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Interview with Jim Munroe
Here is our complete interview with Jim Munroe. A slightly abridged version appears in Challenging Destiny Number 13.
interview by James Schellenberg & David M. Switzer
CD: We thought we'd start by asking you about your experience at Adbusters.
JM: I was managing editor there for a year. How it came about was that I was basically just traveling around Canada and when I was in Vancouver, of course, I had to worship at the altar. It was my favourite magazine, and had been for years at that point. When I was in student journalism I did a York student paper called Excalibur and I was features editor so we did a subvertising section that was definitely an homage to Adbusters in a lot of ways. There was a little bit of contact there -- I had someone interview Kalle Lasn, the editor and publisher, at some point. Basically when I stopped by I found out they were looking for someone, I applied, and it worked out. It was cool. I was just planning to travel on -- from Vancouver I was planning to go to Europe.
All my contacts in Vancouver were through doing zines. My friend Matt did an anarchy zine called Viscosity Breakdown, which was a great zine. We'd traded for a couple years before that and when I put out the word that I was traveling he said, "You can crash on my couch." I ended up staying there for a month while I got everything settled -- so he was a real saint. When I said, "I don't know if I really want a job" he said, "Europe never closes. It's not going to change that much." I finally went last year, for about three months. I traveled for about 6 months in 1999.
My experience there was really good, but at the end of about a year I was anxious to get started on my own creative projects. I think I have a limited time I can give to someone else's creative project. Even though I was totally into Adbusters. After a certain amount of time I get a little restless and want to start something else. We left on really good terms.
CD: How did that segue into writing SF?
JM: That was one of the main reasons I left -- to come back to Toronto to write a novel. I'd been doing zines since I was 17, and I'm 29 now. I have a short story collection, of 100 pages. I published this novella called Ironwood, a fantasy-SF novella. Then I published this novella called Infinity Points. The other ones had been saddle-stitched, digest-sized, but with Infinity Points I went all out and got it perfect bound and a colour cover. It looked very nice production-wise. That was in 1995. So I'd been writing novellas for a while, and wanted to write a novel. I had a fair amount of self-publishing experience. A lot of that is overshadowed by HarperCollins and Adbusters, but it was definitely what gave me the confidence to write a novel. When I wrote my novel I knew that major houses won't be interested in this. There's a subplot where the cartoonist is being courted by publishers and then dumped at one point -- it's kind of negative on the whole publishing industry. I figured it made it major house-proof, and I was wrong. There's an editor in Flyboy who wants to publish this cartoonist but can't and is depressed about it. And when it was being shown around in the States I had this guy say to me, "You know this editor on page so-and-so, that editor is me!" I didn't know anything about the publishing industry, but it only stood to reason that you'd get editors who really are excited about projects that they can't get through because publishing houses don't want it.
CD: How did it feel to be published by a huge conglomerate for your first novel, Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask?
JM: The reason they picked it up at all was because of this editor, Christian Bailey. He was their foreign-rights guy, but then he was getting into acquisitions. The editor-in-chief believed in getting people into all different aspects of the company. So he was reading through stuff from the slush pile, and that's where he found my novel. He asked me to send a full manuscript -- I'd just sent a 20-page package to the houses. So I sent it out -- actually, my mom sent it out because I was in Korea at the time. I'd wanted to travel to Asia for a while -- somewhere foreign, as foreign as I could go. Maybe four houses were interested in seeing the entire manuscript. My mom just sent out the same package that I'd prepared -- it looked like I was in Canada. I was in Asia for 7 months. I had a few conversations with Christian from this phone booth in this tiny little town called Muan -- it was a total farm town, renowned for its onions.
