(Goodloe Byron is a novelist — with an unusual approach to literary economics — as well as a book cover designer whose graphic work was recently featured on Mark Athitakas’s Notes on American Fiction blog. The Wraith is his latest book, from his own Brown Paper Publishing.)
Levi: Your novel The Wraith is very charming. The portrait of hapless trailer park hipsters going about their lives reminds me of the affectionate stylings of Richard Linklater or Jim Jarmusch … but I also understand that Jose Saramago was your primary inspiration for this novel. Can you tell me what your mission in writing this book was?
Goodloe: It is actually a knockoff of a Saramago book, but it warped in the rain having took so long! The original idea was to do something like the duplicated man; it would be about a little fellow who is suddenly deprived of the dimension of necessity. That is to say that he no longer needed to sleep, eat, drink water, come in from the cold, shave or whatnot. It would then follow that he didn’t need to work either, or do anything. What I imagined was that this person would then flee this terrible freedom. He would then go about pretending to be alive as he was before and that his life would become a kind of hollow nightmare.
This isn’t really a novel that many people would like to read, I think. That has not stopped me in the past, but it also wasn’t enjoyable to write either. I started it about eight times five years ago, then I quit writing altogether. Then, last year, my friend Pablo D’stair and I were discussing the idea, which was the only book that I wanted to write anyway. In this discussion I figured out that the story could not really be told directly, as it was more of a static concept. So I decided to give it a Heart of Darkness touch and describe the story of someone on the periphery of such a man. Mr. Kurtz, for example, is much this some problem, because he is not a person so much as a concept; the collapse of civilization in the face of its underlying barbarity. Once I figured this out, it was very simple and I wrote it in a few weeks while another book was at the printer. All of the events involving the main characters I kind of made up on the fly, though a variety of them I’d thought up during my ‘hiatus’. They came together all right I think. The brain stepped out of my way once I figured out the Kurtz thing.
Levi: I notice a strange price on the book’s cover: $0.0. What’s that all about?
Goodloe: All right, so … this is kind of complicated to explain. But basically I don’t really like to submit stuff places or do the whole writer thing. I just find it ghastly as an experience. Also I would like to point out that my books tend to be a bit of a drag and I design them that way. I want the audience to have to get a bit scrappy. Books that succeed in the market tend not to share this worldview. So instead I save up enough so that once a year I can print up about ten thousand books. Then throughout the year I roll out to different cities or wherever I can get and I hand them out for free or leave them in coffee shops.
It’s a lifestyle thing, I’ve been living this way for about five years. Over two years I handed out twenty thousand copies of one called The Abstract, which was secretly wonderful though most everyone hated it, then last year I handed out one called Revisions of, which was designed as a kinda Knut Hamsun qua GK Chesterton thing (though obviously not as enjoyable as such a combination would suggest), now in September I picked up as many copies of The Wraith. It has been fun and it has helped my mind, but obviously it must stop at some point. So I’m now retiring to become a blues musician. It’s kind of like Joaquin Phoenix except I’m not kidding …
Levi: Well, I can relate, because I’ve been giving my writing away for years too (though, in my case, mostly on the web). And I know that this habit, if that’s what it is, can come with some heavy psychic baggage. Do people react strangely when you give them a book for free? Do you find that people are suspicious, or are they appreciative, or something else? Have you ever been surprised by anyone’s reaction? Has anybody given you anything back in return?
Goodloe: Aux contrair mon frère, this is me handing out my psychic baggage to others, wahaha. I just had too too much and it was crippling me. Some remains of course, but I can manage the rest of it myself, I hope. I just needed to sort of let my inner child run wild and tucker itself out. I can tell you that the little fellow is really really tuckered, so hence my retirement. But I think it’s been totally wonderful! I have a dog whistle coming from inside me that draws in madmen, and now I have placed it against a loudspeaker. I’ve gotten my share of brushes with the divine, I feel really blessed to have had them, but they become old. I have even tired of madmen, I now just swat at them and tell them to scram.
What is oddest is that, even though I, for one, hate the general public, if you pick the mass of man apart one by one, you find that almost everyone is acceptable, even lovely. But what you see in newspapers and television is that something awful just happens when you stick us together in large enough numbers. So best of all I have found out that the world is not nearly as bad as is reputed, at least at the atomic level. In exchange I have received mostly high fives and sneers, but I’ve also acquired a mountain of reading material. As for suspicions; a lot of people assume it must be religious or that its pornography, though why anyone would hand out pornography for free is beyond me.
Levi: Other than singing the blues (which I think you’re already doing, and I mean that as a compliment) … what is the real endgame of giving away books for free? Do you harbor any secret shameful dreams of getting rich and famous from doing this? Or rich and not famous? Or famous and not rich? Do you recommend that other writers follow your charitable literary path?
Goodloe: Thank you for the compliment! Blues music is the only kind that I understand. Honestly I was just trying to make everyone think I’m cool, inside I remain a very awkward creature. This is much cheaper than a Ferrari and, I can tell you that it is much more effective. So if you want people to think you’re cool, this would be a good way to go about it. I think people should not use money to work through deep interpersonal issues, but labors and actions. So the labor that went into it, saving and working and driving for hours and standing on different street corners and restocking coffeeshops and seeing different cities. That’s what I enjoyed.
I wouldn’t really recommend that someone do this for the money. I know this is patently obvious, but I have had to explain to many people that frankly when you give someone a book for free, you don’t get any money back. But there have been many rewards, I have seen much and have been thoroughly educated by it. I’ve made a lot of friends and gathered stories. That has helped me grow as a person, which is what I needed the most.I don’t want to grow too much as a person though, saints tend not to fare well here. I just personally needed to go to these lengths to grow into a regular sized man. Before this I felt quite small. I could not see beyond my own raincloud.
Levi: You’re not only a novelist and a Johnny Appleseed publisher — you’re also an acclaimed graphic designer. Which of these vocations is most important to you, and why, and how do you manage to fit the pieces together?
Goodloe: Well graphic design stuff was something I got into in a very roundabout way. I figured out that I wanted to print up so many copies of The Abstract. So I fled Los Angeles and returned home. I knew that I would have to learn how to put a book together, preferably well. Typesetting and Interiors are not hard, you just read about twenty pages into The Elements of Typographic Style and then you put everything in Caslon.
But for the cover I was a bit more nervous. So I wrote to Richard Nash and told him I would work for free if he would be patient and just let me take a stab at making some book covers for Soft Skull. I was surprised when he said yes. So I started doing that, I learned how to draw and so forth and I find it to be an interesting pastime. Then I started to get some money doing it and a couple people seem to think I can do it well enough to sneak by. But I have no particular desire to be Rodrigo Corral or something. Music, for example, was the first thing I did with passionate engagement, but then it fell apart in my mind and I quit for nine years, from which I am only now emerging. Writing books is also personally important to me and, at the age of twenty nine, I have retired twice. Its unfortunate but the things which drill directly into my heart tend to explode on me. So, you know, the doodling and book cover stuff is something people like, I like that they like it. But you know, it’s a book cover, it’s kind of a superficial thing by definition.