A Bit Contrived
features interviews with authors who exist about books that don't, with covers designed by people who do.
Please note: Great Birds of Light does not exist, nor will it ever (probably)—it's been improvised during the course of the interview. If you really want to read it, do yourself a favor and check out Mark's debut, The Infernal.
Release no. VII:
Great Birds of Light by Mark Doten
Arranging a meeting with Mark proved difficult, and then impossible. Our schedules never matched up—due in no small part to my new assistant, Dustin, who, every day, proves himself the jejune dilettante I always knew he’d turn out to be. I can’t wait for him to go back to Wesleyan.
Mark seemed hesitant though; at one point he even declared he ‘wasn’t the guy I wanted to speak to’. The comment, and the wavering, would thaw into a fact through the course of conversation. Below are excerpts.
Mark Doten. Is it odd to say at this moment I'm (re)realizing Great Birds of Light came from just one man? As I read the book I'd come to imagine a chamber of historians, all with impeccable comedic instinct, all with boundless imaginations, all with a taste for finely-wrought prose. Oh, but who cares what I think? Let's hear from the critics. Tiny McIntosh at The New York Times said, "Doten is an American Houellebecq, with a tongue twice as long." Harper's Matilda Bock called you "America's answer to Jonathan Swift, only he's got a much sharper nose." Astrid Blankenship over at Publishers Weekly said he pinned you as "the lovechild of Sam Lipsyte and Al Franken (if I only half-knew the work of Lipsyte and had never read Franken), but with whiter teeth." The consensus lacks any. Perhaps it's because of the book's tone and tenor. You've written one so political it makes The Infernal seem like a Bildungsroman. Was that your mission? Was it a symptom of your process? What is your process?
Hi Andrew. Well first of all, my publicist hasn't sent me the PW review yet, so if you'd forward that, I'd be grateful. Actually a bit surprised that Blankenship is still employed by PW after her involvement in the AWP... what's the word I'm looking for?... I want to say "contretemps" but if that really captures what was basically a brawl involving slurries of week-old turkey sausage hurled across Nicollet Mall in "I'd Prefer Not To" tote bags, and a conceptual poet sawing the hat off the Mary Tyler Moore statue. Did you see any of that go down?
Oh, I saw the whole damn thing. A great bit of lost souls trying to get attention en route to some notion of fame. I wouldn't be surprised if Blankenship catches some big break from it all, or at least 2k Twitter followers. Letting American stand in for the A in AWP if you ask me. Do the French do this? The English? Nevermind—you've got me off track here. Maybe that was the point. Are you trying to evade the question? Doten—your process. Enlighten.
Well first of all yeah I'm pretty sure the French know a thing or two about rioting, and they don't throw no turkey sausages, either. There's a reason you don't see so many paving stones in France these days. But as for process, I'm sorry, I really can't say. [Sotto voce: Legally, I can't say.]
Fair. Let's jump into it, starting with the title. It seems obvious to me what the "Birds" are meant to reference, but I had a friend vehemently disagree, and then another, and then another, and then another, and so on and so on. Settle the score: is it the 60s rhythm and blues band, the animal, the Boston Celtics' forward (misspelled), the Elton John song, the Kate Nash song, the vulgar gesture, the saxophonist, the chess opening, or none of the above?
Those are great questions.
You are quite welcome.
[Sotto voce: I guess I'll ask Jeb next time I see him?]
Ha, uh [nervously], I guess a Bird in the hand is worth two Bush presidencies. Uh…let's get into the nitty gritty of the book. The Infernal stands at a bit over 400 pages. Great Birds of Light is almost double that—and yet it feels more condensed. Of course it's gauche to discuss just the length of a novel; what, do you think, is the biggest difference between the two books?
[Sotto voce: More good questions. Wow. Should I try to text Jeb and see if we can get an answer? ]
Answer me honestly: Did Jeb Bush write this book?
[Sotto voce: Yeah. *Laughs* Didn't they have you sign the NDAs? Basically, you can just keep hitting me with questions and I'll forward them to his press people and they'll whip it into shape for us. It's easy, don't worry about sounding smart or anything. *Burp* *Burp* *Sigourney Weaver* *Aflac Duck* -- see, they take all that stuff out.]
I would've signed the NDA's if my assistant Dustin was, in fact, as "detail-oriented" as his resume suggested. Not so.
