Evil can be fun! An interview with Derek McCormack.
Derek McCormack is a Toronto writer, and the author of one of my favourite novels, The Show That Smells. His previous works include The Haunted Hillbilly, Christmas Days (with the comic artist Seth), and Grab Bag, which collected his two short story collections. I think he is the best writer in Canada. (Photo by Chris Reed)
Joey: The villains are the heroes of your books, glamorous, funny, and often, like in The Show that Smells, the good guys are either idiots or sad sacks that get what they've got coming. Jimmie Rogers is constantly coughing up sputum and moaning, while Schiaparelli has page after page of glorious dead baby joke monologuing and these great insane dresses. What do you think is so compelling about evil? You first introduced me to Night of the Hunter, and Robert Mitchum owns that movie with his weird beautiful singing as he stalks those children. He's like Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight. He's bigger than the movie. Do you think that evil could be as compelling in real life? Do you think it'd be as fun, in real life? As much of a performance?
Derek: I dream of being evil. I have dreamt this dream since I was a child -- I wanted so badly to be the wicked witch from The Wizard of Oz. I carried a wooden wand around until I was, um, ten? A neighbour carved a wooden rifle for me so that I could play soldier or shoot-'em-up or whatever. I didn't mind playing with guns but I would always wind up waving the rifle around as if it were a wand. I wanted to cast spells. With The Show That Smells, I had a very clear vision: I wanted to write a book that was a spell that would destroy all the books in the world. Well, maybe not all the books, but CanLit at least. I love when the gays start making magic: I'm thinking of Kenneth Anger and others, but mainly of Jack Spicer and the incantatory tone of some of his stuff. I'm thinking of Jack Spicer because he was my patron saint! Gay, ugly, alone. Glamour's what guys like us dream of -- an evil glamour that doesn't make us beautiful but that changes what beauty is. I guess this is not what most people imagine when they imagine evil -- they think of serial killers and people who put poison in parks for dogs to discover. I think of The Joker, another childhood hero. Evil is art that can make evil real. Tell me, Joey, when you were younger, did you like superheroes or villains? I don't see much evil in your books -- there are monsters, but they're often there to test family ties, or the limits of fidelity, or so it seems to me. That said, the things you've been writing lately have certainly been more brutal and bananas -- are you digging into your dark side in a different way?
Joey: You don't seem particularly flaky to me, so when you say "a magic spell" I read that as a sort of trick. An illusion or sleight of hand. A glamourousness that makes it hard for the reader/viewer to recognize evil as evil, even when it's clear that this is the villain. The poor sap characters in the movie know that Freddy is the bad guy, but half the audience is getting bored whenever he's not on screen. Part of his evil is making evil seductive and fun. Evil is art that can make Evil sexy?
As for whether I liked heroes or villains, I'm not sure. When I was a kid I liked Spider-Man. The hero aspect of him didn't really interest me. I didn't care about great power coming with great responsibility. I liked his jokes and one liners. But that doesn't answer your question. I was never interested in comic book villains, I wasn't particularly interested in the heroes either. The first comic I remember LOVING was Sam & Max. They're villains pretending to be heroes, I think. Maybe vice-versa. Good and evil don't matter in that world. Those concepts are just helpful setups to jokes. The characters are complete unbridled impulse. ("What should I do with this bomb, Max?" - "Throw it out the window, Sam, there's nobody but strangers out there.") They're irreverent in the best way. Those are the kind of villains I love.
The book you mentioned that I'm writing, Bible Camp Bloodbath, has a villain like that. He's making jokes while murdering children. He's got no back story, no deep psychological motivation, he's just having a really good time. It was so much fun to write something like that. So giddy.
You've been working a lot with visual artists, and on visual art lately. Do you think it's possible for visual art to have evil in it? Or to express evil in a fun way without losing its impact? I guess I mean, is there a place for villains in art? Or architecture? That doctor's house in Chicago around the time of the Chicago fair was the site of dozens of murders. But with its trap doors and fake walls, it has the surreal fun of a grisly puzzle. I could hear the glee in your voice when you told me about that place. But that's a different kind of horrific. There's not really any glamour to that house, is there? Why is it so fascinating?
Derek: Oh, but there was glamour to the murder castle – there was a jewelry shop on the first floor! The murder castle is evil because of the murders that took place there, sure, but that’s not so interesting to me. The machinery of the castle – trap doors, sliding walls, dead-end corridors, etc – that’s what kills me. I’ve written about it before – it seems to me to have influenced the development of carnival dark rides and amusement park haunted houses. It’s not the murders I love, it’s the murder castle as tourist attraction. It’s the carnival haunted house that can’t possibly be as scary as it pretends to be.
It's like: when I was a kid, I would consult the Ouija board, which I knew was a dumb board game -- still, I would play it late at night with friends and we'd scare ourselves. And in that late-night fright I would always feel the hope that it could be real, even though it couldn't be real, but what if it could? The evil I care about is Disney evil, it’s Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty – what if that type of evil, which is so operatic and elegant, could come out of the cartoon and into the world? That would be crackerjack and catastrophic. That’s the black magic I care about, that I try to conjure in my books. It’s a laughable dream I have, laughable and probably impossible, but it’s still better than dreaming of winning the ReLit Award or getting a Canada Council grant, don’t you think?
Joey: You don't think a Canada Council arts grant would help out in the quest to create that perfect Disney evil?
Derek: Sure it would. I could get new glasses. I could get dental surgery. But Canada Council grants aren't for such as I. Anyway, I'm going to write the books I want to write whether or not I get grants. It'll just take me longer. And I won't be able to see very clearly. And I won't be able to chew. Seems to me you've got a good thing going: the web comic is profitable and pays for your writing time.
