Breakfast with Burroughs

I met William Burroughs twice. The first time I wasn’t completely forthcoming. It was at a reading he had in downtown L.A. I introduced myself to him after the reading and explained I had an assignment to do an interview with him. I did have writing assignments, but they were all to interview musicians. But I was more interested in interviewing Burroughs, so, the taffy-like stretching of the truth.

And, there definitely was a rock connection; Burroughs pretty much wrote the dictionary of rock. The term ‘heavy metal’ first appeared in print in The Soft Machine. One of the characters is described as “the Heavy Metal Kid.’ There was also a band called The Soft Machine. Steely Dan took their name from a steam-powered dildo that appears in Naked Lunch, and Duran Duran based the song “Wild Boys” on Burroughs’ novel. if I had pitched the story this way maybe my editor would have given the green light. Maybe in a Burroughsesque alternate reality I did have the assignment.

Regardless, he agreed to the interview. I left that evening with a confirmed date and time to interview William Burroughs in Brentwood, California; a very tony part of Los Angeles, for a chat with Bull Lee, the infamous writer of Naked Lunch.

One of the original beats, Burroughs helped spark a cultural revolution. Openly gay, his writing shocked and offended. Come to think of it, it still often shocks and offends. The fact that Burroughs accidently shot and killed his wife William Tell-style and was famous for his copious use of drugs, often drew as much attention as his writings.

Although Junkie was published in 1953, Burroughs is best known for his third novel, Naked Lunch, which underwent a court case under the U.S. sodomy laws.

With Brion Gysin, Burroughs popularized the cut-up technique. A literary technique in which words are edited into weird new juxtapositions and sentences, paragraphs and whole pages are cut up and rearranged.

But, back to the interview. It was set for Saturday morning at an elegantly furnished home in Brentwood. Sadly, I forget the name of the poet who was there with Burroughs. The poet answered the door, let me in and then spent the rest of the time frolicking in the outside swimming pool. As I remember he has weird that Hyundai would it was a large pool. A large pool with exceedingly blue water.

As the poet splashed, I sat and waited in the living room. Burroughs entered wearing a suit. Did he ever not wear a suit? He sat facing me and the interview began with him staring at me in silence. I don’t remember ever being intimidated during an interview, or star struck. I had interviewed a number of celebrities, but here I kept thinking that I was sitting in a room with William Burroughs and my mind went blank. Finally, I opened by asking if he ever used the cut-up technique in his writings. He stared at me for a while and then in a very monotone voice explained that he was no longer interested in the technique.
Silence followed.

My next several questions all elicited a similar response without any change in expression. I considered getting up and leaving to save us all further torture.

And then something shifted. He smiled leaned back and a conversation ensued. We discussed God, or in his case gods. He believed in many, always at war. Time travel; he believed it was possible and that in subtle ways we experience it all the time, but are not aware. How Ginsberg had been the PR genius behind the myth and legend of the Beats. The making of On the Road, and on serving as an advisor on the film. This was before the 2012 film by Walter Salles and Sam Riley that finally made it to the screen. (The production Burroughs was talking about remained still-born, as had so many others). He explained that the information that the government released on heroin and addiction was laughable and totally wrong and that heroin addiction was a disease of exposure. As to addiction, he believed that power addiction was the worst kind.

He liked living in New York (this was before his move to Kansas) because to him it was like living in a village. He walked wherever he wanted to go and his version of Manhattan consisted of only a few blocks.

As the conversation continued Burroughs, although never becoming animated, loosened up, laughed and smiled. He walked me to the door and as I left he said, “Come to New York, stop by, I’ll make you breakfast and we can continue talking.”

Fast forward (there is time travel). Burroughs moved to Lawrence, Kansas and since his death in 1997, officials have dedicated a creek, a nature trail, and even a playground to him. A playground dedicated to Burroughs is something that I feel the writer of Wild Boys would appreciate.

And, as to my breakfast with, although I went to New York often, I never took him up on it.

I liked the memory I was left with. of Burroughs in his trademark suit, laughing as he walked me to the door and an image of a future where the author of Naked Lunch would cook me breakfast.

The Most Important PR Questions for Writers & Filmmakers

Quick questions:

Why are some authors and filmmakers featured in magazines, newspapers, and on TV, while others seem to remain under the radar? 

Why do some careers take off while others falter or flounder?

The quality of the artwork; that’s always a good starting point, but that is seldom the complete answer.

We all know of some magnificent artists whose work seems to be stuck in perpetual twilight, while others, whose work might not be quite as amazing, garner media coverage.

This is rarely a simple matter of luck.  Wait long enough and the media will find you, is seldom a good game plan.   Those authors and filmmakers who achieve media coverage have generally taken their career into their own hands. 

One of most important question an author or filmmaker has to ask is:

Do I care enough to give your art a chance to succeed?

If the answer is yes, here’s the next question –

Are you willing to get out of your comfort zone and actively work to promote yourself and your art?

The most successful artists generally see marketing and PR as a part of their job description.  The upside is it’s not about selling, but about telling compelling stories. Effective PR is effective storytelling.

And who better to tell stories than authors or filmmakers?

The media and the public are interested in the process and in the artist’s journey.  That’s not to say that your story needs to be dramatic, tragic, or theatrical to be effective, but that you need to showcase your work within the context of a story.  Everyone has a compelling story.  All artists, whether they be authors, filmmakers or musicians, have taken a captivating journey.  The trouble is that most are too close to their own experiences to see which stories are the most compelling, which is why working with someone who can view you and your story through a fresh set of eyes can help.

Public relations and marketing are nothing new in the art world.  Centuries ago artists had to promote themselves to patrons, now the focus is on the media and the marketplace.

The myth of the artist is that true artist simply create and wait.

And that myth is precisely that – A myth!

Try that approach and you could be waiting your entire life, while no one sees your work.

Since you need to market is a given, the question is –

How?

Those that can afford to hire a PR firm, should.  Those who can’t should learn PR and marketing steps that they can start on their own.  But the bottom line is that you begin to shine a light on your art

And that you start –

Now!

Bart’s Books: An Interview with Matt Henriksen

Based in Ojai, California, Bart’s Books is a bookstore unto itself.

I was first introduced to Ojai by actors who were in my first play, Bang! A Love Story. That’s going back a few years now, and although my wife and I have visited several times since then we somehow never got around to visiting Bart’s. Truth be told, one of our cousins continually suggested we stop by, but, for whatever reason, we never made the trek.

Until finally we did.

Bart’s was a revelation.

A literal love-at-first-sight experience. Both my wife and I are writers and book fanatics, which works out well, because once we arrive we both know we’re basically there for the day. Eventually as dusk falls, one of us has to drag the other out. Bart’s visits have become regular pilgrimages akin to religious experiences.

I’m not one for buying books online, because I seldom start with a specific book in mind. For me the pleasure is in browsing, searching and finding a book I’ve never heard of, that seems to call out. And Bart’s has yards and rows and shelves filled with books. It’s a magical place bursting with fiction and non-fiction, the popular and the arcane. It’s a wonderful space in which to lose yourself and enter other worlds.

potteryBart’s is the largest independently owned and operated outdoor bookstore in the U.S. The story goes that in 1964 Bart’s Books was little more than a sparkle in the eye of Richard Bartinsdale whose collection of books had gotten so overwhelming that he constructed a series of book cases along the sidewalk so that passersby could peruse the titles.

In lieu of a cash register, “Bart” left coffee cans atop the book cases. People would select a title or two and leave payment in the cans, giving birth to Bart’s world-famous tradition of selling books via the honor system. Since that time Bart’s Books has become host to nearly one million books ranging from the thirty-five cent special (that have now gone up to a whopping fifty-cents) which line the outside walls and are still for sale on the honor system, to rare, out of print first editions, and art books valued in the thousands of dollars.

