Adam Voith: Missives from the Downtimes

August 28th, 2002 | Category: Interviews

Adam VoithWhile I struggle to keep a few websites updated and maybe put out a ’zine a year, Adam Voith publishes books. Not only that, but he does it differently. TNI Books (Adam’s imprint) puts out a biannual magazine/book thing called Little Engines (crammed with short stories by the leaders of the new literature underground, sandwiched between a few pages of ads), excellent novels (some of which he also writes), and random other printed matter. He also maintains engaging blogs and the TNI web empire.

Roy Christopher: What was your original goal for TNI? Has it changed any since you started?

Adam Voith: I suppose the original goal was to get my own book out there for folks to buy and read. Inside that were probably some mini-goals like “avoid a bunch of rejection letters from publishers who have never heard of me,” or “learn everything you can about getting a book made as fast as possible because it will help you down the road,” and even “kill time: you’re out of college and where has that gotten you?”

So I got some of my writing out there and quickly discovered that making a book sell goes far beyond getting some pages printed up and bound together, but I also started to figure out that both writing and publishing might suit me. I think maybe (if I could make a gross general statement with no actual research and no claim as to the validity of the statement) that’s somewhat rare. You see this more in companies working with art on an independent level, but once you step into the world of “big” publishing, I’m not sure the guys upstairs are spending much time on their own creative energies.

So from there, the idea of stepping outside of self-publishing my own stuff began to kick around in my head. Once the decision was made to work with some other people’s books and projects, the goals started changing to that order. So currently, for example, when I’m looking for ways to distribute the books, I’m a bit more hyperaware of what’s at stake. There are other artists trusting this company to treat their work in the way it deserves to be treated, and so it makes the goals focus more on general success for the company rather than just my own books and writing.

RC: What the hell made you think you could just go off and publish your own books anyway?

AV: Honestly, because I saw people doing it with music and, in lots of cases, it was working for them. I’d been involved with ’zines in the past, and knew that there were ways to get printed material around to small groups of people, but mostly I was inspired and encouraged by particular record labels making their way.

RC: Good point. Having just started Camden Joy’s new book, Lost Joy, (TNI Books, 2002), I thought maybe you could give some insight on TNI’s connection to the underground world of music.

AV: Well I learned about art (making art, enjoying art, buying art) first and foremost through independent music and some form of punk rock. While the whole idea of ethics being more involved in punk than, say, a software company might be a bunch of bullshit, there were certain ideas and attitudes that I took and try my best to continue to take from that scene. In terms of the connection the company has to a music world: I put ads and send review copies to rock magazines as much as I do to literary outlets. There are a fair number of record stores that sell the books. Many of the folks involved in Little Engines lead double lives in the world of rock. There are all of those literal connections to independent rock, but I like to hope that some of that connection folks see is found in the spirit of the company itself.

RC: Do you ever think of going the Jim Munroe route (the “sell-out secret”) and publishing something through someone else bigger in order to fund your own stuff?

I’d consider working with a larger publisher if the timing was right, and if the things I find important are addressed in a way that satisfies what I’m trying to do with my writing and my books. I hinted at this above when I said I was trying to learn all about book making because it would help me down the road. While I take great pride in the independence of TNI Books, and while making art in an independent arena is, in my own opinion, crucial to the survival of those arts, I’m not working in complete opposition to larger publishing houses. For sure, there are great books coming out of some of the bigger publishing outlets. My main concern, though, is to build up an audience on my own before looking into those other options. If the time comes when some larger publisher is interested in what I’m doing, I’d certainly see what the nature of their interest was, but for now I’m not sending my work anywhere on that level. The only other place I’ve been sending/publishing stuff outside of TNI Books releases is a small broadside publisher in Chicago called THE2NDHAND. Amazing stuff they’re doing, and all on one sheet of paper!

RC: You bring up a point here that I’ve been debating with many people on both sides of this issue: is “independent” work more authentic than work backed by corporate money? Is something automatically suspect when it comes from a corporate source?

