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Interview: Joe Meno, Author & Playwright

By Chris Karr in Miscellaneous on May 4, 2006 6:10PM

Joe Meno Chicago author Joe Meno caught most of our attention with the release of his 2004 book "Hairstyles of the Damned". In "Hairstyles", Meno presented a unique coming-of-age story centered around punk kids (think "The Clash", not Ashton Kutcher) growing up in southern Chicago. Since then, Meno's been working on both a book and stage version of his latest story, "The Boy Detective Fails". The book doesn't come out until later this year, but the play will be opening in less than two weeks and is produced by The House Theatre of Chicago.

In a recent pointed interview with Bookslut, Meno described his experience working with larger publishers and explained the impetus behind his "anti-acknowledgement" to publisher Judith Regan. We followed up asking him what he's been doing on that front since then.

Chicagoist: What have you been doing to fight the corporate presses and promote the indie presses?

Joe Meno: I'm an editor at "Punk Planet" magazine and the center of that is looking at independent culture. Whether it's film, whether it's music, whether it's fiction writing, anything that's independently produced is what we cover and try to give exposure to. We're really committed to that - seeking out bands, seeking out writers who are doing really interesting work on their own. The small press, the small label. The way I promote my work - hopefully people saw with the success of "Hairstyles of the Damned" that going with an indie publisher didn't mean selling out on your dreams. Because of what's happening in publishing, because people are sick of the sameness of the kinds of writers that corporate publishers are putting out, there's this explosion in indie publishing that's galvanizing and building up steam. People see that this is a good way to get your work out there. There's a real appetite, a real genuine audience of people who don't want to read predictable rehashes of the same kind of film, or the same kind of voice and story. My commitment to that hasn't changed.

(More after the jump.)

The new book that I have coming out is again with Punk Planet Books, who put out "Hairstyles". It's not because I had to go with them, it's because I wanted to. Immediately after the success of that book, I had two corporate publishers approach me. Literally the language was like, "I want to take you to the next level." That's just so sleazy and ridiculous, you know. I'm not interested - I've already been through that twice with my first two books. Just to have the support of Punk Planet and Akashic Books, the actual editing, to have input on the cover design and things like that was way more valuable to me.

When this book comes out in September, I'll be touring with a number of other writers - three of them - and they're all indie writers. They're either writers who have put out their own books or put them out on small presses. That's a way to expose people - to help build an audience. I think the more it builds and the more younger writers hear about it, people will feel like they don't have to work with these corporate interests who really have nothing at stake other than to make more money.

Chicagoist: Do you see a role for the Internet and blogs in this movement?

Joe: Oh, it's huge. And that's a huge part of it. I guess it's happened slowly now, with something like MySpace, which was started to promote indie bands. Now, like all these bands on corporate labels have MySpace pages, which is ridiculous. And kids, they know what's real and what's now and what's been set up by a corporation. You know, when you're listening to the radio and you hear a Coke jingle that's manufactured to sound like a real song, you're not like, "This happens to be a good song that happens to be about Coke." In the same way with blogs and the Internet, people are pretty savvy about what's authentic and what people are excited about it. The last book I did, "Hairstyles", was a success because of people writing about it on their MySpace page, writing blogs, or any of these small webzines that you can't take ad-space out of. The great thing about the Internet is that it's this leveraging force that's leveled the playing field for a lot of authors. I can't afford to take an ad out of the New York Times. If something's good, it's going to get attention - it's going to get support when it isn't being paid for. Which is an amazing idea when you think about the way we generally hear about things. It's usually because we hear about it on the radio, or we see a poster for it. It's all because a corporation decided to put some money out there to promote it. With the Internet and blogs, it's suddenly turned that whole paradigm upside down. Which is really liberating and exciting.

Chicagoist: So, when will we see a Joe Meno blog?

