Henry Baum is an outsider. He’s been a part of the small press movement for several years now, and his books are always swift, violent and compelling. His latest novel, The American Book of the Dead, is no exception. With keen prose and an original metaphoric vision, Baum catapults us into a dystopic America in the not-too-distant future with terrifying similarities to the world we recognize as the one we live in each day. Henry was kind enough to conduct this email interview with me, briefly discussing this book and the unusual place he holds in small press publishing.
HB: I’ve always been attracted to fringe ideas – especially those ideas that have such profound implications, but are treated like a joke, which is basically the case with most fringe subjects: UFOs, the paranormal, near death experiences, etc. This is somewhat connected to my interest/advocacy of self-publishing: derided by so many, but a really important development for writers to help get the word out. UFOs are the same – “what if” is important enough of a question that laughing it off seems really ill-advised.
Anyway, going back a bit – I was in New York City during 9-11, living downtown. I saw both planes hit in real time and the experience broke something open in me. My girlfriend and I moved to Wilmington, North Carolina soon afterward and I went sort of nuts reading about every fringe idea I could find: UFOs, conspiracy theory, psychedelic research, and so on. I’m not totally credulous, but I find the stuff fascinating, and just fun. I think I was looking for meaning, proof of God, proof of a better future, after witnessing the worst of the present. The American Book of the Dead came out of that research. It’s about a writer whose book about the apocalypse turns out to come true. Not a small part of me believed my vision of the apocalypse was actually possible.
CW: Your previous books like The Golden Calf and North of Sunset both have themes of violence and the danger of celebrity culture. The American Book of the Dead seems to operate on a much larger scale. Maybe this is reductive, but it seems there a sea change in your writing between psychological stories of isolated individuals to a more thorough social novel. Were you aware of this change as you were writing and how do you explain it?
HB: It’s funny, when I was done with North of Sunset – which is about serial killing – I thought, All right, I’m done with outlandish stories, I’m going to get back to writing about the small, everyday interaction between people. But that didn’t happen. At all. I went from serial killing a handful of people to killing virtually everyone on earth.
But I do see this as a sort of natural progression. Though The American Book of the Dead is about religion – specifically the Christianity of the far-right and some New Age ideas about consciousness – it’s not that far off from what I’ve written before. The first novel is called The Golden Calf, after all, and I do think that Hollywood/celebrity culture is a kind of religion. People are fanatically devoted to it and celebrities are elevated to a bigger than life, Godlike status. I wonder where I got my interest in spirituality and religion and basically I was raised in it. My parents are basically atheists, but they’re also kind of religiously devoted to Hollywood – they both work in it. So instead of moving on to a smaller story, I instead moved away from writing about Hollywood to writing about religion directly.
CW: As the newest member of the guild of writers writing about the Apocalypse, why do you think eschatology is such an active part of the literary imagination right now?
If I’d actually finished this book when I started it I could claim to be more prescient, but this novel took me 7 years to write (not writing constantly for 7 years, mind you). I started writing in 2002, before The Road, et al. But now the apocalypse is everywhere.
Also when I started writing my novel it was the era of George Bush – as was the case with The Road or when “2012” was being developed, or Daniel Pinchbeck’s 2012 book. It was hard to not think apocalyptically during those years when the fear and volatility they unleashed seemed almost purposefully designed to cause unrest. And when you factor in Bush’s born again calling, his calls for a “crusade,” it didn’t take a great leap for me (and other writers) to feel a sense of doom about the future. 9-11 pretty much ripped a hole in the fabric of everyone’s sense of peace. Watching the Twin Towers fall was sort of like watching the world come to an end – at least the world we’d known up to that point.
What’s so strange to me is this sense of paranoia about the Bush administration has now been replaced by paranoia by Bush’s own supporters – who think Obama’s out to create an American apocalypse with socialism, “shredding the Constitution,” and the other mass-delusional stupidities that are thrown about. Seems like there will always be this fear of the end, whatever your political affiliations. Might just tie into something so simple as the fear of death. But global warming/worldwide strife is growing so it’s understandable if people are overly worried about the future. So much is coming to a head – wars in the Holy Land, global warming, 2012 projections – out-there ideas seem to be becoming manifest. It’s a pretty incredible time we’re living in, even if it can be depressing.
CW: You’ve put out ABOD with Backword Books, which is a writers’ consortium that pools resources. It’s a great idea, I think, and one that undercuts a lot of the traditional stigma of self-publishing.You, of course, have had success with traditional small publishing, as seen with your first novel coming out of the prestigious art house publisher Soft Skull Press. Tell us how Backword Books is working and if you have any new info you’d like to put out there.
HB: Backword Books is going well and had some good press to start – a mention in Publisher’s Weekly (http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6687523.html) – so people are open to this idea, and more open to self-publishing itself. Our ultimate goal is to bypass the traditional model and get brick and mortar distribution via this set-up. That hasn’t happened yet, but I think collectives like this will start popping up more and more – taking some of the “self” out of self-publishing, but still allowing writers to remain independent and have an outlet if the book’s not picked up by a traditional publisher.
I’m not one of those people who thinks self-publishing is superior to traditional publishing. I just don’t think the very short window writers have with traditional editors should determine if a book’s released or not. Plenty of good books get rejected (often based on monetary concerns) and this shouldn’t stop writers from finding readers. That’s basically what Backword is about.
CW: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
HB: I know my book is weird. Not only am I writing about fringe subjects that people don’t take seriously, I’m using a publishing platform that people don’t always take seriously. One day I’ll be vindicated, I think. I just hope it doesn’t take 25 years.