One of the main benefits of working on What to Wear During an Orange Alert over the last year and a half has been the quality relationships that I have formed. I have had the good fortune to met and interview hundreds of writers, artists, and musicians. It has truly been and will continue to be a magical experience. Back in June of 2007, I read an interview with a local writer named Ben Tanzer. In his interview and through the stories I found on-line I could detect a genuine sense of humor that triggered my interview with him in July of that year. Over the next few months, I read his debut novel Lucky Man (Manx Media) and became addicted to his youtube videos.
Meeting Ben for the first that Fall at a RAGAD reading, it was clear that we would become friends. As our friendship grew we both knew that we would eventually work together in some form or another. In March, the launch of This Zine Will Change Your Life was our first taste of working together, and we both felt it was a good fit. It was also in March that Ben sent me the initial manuscript for Most Likely.... Little did I know that the cleaver title of his blog (This Blog Will Change Your Life) would become more then just a title.Here is a brand new interview with Ben.
Orange Alert Press (OAP): What would you like everyone to know about this book?
Ben Tanzer (BT): First off, people should know how much I have enjoyed working with Orange Alert Press and your crew, Chris and Michael, everyone is cool, and creative, and we have a great rapport, so it’s been a lot of fun. Second, for some, reading this book might just change their life, maybe for only five or ten minutes, but that’s not bad, right? Third, my thinking with this book was to try to tell the story of a relationship where a couple comes together quickly, implodes just as quickly and then tries to find their way back together again. I would add that for the two or three people who read my first novel Lucky Man, and thank you for doing so, that if you read “Go Your Way…” you will not only re-encounter some of my favorite themes, pop culture, fractured families, New York City, substance abuse and fathers and sons, but some new ones I’ve been playing around with as well, including mothers and daughters, siblings and well, porn of course. I would also add that the characters in this novel in many ways are who the characters who survive Lucky Man and that lifestyle might move on to become. The people I know who took a lot of drugs and drank too much, were exposed to violence and loss, may have had different problems, but they figured out ways to cope and move on, take less drugs and moderate their drinking. They got older, mostly got into relationships, some of which are even healthy, and some of them looked like the characters in this book as they rolled fitfully through their twenties. Finally, I think it’s also important for me to stress, that everyone is welcome to buy multiple copies of the book. They make great gifts, paperweights and chew toys.
OAP: The title is taken for a Bob Dylan song. What was it about that song that seemed to fit with what you wanted to accomplish with this story?
BT: I probably need to start by saying that I listen to music all the time and almost always listen to music when I write. I was listening to “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine” on some random afternoon while working on the book and in a mood for some Dylan and it just struck me as the right vibe for this work, the right title certainly, but even the tone, and what it invoked in me. I don’t necessarily listen to lyrics, but while the song isn’t exactly happy thematically, it is sung with a certain kind of lightness and humor, and I like to strive for that when I write, dark but laced with humor, streamlined, but with dialogue that resonates. What’s tricky is that Dylan is so loaded, he’s a genius, a poet, a god and so on, and I didn’t want that association per se, but this song on that day, was perfect. On another day it could have been something by Avail or Bruce Springsteen or Other World, and some day it probably will be.
OAP: As with Lucky Man, you seem to use nostalgia for specific actors, products, events, to draw the reader into the story. I feel it gives your fiction a stronger sense of reality. How important is that nostalgia and various reference to this story and your writing in general?
