Monday, October 6, 2014

Joe Milazzo on "Being Indie"

On "Being Indie" is a blog series, here on TNBBC, that introduces us to a wide variety of independent authors, publishers, and booksellers as they discuss what being indie means to them.  

Joe Milazzo is a writer, editor, educator, and designer. He is the author of the novel Crepuscule W/ Nellie (Jaded Ibis Press) and The Habiliments (Apostrophe Books), a volume of poetry. He also co-edits the online interdisciplinary arts journal [out of nothing] and is the proprietor of Imipolex Press. Joe lives and works in Dallas, Texas.

By the time Jaded Ibis Press first showed an interest in my debut novel, Crepuscule W/ Nellie, I had all but given up on the book. To the point, in fact, that I could no longer imagine it a book. Crepuscule W/ Nellie—a novel very loosely based on the relationships triangulating the great jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk, his wife Nellie, and his patron the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter— had instead become an intractable aesthetic and commercial problem. Neither experimental enough for the few small presses who specialize in such novels nor as flattering of readerly expectations as the Big 5's commodities; a fiction historical in its conception, but virtually ahistorical in its execution; too obscure in its interests (jazz, and, by extension, one supposes, African-American life and culture); too long; too dense; too recondite in its architecture; too finicky about its typography and presentation on the page... I had simply had too many agents and editors tell me that, in short, the novel was too much of a sell and not enough of a sale. To be writing a year later that Crepuscule W/ Nellie is soon to be a book, in fact still, leaves me feeling as though I am the butt of one of those jokes improbability likes to play on us all. My authorship is not so much a dream from which I fears I must soon awake, but more like an outcome so utterly contingent that, even as I celebrate it, I nag myself with the suspicion that I cannot take any responsibility for the victoriousness I'd like to enjoy.

An author would be be laboring under serious error, however, if he or she were to discount the happier contingencies of author-publisher compatibility. Such compatibility is often to credit for transforming books—of which there are certainly more than can ever be read—into what we think of as literature—which we all know from experience can be scarce, despite the abundance of books available to us. Jaded Ibis was willing to believe in my book (and assume the burdens associated with such belief) at a time when I felt exhausted by caring for it as long as I had. At the same time, Jaded Ibis accepted that I had to get to know my manuscript all over again. My editor, Janice Lee, did more than assign me a deadline; she gave me permission to read and write for the sake of fulfilling my vision for the book, even if that meant rediscovering it. Most importantly, Jaded Ibis respected how honest I was with them about the novel—how unfinished it was, how troublesome it might be in its characterization of historical personages and dramatization of historical events, how it had to make its own music—by being transparent with me about how they conduct their business. The press made no promises to me other than that they would require to me work hard on behalf of my book. Still, they made it clear to me that they would match my efforts as their own best. In short, Jaded Ibis agreed to collaborate with me, and I they, but only after we had established s set of shared values.

These values, it turns out, are more than aesthetic. Yes, Jaded Ibis is committed to innovative writing that promotes dialogue between divergent artistic practices, and across a wide array of media. Poet and dramatist Will Alexander has composed a "soundtrack" for Crepuscule W/ Nellie, and Janice and I are currently mapping out an interactive edition of the book that will reside on the web. And, yes, Jaded Ibis strives to produce books that are beautiful objects. In doing so, however, Jaded Ibis owner and editor Debra DiBlasi is dedicated to environmental sustainability throughout the entire production process. The press makes its ARCs available almost exclusively in digital form and only prints its books "on customer demand" in order to avoid the frankly appalling waste of paper incurred in the traditional manufacture and distribution of what we read. Such a commitment to sustainability allows Jaded Ibis titles to stay in print in perpetuity and further affords the Press the means to be more equitable in its remuneration of its authors. (Of course, like many independent publishers, Jaded Ibis cannot invest in advances, which, however, like any wager is checked and balanced by many caveats.)

These facts were familiar to me as a Jaded Ibis reader, but I will admit that, before I was one of their authors, this business model felt to me only rather hypothetical, i.e., "nice," in the manner of a gratuity. To see this model in action, and to see its mechanics shaping the thing that my writing is about to become: that has been an experience in the most profound sense of the word. Publishers are important; authors are important; designers and copy-editors and publicists are important. But readers are indispensable. It is the reader who completes the work of art that the work of literature initiates. Like many independent presses, Jaded Ibis understands that this principle is one of generosity, and further comprehends that it is not antithetical to succeeding in the literary marketplace. What does my book have to give? How might its intersecting narratives represent opportunities not, as Jules Renard had it, "to talk without being interrupted," but to give oneself over to listening? Crepuscule W/ Nellie is ultimately a novel about the things we hear and how we attend with our imaginations as well as our ears. What better publisher for such a book than one more attuned to the wondering murmur of many different voices than to the buzz of those few convinced of their own uniqueness, secure in their own discriminations? I am thankful that I do not have to think of one, much less search one out.

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