Saturday, March 7, 2020

Self-publishing and pseudonyms: A Q&A with "Emmett Grogan"

Since I finished my new manuscript a few weeks ago, I've been on a reading tear. Elena Ferrante's achingly perfect The Lost DaughterSandra Newman's magical realist time travel fantasy The Heavens; Jenny Offill's fascinating Weather; Alan Lightman's poetic, dreamy collage Einstein's Dreams.... 

Another book I discovered is Twelve Stories by Emmett Grogan. Or rather, Twelve Stories discovered me.

When Emmett first emailed me about his self-published book a month ago, I Googled his name, which brought me to a Wikipedia page for a famous (dead) hippie/novelist. Confused, I checked out the (alive) author's website. It featured no bio, only an "inspiration" page and a photo of a man in disguise. It was clear (alive) Grogan was using a pseudonym. Albeit one that -- GASP! -- belonged to another actual author.

I was intrigued, so I bought a copy of Twelve Stories. "Good" fiction is subjective, so you never know what to expect from any book. Personally, though, I'm more wary when it comes to self-published books, so I wasn't expecting much. But, damn, Emmett! I really enjoyed Twelve Stories! The most welcome surprise of my reading year so far! 

Twelve Stories is a total trip through northwestern Ontario (with some Toronto thrown in). The prose is vivid, the characters eccentric and unforgettable. There's a scene in a strip club with Canadian Tire money. There's a magic realist take on Tim Horton's "roll up the rim to win" contest. There's Star Wars and high school and gritty, grinding poverty. Twelve Stories is very entertaining, very dark-funny, and very well written.

I wanted to know more about Twelve Stories and "Emmett Grogan," so I asked the author some questions and he was kind enough to answer. (I won't reveal his true identity, of course; he doesn't want his real name attached to this for a variety of reasons, and I respect that.) 

Describe Twelve Stories. How are the stories connected?

It's a novel told in the form of short stories. Each story can be read on its own, something happens in each story, the stories are fast-paced, funny -- but if you put them all together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle...a bigger picture emerges: by the end of the novel, you realize the main character didn't understand half of what was really going on around him, even as he tells you his life story...and that's what makes him ultimately, tragic.

What was the inspiration behind Twelve Stories  

I wanted to get my entire life down on paper, everybody that was ever important to me; everything that ever meant something to me. My beautiful wife; my animals; my family and friends; places and key events: they are all in the novel. (The story about my mother, "The Grifters", is a 100% true story.) I don't have kids, but if I got hit by a train tomorrow, I'll know I left something behind. I think I wrote a pretty good novel: I left it all on the page, if you know what I mean. Maybe someday my nephew will read it, and decide, I was a pretty cool guy.

But to reach the point where writing Twelve Stories was possible, I very much have to acknowledge the influence to Mona Awad's 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. I read a lot of literary fiction, particularly short stories, and 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is something special. Mona Awad is a Canadian author, I would like as many people as possible to know who she is, because she is whip-smart; edgy, raw, but funny. 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is the arc of a life, told in chronological order, from when the narrator is a teenager, to middle adulthood; when I read 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girlin February 2016, it was like a door opened, and suddenly, I had a model for Twelve Stories. No bullshit: it was an exciting day for me, when Mona's novel made the shortlist for the 2016 Giller Prize (13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl also won the Amazon First Novel Award in 2016.)

Twelve Stories is set almost entirely in northern Ontario, but you don’t really describe the setting much at all. Instead, the book is almost entirely character focused. Was this a conscious choice? Are you more interested in people than places? (And if so, why?)

Two competing thoughts: 1) I probably should have put more Northern Ontario (especially snow!) into the novel: that's a good piece of advice for the next novel; but 2) I believe character-driven writing is always more interesting: think of looking at a friend's vacation scrapbook: do you want to see sunsets and mountains and flowers and beaches, or, some guy standing on the beach, pointing at the sunset, clowning around for the camera?