That aspect of it was really good -- we had a really good rapport. A big part of me deciding to sign with them was him, and I also met the editor-in-chief who I immediately got on well with. She's a really nice woman. I was very upfront about being uncomfortable with the ownership and that I didn't like this trend towards media consolidation. They were very understanding. They're a part of this corporation, but they're OK -- I didn't get the feeling they were going to whisk it away and do whatever they want. Once they gave me the contract, I told them I'd get back to them in a month. They were very patient, and I appreciated that. They gave me a lot of things contractually that I wanted, such as mutual control over the cover -- we both had to agree. It's not, "My cousin drew this stick figure and I want it on the cover." It's about acknowledging the fact that the author is an equal partner in this thing. If anything they should have more power, but I'm totally happy to have equal standing with the publisher and have this much input into the creation of the book as a tangible product. Obviously the publisher's putting capital in, and you understand there are certain things they want back from it. The author's put a lot of time and talent into it on spec. When they're writing it, there's nothing guaranteeing that it'll ever get published -- it's all on speculation that it'll eventually get published. They definitely deserve some input into it. Overall I was uncomfortable with it, but interested to see what it was really all about and learning from the experience.
CD: You chose to self-publish your second novel, Angry Young Spaceman. Has that met your expectations?
JM: It's worked out really well. I put an expenses and revenue sheet up on my web site recently. I've sold over 2000, which is equivalent numbers to Flyboy. But I made a lot more money on it -- per book. The American advance was higher for Flyboy. In Canadian sales I made about $5 a book as opposed to $2 a book. Not to mention the satisfaction in doing the job properly. The promotional end of things was more tailored to what I'd like to see.
CD: How did you go about marketing it?
JM: I had this shtick -- it was a "Teach English On Other Planets" infosession. Not a reading or a lauch, an infosession. I came across like Anthony Robbins -- a dynamic seminar kind of guy who gets you riled up. Trying to recruit people to teach English on other planets. So I had a slide show, saying "This could be you." It had all these '50s stock images that we manipulated. I had a local artist, Sandy Plotnikoff, make all these artifacts from other planets -- like Octavian pyjamas with eight arms. We went to Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, and Vancouver and did the same show in each place. At the end I also took Q & A from the audience with 9/3, the boxy-headed robot -- just his head. We had someone doing his voice, and the artist made the actual head -- it had eyes that glowed, and went up and down. It ended with me tearing out his brain because he got too uppity. It was really fun. The tour meant that it got publicity in all those cities -- way more publicity than it would have. Three or four newspapers in Vancouver, it was on the cover of The Coast in Halifax, it was in The Mirror in Montreal, some other places. If there was a chance of it being lower profile because of it not being with HarperCollins, I think that helped bring it into the limelight.
From the cover to the promotion to interviews -- I wanted it to be appropriate to the content, rather than appropriate to what the marketing idea of what is best to do with this. A lot of people with covers, to take the simplest part, assume that you'd want a cover that would attract the most people. If I'd made a cover like that for Angry Young Spaceman, people would have picked it up and most of them would put it down. I felt like the percentage of people who'll pick this up is smaller but it's very reflective of the sensibility inside. The people that the cover appeals to, the concept will appeal to. It's a matter of making it appropriate, not mass market.
A lot of the time I spent with this book was unraveling the myths around marketing. Obviously I want to sell books -- do I have to take the party line on all these things? I found that often I didn't have to. I experimented with low-risk stuff, like the web -- I sold books online. I sold about 50 books online, mostly to Americans. About 20 were Canadian -- so 100 times more people bought it in the bricks-and-mortar stores than did online. Generally I think the people who read my books are comfortable with being online. I assumed it was hype, and now I know. None of these online book companies release their numbers, they just let people assume they're doing really well. Since I'm doing the business end of things, I can have full disclosure on everything I do. So people can get a realistic idea of what they're in for if they decide to self-publish. I try to caution people, while at the same time being inspirational on some levels. To me it was a success -- it made me $13000 for a year's work. Fantastic by indie media standards, shitty by anyone else's. That's still $5000 below the poverty line. It's fine -- my lifestyle is such that that's more than enough. At the same time, people sometimes will go into it with totally unrealistic expectations. It's the same thing even going with big houses, because once you get a book published odds are you're still not going to be making enough money to live off. You're expected to live off the prestige as a writer. You can't eat prestige -- I tried. I'm delighted to be doing this -- I get to do what I want all the time. I think it's important to let people see the pros and cons of the whole thing. If you want a car, don't go into it.
