The Big Idea: Nick Mamatas
Nick Mamatas is a hustler; just ask him. As a writer, he’s always moving, always looking for the next gig or assignment, always finding a way to use what he’s got and push it to his own advantage. So it’s not terribly surprising that when he got a Big Idea slot to promote a new book, he went ahead and decided to promote two new books: Starve Better, his book on writing, and Sensation, a new novel. But Mamatas maintains that despite the difference in the formats of the books, the two works are tied together by a particular set of circumstances. Here he is to tell you what they are.
We can blame the current global economic crisis for the existence of my books Starve Better and Sensation, and two previous recessions for the way they were written.
I started teaching myself how to write in the mid-1990s, during the recession and subsequent “jobless recovery” of the Clinton years. I had a bit of a knack for words, but limited access to computers—I depended on the lab at the New School for Social Research, where I was studying media—and a great and growing need for extra money. When a professor asked me to write something for a special digital-themed issue of Artpapers he was editing, I cranked out a portentous little piece on TinyMUDs, and got a hundred bucks and five contributor copies for my troubles. I was hooked.
Being hooked on anything, especially in New York City where everything is possible, is bad news. I can write some short thing, then sell it, I thought, but really had no idea where to begin, despite already having begun. My friend Kap Seol and I took on a project we actually thought was commercial—translating and editing a first-person account of the US-backed Kwangju Massacre in South Korea—and yes, we were those doofuses who ran home to check the mail every day in case there was a big check waiting for us from whatever tiny left-wing publishers we had submitted the book to. I started writing sample text questions and answers for the TOEIC exam for a Korean publisher, and then drifted into the disreputable world of “academic ghost-writing.”
Term papers were short, and I could sell them. I was using an ancient 286 PC with a 2400-baud modem to research and write them. My life really changed in 1998 when I managed to save $300 to buy a used 386 that could actually run Windows.
Then the recession was over and the dot.com boom was on. I’d been online since 1989 as a college freshman, so I knew my way around. And I even had a clip thanks to that old Artpapers essay. I started writing the infamous Disinformation, and from there moved up to the Village Voice, Artbyte, and Silicon Alley Reporter. My little left-wing book even found a publisher, a division of the University of California Press. The peer-review letters referred to me as “Professor Mamatas”…if only they’d known about the term papers.
I was never a millionaire on paper (remember that term?), but I bought a house and made a dollar a word writing for SAR and other major magazines, got involved in the “punk publishing” scene of the Lower East Side to keep from vomiting all over my SAR checks, and things were going very smoothly. I even started dabbling in fiction, and blogging. Then the dot.coms all crashed, and then the World Trade Center was attacked and I spent a morning and an afternoon cleaning loose papers and cinders drifting over the Hudson River from my porch and nothing was left of either my business contacts or my political contacts. I did still have fiction, with its “pro rate” of three cents a word. Clearly, I was doomed. A doomed dabbler with a blog. War was in the air.
I had to move from dabbler to pro, and quickly. Luckily, I’d made some contacts at a men’s magazine called Razor, and wrote a feature for them. Fifty cents a word, baby, on Genesis P-Orridge, who told me that magick was being fifty years old and never having had a day job. When my contributor copies arrived, I was amazed to see that in addition to the usual “lifestyle” stuff, they’d published an actual short story from a prisoner. (It was about prison.) I knew I needed to write something for them that they couldn’t get from anyone else, so I combined everything I knew into a new set of stories. I nailed them four times with fiction—crazy “downtown” writing about art and punk and 9/11, but mixed with aliens and alternative universes and splatterpunk—for a thousand dollars a pop, and also wrote more non-fiction for them. I even did a political piece on the Iraqi election, and a less political one about crazy ex-girlfriends. Suddenly, I wasn’t too concerned about cracking the Big Three markets for science fiction and fantasy. I’d found that thing writing teachers were all very concerned about their students finding: “my voice.”
I wrote and sold a short novel, to an independent press, of course, and started publishing stories in a variety of venues—horror, SF, porn, and offbeat markets of all sorts. Then I sold another novel, also short, to some old punk publishing friends who were straining to go legit. People even started reading my blog, where I’d occasionally work through some ideas I’d had about writing. There was another economic bubble, and it burst. Razor was long gone, the Village Voice editorial staff had turned over three of four times over the course of months, my new legit publisher’s distributor went bankrupt three days before my book was released, and I’d foolishly failed to choose a blogging platform that I could monetize with a million annoying ads.