Matt Henriksen Bart’s general manager kindly took some time to tell us a bit more about the magic of Bart’s.


What initially drew you to the bookstore?

I have been coming to the store since I was in middle school. I used to ditch school to come here to hang out.

How long have you run it?

I’ve been managing the place for seven years.

How would you describe Bart’s to someone who’s never visited the store?

The slogan from the bookmark back in the eighties said, “everything under the sun.” I think that’s a fair description, used new antique rare and valuable books, inside and out of a 30s honeymoon cottage and its courtyard.

Does Bart’s have a mission?

To get the best possible book into the hands of the person who needs it most, to preserve ideas and ideals and encourage their circulation, and to get our customers to try something just a little bit outside of their zone of comfort.

 What type of events to you have at the bookstore?

Art, music, book signings, wedding receptions, poetry readings, private dinners. Almost anything one could imagine if we think it will support our goals.

 As you mention on your site you offer “thirty-five cent specials which line the outside walls and are still for sale on the honor system, to rare, out-of-print first editions, and art books valued in the thousands of dollars”. 

How good are people at honoring the thirty-five cent honor system?

They have actually been 50 cents for over a decade now.   the honor system is after hours only and seems to generate somewhere between 20 and 0 dollars every month.

What are some of the more valuable books you’ve sold at the bookstore?

Value is relative, we have sold books I consider valuable from fifty cents to tens of thousands of dollars.

 What are some of the most unusual books that have found their way to Bart’s?

My current favorites are four bound volumes of New York Times mid-week pictorials featuring beautiful rotogravure reproductions of Europe throughout the first world war, an uncorrected proof of Ernest Hemingway’s ” A Movable Feast”, and   an early California promotional book published in Oakland in 1888 advertising for people to settle in east Los Angeles which includes an article by John Muir on the San Gabriel mountains. I also Have a couple john Muir first editions, “Travels in Alaska” & “My First Summer in the Sierra”

The sheer number and types of books you carry is dizzying.  That said, is there a prototypical Bart’s patron?

As a location that benefits a lot from tourism we get a large number of one time customers, many of whom are not regular bookstore visitors.  As far as repeat customers the single unifying feature of a Bart’s customer is curiosity.

Learn more about Bart’s at bartsbooksojai.com

James Elden on Keeping Noir Alive in the City of Angels

James Elden is producer, director, actor, and self-publisher of the PL.A.Y Noir series staged annually in North Hollywood by his company, Punk Monkey Productions. James can be seen sporadically on television as reoccurring characters on both CONAN and General Hospital and has performed Off-Broadway in the critically acclaimed Santasia: A Holiday Comedy. He is currently working on two full-length screenplays and hopes to produce his two short films, Bobo and Two Kids, a Clown and a Babysitter. He also recently launched the Los Angeles Collegiate Playwrights Festival, a national festival geared solely towards bringing up-and-coming college playwrights together with working Hollywood industry professionals.

I’ve known James for several years and have had the opportunity to work with him in the past. My play Silencing Silas was included in PL.A.Y Noir in 2012, as was Ann Convery’s play Shoofly. The plays were also included in the premiere volume of the PL.A.Y Noir book series. A consummate professional, James is known for his passion and creativity. I caught up with James to discuss theatre, acting, writing, directing, and noir in the City of Angels.


PL.A.Y Noir is rapidly becoming an LA institution, how did it initially come about?

I almost hate to use the word, but PL.A.Y Noir was sort of a fluke. My wife at the time, Sarah Kelly, and I had just come off producing our second full-length play, The Maiden’s Prayer by Nicky Silver, and were discussing our interest in staging a series of one-act plays. I had just directed a tongue-in-cheek Noir piece the previous year called The Zone Ranger written by then high school students, Ben Goldstein and Mac Taylor, as part of the Young Playwrights Festival at Harvard-Westlake School in North Hollywood, and starred Tony Award-winner Ben Platt and singer/songwriter Kathryn Gallagher. I mentioned my interest in revisiting and staging The Zone Ranger, and Sarah followed up with the suggestion of just doing a series of all Noir plays. From there we announced our first “call for entries” and in 2012 staged our first year of PL.A.Y Noir. We had such a great time, we decided to do it again the following year.

The series is produced by your production company, Punk Monkey. What is the genesis of the name?

Sort of another fluke, I suppose. Maybe fate. We had been producing plays under the name Epiphany Productions for our first three years. As our interest in production expanded, we began looking into domain names in order to establish a web presence. Unfortunately, Epiphany Productions was already taken. We went with what would later become a dedication to our dog, Leo, a rescue mutt we found wandering the I-5 freeway in 2008. Leo’s personality was that of stubborn independence, a bit of a punk. That combined with our other “pet name” for him, Monkey, led us to Punk Monkey. Unfortunately, due to rapidly deteriorating health, we had to say goodbye to Leo shortly before the opening of inaugural year. I think Sarah said it best in the origin story from our website, “as a tribute to him, our aim is to produce this show (and all future Punk Monkey shows) with the same independent spirit that he embodied. We aspire to produce theater that is original, courageous, playful, and of course, full of heart. Just like Leo.”

How would you describe PL.A.Y Noir?

Simply put, a series of Film Noir styled one-act plays set in the City of Angels (hence the emphasis of L.A. in PL.A.Y) and revolving around the classic themes of murder, greed and betrayal, involving the classic stock characters of the hard-boiled detective, the seductive femme fatale, and the unscrupulous heavy. That said, we’ve produced many plays that do not have all of the above criteria. Some pieces may have none of the characters but all of the themes, after all, Noir is a genre that even the critics cannot agree on what qualifies.

Why did you decide to make it a series of one-act short plays as opposed to one full-length noir play?

There are so many facets of Noir, I don’t think a full-length play would, or even could, represent them all. PL.A.Y Noir is homage to the genre and staging multiple one-act allows us to give an of evening of variety that touches upon those facets, including classic and neo Noir, as well as comedy and drama. We always try to present an evening that is well balanced in all aspects. A series of one-acts also allows us to give voice and opportunity to multiple playwrights opposed to just spotlighting one.

How many years has the series been running now?

Six. We will be presenting our seventh year of PL.A.Y Noir in the fall of 2018.

How has it changed throughout the years?

We’re always changing. The content. The cast. Overall, though, I think we’ve matured. I think PL.A.Y Noir has become a well-polished machine from a production stand point. We’ve gotten to a point where we know what works and what doesn’t, but I think we played it a little safer in the beginning. We’ve certainly taken more chances, especially with content. You read something that works well on the page, but when it comes to actually staging the play, it may not translate as well as you would have liked, or the audience just doesn’t connect with it to the extent you would have hoped. We’ve learned a lot in that regard. I’ve learned a lot. Noir is an anomaly. Not everybody is familiar with it. They’ve heard the term Noir or Film Noir, but they couldn’t tell you what it is. I think even in trying to find our definition of Noir, we’ve changed and will continue to do so.

You produce PL.A.Y Noir. You also direct and act in many of the plays. Is it difficult to wear that many hats?

There’s definitely a hierarchy; producer, director, performer. Nonetheless, the show comes first. It’s only difficult when the unexpected occurs, but you have to roll with it. Sometimes you lose a director or an actor, and that definitely throws a monkey wrench into the plan. I have a very supportive core group of people, some who have been along for the ride since the beginning, and if something goes awry they step up to the plate. I certainly couldn’t do it without their help.

Which of those (producing, acting, directing) would you say is nearest and dearest to you?