CD: Both novels are unconventional love stories. Was that intentional or did it just happen?
JM: I would agree with that assessment. I think it's a big part of our culture. I think it's a bigger part of our culture than phasers are, for instance. I feel like it's important to talk about. Especially unconventional relationships, because when you put them in print people think about their relationships. I've had tons of people talk to me about how Flyboy reflected their ideas of romance. On one level I'm very conscious of the fact that romance in general is status quo. There's nothing more conservatizing than a child, for instance. It makes you totally focused on security, rather than freedom. Right now I don't care about security -- that's why I take the risks I take. Worst-case scenario, I'm washing dishes somewhere -- it's not that big a deal. But if I had a kid it would be a totally different thing. I'm comfortable with writing love stories. I'm more focused on characters -- and that's a big part of character interaction.
I think there's a need for people to talk about unconventional modes of all sorts of life. It sort of mythologizes it, when you write about it. Even a lifestyle can be mythologized and made into something more noble. It's what happened with punk rock. People were living these lives, eating food out of garbage cans, destroying their bodies with various drugs -- but because of the way it was framed in music and art it became this mythological thing. For better or for worse, it became this template for people -- they felt they could eat out of garbage cans and be fucking the man. I think it's true. Dumpster-diving, finding stuff in the street and using it, and not being concerned with traditional norms of what is appropriate. What is dirty, what is clean. Looking at how arbitrary those distinctions are sometimes. What is waste, what is usable. What is noise, what is music. Redefining modes of human experience is something art does best. I've been thinking a lot about how if you grow up middle class and get into punk rock you can be poor with a fair amount of dignity, but if you grow up poor then it's the last thing you want -- you want a car and you want a house in the suburbs. If you grow up in the city, you want to move to the suburbs -- if you grow up in the suburbs, you want to move to the city. It's a little bit dismaying, because it seems like we're robots and there's very little free will involved. I think it's important to keep in mind when you're elevating these lifestyle choices that if you're not white male and middle class it's very difficult to adopt these things. It's more associated with shame and deprivation than being cool.
CD: How do you solve the problem of an ending for a non-traditional narrative?
JM: To me, my endings totally make sense. A lot of people have had issues with how, for instance, at the end of Angry Young Spaceman, the guy's buddy blows up to gargantuan proportions and he dies. I try to ride the line between a song that ends with a bang and a song that squeals on for about 5 minutes too long, like an unraveling sweater. To me they're both valid. Tying everything up neatly at the end is what we've come to expect. I don't want to be perverse about it and annoy people, but at the same time -- fucked-up shit just happens. You've got to cope with it. That includes you, reader. Sometimes people do read stuff for escapism and I think that's totally fine. I certainly do to a certain extent as well. I don't think I have a responsibility to tie everything up neatly. With Flyboy there's that scene at the end where everything's quite neatly tied up and happy and they're all hanging out together. There's something a little bit too neat to that. That's why Angry Young Spaceman is less neat at the end.
Someone asked me about sex scenes in Angry Young Spaceman -- how come there wasn't one like there was in Flyboy. I don't feel compelled to deliver the goods. It wasn't appropriate in that situation. There's something weird about their relationship in the first place -- not just that they're different species, but the cultural difference is such that it would be exploitive for him to have sex with her. I don't feel like it's not complex, and I don't feel like sex is going to resolve everything. It was just a case of choices on my part -- it's often intuitive.
I try not to bounce off what I've written before too much -- I try not to make one book the reaction to the last book. I try to ignore the books I've written in the past, while still being conscious of the fact that, for instance, people complained about Matthew ballooning and them not really knowing why. But I don't think anyone knew why, not even the CSIS agents or FBI agents who were on the scene.