AV: The question you pose is totally interesting. There are urges in me that push to say yes, independent is better, but there are calmer parts of me that know there are plenty of totally authentic pieces brought to you by corporate money. I think the bottom line is that in our economic model, there’s no way to fully tiptoe around corporations. And the fact is that some folks making art probably do indeed need to reach that larger audience the big dogs are able to hit.

The origin of my take on this debate was a quote by Richard Metzger: “The most subversive thing anyone can do is become popular.” I’ve used this quote to analyze and spark debate about the position of a band like Rage Against the Machine versus a band like Fugazi. Most people tend to be easing up on the staunchly independent stance, but tempers often still flare. The question for someone in your position is how some influx of money from another source would affect your business, your goals, and — most of all — your product.

AV: Well, first of all I should probably point out that subversion isn’t necessarily a goal of mine. I can fully understand how that can become a goal for some artists, but for me the more important factor (in light of this discussion) is the honesty of the artwork, and whether the way that work finds its way into consumers hands tarnishes that honesty. I’m not sure if folks are tending to ease up on the staunchly independent stance or not, but if they are, I don’t see any evidence that says they should. I suspect (and am often convinced) that going the “major” route, be it in publishing or music, is probably a worse choice now than it was ten or so years ago.

It’s not like things in the realm of gigantic corporations are getting more artist friendly! However, I also see plenty of nasty stuff in the world of independent art. I’m often frustrated with this topic as a debate because I can point to numerous records or books that were presented to me through some large corporate situation and say “these are quality pieces of art.”

However, I can also look at a Fugazi record (like you cited) and say that there’s not much of a way that record would make sense or carry the weight it does were it to be released by a major record label. So clearly the situation isn’t black and white. The issue for me has to focus on the actual piece of artwork (or the “product,” if that isn’t offensive to you). If the artwork makes it into the hands of the public with minimal assholeness, money stealing, dishonest promotions, etc., then someone’s doing okay. For me, so far I’ve found that doing things independently makes the most sense right now, but in general any stance like this certainly requires a skeptical eye every now and again.

RC: In your fiction, you often write about personal issues. Do you have a process for fictionalizing your experiences, or do you switch stuff around or just make stuff up?

AV: It’s a combination of all of these things, for sure. Often the personal issues I write about center around internal conflicts I have. I think I tend to put these conflicts/contradictions into a format that can be laughed at or is amusing to lighten what is actually at stake. I don’t have a particular process, but lately I’ve been working more and more with stories that are more fiction than fact, which hasn’t always been the case.

RC: I know in my own forays into fiction, I’ve tried to recount events that I think are story-worthy without making it completely obvious when and where these stories happened, or what events inspired them. Using actual events has been crucial to me, because I know exactly how these stories unfolded and how they made me feel. But you hear the horror stories from writers who have written about actual events in their lives and then ended up hated by their friends.

Well, maybe those folks should seek new friends! I’d be bummed out if a friend of mine hated me because I found something about them or some situation we both encountered worthy of writing about. There is a fine line though — a line that I’ve crossed a few times myself. Obviously everyone’s writing from experience in some regard. And I tend to agree with your point that this allows a writer to get at some very true feelings and emotions. I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately, and it’s been very inspiring! True events are so often more interesting, enlightening, sad, funny, etc. than made up stuff!

Is there anything you’re working on that you’d like to bring up here?

AV: I’ve got a new novel called Stand Up Ernie Baxter: You’re Dead. It should be out sometime early next year. It’s about a dead stand-up comedian and his old high school sweetheart. I’m both excited and nervous about the book. The format is odd, some of the chapters are done as comics, and the humor is done in a very rough way in this book, but I feel like I’ve written something I can be proud of. It’s not a super heavy book, but there are certain themes that I really had a good time brushing up against. It’s taken me far too long for how short the book is, but finishing it has been really fantastic. It’s quite a rewarding process wrapping up a book.

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