I love to act and direct, but when it comes to PL.A.Y Noir, I’d have to say producing, from the first submission to the closing performance. The wonderment that goes along with the entirety of the production is fascinating, the number of plays we’ll receive that year followed by where in the world they’ll come from. Our most responsive year we received over 250 plays, and we haven’t received less than 100 since our third year. We’ve received plays from England, Ireland, Wales, Spain, France, Italy, Israel, New Zealand, and Australia, and routinely from our friends in Canada and, of course, the United States. To sit and read them all, make the selections, bring them from page to stage, and hopefully have the opportunity to meet the playwrights should they make the trek from afar; the whole process is gratifying.

You are now also publishing the plays. Tell me a bit about that.

It’s a bit of building and expanding the brand, but most of all, it’s about creating opportunities, and I hope publishing the plays will provide that. I researched publishing through Dramatists and Samuel French, but the obstacles seemed too laborious and daunting. It always comes down to getting someone else to say “yes.” We live in a world of accessibility. Now more than ever we can become our own gatekeepers, and that’s why I took the self-publishing route. There is some great content out there, and it’s come across our stage, but our stage is one of many. I hope by publishing the plays we’ve produced, we can open other doors for those playwrights.

What is next for PL.A.Y Noir?

I’d like to think we’ve got four more years in us, at least to hit 10 years. I have three more years of books to publish (2015, 2016, and 2017), and I’d like to do two larger volumes, PL.A.Y Noir Volume 1 (2012-2016) and PL.A.Y Noir Volume 2 (2017-2021). I’ve also been talking a bit with the Film Noir Foundation. They’ve been big supporters of ours and promote our calls for entry and productions. I’ve been corresponding with their PR rep, Anne Hockens, in hopes have having her write the introduction for PL.A.Y Noir Volume 1, and if we can get him onboard in the next few years, Eddie Muller for Volume 2, but we’ve got some time to build to that.

Learn more about James and PL.A.Y Noir at: http://www.punkmonkeyproductions.com/pl.a.y-noir.html

A Voice with Legs: Laura Carruthers Translates Dance into Film

Laura Carruthers is a six-time national champion and world-ranked Scottish Highland dancer, a former member of the Ballet Arizona, and an award-winning filmmaker whose portrayals of dance on screen welcome mainstream audiences to its intricacies. Her latest film, Grace Fury, is an autobiographical exploration into the joy of creating art that has just been nominated for multiple awards at the Glendale International Film Festival, the San Francisco International New Concept Film Festival, the LA Underground Film Forum, and the World Music and Independent Film Festival. Fascinated by the journey that would take a young Los Angeles native from Celtic dance enthusiast to successful filmmaker, I chatted with Laura about what it’s taken her to get here, the inspirations and challenges that she found along the way, and the sense that “bonding with art isn’t always immediate escapism.”

Born and raised in Los Angeles, CA–Burbank, to be exact–Laura spent childhood summers watching her father compete in traditional Scottish sport, a subculture she describes as larger than life. “Not your traditional vacation,” Laura noted laughing, but one that quickly inspired her to enroll in Scottish Highland dancing herself. And she was good at it–really good: she went on to win six national championships. Things took a turn when Laura enrolled at Arizona State University to study history, but there she kept her passion for dance alive by studying ballet under former Kirov principal Zenia Chlistowa, and following graduation she was accepted into the prestigious Ballet Arizona by Director Michael Uthoff.

At this point during our conversation, we paused a moment for me to ask the question that she says nearly everyone who’s not in her worlds asks: what exactly is Scottish Highland dancing, and is it anything like ballet? The answer: Scottish Highland dancing is very aerobic and demanding, requiring a simultaneous precision and buoyancy that results in what Laura describes as a “state of perpetual spring” (which as you might expect, is “very horrible on your legs”). Far from the synchronized pounding of its more mainstream Celtic sibling made popular with Riverdance, Highland dancing is relentless but never heavy. Ballet in turn depends on the same level of precision, but is, perhaps surprisingly so, less rigid than Highland dancing–a flexibility that Laura found very liberating and appealing.

Of course, one must acknowledge that Laura is blessed with preternatural energy and grace–born to a mathematician mother and a father who loved Scottish sport but not dance, Laura is the first of her family to become a dancer. And yet nearly everyone who has crossed her path can’t help but notice a natural exuberance and magnetism that translate across Celtic, classical, and contemporary techniques.

So, Laura made it to ASU where she discovered that the Scottish subculture of her Californian youth was minimal at best. She found herself living almost a double life: the side focused on that subculture, and the side in which her peers had zero connection to it or understanding about it; as Laura describes the dichotomy, “you’re either in it, or you don’t know much about it.” Despite pressure from her father to focus on academics and graduate, Laura discovered that ballet was a way to bridge the gap between Highland dancing and the mainstream professional dance world–and perhaps even a way to turn the dance realm into a long-term career.

Laura started introducing her fellow ballet dancers to the “strange little technique” of Highland dancing, and as a burgeoning choreographer she blended the Celtic with the classical. People took notice, and it was at this point that she started her transformation into the “voice with legs.”

Fast forward to today: Laura is still dancing, but is now also a successful filmmaker and a self-described sociopolitical activist. Her overarching artistic philosophy is intrinsically bound to her unshakeable insistence that art have a place in today’s increasingly money-focused and conformist culture: “I fear that in some ways we’re losing the innocence of just being artistic, allowing for a degree of freedom and room to do just what you need to do and say what you need to say…I feel like art, like science, is a space where we should be pioneering, and in many cases you don’t even know what contributions you might make–a way that might not seem huge in the moment but might influence people down the road. Even if it’s not entirely practical or doesn’t have a huge payoff, in some cases that’s the real stuff, the parts of the variation in our species that goes missing because we follow the same lines too often.”

It is impossible not to be inspired by the conviction with which Laura shares that vision for a world in which creativity continues not simply to exist but to thrive, and it makes it easy to understand why her latest film Grace Fury is picking up nominations across the festival circuit.

An autobiographical foray into Laura’s life and the necessity of artistic creation, Grace Fury combines her obvious long-time love of film (Kubrick and Coppola are some of her biggest influences) with a lifetime’s understanding of dance and self that’s challenged only by the technical innovation that five Panasonic VariCams offer insofar as true viewer immersion. The film is a beautifully intimate experience with a degree of “poetic mystery” that is all too often hard to capture, but it also speaks to the greater human experience. Laura notes, “I hope that some of the points I’m making, the questions I’m asking, are bigger and more core; I’m saying this little microexperience, this one person’s tiny shot at life that I have, that maybe there are some things I’m saying that might resonate with other people, that might speak to human nature.”

Grace Fury originally started as a festival opportunity offered to her by a couple producers in New York; when the larger project died, Laura decided to keep going with the film, realizing that maybe it was time to say what she really meant. If that’s not a metaphor for Laura’s entire drive in life, I don’t know what is. I asked Laura what she looks to get out of this film and the work she does now.

“I just hope the whole thing inspires people to do their own thing as well. To maybe be on the lookout for different kinds of artists who aren’t always in your view all the time. It’s important to inspire people in whatever capacity you have to make art. We should all have the experience of making art, and never resign ourselves to just being spectators or saying we can’t. It’s part of the human experience.”

 Check out Laura’s work and upcoming film Grace Fury at http://www.lauracarruthers.com

An Interview with Red Hen’s Keaton Maddox

*This post originally appeared on Anthony Mora’s blog, Notes from the Salon

I met Keaton Maddox (if that was not a writer’s name, someone would invent it) when he was a guest speaker at a writer’s conference. My wife and I also had the good fortune of sitting next to him at lunch. His passion for literature, particularly poetry, was palpable. It had been quite a while since I had heard someone talk with such zeal about poems and poets. It did my heart good.

Keaton is the Associate Editor of Red Hen Press, as well as the Assistant Managing Editor of the Los Angeles Review and Senior Editor of Write Bloody Publishing. Books he has edited have received reviews or feature coverage in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Slate, Poets & Writers, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He is a graduate of the George Mason University creative writing program and his writing and scholarship have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. Keaton graciously took the time to answer some questions about writing, reading, publishing and offered some tips on a writer’s roadmap.

