s a baller. She asked me where I wanted the tattoo and I didn’t even have that figured out, but we thought a wrist would be good. She asked me which one and I asked her which one back.

Are you a “tattoo person” in general? Do you have any other tattoos? Were you looking to get one?

Tattoos are so common that I don’t even know what a “tattoo person” would be. Overall, there doesn’t seem to be much of a stigma attached to them. This is my first tattoo, though I’d like to get more. I’d wanted to get one for a while and passed on it, which I’m glad I did. Otherwise I’d have the Eagle Scout badge tattooed on me, or the Community of Christ emblem, or something. Things with which I don’t identify with so strongly or at all anymore. When I saw this deal it seemed like a good excuse to make the jump and get a tattoo. One of my friends described it as the Ultimate Coupon. As such, the deal appeals to my Midwestern roots. And I hope that I will always be a reader.

How would you describe Two Dollar Radio and the books it publishes? What are your favorites?

I jumped the gun on this one above. I’ve been enjoying Grace Kilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps a lot. I read Justin Cronin’s The Passing somewhat recently, and found myself shockingly bored by it as a vampire novel. It was billed as a vampire epic with “LITERARY” characterization and whatnot, but I found much of the novel boring as hell. Somehow, Cronin’s Iowa pedigree seems to serve as an excuse to write a slog of a read. I like the backstory, it just took too long to give it, and the ratio of vampire action to sad, touching character sketches was off. I know it’s a sin to say so publically, but I found myself wanting more vampiric bloodshed and less character development. Kilanovich’s book and lyric language is like a steaming pile of bloody shit that she’s squeezed into a syringe and offered up as a vaccine for Cronin’s turgid prose. I’m looking forward to trying out a few of the other 18 books they sent me.

How do you feel about putting a company’s logo on your body? Do you worry that you’ll regret the tattoo if the company goes under, or if you stop believing in what it makes?

Putting an independent publishing company’s colophon on your wrist is a far cry from getting a Starbuck’s logo tattooed on your ass. It’s not like I got Wal-Mart stamped on my forehead so I could get free Great Value products for the rest of my life. I hope Two Dollar Radio doesn’t go under. They’ve been around for 5 years I think, and with Kilanovich getting named to the National Book Award’s 5 Under 35, it seems like they’re making a name for themselves. They matter. I might not like every book they publish but I don’t like every book any house publishes. They might go under someday; that’s possible. Or they could merge with some other publisher to get by financially. But even so, the logo is fun and cool on its own, so I doubt it would bother me much. And if they suddenly, miraculously, published only celebrity cookbooks and self-help titles, who would even recognize their colophon outside of the niche that reads books that independent publishers put out? To everyone else, it would just look like a boombox. I bet if you took a poll of people on the street on what the McSweeney’s chair is, more than 95% of them would say it’s a chair, not that it’s their logo, here in Carbondale, and probably more than 93% of the people in New York, too. And that’s being pretty generous, I’d guess. I’d just make up a new story for how/why I got the tattoo.

Do you share the goals and values of indie publishing in general? To what extent does indie publishing reflect, or affect, or coincide with your life?

I just believe in language, literature, and good writing/stories/poems/everything. There’s a part of me that’s deeply cynical and I spend some amount of time and mental energy on trying to keep that stomped down with optimism, anti-depressant medications, and forward momentum.

I feel like we’re reaching a point that it doesn’t really matter if a book was published by an indie company or a New York based big house. I would trust anything that Vintage or McSweeney’s, Knopf or Two Dollar Radio endorsed. Would it necessarily be up my alley? I don’t know. But I read pretty eclectically and feel that the uptick in quality indie publishing is just a good sign: people are finding different ways to publish and market literature, proposing new models as alternatives to the Amazon-BigHouse-B&N/Borders/Wal-Mart style of conglomerated corporatized publishing. And books published by small houses are getting recognized for big awards, which is a great thing too. I bet it warms André Schiffrin’s heart any time an indie-press author gets named to the 5 under 35, or wins the Pulitzer, like Paul Harding’s Tinkers.

This is becoming a bit of a ramble, but yes, I’d say that I identify strongly with the indie ethos, but I don’t think you have to commit yourself one way or the other. Selling out went away with grunge metal. It doesn’t bother me at all when Band of Horses or Arcade Fire turns up in a chain store commercial. I’m glad they’re finding a way to get paid, considering most people are probably just torrenting the music itself. And now that e-books are gaining ground, we’re facing the same crisis the music industry did/does, or we might soon. If a press like Akashic, Two Dollar Radio, Hobart, or McSweeney’s wanted to publish a book of mine, I’d be ecstatic. They publish a good product that looks good and feels good, as a print book should to assert its worth over an e-book. But if I got offered a book deal by Random House or HarperCollins, and the editor and marketing team seemed really enthused about working with me, and they offered a reasonable advance, I’d of course go that way. The talk of indie vs. mainstream is sort of moot, given that I don’t have a book of stories or novel tied together yet, but I’d go whatever way was offered to me. In the end we might not have much choice. You can aim to write a book that will appeal to a lot of people and make you money, but you can’t bank on it. The bigger, cost-of-living-maintaining money seems more likely to come from teaching jobs or speaking events than the actual book sales anyway, unless you manage to break free of the midlist and go big, which is incredibly, incredibly rare, or earn out your advance, which is not common, or snooker some house into giving you a huge advance in the first place, which seems to happen less and less now, and which isn’t going to happen for me unless I stop spending all my time on short stories.

What would it take for you to consider getting another tattoo of a company logo? (I hear Fiction Advocate has a lovely stegosaurus…)

Another lifetime subscription? If they publish good books. Or, a lot of money if it didn’t have to be very visible. Or, hell, maybe if Best Buy offered a lot of money. License out portions of my skin like Tao Lin sold off shares of his novel. Become a Nascar body. 4 years of college to get an English major + 3 years working in publishing in NYC + 3 years for SIUC’s MFA program = 10 years dedicated to books in some way, six of those professionally, you could say. I feel like I’m pretty committed to this path, and that I have the skill as a writer to make it if I just keep at it and win the endurance race. And it’s hard to support oneself as a writer, and hoeing myself out for free books or money could seem pretty reasonable within such a system. Do you hear that Tide? I have a forearm available. I promise to include your name in a positive way in all future stories. A character could be washing his clothes with your detergent, right this minute. (Jk, I think, yes)

Also, I’ve been joking that if I manage to publish a book, I’ll get the company’s logo tattooed on my leg, and keep doing that, like fuselage. It’s a fairly common trend anyway, the literary tattoo. You could make fun of someone and call them a hipster for it, but in the end, it just shows how much the person cares about books, you hope, which is a beautiful thing. It could just mean that the person likes to look like they like books, and has no direct correlation to how much time they actually spend reading, but…that’s too depressing to spend too much time thinking about.

As for that sexy stegosaurus, I will do it for a lifetime supply of ink cartridges. How does that sound?

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