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Interview: When the Messinger Is Hot

By Kristen Romanowski in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 28, 2007 3:30PM

As in right now. With his first collection of short stories due out in October and a partnership with WBEZ's Third Coast International Audio Festival taking off, founder and host of the much-celebrated Dollar Store series Jonathan Messinger is really cleaning up.2007_8_Messinger.jpg

Ever since we first found out about the Dollar Store, we've been rushing to the Hideout to make it there by 7 p.m. on the first Friday of every month, to watch Messinger and friends mesmerize us with what he calls "evocative crap" pulled from dollar store shelves. Not satisfied to merely display such wonders for the PBR-drinking set, Messinger crafts short stories either loosely or specifically based on these items and invites other local writers, comedians, musicians, and even puppeteers to do likewise. The delightful and often hilarious result, which can make English majors–turned–office drones in the audience either horribly envious or freshly motivated to dust off their typewriters, still costs only $1 for admission, despite its three years of success (and addition of the amazingly creative and quick Abraham Levitan, who recaps performers' stories on piano in spontaneous song).

Eager to jump on the bandwagon, Third Coast partnered with Messinger to create Dollar Storeys, its public audio project that invites anyone to submit finished audio stories based on one of three specific dollar store items, including a mug that reads "Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History [sic]."

Riding on his own Dollar Store and storycrafting success, Messinger has pulled together some of his stories written and performed for Dollar Store, along with some short stories originally published elsewhere. Hiding Out, which is available for preorder today and will be in stores October 1, is a 15-story collection of "playful and empathic tales of misguided lonely hearts," according to its publisher Featherproof Books. Oh, yes—Messinger is also the cofounder of Featherproof, that indie press which publishes full-length works by "fresh, urban voices," as well as mini-books you can download and assemble yourself. Is there anything this guy can't do? (Apparently, find time to call mom.)

Dig more of Messinger's money thoughts, after the jump.

Chicagoist: I’ve been hearing all these ads on Chicago Public Radio about the Third Coast Audio Festival’s Dollar Storeys. On these spots, they don’t mention your name or the Hideout Dollar Store, and at first I thought they were…

Jonathan Messinger: Ripping us off?

C: Yeah, exactly.

JM: It’s funny, I’ve gotten a lot of very angry and indignant e-mails from friends on my behalf. You know, they say, “Do you know that NPR is totally ripping you off? Let me know and I’ll take a tire iron to them.” Which is really sweet in a way.

But the partnership with Third Coast is a big honor, for sure. I have such huge respect for what they do, and it’s such a different medium. And I think that what they do is so unsung, I guess, and so it’s been a lot of fun working with them. And I don’t mind. It’s a 20-second ad on the radio, so there’s no way they could say “This is in partnership with the Dollar Store at the Hideout.”

C: I’ve always wondered which dollar store you go to, to get your items. Do you have a favorite one?

JM: I do have a favorite one. And for a long time I would not tell anyone, because I felt like it was my little secret. But, for Third Coast, we did this introductory piece for them, and we went to Dollar Daze on Jackson and Plymouth, downtown right by the Federal Building. And that is “Dollar Daze, D-A-Z-E.” Which obviously signals that it’s someplace special. I used to go to ones all over the city. And I still, if I’m in a neighborhood I haven’t been in in a while, will stop into a dollar store if I see it. But the Dollar Daze just seems to have a never-ending supply of amazing stuff. Actually, they’ve been cleaning up lately; it’s been worrying me. They organized their shelves. They used to have this one part of the store that I called “Crazytown.” Basically, anything that was in the show came from Crazytown. And now it’s gentrified, Crazytown. They moved in some nice picture frames and stuff like that, so it’s not what it used to be.

C: But they’re not raising the rent?

JM: Actually, no, it’s true—they are. Some of the stuff in there has gone up to $2.99 or $3.99. I can’t buy that.

C: Do you have a favorite item that you’ve used over the years?