What first drew you to writing?
I first became interested in writing poetry for the very reason you would expect a pubescent pre-teen boy would become interested in poetry: to swoon a girl. I was in middle school and my seventh grade English teacher assigned us to write 25 poems of all different forms as part of our unit on verse. At the time there was a girl I sat with at lunch I had a crush on who loved horses. So I wrote a 25 poem collection all about horses (I remember only one distinctly—a concrete poem that I laid out on Microsoft Word to be in the shape of a galloping horse). The girl also wrote her collection about horses and that gave us all of 10 minutes of something to talk about. I don’t think she ever even read one of my poems. But the seed was sowed. If I could churn out 25 poems about something I hardly knew anything about, what if I wrote about something I actually enjoyed? It took me a few years to find what that was, but that was the jumpstart I needed to begin seeing myself as a writer.

Who are three writers that have influenced you the most?
This is a really hard one. There are so many, but let’s go with Ted Berrigan, Maggie Nelson, and Brendan Constantine.

Berrigan’s The Sonnets was the first really astonishing book of contemporary American poetry I read in a college classroom. On a first read, the poems make no sense—intentionally! —but by the end you start to see lines you’ve read before, but in different arrangements and orders. It’s only after you’ve finished (and mostly likely read the book a second time) that you begin to see how all of the pieces take on new meanings depending on where you locate them. For me at the time, this technique was a revelation, completely different from the confessional poetry the poems of my workshop classmates. A lot of the projects I’m working on now were inspired by Berrigan’s collages, and are attempting to work in a vein similar to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen—bringing real world issues, facts, and personal experiences into juxtaposition to uncover what exists underneath the tension.

Maggie Nelson is one of those writers who’s especially known for her prose writing but is also a brilliant poet. I find a lot of times my favorite prose writers were poets first (see also Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station or Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, etc.). Maggie Nelson belongs to the academic school of writers, which means her writing, even in cases of personal narrative, is firmly planted in extensive research and often deals with subjects grounded by scholarly theory. What is especially exciting about Maggie Nelson, though, is that she’s writing for more than an insular circle of esoteric professors. She’s creating public scholarship in the vein of Barthes, but even more accessible and applicable for our times. When you read The Argonauts or Bluets or listen to her speak you spend the whole time thinking “Wow, this woman is a genius.” Yet you aren’t jealous or upset with her at all for it because she totally lacks pretentiousness. She wants to share the truth she’s uncovered and there are few greater privileges than being able to listen into it and learn. Even if you can’t relate at all to her subject matter, she writes with such understanding of the human condition you will feel it as universal truth.

And finally Brendan Constantine, who writes in a very different style than either of these other two, but is still an artist I would place in the category of clever poets. He’s a performer so his poems are designed to be read out loud, by him. He’s a Red Hen authors and every time we bring him in for a reading he sells out every copy of his books. He knows how to work a crowd, but that in no way means that his written word isn’t up to par. He has this way of making you look at a word or phrase you’ve heard or thought of a thousand times, but then twisting it into something entirely new. One of my favorite examples of this is in his new book Dementia, My Darling, which is all about memory and forgetting. In it there’s a narrative poem called “The War on Drugs” in which he describes in all of its absurdities what it would be like if the War was the thing on drugs. It’s surprising at every turn and yet familiar in a way that feels honest.

You have a great passion for poetry, what draws you to that particular form?
There’s a line in the Derrick Brown poem “Sour Mash” that I think sums it up well: “a great line of poetry was a bullet and novels were a long choke.” Finishing a long novel might be the best feeling in the world, but it requires time and commitment and the choice to spend hours investing in an isolated experience instead of doing anything else. We’re in the internet age and our attention spans require more immediate gratification than they used to. Poetry has the ability to grab you by the throat and change your whole worldview in less than thirty seconds. What other form of writing can do that?

It’s difficult enough for any writer to get published, but poets have some challenges that are specific to the genre. What advice do you have for aspiring poets?

Learn the aesthetic of where you’re sending your work before submitting. This does not mean that you should be manipulating your art just so you can be published in a big name journal, but rather that you should be looking for places that champion the type of work you’re doing. So much of the publishing game is about developing a community of supporters, building an audience. With as many different publishers as there are out there, you’re doing yourself a disservice by valuing name recognition over fit.

You are an associate editor at Red Hen Press. How would you describe Red Hen and its mission?
Red Hen Press is a literary nonprofit based in Los Angeles. We are committed to publishing works of literary excellence, supporting diversity, promoting literacy in our local schools, and fostering a community of readers and writers who are actively engaged in the essential human practice known as literature.

More specifically: we publish poetry, literary fiction, and narrative nonfiction, typically between twenty and thirty books a year; run a Writing in the Schools program, which connects local authors with Title-1 schools in Los Angeles to host workshops and encourage student engagement in writing and literature; and put on at least thirty readings and events a year in New York, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles.

It’s a non-profit company, how does that impact your approach to publishing?
Mostly it means we don’t have to publish every book solely for its potential marketability. Of course, we try to take on books that people will buy because they want to read them—any publisher that claims they’re not attempting to do this is missing the point—but we also have the freedom to take risks on unknown authors or experimental works that won’t guarantee high sales.

Has working in the publishing end of the business changed how you view or approach the writing process?
Working in publishing has, more than anything else, exposed me to new possibilities in writing I would never have discovered otherwise. My favorite find of this past year is the lyric essay. This style of writing tends to be a blend personal narrative and research with unique form construction and poetry-reminiscent prose. It doesn’t have nearly the popularity of the other genres—essay collections get passed over in bookstores even more often than short story collections—but because of the current online literary marketplace, this type of writing has found homes in places like target=”_blank”>The Nervous Breakdown and The Rumpus. In a lot of ways, lyric essays build their structure not dissimilarly from what I like to do with poetry, so I’ve begun to branch out and test its waters, something I never would have done without stumbling upon the form in a submission. This is just one example of many. So often we have a tendency to read only exactly what we know we enjoy for pleasure, but working in publishing has forced me to consider different approaches the writing and opened up my eyes wide to the endless possibilities.

What do you feel are the two biggest misconceptions new writers have about publishing?
If you’re rejected it’s because your writing was bad. There are a whole host of reasons why a particular piece or manuscript might be rejected and often times they’re factors the author has no control over. For example, sometimes an author will send us a manuscript that looks like a perfect fit—they did their research and know this the exact type of book we like to publish—but we may have just accepted a similar book and now we don’t have room in our production schedule to publish something on that same topic again so soon. You can’t take rejections personally.

Once accepted, you will retain complete artistic control over the production of your book, especially in regards to layout and cover design. We try our best to produce a product the author will be happy with—if you hate the way your cover looks, you won’t want to promote it as hard, and that’s bad for us and the book—but ultimately the publisher-author relationship is a collaboration. We work with designers and sales reps who have collective lifetimes figuring out what will make someone pick a book off the shelf. You have to trust that your publisher wants what’s best for your book too, even if it isn’t exactly what you first envisioned.

In many ways the internet has disrupted the old publish model. Where do you see the industry headed in the future?
It certainly has! We’re in the middle of converting our bi-annual print journal The Los Angeles Review to an online format. Disruptive indeed—the internet is both a blessing and a curse for publishing. On the one hand, the increased exposure and accessibility is unprecedented. Never has it been easier to find amazing writing than through the internet. But it also means that what we publish isn’t just in competition with other literature; it’s in competition with everything available online. You have to make an audience pay attention to your work instead of watching YouTube videos or scrolling for hours through their Facebook feeds. The publishers that succeed in this market are doing so because they’re pushing the boundaries of what we can expect and developing a community (see The Offing, Two Dollar Radio, Button Poetry. All of a sudden, networks of people you never would have had access to are able to read and easily share your work. I think we’ve yet to see the full culmination of what this will mean or become, but one thing is for certain: if you can figure out how to adapt, there has never been a more potent time to make a name for yourself in the writing world.