But I’d spent fifteen years learning how to do that thing I woke up every day thinking about: I can write some short thing, then sell it. I’d also started co-editing Clarkesworld Magazine and decided to give every submission some form of editorial feedback, which helped me work out my own ideas on the nature and structure of short fiction. When I’d post my theories on my blog, or link to a new essay I’d published elsewhere, I’d get comments reading, “You should write a book about writing one day.”
In 2008, when capitalism shuddered and nearly collapsed again, a lot of people began asking me for advice on going freelance. They didn’t need advice on how to write a novel in a year, they had a car insurance payment due this month. They didn’t need subtle encouragement—write every morning before dawn in a cozy spot with a cup of tea and your favorite pen—they needed to keep the lights on. Basically, my friends and readers needed to know how to fix a story and sell it now; they needed to find some venue about a topic they were expert in, and get some kind of clip and some kind of payment from a magazine or journal, immediately. All stuff I was aces at.
Advice is always autobiographical, so Starve Better is a writing advice guide for people like me. It’s about short subjects, both fiction and non-fiction, and is comprised of pieces published in the Village Voice, The Writer, the fun Tim Pratt and Heather Shaw-edited fanzine Flytrap, various blog essays, and some new essays. I’d found that a lot of traditional writing advice can lead to bad writing. “Hook the reader,” means “Write an exciting first paragraph, then get boring.” “Create a narrative dream, to make a movie in the reader’s mind,” boils down to, “Use scene breaks like they were television commercial breaks.” “Make sure to tie up loose ends,” ends up as “Write a story that there’s no reason to re-read, and thus no reason to publish.” Starve Better is a corrective. I also cover query and cover letters, finding freelance work, interviews and reviews, and content mills—non-fiction still pays better, and makes it easier to starve better, after all.
Then there’s Sensation. I wrote that novel as a lurch toward commercial respectability. My fiction often mixes the genre writing I love with the postmodern material I’d gobbled up in my New York days—Barnes & Noble was the state to which I’d pledged allegiance, but just two blocks away St. Mark’s Books was my church. My agent had a great idea: I should write a more serious novel, perhaps in the mode of Don DeLillo. What would be my version of him? I could take on the social questions of life after the Internet, show off literary technique, put in a married couple and a divorce, maybe. Make fun of capitalism, I thought, we can sell that for a lot of money! So I wrote it. I’m not actually a huge fan of novel-writing, so I decided to create a novel out what I do love: short subjects. Of what I’ve been doing for the past fifteen years.
Sensation is a mix of fictional blog posts, faux newspaper and magazine articles, text messages, police interrogations, personal correspondence and business letters, YouTube missives and performance art, the results of psychological examinations, you name it. It’s a novel as collage, as told from the point of view of another species struggling to figure out humanity, while both controlling our world and directing our potential as agents of history. Sensation certainly pokes fun at capitalism—China Miéville called me “the People’s Commissar of Awesome” in his blurb—but it was capitalism who had the last laugh by promptly falling over and playing dead. Sensation didn’t even get rejection letters. It got this-editor-no-longer-works-here letters. It got this-imprint-is-defunct letters. We got the occasional please-don’t-blog-about-this-letter letter too.
I’d moved to California and got my first ever full-time job at Haikasoru, an imprint dedicated to Japanese science fiction and fantasy in translation. Honestly, I suspect that I was the only person in publishing to get, rather than lose, a job in 2008. And out here I met some people who led me to some people who introduced me to PM Press. Anarchists! You might call PM a small anarchist publisher, but really it’s a huge anarchist publisher. And its owners are not doctrinaire at all, so PM publishes crime fiction by Gary Phillips and Benjamin Whitmer, science fiction by Terry Bisson and Ursula K. Le Guin, vegan cookbooks and anti-vegan jeremiads, and when the shit hit the economic fan they didn’t flinch. Almost as though they had been expecting another global meltdown all this time! Clever little buggers. I even ran into the publisher, Ramsey Kanann, in the grocery store. I’ve been to his house and he showed me all his spreadsheets. It was punk publishing all over again. I was hooked. I wrote something short, and sold it. Because of an economic crisis, not despite it. The struggle, and the hustle, continues!