INTERVIEW WITH WRITER DEREK MAINE, pt one
This phone interview took place on 1/20/21 and has been split into two parts. It has been edited to eliminate things that happen in a telephone conversation like incomplete thoughts and redundancy as much as possible while still keeping the veracity of the subject’s words.
Jesse Hilson: This first question is sort of a “shots fired” question. What is the most overhyped book, both in the larger world of literature and in the indie lit world?
Derek Maine: In the larger world of literature, When We Cease To Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut. On Twitter people love it, people like Ryan Ruby, who I think is one of the best critics. Dustin Illingworth, another one with incredible taste. I’ve stolen so much from this one booktuber named Orpheus. There’s these people whose taste I have so much respect for. This Benjamin Labatut book showed up on everybody’s list. Before it was even out, I ordered it. It’s about physicists and famous scientists—it’s all just like a Wikipedia page. To me there’s no artistry to it. Not even an interesting through line or story there.
With indie lit it’s tougher. I’m not exactly sure I know what constitutes “hype” in indie lit. I feel like the algorithm on Twitter has such a stranglehold on what we see and how we see it. I don’t even know what is supposed to be big and popular. Secondarily, I read a lot, but I don’t really read as much indie lit as probably people would expect. Most that I read that I would consider bad I would just say always seems to have the germ of an idea, but it feels like a first draft that someone really wanted to publish. I don’t blame that. I don’t feel any sort of way about it. It’s so much easier to print books these days.
I have an article coming out on Tuesday about Fuccboi which is getting a lot of press. I think that article will have most of everything I have to say about that. I’m probably never going to read that book. That book doesn’t feel aimed at me. As far as hype, all the hype has been paid-for hype. You don’t get into the Wall Street Journal, these places, that’s not something that happens without Little, Brown paying for it. Content marketing.
JH: what is the best book about this stage of life—whatever stage of life you’re in right now? Then contrast with the best book about your youth.
DM: Now is somewhat tricky for me because it’s where my literary taste diverges from my reality. I find my refuge and my spiritual core, all those meaning type things, in art and literature. In my day to day life I’m a suburban middle class office worker. I deal with people, reports, “circling back.” Middle age, I mean I love Carver but that doesn’t hit for me, I love it from a technical standpoint. It’s taught me a ton like a lot of writers. So much of my favorite writing, it’s really almost its unrelatability to my own life that works. It’s hard for me to answer contemporaneously because we don’t necessarily know looking back in fifteen years at when I was 40 what were the key books. Looking back at youth it’s easier. In my youth I was really insecure and unsure and I felt out of control. I was still mentally very very not well, I didn’t feel like I was able to get a grip on myself and on living life in any sort of productive or healthy way until I was about 30. Youth books that I look back to are not necessarily my favorite books. A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley was a pretty seminal book for me because I was a drunk, I was seeing what felt was some sort of vision of this bad aspect of me, this person who wanted to be a writer but didn’t want to write, who wanted to drown everything in obsessions and booze and whatnot. Exley reminds me of my youth but it’s not my favorite book. In my sober analysis it’s a romantic work and a personal work. It’s going to have some flaws. It’s not Pale Fire, it’s not going to be some brilliant expulsion of language.
In my early and mid-20s I was obsessed with Infinite Jest. What about that now do I look back on and relate to? It’s certainly not Hal, I’m not smart enough. It’s not Gately, he was too old then. These are two of the books I was obsessed with but what does it mean in terms of now? People in my life know that I read a lot, there’s that aspect of me, yet I’m never able to answer those questions about favorite books. I give my spiel like 2666 by Bolaño, Infinite Jest in my 20s. They always feel extremely obvious, and it always makes you insecure about your own reading, at least it does for me. Afterwards I’ll be looking around my bookshelf and frustrated with myself for not picking like the total best answer. A lot of that has to do with my own memory. I put my comments on books on YouTube for myself, so I have some record of how I felt about a book, my thoughts about it. I’m pretty bad for the most part.