What advice would you give to writers who feel overwhelmed by the changes? Is there still a roadmap? Was there ever?
There’s definitely still a perceived road map—write until you get into an MFA, publish in journals until you achieve name recognition, publish a book, become famous—and this strategy has worked for many writers, but not for everyone. If you get too bogged down by what you’re supposed to be doing, it can end up feeling like a game, and by that point you may end up caring more about publishing than you do about writing.

In my opinion, the only road map that matters is this: 1) Write write write. 2) Promote promote promote. You have to focus on the art and you have to hustle. Tour even if you don’t have a book yet. Cherish the people that love your work and champion the writers that you love. Be as involved with your literary community as you can, either in your area or online. Connect and contribute and work on your art. If this sounds like a sprawling answer, that’s because there is no one path to success. You have to forge what works for you. But if you focus on your writing and support other writers with theirs, the rest will reveal itself.


Many thanks to Keaton, who lives, writes and edits in Los Angeles, for taking the time to share such insightful answers. To learn more about Red Hen Press visit http://redhen.org

An Interview with Katie Hogan of The Altar Collective

I had the pleasure of meeting Katie Hogan last year. A vivacious literature lover, editor, publisher and author.

Katie is the founder, editor-in-chief, and creative director of The Altar Collective. She is a twenty-two-year-old student from the University of Southern California with a BA in creative writing. Katie first fell in love with a piece of paper and a pencil when she was eight years old. Ever since, she has been dedicated to pursuing writing, especially poetry. Katie has spent time in San Francisco, New York City, Paris, and New Orleans on a constant search for the best iced coffee and answers to her cliché quarter-life crisis. She has studied advanced creative writing at Columbia University and has been nationally recognized for her writing by the National Council of Teachers of English. Katie’s poetry has been featured in publications such as Quiet Lightning and The American Library of Poetry, and she has gained editorial experience as an editorial intern at City Lights Booksellers and Publishers in San Francisco, CA. She is currently living in Boston to get her MA in Publishing & Writing from Emerson College. So, with Katie I launch my interview series of writers, editors, publishers, agents and others involved in the literary world.

Tell me a bit about your publishing company.

The Altar Collective is a small press and arts collective based in Los Angeles, CA and Boston, MA. We specialize in publishing poetry, hosting events like open mics and music/art festivals, and uniting the artistic community together.

What was the impetus to start the company?

In 2012, I dropped out of college after my freshman year and decided to take a year off. During my year off, I traveled to Paris and lived in the city for six months in order to learn French and gain new experiences. Paris was nothing like I imagined, though. Prior to leaving America, I believed Paris would be a lovely trip—full of riding bikes to pick up fresh baguettes, meeting nice people who would show me around the city, and basically all those other cliché, overly happy moments you see in movies.

Although I was very grateful for the opportunity to live in a beautiful city and have this experience, it was more difficult than I thought it would be. Fortunately, I stumbled across a weekly bilingual open mic that took place in the basement of a bar. This open mic inspired me more than I can describe—it was where I felt the most comfortable, and it took away all my fears related to the cultural differences. I was not only able to meet many influential people, but I was also able to really understand the power of poetry and writing in general, regardless of language barriers.

That inspiration followed me back to the states and eventually became one of the main reasons I started The Altar Collective. I wanted to provide a stepping stone and platform for writers. I have been way too lucky to be surrounded by such amazing artists, and I wanted their voices to be heard.

Prior to Paris, I helped a friend run a weekly open mic down in Long Beach, CA. That experience plus my year living in San Francisco and being exposed to groups like Quiet Lightning also really pushed me to create my own press.

What is the most interesting aspect of publishing to you?

My favorite part of publishing has been working with artists. Our poetry anthologies have introduced me to so many talented poets. Some poets flew in from Chicago and New Jersey to participate in our monthly open mic/book release shows, and we still keep in touch. Working with our featured writers, like author Kris Kidd and musician Inch Chua, was an amazing experience, as well. I love getting to know each artist we work with; picking their minds and being able to dive into their writing/art is a real honor.

What has surprised you the most?

People love poetry, contrary to what many believe. Before I started The Altar Collective, I kept hearing that poetry didn’t have a market, that it wouldn’t sell. However, I found that there really is an audience for poetry, and that audience is hungry for quality poetry and a community surrounding it.

What are some of the book you’ve published and what was it about those writers that spoke to you?

Years ago, when I was focusing on pursuing photography, I met another photographer/model named Kris Kidd. Kris and I became friends, and over the years, I realized that not only was he a talented photographer, but he was an amazing writer. After starting TAC, I approached him about his writing, and within a few weeks, we had a manuscript of his essays organized and edited. The manuscript, which would become I Can’t Feel My Face, was a collection of essays about Kris growing up in Los Angeles and his struggles losing his father, joining the modeling industry, and growing up in general. Kris was a friend before we worked on this collection, but working with him on I Can’t Feel My Face allowed me to dive deeper into his struggles and his suffering. Although the essays have a very specific tone to them, they really speak out to what it’s like growing up in Los Angeles.

We published his most recent book, Down for Whatever, in June 2016. I loved working with Kris on Down for Whatever because it shows his growth. It is his first poetry collection, but each piece shows strength and vulnerability, and watching him grow up as both an artist and a writer has been an amazing experience.

Another experience I really enjoyed was working with Singaporean musician Inch Chua. Inch went through all her diaries and chose entries from each one, then compiled a new diary of sorts. I loved getting to know her on a deeper level, and her story of traveling from Singapore to America to continue pursuing music was not only inspiring, but a story I felt like every girl should hear. Inch doesn’t let anything get in her way—if she’s passionate about it, she will achieve it, and that is a message I stand by.

Your also currently studying at Emerson College. How do you juggle your various responsibilities and interests?

It has definitely been difficult, but it’s a challenge that I’ve enjoyed so far! I’m currently in graduate school at Emerson College, studying Publishing & Writing. It’s a great program so far and I’ve learned a lot about the publishing industry that has helped me think about the future of The Altar Collective.

I also work at MIT in patent law during the day, and act as managing editor for Write Bloody, another fantastic poetry press that has been a major influence of mine since I was 13. Going to school, working two jobs, and running TAC while living in a new city has been exhausting at times, but I am so happy to be able to have each experience. Each teach me a different lesson and reveal new skills, so it’s nice to be able to dabble in different areas—it keeps me going!

You also write. Tell me a bit about your works?

Writing has been a therapeutic activity for me since I was a little kid. I’ve mostly been writing poetry, and some of my work can be found in Quiet Lightning, The American Library of Poetry, and Nostrovia! Poetry’s Fuck Art, Let’s Dance.
What are your top two pointers for writers looking to publish their works?

If you are seeking out a publisher, I highly advise working with a press that you love and trust. Go for one that makes you feel like family and makes you feel comfortable.

Never, ever, ever let anyone take advantage of you—financially, creatively, etc. The publishing industry is great, but there are a lot of people out there that are just looking to gain profit off of your art. Protect your work, protect your heart, and never let anyone alter or try to change your work against your will.


For more information on Katie and The Alter Collective, visit www.thealtarcollective.com

Interview with the Vampire…Book Author

When author Thomas Hewlett and I began working together, one of the first things he told me was that he took his first drink at age seventeen and promptly blacked out for thirteen years, coming out of a haze at rock bottom with the early idea for a novel—the one that would kick-start his career—scrawled across a mess of notes.