You don't want to make it so unconventional that people say, "What the hell is going on? Purple?" I'm not a very big advocate of experimental writing that is so challenging. It's a call you make -- how challenging do you want to make it. You want the reader to enjoy themselves on some levels, and you also want to challenge the reader on some levels. It's about that balance between the two. The ending is especially critical, because it's what people are left with. I'm happy with the equilibrium that Sam has at the end -- between being part of the system and trying to slow down the process he's a part of. It's a ridiculously complex issue. That kind of half-way solution is about the only thing he's ever going to get. Beyond a kind of fantastic SF device that changes everybody's mind. I have no interest in that kind of quick fix -- it's too easy.
CD: You mentioned that you'd published a short story collection. Are you still writing short stories?
JM: For shorter projects, I like to get involved with different media now. I've just put this 7-minute movie I made on my web site. I wrote a script, got some friends together, and made it over the summer. That was really fun. I also wrote and programmed this text adventure video game. If you've ever played Zork or other Infocom games -- it's called Punk Points, and it's on the site as well. Both of those are short pieces in a sense. It took a lot longer than a short story would because there's a huge learning curve. That's what I'm more interested in doing nowadays.
CD: What were your goals in doing those projects?
JM: Fun, mostly. I get excited when I see other people making stuff. In some arenas having the ability to construct a story gives you an in. Especially with film it's quite easy to step in. With video games, it's something that's been in my head for a while. When I was 12 or 13 that was my life goal -- to write for Infocom. Computers and writing -- it's a perfect match. I look at a lot of the stuff that exists now on PC or Nintendo systems -- they are very cinematic. If someone went at this with the right tone and the right amount of high-mindedness, they could make it into something equivalent to a movie. Except it would be interactive. This is something people have been working towards for a long time. There's a game called Grim Fandango -- it's phenomenal. If you made that into a movie trailer and you put it before movies, it's so visually enticing and intriguing -- I think it would do really well.
I feel the same way about SF to a certain extent -- it's about using a genre that a lot of people dismiss artistically. I say, "That's what you think." And then doing something that isn't as dismissible. With video games, there's no way I would call it "multimedia art" -- come on, they're video games. A lot of people who write SF will call it magic realism and that dignifies it somehow. It's this trick way around the kind of baggage that SF has. But I love the baggage that it has. Because to me the boundaries between these things are nonsense. It just makes things simpler for people to think about. There's an inherent joy in creating something that's entertaining and enjoyable, in a fun format. But at the same time is something that doesn't make you feel like you ate a whole bag of chips. That's always been my goal, to create at a kind of falafel entertainment level -- it's not junk food, but it's not rabbit food either. It's tasty yet not totally awful for you. It's about creating something that bridges those two. People think there's the market of people who want brainless entertainment and there's the market of people who want brainy entertainment. I know tons of people who read Proust and then play Doom. There's so many people who are both. It's a denial, a dangerous one I think. People should work towards being comfortable with paradoxes, or being aware of them. Instead of saying, "There's two sides to me" -- no, not really. We've got to figure out something better than a Jekyll and Hyde rationalization.
CD: Do you see yourself as part of the SF genre?
JM: I'm totally happy to be called a SF writer. If people ask me what I write, I say I write SF-influenced stuff. I'm also aware that I violate some things, certain conventions and assumptions about what are the most important things. My priority list is quite different from even myself as a younger SF writer. I was always interested in writing SF and fantasy, less so with fantasy. I was writing a lot of SF and then I started getting into writing more realism-based stories about people I know -- the kind of writing that worked on details. Small insights into people's character. At some point I synthesized the two.
In Toronto, I know a few people involved with SF but almost all of them I know from political stuff. I gave this talk at an anarchist gathering in 1998, this workshop on breeding a new visionary, bringing together SF and radical politics to envision a new future. It was trying to get people to make stuff and do things, rather than an academic thing. Nalo Hopkinson came to it, and I'd never met her before -- we hung out after that. And Emily Pohl-Weary -- her grandparents are Frederick Pohl and Judy Merril -- we've been good friends for years now. Me, Nalo, and Emily formed the core of something called the Science Fiction Action Heroes. What we would do is choose an area or a theme, like Kensington Market -- the gentrification in it. And then do a Kensington Market 2020 poster series. I'd write a little short story about someone walking through the market in 2020. We would go postering around -- it would be this public art thing. We did it for Queen Street West -- consumerism, and future of education on the University of Toronto campus.
