Zach Plague is not Zach Plague in the real world, but rather a usually kind fellow named Dodson, in Chicago, one half of the team of folks who, full disclosure, put out my novel in 2006. I’m predisposed to liking him — and his work, I guess, though no nepotistic sort of help is necessary there. Dodson’s new book, Boring boring boring…, at once satirically and passionately sets in relief the lives of several art students and the fascists who rule the gallery world they’re trying to break into. To my mind equal parts Dos Passos and maybe Coupland, the book distinguishes itself primarily by its unashamed use of typographical elements to effect meaning in the text, as fonts pile upon fonts and emphasis is occasionally forced on the reader. The book’s recent release, coupled with Dodson’s journey to my home base, Birmingham, on tour and his authorship of the “Night Moves” addition to our Mixtape Broadsheet no. 29, occasioned this brief Q&A, wherein we spoke of influence, of nonfictional corollary, of art school and pseudonyms and. . . .
TD: So, Mr. Zach Dodson, since you unmask yourself in the book, I don’t
imagine there’s any harm in asking, Why Plague? Why a pen name at all?
ZP: Heh. Well, it was a nickname my friend Ambrose had given me some time ago, and I liked the way it fit with the title. It’s probably just for this book, unless I write another that seems to fit. So often you say the name of a book and an author in the same breath. I like when those fit together. And co-publisher and editor Jonathan Messinger hates pen names, so really, a big part of it was to rankle him.
TD: I like the nameless locale of the art school at the center of the book’s setting and the elevation of the sometimes slapstick storytelling its archetypical nature provides. Did you/where did you go to art school? Though no doubt such events are legion, I recall a friend, a British chap by the name of Theo Cowley, pulling a stunt at a graduation ceremony quite similar to the one future art terrorist Vance pulls at UNI-Arts Lecture Day. Any connection (Cowley was at SAIC)?
ZP: No, actually, but you’ll have to tell me that story. As you said, that sort of thing is not hard to imagine. Which is what I did, because, no, I never did go to art school. I was trained in graphic design for a year at a technical college. But it was sort of the ‘refrigeration repair’ school of the art world, if you will, so not much material came from there. I did have a few friends who went, and I think a lot of my ideas come from their experiences. I thought that it seemed like a good setting for the sort of characters I wanted to write. What the kids in this book create, under the heading of ‘art’, served as sort of a microscope for the way they construct their identities. Also, art students are really easy to make fun of.
TD: Yeah, I can’t remember what Cowley had scribbled or broad-stroked across his bare chest in premanent marker, but there was something, surely, and I believe he speechified to a certain extent, before getting dragged off — like a dog, as it were. But yes, I think boring boring boring… does a good job of striking that good balance between satire and real, straight-ahead character development. I mean, I think that by the end some of the protagonists and antagonists are veritable heroes (well, sort of)! How much did you think of the balance while writing it, assuming you did at all?
ZP: Well, I suppose I did think of the balance, but only after all the writing was done. The book was sort of culled from a giant stack of stuff that I had written the course of four or five years. The editing, or arranging rather, took a long time. I had satiric pieces, and I had others that were more character studies, and so I guess as things came together, the same characters started to take on both rolls. I mean, there are plenty of cardboard characters, set-ups for jokes, and so on. But the main players, you do start to hear some of their thoughts, and get inside their heads. I’m glad you saw it as balanced because I fretted a lot over whether the two tones of the book clashed. In the end, I do think the thing the book is interested in is people. Whether it’s making fun of them or trying to figure them out depends on which page you’re on.
TD: The main thing that strikes people about the book on first glance will no doubt be its design, with elaborate layouts, a funky black-on-black type thing going on on the cover, the adoption of particular type styles/fonts for each character’s name and other tricks of emphasis through bolding and italicizing throughout the text. At first, I was annoyed by the forced emphasis, but in the end got used to it and began to hear the narration in the voice of an intellectually over-reaching, over-emphasizing art-school student, which is somewhat perfect for the book. Can you talk about the inspirations for the book’s design, “breaking down the fourth wall,” as you’ve said to me in the past?