He had my attention. But it wasn’t the shock factor of that surprising opening that kept me, it was the next part: writing saved his life. Writing not only gave Thomas a career, it gave him an outlet into which to pour his struggles and triumphs, and a purpose in helping others who might be facing similar challenges he did. His personal journey is as remarkable as his Twelve Stakes series.

He and I sat down to talk about both.


On your site you state that you took your first drink when you were seventeen, blacked out and woke up thirteen years later, with little to show for your life besides a notebook full of unwritten books. Did those unwritten book help point you to your current path?

Twelve Stakes - Corrected - High Resolution - Book 1Looking back over that trail of unfinished books—and I use “books” loosely, because they’re mostly piles of disjointed paragraphs and hastily scrawled character sketches—I see an active imagination and a lot of scattered potential. But all that writing kept me anchored in the dream-reality that stories come from. It was a way to keep the fires of my creativity burning when the drink and the drugs threatened to snuff it out completely.

And oddly enough, those scribblings were leading me somewhere, though I didn’t know it at the time. The book ideas and the characters in search of stories got more fantastical the further I went, and it kept my mind limber. Those notebooks were laying the foundation for what came later. The vampires, the magic, the darkness. It’s all there in embryo form.

I’ve heard authors say that writing has saved their life. In your case, that seems to be quite literally true. Tell me a bit about that journey.

Not to sound mythic, but it was a journey to Hell and back. I started losing the plot of my life when getting drunk and high became more important than anything else. The jobs I worked got more menial, the apartments I lived in got smaller and shabbier, everything in my life got small and bleak. I kept scribbling ideas for stories here and there as a kind of lifeline (my wife read one my journals from that period and said, “Well at least your writing was improving…”). When I finally had a breakdown and ended up in the mental hospital on suicide watch, stories were the thing that I held on to. I watched and listened to every crazy person I saw in there. I went from the hospital to rehab and that’s where I started writing again. I learned in rehab that we’re all here to pursue a passion or a dream and nothing is stopping any of us from doing that except a decision. A decision to choose ourselves. I decided I was finally going to write a book, no matter what. It became a central part of my recovery, a reason to get clean and stay clean. Finishing a book became a reason to choose my life. Working on that first draft was a struggle but it helped me stay focused on getting better and getting my life together.

What was the genesis for your Twelve Stakes series?

When I was newly sober, I had dinner with a friend of mine one night, a writer named Khanh Ho. He and I were joking about different ways to write about my time in the nuthouse and were spitballing story ideas. Khanh kept suggesting wilder and wilder ideas, like heroin-addicted angels in rehab, and he finally said, “You should write about vampires in A.A.!” I immediately latched onto the idea, knowing instinctively there was a kickass story in there somewhere. Sure enough, when I started unpacking it, the story, the world, and all the characters spilled out almost fully written. The idea of monsters as addicts and blood as addictive as booze seemed perfectly made to tell a noir-style detective story, which is exactly what I was looking for.

Do you think writing was always in the cards for you?

I don’t like to romanticize writing but in this case I do think I couldn’t have been anything other than a writer. It’s what I love and it’s how I look at the world. I see stories and see characters everywhere I go. And the writer’s life has appealed to me since I was a kid. The freedom to let my imagination run wild really put a hook in me. It’s why I when I was young, I rewrote the endings of books I read when I didn’t like the final scene or how the characters ended up.

Some writers plot and outline their book, others jump in and see where their writing lead them. How would you describe your writing process?

I outline for practical purposes, because it makes the writing process faster and smoother. But I keep my outlines vague so I can leave room for surprises. The outline is a map to a place I’ve never been before. So if I make it too rigid, it cuts me off from discovering new plot points or character motivations along the way. And at some point, I have to be willing to let the outline go altogether. No outline survives contact with the story without changing. So I start with a basic thread of the storyline to get it shaped into a rough three-act structure and I give myself a page count to hit every day. After that, it’s just faith. I trust that if I show up and start writing every day, the characters will show up too and show me the way to the final scene.

How important is reading to you as a writer?

All the reading I did before I started writing was extremely important. It gave me a solid education in how stories work. How do you build tension and suspense? How do you show emotion and pain? What makes a reader keep turning pages, desperate to find out what happens next? Reading as much as possible is important because at some point, all of it sinks into your subconscious like groundwater and that’s where your personal stories spring from. I don’t have as much time to read for fun when I’m writing, so when I do I try to read non-fiction so I can absorb more data that might inspire and influence future stories.

Who are some of the writers you feel have most influenced you?

At the top of the list are the mystery and fantasy writers that have melded into my style. Writers like Raymond Chandler, Anne Rice, Michael Connelly, NK Jemisin, Richard Kadrey, Nalo Hopkinson, Charlie Huston have been my guides and inspiration…and are now my competition.
What would you like readers to take away from your writings?

Most of all I want them to strap in and enjoy the ride. I want them to get lost in the world of Twelve Stakes and get so close to the characters they shout and cry along with them. I want my readers to wonder what kind of monster they’d be in my world—are they Werewolves, Vamps, Fae or Witches? The same way people sort themselves into Hogwarts houses. (That’s right, I just compared my books to Harry Potter!) But most of all, I want my readers to see hope in all the darkness and be inspired to keep fighting, addicts or not.

Twelve Stakes is a book series, but are you also thinking beyond books as a way to express your work?

IMG_9307 (1)Yes, I’m going to take Twelve Stakes across a bunch of different platforms. Jack Strayhorn, my Vampire detective character, hints in book one about the 60 or so years he traveled around solving supernatural cases. I’m turning those into a series of graphic novels. I’m also adapting the main series story into a television pilot. Netflix and Amazon are doing some amazing storytelling right now, dark and sexy stuff. My Vamps and Weres will fit right in. On the far horizon is an immersive video game set in the world of Twelves Stakes, especially if virtual reality tech catches up to my imagination.

Having gone through the process a few times now, what advice would you give to writers who are just starting their journey?

The two things I would pass along are commitment and permission. You have to commit to sitting down every day and banging out pages, no matter. Don’t feel inspired? Don’t feel like writing? Too bad. Suck it up and get to work. But while you’re writing every day, give yourself permission to suck at it. Give yourself permission to write a shitty first draft, have days where you hate every sentence you put down, and want to throw the book out the window. Those feelings will pass—as long as you keep showing up every day to write.

Check out the Twelve Stakes series at twelvestakes.com, and pick up Book 1 at The Last Bookstore today. Book 3, “A Devil of Your Own,” comes out on August 1.

Skylight Books on Why Bookstores Matter

A conversation with Skylight Books Events Manager Kelsey Nolan

Nestled in Los Feliz, Skylight Books has been a neighborhood staple of the Los Angeles literary scene for more than twenty years. In a time when (to our great chagrin) bookstores are closing left and right, Skylight has expanded its reach, finding new and innovative ways to not only stay relevant, but to lead the charge in proving why reading, progressive thought, and places of learning are more important than ever.

In the last year alone, Skylight hosted events featuring the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Zadie Smith, launched an in-store nonfiction book club, facilitated fundraising for more than half a dozen human rights causes, made the news as an “oasis of dissent,” and partnered with local groups to put on a cross-city, Harry Potter-themed pub crawl that culminated in a midnight book release party. And of course, sold a lot of books. Whew. And that’s just a glimpse.

At PRFW, we’re all writers who represent writers, so for us bookstores are nothing short of sacred (not to mention we’ve all confessed to each other that we’re steadfast devotees of the printed copy). Because we approach writing from a public relations standpoint, we’re constantly looking to better understand the relationship between booksellers, authors, and the general public. See where I’m going with this? Who better to help elucidate the nuances of these relationships than the booksellers themselves.

I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Skylight Events Manager Kelsey Nolan to discuss the store, the role of bookstores in an increasingly politicized climate, and tips for new authors trying to make it.