Okay. Let's do it. Using books as political posturing isn't new (*Burp* *Burp* Hard Choices *Burp* Burp*), but to employ literary fiction for the whole damn thing—that's next level. Seems the readership for that is a bit smaller than the general electorate, or is this some sort of cultural trickle-down type of nonsense?
[Sotto voce: Well my understanding is that...]
I'm sorry, could you please stop whispering?
Oh, sure. I guess it doesn't really matter. Well, anyhow, Jeb was VERY pissed that W got to run for the presidential nomination in 2000. He always imagined himself as this sort of Benjamin Disraeli figure, a president who also wrote upmarket literary romantic political thrillers? I heard he had this idea that he'd launch himself to prominence in the mid-nineties with a novel that he pitched as Air Force One meets The Story of the Eye. Anyhow, no one published it, and so he tried a few more like that, and no one wanted them. But after W got in, he was so furious that he decided to write a book that would take down the Bush administration. So, my understanding is, he planned to lock himself in a shack in the Florida Keys for six months, sucking down fistfulls of "panhandle pelican" and banging out the novel that was published as The Infernal. Only when he was finally done, it was way too late. Bush was retired and Obama was in.
The idea of Jeb even imagining, let alone being inspired by The Story of the Eye is a bit disturbing, but the more I think about it, the more apparent it is the book must have been extraordinarily appealing to him. The yacht scene rings a very finely tuned bell, as does the one with the dead priest's eyes.
So. This is amazing. You, in fact, are just a nom de plume. A proxy. A stand-in. A mouthpiece for a man who previously used the term to mean 'burrito'. You're also an editor, and I assume in that capacity you filled a strong role. In what ways did you help transform Jeb's original manuscript into Great Birds of Light?
Well first of all, editors don't do a whole hell of a lot these days. Most of the job is you just skim around until you find something that sets off that *cha-ching* cash register sound in your heads. But, you know, I usually do SOMETHING. And I had NO input on The Infernal or GBOL. You think I wouldn't have cut those things down if I could have? Like, there's a 70-plus page monologue in where George W Bush hangs out with a goat in a petting zoo, just stroking it and calling it "my little Billy" and saying weird, embarrassing, oddly sexual things to it while explosions go off somewhere in the distance? And at the end the goat turns to him and says, "My name is Congressman Richard Ben-Veniste and I will chew you and your entire administration up like yesterday's tin cans!" And then the goat starts singing a patriotic song about how "America Needs Jeb"? I really didn't understand ANY of that. But hey, I signed the contract, I took the money, and here we are.
Maybe I'm off-base here, but it seems like calling the book "fiction" is a lot like Ben Lerner calling his work "fiction", or Knausgaard, or whatever example is going to be more relevant by the time this conversation airs. This is revenge memoir at its best (or worst): with a mask of good old literary fiction.
It's interesting though, this paralysis of editing, given the name brand of the author. Isn't that what any of us wants from a book by Jeb Bush: to let him give us his unstrained, unrestrained thoughts, however unwieldy, so we can let Gawker pick through the best parts and present them in the most embarrassing light?
Is this possibly just the first book purposefully TL;DR-ed to the point of commercial success?
Well, I don't know about Buck Lerbler or Kmouthgaurd. Honestly television is so good these days, I don't read a whole lot. But I'll buy that--I mean, it was explicitly written in the spirit of revenge, animosity, spleen, vituperation, rage, and so on. And believe me, if Jeb gets into office, he's going to make the world into just the kind of dimestore weirdo shitcan he depicts in his books. But none of what we say here really matters, they're just going to rewrite it all.
And I do want to be very clear, you have got to publish exactly what they tell you to. I'm serious. I'm kind of shocked you didn't get the memo, so to speak.
They are without question monitoring this exchange.
[Sotto voce: I was a little more forthright than I should have been--we had birthday parties in the office today, and it got a little vino heavy. Wait, hold on...]
[Sotto voce: Did you hear that?]
[Sotto voce: Sounds like someone's at the door.]
[Sotto voce: You'll have to excuse me. I'll be right back.]
Mark did not return. He has yet to answer my calls or emails.
Cover by David Drummond. David works almost exclusively on book cover design from a studio on the second floor of a rambling 200 year old farmhouse in rural Quebec. His clients range from small independent presses up to the larger publishing houses.
Are you a graphic designer who wants to contribute a cover to A Bit Contrived? Get in touch: editor [at] 0s-1s [dot] com.