I haven't been to a convention ever. I found out from Lorna at the Merril Collection that Toronto has the World Science Fiction Convention for 2003 -- I never find out about these things. On the other hand, one of the guys who's organizing it, Lloyd Penney, is someone I know from 10 years ago. We had a great letter correspondence when I was doing my punk rant zines. He was writing these long letters to me -- really interesting intellectual discussion. There's been a lot of intersections.
There's this fan in California, he's a 60-year old gardener -- Don Fitch is his name. He does a fanzine himself, and got ahold of this Ironwood novella that I wrote, and gave me a great critique of it. I didn't get this from any of my teachers -- they all said, "SF is fine, but I can't give you solid feedback on something I don't write." That was the kind of garbage I was getting from them. I can't say I have a particular affinity for the community as a whole, but there's been beautiful examples of neat things that have come about from chance meetings with people.
When I got the news about WorldCon, I sent off an email saying, "I've been into SF for 15 years, I've written 2 novels of SF, and I've never been to a convention and this is why..." It's never been something like, "I'm never going." It's always, "Why does it have to be all the way over there?" or "Why does it have to be $100?" One of the things I suggested was that they should sponsor some SF-themed art that's happening at around the same time in different galleries in the city. Things that would be free, for the general public. All the convention would do is list it in their catalogue. So people who came from Philadelphia would venture out to see weird art with a SF theme -- there would be a little more mingling with other people. I feel like I'm on the edge of committing to that ticket price, or the whole rigmarole of being a volunteer.
It has such a low profile if you're not in that scene. The zine fairs -- I hear about them months in advance. Most of my friends make zines. It's low pressure -- it might be more intimidating in terms of the people there. There's generally no cover charge. But maybe it's not something that needs a lot of recruiting -- I don't know what the concerns are, I don't know if fresh blood is really an issue. For me, SF as a cloistered ghetto of people isn't very interesting. Because SF by itself to me isn't very interesting -- it's when it intersects with real life in some way, either political or cultural, that it becomes exciting.
CD: Are you working on a new novel?
JM: I'm three weeks into this new book, set in 2036. Corporate rule is in full effect at this point. Four people decide to fight back. From completely different backgrounds, different talents -- it's their stories of resistance in that period. It's getting me out of writing about people in their 20s. While I'm very comfortable doing that, it's a little bit limiting -- you feel like you're going over similar ground. There's one character who's a genetic artist. In 2036 biotech is totally obsolete. It's only in use for artists, who make weird little animals. She's got a series going with rat-dogs, these tiny little dogs. They're all on a mythical theme -- there's a cyclops one, and one that has two heads. One of the other characters is a coolhunter -- an informant to advertising agencies as to what you think is cool today. They exist now -- Nike has coolhunters. This guy is an aging coolhunter, and he's had his day. The sharks are circling in his office, and he's having a miserable life. Another one is this elderly lady who used to be black ops for a corporate security agency in the third world. So she's an assassin. But she's just an old lady now. So they've all got different reasons for doing what they're going to be doing. It'll take me about 6 months to write. It's coming out in March 2002.
CD: In your books you talk a lot about the way the economic system expresses itself and dominates pop culture. And you're creating pop culture yourself. Do you see possibilities for resistance, or is everything going to be commodified?
JM: I do definitely see the potential for resistance. My feeling is, though, that easy answers are usually easy for a reason. If it's really easy to do then it's probably not making much of an impact. The corporate powers-that-be are not an amorphous mass of super-geniuses -- the tide is just flowing their way. They've got an amazing amount of advantages that we've forgotten about over the years.