Joe: I don't know, if ever. I just started working on my website, which I had no interest in. It's really simple and only has like four things on it. That will be up in May, in the next couple of weeks. The reason that I don't have a blog is that if I only have X amount of time to write, I wouldn't want to dedicate it to something outside working on a book or working on a script. I could easily see myself getting distracted. The other thing is that for a few years, I wrote a column for Punk Planet and by the end of it, I was so disgusted just writing about myself that I was like, "I can't write any more. I can't say anything else about myself." I thought that it was bizarre while I was writing the column. I stopped doing it and I'm not in any hurry to jot down the minutia of my daily life. There's also something about letting your work speak for itself. There are some really great fiction writers out there who are really good writers, and the blog gives you this whole other perspective on their world that I'd prefer not to have. I think it's a great device for people in the same way that a zine is, to get their work out there without having to settle or conform to some magazine's idea of what's publishable. I think for someone that's already gotten a voice and the luxury of being heard - it's really weird or greedy or something. You already have books out there - what else do you want? Yeah, so I don't think that will be launched any time soon.

Chicagoist: Tell us a little bit about "The Boy Detective Fails".

Joe: Because of the success of "Hairstyles", the next novel that I wanted to do - I wanted it to be radically different in tone and style. I'm thirty-two and don't want to feel boxed into any particular writing style or seen as "the guy that wrote that one book about the kids with pink hair" or whatever. So, I'd always been a huge fan as a kid of comic books and detective novels for children. It's this entire genre, you know. Encyclopedia Brown, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew. The thing that's wonderful and interesting about these books are these kids solving crimes! And they're not like other kids doing crimes - they're real criminals, which is a bizarre idea. It's a really weird concept. The thing about all those children detective books is that no matter what happens, the case is always solved. And look how great the mysteries are - with Russian spies and things like that. No one ever gets shot - there's guns, but they always ricochet or they jam or something like that. No matter what crazy mystery the kids run across - it's always solved. They always find an answer.

So, as I was writing the book, I was just turning thirty and dealing with the fact that as the older you get, the less often that you find answers for the mysteries that occur in your life. And these mysteries might occur - my wife and I were living in this apartment and a fire burned the apartment building down. We never found out "why". Or the car gets stolen or someone you love gets sick. And they die, or any number of things from September 11th to larger issues that are going on the world. The idea that there are no answers to these huge questions that are being asked. So I was kind of thinking about that and I came up with this character Billy Argo who's thirty and is a former child detective. So, he's a genius when he's a kid. He and his little sister and their neighbor go around solving all these crimes. Everything's great until he goes to college when his sister gets very depressed without him and she - for unknown reasons - commits suicide. This really disturbs Billy and he goes off to an institution for ten years. When he's released is where the book begins. He's thirty and trying to put his life back together and ultimately figure out why his younger sister committed suicide.

So it's very dreamlike and there's lots of cartoon and comic and children's detective influences throughout the book. In the play they have these wristwatch-like communicators that are given to them by the police and kits and magnifying glasses and these types of things. In the book, his memories are based on actual scenes from things like the Hardy Boys and the way his memory are written are in that style. "Look! Evidence!" And everything's an exclamation point. His memories of these times where everything was perfect and everything had an answer. Now he's an adult living in this group home. His arch-nemesis from when he was a kid happens to live in the same group home - he's ninety and senile and still an evil professor who is still trying to kill the boy detective, but forgets why. At one point the boy detective finds him in a closet with a vial full of acid, but the villian can't remember why he's there and how he got there. So there's a lot of humor in this character dealing with this tragedy. The world of adulthood in the book is very strange. He lives in this town of Gotham, New Jersey and buildings are mysteriously vanishing and nobody knows why.

So, it's about being an adult and dealing with these huge mysteries and what happens if you never get the answers to the questions you are searching for. How do you negotiate that and how do you live with that?


"The Boy Detective Fails" will be opening on May 13 at The House Theatre of Chicago (see the site for details). For those of you unwilling to wait for the official release of the book in September, advance copies will be available at the show.