NewBioPics_3Tell us a little bit about Skylight Books, its history, mission, and place in the Los Feliz and greater LA communities.

Skylight Books opened in 1996 on the site of a former 20-year old bookstore, Chatterton’s. The space has been an active bookstore for 40 years. Due, in part to its location, and in part to the staff it employs and the clientele it serves, Skylight Books is a community space, an advocate for progress and dissent, and an integral part of the Los Angeles literary world.

How do you choose which authors and books you carry: does Skylight’s process differ from other stores, and what factors do you consider when making stock decisions?

Skylight Books, just like Los Angeles, and just like Los Feliz, skews left. We focus on literary fiction and nonfiction, graphic novels and comics, books about politics, Women’s-, Black-, Asian-, Native American- and Latino Studies, and, of course, books about LA. With that in mind, we’ve had the same book buyer for the entirety of Skylight’s lifetime. He has watched Los Angeles and our neighborhood change and grow and, with input from the staff, he has maintained a keen eye for what our customers want, respond to, and like to discover. Plus, he does so much with the limited space we have.

I’ve had a lot of reviewers snub self-published work as not being as legitimate as those backed by a house, but we’re seeing an increasing number of self-published authors—is there a place for them in bookstores?

There is definitely a space for them in bookstores, especially indies. I think the stigma was born because, well, anyone can self-pub—which means not all self-published work is going through an editing process, so there is more potential for lower quality work. However, Skylight Books encourages and represents self-created work, particularly in the underground and DIY scene. We have a huge, carefully curated zine section that emphasizes and highlights marginalized voices, non-white voices, etc.

Do you have any advice for authors/publishers who are trying to see their books carried at Skylight or collaborate for an event?

As long as the work being presented is well done, looks nice, and is “Skylight-y” so to say (weird, thoughtful, beautiful, obscure, LA-oriented), there will probably be an advocate here pushing for it to be carried in the store. The title doesn’t necessarily need to be backed from a publishing house, it just needs to be something our community might want. Something different than what one could find a chain bookstore or online. A good example of that is the zine How to Talk to Your Cat About Gun Safety, which the store carried for many years, and is our single greatest selling item. The anonymous author put together more titles (abstinence, evolution) and eventually landed himself a book deal. Another good example is Yumi Sakugawa, a comic book artist who got her start creating the loveliest zines. She produced a ton of different titles before getting enough exposure that the publishing houses started paying attention to her. She’s local to Los Angeles and we feel very strongly about her work being tied to Skylight’s identity. (Check out her new book about Life Hacks! There is gold foil!) There are many authors and artists whom Skylight Books has supported and carried who have gone on to get large scale recognition, whether it is through book deals, national distribution, etc.

Pitching for events is different than a request to be carried in the store. Authors who are self-promoting have it tough. Often, they don’t get enough guidance from their publishers about whom to reach out to, when to reach out, and what pertinent information needs to be included, if they have a publisher at all. For our store in particular, we book events 2-3 months in advance, so we need at least that much time when considering an event in the store. Also, because of the amount of event requests we receive we tend to prioritize new books, ideally, hosting the event no more than 4-6 weeks after the pub date. For authors, this means having a well-thought out “tour” and reaching out to the ideal stores with plenty of lead-time.

Also, a major factor for us is the type of book. Skylight’s audience mostly responds to new, literary fiction and nonfiction and graphic novels so that’s what we generally are beholden to. That’s not a strict rule, but we like to think of it as our bread and butter. We do host poetry events, as well as events for political and social histories. Events we (almost) never host tend to be self-help books, business books, religion and spirituality books. This is to say that as the author is planning her tour, it’s a very good idea to research the bookstores she wants, know what their strengths are and see if her book is right for them. If not, the pitch simply dies on the vine and she will have wasted her time as well as that of the bookstore’s.

Again, none of these are strict guidelines. Timing, ability to draw an audience, and type of book are simply the initial aspects we consider when deciding when to host an event. Ultimately, we like to believe that we want to support someone whose book we believe in, and we think has a chance of finding an audience here at the store, especially given our limited space.

Skylight is beloved for its dependability and neighborhood feel, but is also an active proponent of progressive thought—in fact you self-identify as “fiercely independent.” What roles and responsibilities do you feel that bookstores, and Skylight in particular, have given the current political climate?

We feel an immense responsibility to inform the masses, support those who are marginalized, and give voices those who are often underrepresented.

Even before the rise of Donald Trump, Skylight staffers were passionate about dissent, encouraging positive political discourse, and excited about bipartisan, truthful voices. Since the election, Skylight has become even more involved in the community in a way that is truly inspiring. Individually, and on their personal time, staffers work with LA’s homeless population, the Women’s Center for Creative Work, operate a roving feminist library, edit a feminist nonfiction magazine, and regularly attend protests and marches, donate money to organizations like Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, host gatherings such as phone banking, political dinners, and brainstorming sessions about how to create active resistance, and foster intelligent and productive conversations about how to help the world around them, most recently by launching a nonfiction in-store book club.

Skylight also helped raise funds to help support the organizations resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline by selling postcards and collecting donations at the front register of both stores, and perhaps most seismically, closing the store during the Women’s March so that the entire staff could march in support. It’s worth noting that the store issued a statement of values to customers and, upon opening the store later that afternoon, we found a half dozen customers who said they came to the store to shop simply to support us and our position.

We regularly hand-sell books to our customers to help educate people about intersectionality, race, poverty, disability, sexuality, abortion, in particular to those who are new to activism, in particular through our store windows, front register display (currently it reads “You Can’t Gag A Bookstore” with a number of appropriate book selections) and our Current Events display. Teaching our community how to participate and resist in a thoughtful, meaningful way is ingrained in the fierce DNA of our bookstore.

Skylight Books prides itself as being the sanctuary that hosts, facilitates and fosters hope. We’re very grateful and proud to work in an environment like this, at a time like this. Skylight Books feels like a light during a dark time, as it were. According to Amy Goodman, the journalist and host of Democracy Now! “Skylight Books is an oasis of dissent,” and we couldn’t agree more. The more you read, the more you know. The more you know, the better informed you are about your world and the way you move throughout it.

How does Skylight reconcile authors’ right to free speech with its arguably liberal, left-leaning brand?

Skylight Books will order any book in print for any customer because free speech is free speech, and we are the last place that will restrict access to information. However, if we aren’t thought leaders, who will be? And so we are careful to carry books we believe in, that we feel will help inform our customers to the side of decency and inclusion.

We’ve seen a lot of bookstores go under in the past decade, but Skylight is seems to be holding strong—how have you adapted to changing times that increasingly tend towards the digital?

Our community is our cornerstone for success. Because we’re in a walkable neighborhood, we have street traffic other bookstores may not see. Plus, the people in our vicinity find it important to support local businesses, which is vital. And they have responded to what we’ve worked hard to do: support minority voices, expand thoughtful discussion, and get excited about literature they may not otherwise have access to. Plus, e-books sales hit a plateau a few years ago. They’ve remained at roughly 30% which means that digital and print can coexist and the love of holding a book in your hand will never go away.

You put on fantastic events, from a Harry Potter pub crawl culminating in a midnight book release party, to talks by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. How do you choose your content, and what does it take to coordinate these kinds of massive events?

Well, thank you! It is my great joy. I talked a lot about the right ways to pitch, and what qualifies as “Skylight-y” but in regards to what I like to book, I personally look for the impact in what we produce within our community. Whether it’s a zine that can help someone dealing with depression, an often untold history of the Indigenous People of The United States, a throwback event for adults who never stopped loving Harry Potter, or, of course, an opportunity for Los Angeles to feel brief optimism in the form of our beloved Elizabeth Warren. And, of course, the deep impact that the literary scene is having on Los Angeles is manifesting in the many local authors producing incredible fiction around town, which makes my little writer’s heart sing.