BT: This is a great question and it’s funny really, because I don’t know that I think in terms of nostalgia, though I’m sure that’s exactly what I’m looking to evoke. I’m interested not only in how people talk, but how they express themselves, and the people I know use these sorts of references. At times it’s lazy for sure, but this kind of commentary is a short hand of sorts, a touchstone for people, and a way of identifying who you are, what you like and what influences you. These references can also be funny, which is always good when writing a story, though more than that there are moments in a book where I specifically try and think in terms of certain references that hopefully move the story along because they generate certain memories or frames as people read, almost like a code. I’m not super interested in providing lots of back story for the characters, I’d rather just hang certain pieces of information off of them along the way and let the reader draw whatever conclusions about the characters that they want. If a character references Deenie or Martin Scorcesse, or the urban legend about Richard Gere and the gerbil, the reader will form some kind of opinion or have some kind of association and whatever that is works for me. Another piece of this though, is that while I want people to have a certain feeling for the characters, and while I want the reader to feel like I’m inside their head as they read, I also want to give them some insight into some of the things that have influenced me along the way, which in my case are things like the books of S.E. Hinton, Ray Bradbury, X-Men comics, The Basketball Diaries, Star Wars, Dallas, John Hughes and Bob Dylan.
OAP: Following Lucky Man you went on a personal media blitz, using blogs and youtube primarily. Do you plan to approach the promotion of Most Likely... in a similar way? Do you feel those video or interviews helped Lucky Man in anyway?
BT: I had a lot of fun with the blitz and would be really into trying to continue that with the new book. I should start by saying that from the start I wanted to use the monorail episode of The Simpsons as my model for marketing Lucky Man – in essence, we have a cool product that you don’t really need, but we will convince you that you do anyway. Hence, This Blog Will Change Your Life was created as a mock platform for my faux corporation Lucky Man, Inc. When I realized that ideally Lucky Man would not be the only book I would publish, my fake marketing team re-branded the corporation TBWCYL, Inc. so we could push all future products as well. We also decided that TBWCYL, Inc. should probably have multiple platforms so it became the base of our faux media empire, which isn’t even really so faux anymore with the other things I’ve been working. So, the blogging will definite continue because now we get to celebrate the release of “Go Your Way…,” and with the videos they have always been driven by being inspired by some random idea or some video I want to riff on so with a new book I expect there will be new ideas. Well, at least I hope so. All that said, I don’t think any this stuff helped sales, but on the one hand it made the whole experience more fun and entertaining, playing around with grassroots marketing, and pretending Lucky Man was a product people can’t live without, and on the other hand it probably helped with rising above some of the clutter, a little extra buzz, the sense that maybe something was going on, and that maybe, just maybe Lucky Man was something you want to know more about. Probably most importantly though, trying different things like blogging and shooting videos gave me confidence to keep exploring other opportunities, like podcasting and the creation of This Zine Will Change Your Life, and that led me to meet more people and keep trying new things I wouldn’t have done without the book as an excuse to make time for them.
OAP: Do you feel there are things that a small press can offer that the bigger publishing house can't or won't?
BT: You know it’s really important to me that I get to work with people I would like to work with, people who love books and want to be creative, people who have encouraged me and been supportive, not to mention people I have, or might be, sexually involved with like the super hot staff at Orange Alert Press. It’s all very personal for me in terms of how I want to live and create, and it has to be fun and kind of grassroots. Does a big publishing house operate like that, maybe, but do my friends and the people I want to partner with work at such place, I’m not sure, and even if they did, would they want to go to a recording studio with me, talk cover art or take a showers with me while we act like our only intention is to save water, no, I doubt it.
OAP: Back in March you started a zine that on the surface is a lit journal, but there are extra elements involved. Why did you want to start a zine, and how has the response been to the format?
BT: As we sought to expand our faux media empire at TBWCYL, Inc. I got really excited about trying to launch a zine as well, This Zine Will Change Your Life, which is something I had always wanted to do. Part of it was my interest in finding ways to be involved with writers and meet more writers and maybe even building some kind of community of writers and artists who would feel like they were part of something and had a home. But I also wanted to find a way to explore my other interests, art and music, and see how these things might all hang together. As I thought about it and talked to friends like Adam Lawrence who shoots street art in New York City and you, Jason Orange, who has access to all this great independent and mostly unknown music I started thinking about how we could match stories and poems with a photo of Adam’s and stream a song of your choice and package them together. The response has been great, with a lot of submissions from writers we love, S. Craig Renfroe, J.A. Tyler, Tim Hall, Jill Summers and Sam Pink among others, and in fact we’ve had so many quality submission, that I recruited the most excellent writer Pete Anderson of Pete Lit blog fame to be a reader, well actually he begged us to help out, but we were into it, I mean the dude’s a legend and all. And so we built this team, and I was able to engage all these people I really wanted to work and hang with, and ultimately, people have been excited about the format. In fact VAIN magazine recently picked TZWCYL as its spring zine contest winner, so it’s pretty good man, and again lots of fun.