ZP: Sure, I guess the whole thing with the design is a bit of an experiment. Which I felt was good to try out on this particular piece of writing, being about art students and all. I wanted a design that wasn’t just embellishment, but that actually added meaning, or at least some nuance to the work itself. As a designer, font is something that I notice right away. And different fonts have different personalities. Read the same sentence in a couple different typefaces, and you’ll begin to see what I mean. So, starting with that basic idea, I just tried to push that further, to the forefront. Each character’s font is chosen based on what I think that character ‘sounds’ like, and then all the different weights sort of contribute to making that personality come through the type treatment itself.
A lot of people have found it difficult to deal with at first. Which didn’t surprise me too much. Usually type tries to be as unobtrusive as possible, to let the meaning of the words themselves come through easily. So, something different is hard to get used to. But once people are used to it, and have accepted it as part of the reading experience of this book, I’ve had some really interesting reactions. Like you, a lot of folks felt they could ‘hear’ emphasis and cadence in the sentences. And some people really liked that aspect of reading being controlled, and some didn’t. I’m not sure I controlled it particularly well, either. But as an exercise, the results and reactions have been really fascinating.
TD: Any influences on the design approach? Did you read or see Only Revolutions, by Mark Danielewski? It utilizes a heavily-designed-page approach that shares certain characteristics but seems to function in a much different way than Boring.
ZP: I have seen that, though I haven’t read it. I did read House of leaves, which started going down a similar road. I wouldn’t necessarily pick Danielewski as a direct influence. I would say I’ve been more influenced on the writing side by other writers, and on the design side by other designers. I also view my experiment as different than the one Danielewski undertook. What he did is sort of the the culmination, or maximalist expression, of a trick poets have been doing for a long time. The simplest version of this is to have a sentence about a staircase…
And he kind of took that idea to the limit, creating tunnels, and claustrophobic spaces, and running parallel narratives together on one page. I could see, at a glance, how you could think this is the same sort of thing, but that’s not really what the design of my book is about. I don’t break the rules of conventional typesetting in that way. My hybrid book is more about the shapes of letters, the weights of different fonts, how they can have different voices on the page. It’s about using type variation, not placement, as a vehicle for expressing a new layer of meaning underneath the text. And about making the reader aware of the ways in which a book is a designed object. I think the distraction of the design elements also serves to call attention to the way books are constructed. And Danielewski does that too, but I didn’t want such a distraction that getting through to the story at the core of the text was a chore.
TD: There is actually something similar to the way Danielewski uses color and type size to influence the perception of his characters’ (if we can really call them characters) identities that is similar to what you’re doing, but I think you’re right is pointing out the differences, which are greater than the similarities on all levels. What writers particularly would you say had an influence on the book?
ZP: Well, I can name three direct sources of inspiration for this book: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dead Babies by Martin Amis, and the cartoon Aeon Flux that was on MTV for awhile. It’s a funny group, but that’s what I was trying to hold in my mind while I put the book together. I realized the biggest unconscious influence was probably older British stuff, comedies of manners. Not Martin Amis, but Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh, and especially Anthony Powell. They seem to be in this class of really dark, unforgiving satires that I always really enjoyed. And because satire usually is so closely tied with the social norms of a particular time, and those can be very subtle things, I feel like there are a lot of things in those books I didn’t quite ‘get’, but that did, for me, give them sort of a patina of unreality, which is maybe another thing I wanted to carry over. It wasn’t intentional in their case, of course, just the way those books seemed to me.
TD: Are you working on another one, or are you focused on design work, generally? What’s in store for you and Featherproof over the next year?
ZP: I’m about to start work on another one, but I did need a little break first. I’ve always got some design projects going on. I just finished up a literary magazine from Omaha, and am working on another that will be printed on a giant sheet, and rolled up. The design of the next novel will come after all the heavy lifting is done, writing-wise.
For Featherproof, we’ve got an exciting year coming up. Our next book is an environmentally-friendly kids book. It’s the only one we know of that will be printed using only ‘green’ methods, and it’s very beautifully designed, so we’re excited about that. As for the next novel or short story collection, we’ve got so many strong contenders it’s not clear at this point what will be next, but I can say this for certain: it’s going to be great.