You use a pseudonym for this book, "Emmett Grogan," which isn’t that unusual; plenty of authors do. However, the name you chose belongs to a dead man, a well-known dead man, a well-known dead man who has also written a novel. Why did you decide to use this particular name?  

I have to go deep background for this one, so bear with me.

Eugene Leo Grogan BECAME "Emmett Grogan" as an act of self-mythmaking in his modern classic Ringolevio. Some people look at Ringolevio as a memoir; other people classify it as a novel: at the start of the book, the narrator calls himself "Kenny Wisdom", and makes himself into the legend "Emmett Grogan" almost as an act of performance art, once he hits San Francisco at the end of the 1960s. "Emmett Grogan" was famous for his involvement with a group called the Diggers, organizing something they called the Free Store, where the Diggers gave away free food, free clothes, free furniture to anybody who wanted it...the unspoken understanding was, all the stuff they gave away at the Free Store was STOLEN (or "donated" by local merchants)...and when "Emmett Grogan" and his crew used to go out and collect stuff to give away, the rule was, anybody who gets picked up by the cops, just use the name "Emmett Grogan" ("No, I'M Spartacus!")

For Twelve Stories, the joke is, the narrator (Emmett Grogan) is a bit of a con artist, but (mostly because he's drunk all the time) he is completely unaware of the "other" Emmett Grogan...and so the scammer gets scammed, hoist on his own petard!

I used the name "Emmett Grogan" for Twelve Stories because, basically, he gave it away; it's a good fit for the themes of the novel; and I'd like to think the name still has a certain cache among old hippies, con artists, and literary pranksters.

I used an image of Ringolevio to illustrate "The Tallest Man in America" on my website, because, if the narrator of the story had only been aware of Ringolevio...his entire life might have turned out differently (he definitely wouldn't have spent a long weekend in jail, after being picked up by the Border Patrol in Northern Minnesota, end of summer, 1990!); but also, I fully and publicly acknowledge my debt to "Emmett Grogan" and Ringolevio.

As I wrote to Sue Carter at "Quill & Quire" on the first anniversary of Twelve Stories, you could call me the Elena Ferrante of Canadian literature, but I'd rather be the Mark Twain of Northern Ontario. (She didn't acknowledge my email, ha!)

The whole collection is a con of sorts. There are 15 stories, not 12. Your character Emmett Grogan, is sometimes a bit of a con man; some of his friends certainly are. And then there's your use of the Emmett Grogan pseudonym.... 

I would call this novel a bit of a prank, something original to Canadian literature, because nothing like this has ever been attempted before. (Well, OK: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was also a model for me.)

One of the joys of being a writer is that you get to figure out stuff about yourself, like an unpaid therapist. With "Goodbye, Stranger" I discovered "Having pulled at least a dozen girlfriends by the time we started grade eleven, Duke was emerging as a sex addict. But I acted out in my own way...It wasn't the drinking: my addiction was always to the pleasure of breaking rules and dodging the consequences; talking my way out of any potential trouble...The pleasure of figuring out just what I was capable of getting away with; what type of hijinks I could pull off and still live to tell the tale years later. How close to the line I could walk, without falling into the abyss."

Why did you decide to self publish?   

Because I didn't want to sit around feeling powerless. I always figured, Twelve Stories would be a novel 100%, for 2% of readers, so why not go for it? Like, pedal to the metal...hold nothing back.

If I had submitted my novel to Canadian publishing, I'd still be sitting around today, waiting for nothing to happen. Instead, I put out a pretty good novel, two years ago rather than never, with no creative compromises, and I'm having a lot of fun with the project. The next printing (the fifth printing) might have a crimson red cover, but maybe I'll make it canary yellow: I have the absolute freedom to experiment, and put out a better product every time it goes back to press.

And I know how to sell books.

What are you most proud of about this book?  

In all sincerity, I am most proud of the fact that good readers (like yourself) are reading the novel, and accepting it as good work, even though the words on the page are gritty (but 100% authentic, and have a moral compass.)

You can buy Twelve Stories at BMV in Toronto. If you're outside of Toronto, contact Emmett via

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