OAP: What are your thoughts on Chicago literature in general? Is there a growing community of writers or a just a few big fish?
BT: There is a really rich scene here and a seemingly ever-growing community. There are definitely some “big fish” to the extent that great writers like Joe Meno, Anne Elizabeth Moore and Elizabeth Crane - the latter being the ongoing muse for This Blog Will Change Your Life and a really awesome and gracious friend of the blog and Lucky Man - have really broken out the last several years, while Todd Dills and the THE2NDHAND crew and Jonathan Messinger and the Featherproof Books gang are really on the verge of doing so if not there already. You also have Columbia College as this amazing incubator and launching pad for these writers and others which is such an awesome thing. But then there’s so much more happening, maybe slightly more obscure, The Parlor Reading series with Joanna Topor Mackenzie and her crew, The Fixx reading series hosted by killer Chicago writer and Pilcrow empress Amy Guth, the new series QUICKIES! Chicago led by Mary Hamilton and Lindsay Hunter, who are too cool, Reading Under Influence and Robert Duffer who I just had lunch with recently, also quite cool, and Spencer Dew just a great writer and my favorite live reader, Jill Summers, who I mentioned earlier and we’re going to publish in the zine soon, she just totally rocks, and I have a bit of crush on her - she’s not going to read this is she, Nick Ostdick and RAGAD, a great writer, reading host, supporter of mine and great dude, Tim Hall and Pete Anderson who I mentioned before and I just really admire as writers, bloggers and dads, Jason Pettus at CCLaP, a lover of writers and books. And these are all great people, people who support one other and come out for things, and its neat because most of us have to work as well, but still want to write, and I’m not sure if it’s always been like this, but either way, something is definitely happening, and I’m really excited to be part of it in any way I can.
OAP: What's next for Ben Tanzer?
BT: Wow, big question. I’m definitely going to be watching Spongebob Square Pants with my kids today and changing more diapers for sure. I may cut down on my carbs and Tim Hall and I have been exploring moving out to California and adopting Nick Ostdick which we’re all really excited about. The guys and I from the original line-up of Wham! continue to talk about a reunion show, we were hoping for Bonnaroo this summer, but I have had some hair plug removal issues, cash-flow stuff, so we’ll see, maybe Lollapalooza 2009. I’m also hoping Diane Lane will return at least one of my calls. Beyond that, hyping “Go Your Way…” for sure and continuing to nurture and expand This Zine Will Change Your Life. There’s a little short documentary thing I’ve been playing around with and hope to dive into more fully and I am very excited to have been invited to guest edit VAIN magazine’s fall issue. I have been talking to someone about publishing a short story collection of mine which I don’t want to jinx, but it represents a certain group of pieces I wrote, mostly published over the last three years and I have always loosely thought of them as the Binghamton stories. All very grandiose I know. Longer term I would be really interested in running a small press of some kind, even more grandiose for sure, but something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, so, we’ll see. Finally, I am at work on the first draft of my next novel, tentatively titled “You Can Make Him Like You,” a story about three guys that gelled for me during a Hold Steady show at the Metro. It will be my first novel set not only in Chicago, but present time, and I hope Orange Alert Press will want to run with it some time in 2009. Not sure if we discussed that yet.
Stay tuned for part 2 of our interview series, a new interview with artist Michael Paige Glover.