In my early 20s I was obsessed with noir. I had a six year period where all I read was noir. I read a ton of film criticism on things like Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. I was interested in the construct of storytelling in that era and time period, there was a desperation to all of it. A real craft and knack for language. Noir was sharper than the way people really are, cooler, I liked that. Now I feel like we’re in such a realism phase. Even now people want to make aspects of the way we talk on the Internet part of our literary language. And that’s fine. But it’s hyper realistic. People are afraid to spice it up a little bit like they did.
JH: Do you consider yourself to be a fan of literature or a scholar of literature?
DM: A fan, 100% without needing any qualifications. I’m not dismissive of scholarship, and so that’s the only thing that wouldn’t make me just all the way to one end of the seesaw. David Foster Wallace’s work, Pynchon’s work certainly lends itself to scholarship. Of course there’s going to be people that want to enjoy it that way, but only if there’s joy in it. I have no confidence in my critical abilities when it comes to that stuff.
JH: Is there something attractive about the challenging book?
DM: I’m pretty drawn to maximalist works, big books. Because if I enjoy a particular consciousness or the rhythm in my head at that moment I want it to last a long time. Meanderings are typically my favorite aspect of a work. I do think that’s a big hole in independent literature of the moment. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of people writing big books. Everything does feel like 102 pages. Every year I try to read like four big books. This year I want to read Ulysses and Miss McIntosh, My Darling.
JH: What about The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk?
DM: I don’t love her writing. I don’t think Flights is that great. The Books of Jacob is a fairly easy skip for me. If an author has a 600 page book and a couple 200 pagers, I’ll usually read the big one first. A lot of people dip in, but unfortunately you could end up reading The Crying of Lot 49 or something and thinking you’ve read Pynchon. You need all those pages!
JH: When did you first discover ExPat Press?
DM: It was probably Ruthless Little Things by Elizabeth Aldrich. I didn’t finish Fucked Up. Hers was before bibles’ The Better Face of Fascism, before Ted Prokash’s books, before Manuel Marrero’s Not Yet. I was aware of the press before then. Their book catalog was really confusing to me. In some ways it still is. I didn’t probably know where to start. Eris was familiar to me, I had read her stuff. When I read her book I was blown away.
JH: Could you recommend presses to someone new to the environment?
DM: Obviously ExPat is one of them. 11:11 Press as well. Selffuck, he does not quite books, we’d call them zines, but they’re much more artistic and beautiful than that. Fiction Collective 2, Dalkey Archive Press, but they’re outside of Cyberwriting if you will. Within lit circles of now it’s more the case that I like a couple books from a press, there’s no press that I like all their books. I think that very few presses have what I would consider to be a vision, and I don’t mean this negatively. Certainly it’s important that people are putting this stuff out. It takes so much time and energy and money, I don’t want to degrade it. One example of a press that has a vision is Back Patio Press, all their books have a very similar vibe, so you can kind of tell what’s a Back Patio book in ways. Funny and of a certain age. Most presses, it feels like they’re trying to identify a lot of different aspects of what’s happening now in literature in the hopes that maybe one or two of them will endure, as opposed to a lot of publishers having taste. Manny’s really different. ExPat is distinguishable in that there’s a person making the decisions. I read Fante’s and Mencken’s letters last year, and what I find fascinating was that publisher/author relationship. Mencken was “the buck stops here.” Giancarlo DiTrapano was like that too, and that’s a press that by the way has been more miss than hit for me. But he had a stubborn vision. It had to piss people off at times, it drew people to him and away from him, it was magnetic in both senses. Manny is similar. Inside the Castle, that press has a vision. I like John Trefry, the main publisher. I can’t speak on it much, I just don’t read a lot of experimental books like that. It’s not my taste. They have their style. Peripatet by Grant Maierhofer was my introduction into all of this really. I was reading mostly translated lit at that point.