Joey: I am not complaining, it's great to be able to just write. But I have friends around me who followed other career paths that I kind of turned away from. I used to program computers, for instance. There's money in that. So I have friends who are doing very well. They're buying houses, or condos, you know. And I'm week to week hoping that I have enough for food or rent, but I turned away from those careers for a reason. That lifestyle wasn't for me. If I'm gonna work ten hours a day, I want it to be on something completely crazy, and yeah that doesn't pay as well. I get jealous of the security my friends have. Or I get jealous of their sweet TVs. But I convince myself that it's a fair trade off because I can fuck off for the day to go skateboarding if I want. And I have time to write.
Derek: There's nothing I'd rather do than sit and write, but I don't get to do it too much. I have to work. All in all, work is a boon: I've had to learn to write non-fiction, and all kinds of non-fiction, newspaper columns, magazine articles, essays. I've written art catalogues and worked at a gallery and collaborated with visual artists, all of which has been a blast. I've spent a lot of time in retail. It's tiring, but it's in my blood -- I've been working retail since I was a kid. It's the thing I do best. The bookstore I work at now is terrific and also trying. It's a strange time for bookstores. The business is changing, and everybody's trying to figure out which way it's going to go.
Joey: I sometimes think maybe arts grants could help independent bookstores. Are there arts grants for theatres? Opera houses and things like that? I know that there are grants for small presses, and while some of them use the grants as a sort of welfare, there are presses out there working hard, and those arts grants are a lifeline to them. The grants give them the support they need to make a very real contribution to our culture. And independent bookstores make a contribution to our culture, too.
Or maybe that's counterproductive. Take, for example, fundraisers for independent bookstores that are failing. Sure, the fundraiser might save them for a little while longer, but they're in those dire straights because their business model is no longer working. It's a smaller scale bailout.
Independent bookstores have been important, for their sense of community, and the care for individual books they've had. They're not important in some moral way, but because they've been filling a very real need that people have for those things. If the stores aren't sustainable, though, maybe there's something else that can fill those needs? Maybe they don't need to rely on charity?
I wonder if there's some kind of hybrid possible, where Chapters or Borders could have boutique imprints. Indie stores that are like franchises? They could be run by people from the community, who get access to the cheaper books, but can hand pick their selection, do smaller events, have more curatorial authority. That could be a profitable model, still, and while it is not as profitable as the big box stores that chapters might run, it wouldn't lose money and it'd go a long way to helping soften their image and building good will. Amazon and Chapters and Borders aren't going away, they make too much money, and they offer their books too cheap for indies to compete, so why not join them?
Is that too cynical? You work at an independent bookstore, so maybe this is a touchy subject. There's so much moral indignation around this topic, though. Nobody wants to talk about what could be done, they just seem to want to talk about how things should be. What do you think about independent bookstores closing? Do you think that bookstores should be grant subsidized? Or that people should pay more for their books to support the community aspect? Are bookstores even thinking about trying to adopt new technologies, things like that Google Espresso print-on-demand printer? Or are they just going to go the way of record stores, and stick to their guns, hoping to be one of the stores that can be supported by a customer base of whatever the book version of audiophile collectors might be?
Derek: I'd like to see more grants go to publishers, so that publishers get paid better, copy editors and designers get paid better, authors get paid better. I sometimes think there's a gulf between working writers -- writers who publish, who edit other writers, who write about other writers -- and the writers who get grants. I say sometimes because it's really not something I think about a lot -- it's more important to work, work, and work some more, to write something decent and show it.
I don't believe that indie bookstores should get grants. It's possible to make money at a bookstore -- it's not easy, but it's possible. The day of the general bookstore seems to have died, and it's important now for bookstores to become what Chapters and amazon.com can never be -- places for discovering new and surprising books and art and objects. If you want the Giller winner, go to Costco. Fuck the Gillers. At a good bookstore you'll discover things that amazon would never think to show you -- they could be small press books, gallery catalogues, stationery sets, toys, mags. Should people pay a little more to support bookstores? Yes. I see people at bookstores finding things they never knew about, things that they love, and while they're there they look them up on amazon.com. They're idiots. When bookstores are gone, they won't find those thrilling things. They will find what amazon finds for them.
I think print on demand technology will play a part in all this, too. It won't be Espresso machines, either -- that set-up is too corporate, too centralized, too predictable. It'll be through upstart publishers and producers: look at OR Books, which is touring authors to bookstores; look at what Richard Nash is doing. Look at places like Publication Studio in Portland, which Matthew Stadler runs. I've been thinking about this a lot -- I've been working with Alana Wilcox from Coach House on a publishing project/installation that we'll be unveiling next year. Print on demand is exciting -- the possibilities are big. It could involve what you call community in novel ways. Better yet, it could build new communities, or connect communities. I hate that word, community. But what's a better word? Crowd. Scene. I like scenes. It could connect art scenes with literary crowds with craftspeople. Of all these scenes, the literary one is the most conservative. I've said it before and I'll say it again: it drives me crazy that so many cool kids love the latest music, the latest art, the latest fashion, and yet they read McSweeney's and David Sedaris and Douglas Coupland and think it's the cutting edge of literary production. I'd like kids to get as smart about books as they are about the other arts they adore. I like to think that bookstores and new publishing technologies can raise the bar across the boards by blending in different scenes and crowds. I'm utopian.
None of this is news to you, I'm sure. I like the way that you've been able to build up a readership, and the way you've been able to get books to it. Publishing with TopatoCo is an interesting proposition. That said, I think your Chapters/Indigo franchise idea is dreadful. I wouldn't want to work at one, or own one; would you?
Derek McCormack will be reading from his new book, Count Choc-o-log, at the Pas De Chance 25th anniversary. N ACO 1665 Dundas St W, Toronto. Thursday Oct 7th, at 7pm.