With our Elizabeth Warren event, we blew the single largest event we’d ever produced out of the water in terms of attendees. We are, at the end of the day, still a tiny bookstore, trying to make our footprint as big as possible, and that is a challenge we’re taking in stride. It’s been a labor of love learning the right (and so very wrong) way to operate our events, but the team (David Gonzalez and I) would be nothing without the rest of our staff, who have large hearts and a deep, unmovable passion for literature. And of course, our General Manager, Mary Williams, who gives us room to make these events our own, deserves a shout out. Her faith in us to pull off the impossible is unfailing and for that I’m grateful.

What can we look forward to that Skylight has planned this year—plug away!

What falls RIGHT in line with all this dissent we were discussing is our upcoming event with Naomi Klein! It’s at the Ebell Theatre, mid-city, on June 21st at 7:30pm. She’s been an activist for decades and she wrote a new book about recognizing the dangers of Trump and how best to fight him. She’ll be in conversation with the actress Brit Marling. We’re very excited about it, happy for the opportunity to continue our hard work. Tickets are available on our website.

Learn more about Skylight Books and get tickets to their June 21 event at skylightbooks.com or just swing by at 1818 Vermont Ave.

Kelsey Nolan is editor at Selfish, a biannual feminist zine; check it out at selfishmagazine.com.

An Interview with Philip Rebentisch, President of AMA Los Angeles

I met Philip at an event titled “How to Find and Retain New Customers,” presented by American Marketing Association (AMA) and the president of its Los Angeles branch—also known as Philip. The panel featured Ann Convery, creator of Speak Your Business™; Anil Punyapu, SVP of Sales at Cvent; Elizabeth Primm, Industry Director at Twitter; and Sean Kelly, Head of Sales at Spotify.

Philip was a great moderator. He kept the conversation moving, didn’t try to take over (as I’ve seen others do in the past), and ensured that the panelists and the audience stayed absorbed and engaged. His enthusiasm and passion for event, the AMA, and where the brave new world of marketing and creating is heading, was contagious. As such, I want to introduce you to him as well.

A brief bio: Philip was hired by NASA to create international educational television. Landing in Los Angeles after his contract expired, Philip became a staff TV writer-director for Rockwell International/Boeing, creating marketing and PR videos for NASA and Congress. From there he worked on his own video documentary projects, did freelance work including behind the scenes for HBO Comic Relief and a few shows for E! Entertainment. He then moved to the Internet, producing websites and creating content that eventually led him back to production work. He formed Wine Table Media to create digital video from concept to completion for CD, DVD, and Internet distribution. And, as earlier stated, he is now President of American Marketing Association Los Angeles. He’s also currently working as Director of Media Clearances for Manhattan Advertising & Media Law, Inc.

Philip hosts the newly launched, Get The Word Out! a monthly digital video program exploring marketing, advertising, PR, tech, and content creation in Los Angeles. He will be interviewing yours truly on June 21, on how effective PR is effective storytelling—but more on that in a later blog. As Philip’s bio states, “He’s still a content guy, he’s still curious, and still hungry.”

We chatted about the AMA, marketing, content creation, and why taglines pop into his head at 5:00 a.m. on Saturday mornings.


Tell me a bit about your background in marketing.

My career has centered on television and film content. In my junior year in college I formed a production company that produced cable commercials, music videos, and event coverage. After creating international educational television for NASA, I worked for Rockwell International/Boeing creating PR and marketing videos for the Space Shuttle and Space Station programs. When I formed my digital video company, my clients were a sports production company and nonprofits such as The American Heart Association, Aquarium of the Pacific, and the Flying Samaritans. My philosophy then and now was to tell stories to raise funding donations. For the last few years I’ve worked the legal side of the advertising business trying to prevent clients from getting into copyright or trademark issues with their advertising campaigns.

What are the major changes you’ve seen in the field over the years?

The major change is of course the digital revolution and the rise of social media. My perspective is that it has taken several years for clients to realize that marketing is no longer a “push-based” operation, it is conversation-based due to social media. The power of marketing is in the hands of the consumer, and I don’t see this changing anytime soon. Marketers must provide a reason for consumers to pay attention, and a siloed, push-messaging approach is as relevant as dial-up modems.

You’re President of American Marketing Association, Los Angeles. First, congratulations. Second, how did you first become involved with the AMA?

It’s a funny story. I knew nothing about the AMA until one day when my neighbor was on chapter panel and he wanted a friend in the audience. I showed up and was impressed with the level of the discussion. I started attending events, became an AMA member, and often asked questions during the Q&A sessions. It’s my nature! After a few months, I was literally tapped on the shoulder by the president at the time who invited me to join the board. I did and it has made an enormous difference in my life.

How would you describe the AMA?

We help people become better marketers! The AMA is the largest marketing association in the world with over 30,000 global members and its tagline is Answers in Action.® As an AMA member, you have access to a diverse wealth of information in the form of research papers/case studies, webinars, seminars, magazines, podcasts, and national conferences just to name a few benefits. The local chapters exist to further those benefits and provide the networking and educational opportunities for their community. The Los Angeles chapter is currently the largest chapter on the West Coast with nearly 400 members.

What is the Association’s primary mission?

Our chapter’s tagline is: AMA Los Angeles. Network. Educate. Volunteer. Move Forward With Us. This tagline popped into my head at 5:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning (like all good taglines) and it truly represents our primary mission. Leveraging the resources of the national organization, we provide professional, meaningful networking opportunities; create high level, diverse educational programming to chapter members and the LA marketing community; provide pro bono community outreach services; and help people move forward in their careers. We refuse to waste anyone’s time at any event, and we take this responsibility very seriously.

How does someone become a member?

It’s very easy! Go to the national AMA website at www.ama.org and sign up! Now through June 10, 2017 our Spring membership drive is underway so you can save on membership fees. You become a national AMA member and then select your specific chapter membership.

What are some of the benefits of becoming a member?

Free admission to all our educational events to start! We are the only AMA chapter that does not charge admission to our monthly educational events. In addition, you have access to the national AMA resources which include continuing education certificate programs. To sum it up, the AMA is focused on helping develop the individual’s skills, not a top-down, company based approach. Going forward, there is a new emphasis of being part of a national (and global) organization, and AMA Los Angeles helped lead the way in the re-branding effort.

You’ve launched a new TV show called Get The Word Out!. Tell me a bit about that.

Los Angeles is a media-centric town, and we felt it was important to represent that element as a chapter. It goes straight to the membership value proposition. Our communication goals for this year were to launch a blog, podcast, and video programming. Get The Word Out! is a monthly digital video program exploring marketing, advertising, PR, tech, and content creation in Los Angeles. Got a good story to tell about your business? Then get the word out about it!

What is the focus and format?

I host the show on the WCOBM.TV multi-channel network and we’re always seeking interesting stories and people. Los Angeles has always been a town about invention, or even re-invention, and we’re curious about the myriad of topics out there from Silicon Beach to Hollywood, with fashion and music included! Each show consists of four separate, 10 minute interviews exploring that guest’s personal or company story. The show streams live on WCOBM, Facebook, and YouTube at 4:00 p.m. on the third Wednesday of every month and is then available on demand. Find us at https://www.wcobm.tv/gtwo.

What is on the horizon for you and AMA Los Angeles?

This year is going to be even more focused on the membership value proposition. In other words, we want to ensure that membership provides the benefits that are important to each member. For example, we’re launching a new executive programming track for members only to learn from and network with local marketing executives in an intimate, exclusive format. We’re excited! We’ve also developed partnerships with the other West Coast chapters where LA members may attend events in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and others as if they are a member of that chapter, and vice versa for us.

Learn more about the American Marketing Association (and become a member!) at ama.org.