In about 1848 the corporation was born -- it was this weird entity that had all the rights of the individual but none of the responsibilities. I want to explore this in the book. If an individual caused a chemical spill in a certain neighbourhood, that individual would be liable for everything it had. In a corporate sense it's only liable for the holdings that it has -- it's a shield. A decoy -- get the dogs to attack that. It's an amazing thing. I don't think there's been a lot of criticism of the corporation as this weird entity that has a tremendous amount of power but no way to be held accountable in the long run. It's outrageous. People have a knee-jerk reaction: big government, big corporations -- bad. If you're going to have a knee-jerk reaction, it's a pretty good one. But if you analyze it, it's not a question of the fact that it's big. It's the fact that it doesn't have a correspondingly large way to be held accountable, responsible. The government has a certain amount of checks and balances that way. The corporation has none. As it switches from the government being able to keep the corporations in check, if they become too big then the government is no longer controlling them anymore. In the book, there's no mention of government -- it's not an issue. That's how I see it going, more and more.
Our hope for resistance is in a multi-layered attack. Where you have some people lobbying the government. Then you have some people attacking corporations directly with counter-propaganda techniques. There's a certain amount of pragmatism you have to keep in mind when you're doing these kinds of actions. You have to look at how we are going to get results rather than what is the best thing to do.
I take a lot of hope from stuff like Seattle. At the time, I was impressed mostly with how the media was covering it and the fact that the media was covering it. That it wasn't so deadened to that kind of protest. It's amazing that so many people mobilized around such an esoteric issue -- it is a very complex issue, how the IMF impacts these foreign countries. I've seen firsthand how the IMF affected Korea, for instance. How it caused a cultural shift -- you can't just pretend like the market and economics are unconnected to everything. People are mobilizing around what I feel are the real issues. The market system doesn't value the things that we as humans value -- it values some of the things, but there's a lot of things that fall between the cracks like quality of life, fresh air, and peace of mind. There has to be some system that addresses that, there has to be something in place that compensates for it. That makes it a more humane place to live. That's the faulty logic behind letting the market decide. You'd think you were done with that once you were finished ridiculing Adam Smith's Invisible Hand of the Market. But it's back again -- it's the same fucking shit. It taps into the human tendency to say, "The market is dealing with that. I don't have to think about it. I can think about the things that are right in front of my face." People get into patterns and they just focus on the things immediately around them, and they're isolated from a lot of stuff that goes on. I don't think people are inherently lazy. But I do think that there's a tendency towards ignoring what you can ignore. To a certain extent you need to do it to be able to focus. If you can't focus you're schizophrenic and everything seems of equal importance.
On a tangent, I have a friend who's doing artificial intelligence research. Her main thesis is that computers are schizophrenic, in that schizophrenics are unable to differentiate or value stimuli they're getting. When they're yelling at you on the bus it's usually associated with some stimulus, but you don't know what it is. It could be an ant crawling along there, or it could be a bomb. Computers aren't able to filter out what is not important -- it's just all data to them.
To me it's not a question of, is there hope? To me you have to keep coming up with stuff to try to fight things you don't want to take over the world, to become the dominant way we live. There are different activist thrusts. Some that say the revolution is coming tomorrow, so we push like hell for the next 20 minutes, years, decades -- and then we'll be there, we're almost there. I view myself in a context of a balance system. There's always going to be people pushing this way, so I've got to push that way. I see activism in general as having a social function. Rather that being something that's going to immediately have an impact. If you do have that mentality you get burned out at some point. You push too hard assuming something big would happen. Sometimes it's never big enough. The difference between women's rights now and 50 years ago -- a lot has changed. But if you had in mind a certain ideal you might be really depressed and hate the world, even though there has been some positive change made. It's about finding a way to keep doing something that makes an impact in a way that's also enjoyable. So you don't become a martyr activist who gets sick of it in 2 years and just gets a job in a corporation that fucks the world up. Those people can be really damaging. Younger people say, "They were totally into what I'm into but now they've sold out." It's our duty to maintain some level of involvement in social justice issues or activist issues and at the same time have a sustainable lifestyle so you can enjoy life and you don't feel bitter. I don't expect a lot, so when something happens it's always a pleasant surprise. I have this base assumption that things are going to work out.
Last modified: November 27, 2001
Copyright © 2001 by Jim Munroe