JM: The third weekend of September, I’m going to the Omaha Literary Festival, and I’m going to do a Dollar Store there. And I sent this writer down in Omaha an item. Elizabeth Crane gave me this item, which she bought at Dollar Daze, that is this really trashy, thin, knitted—I don’t even know if it’s knitted or what you call it—this crappy yellow purse that’s really dirty, and it has this patch sewn onto it that says “Mrs. Kutcher.” Maybe because that’s so recent, but that’s definitely up there as one of my favorites. I have these other items that I really love, but they would defy description. I could describe them to you for half an hour and they wouldn’t be as good as if you just witnessed them.

C: I was on Wikipedia the other day and saw that—you probably know this, and if you don’t you need to know this—that Dollar General was founded by a man who was illiterate, and later in his life he created a literary fund that helps people learn to read and donates books to libraries and schools.

JM: No way.

C: I just thought this was all too perfect.

JM: Wow. No, I don’t know anything about that. You know, there was one time I was at the Hideout early for a show, at like 5, and I was talking to two folks who were there for happy hour after work. They came over from the building next door to the Hideout. So we were just chatting, and I told them about the show; I explained the premise. And they said, “Oh, we make that, that crap.” Right next door to the Hideout. They actually don’t make it, but they distribute dollar store crap, which blew my mind. They didn’t think it was as interesting as I did. I made them repeat it to me nine times.

C: It’s like everything is just as it should be at the Hideout, at the Dollar Store.

JM: It makes me feel like I’m not in control of my own life. I’m just fulfilling some weird destiny. The lamest destiny in the world.

C: I don’t know, I wouldn’t call it lame. You’re doing really well. You founded the Dollar Store, you have a book coming out, you and a friend have your own publishing company, you’re the books editor at Time Out. I mean, you’re doing better than a lot of people I know. Do you have any free time?

JM: It’s been really busy lately, for sure. I basically go into work [at Time Out] at about 7:30 or 8 most days, and I’m there until 6 or so, and I come home and write or do Featherproof stuff. I used to not complain about it, but I’ve gotten really into complaining about it lately. I actually think, to be completely honest with you, that the November Dollar Store anniversary show is going to be the last Dollar Store.

C: Oh, wow. That’s disappointing.

JM: It’s going to be the last Dollar Store as a monthly show, or at least it’ll be the last monthly for awhile. We don’t actually know what we’re going to do. We might stop doing it as a monthly show and then put it up now and again over the course of a weekend, like a mini-festival on a weekend, like a Thursday, Friday, Saturday night kind of thing, like every six months. I’m not exactly sure. But I think the monthly grind of doing it for three years is sort of taking its toll. It’s a lot of work. And it’s so much fun that I feel like I could keep doing it, but then it’s still going really well, and I don’t want to not put much work into it and then have it go sour and sort of fizzle. It’s kind of sad, there’s only two left. We’re not having one in September, so it’s October and November. That’s it.

C: I’m a little sad about that. But I definitely understand—like you said, you don’t want to run it into the ground and have it turn out like the Simpsons or something.

JM: And, personally, I really enjoy writing for Dollar Store. And of course the Dollar Store could go on without me writing and reading every month, and for a long time that’s what we were going to do. But I’m working on a novel now, and I have such limited time to write, and I feel like I’d really like to try to focus as much of that time on working on the novel.

C: What’s the novel about?

JM: It’s about a kid who’s in high school, and he can predict the future. And it’s something that comes over him. When he’s 10 he discovers this ability. It’s one of these things where he keeps it to himself, but the whole town kind of goes nuts over this kid. It’s about this kid, but also about the way suburbs and cities, but definitely more suburbs, can… It seems like once every five or six years there’s this golden child. I know when I was growing up there was always one kid who was the supreme athlete, the supreme student, and everyone in town revered him, and he was in the paper once a week. It’s sort of about that weird mania that happens in suburbs. And it’s also about predicting the future. It’s been fun. I like writing stuff that has a bit of fantasy or magic in it. Stuff that’s kooky.

2007_8_Hiding%20Out.jpgC: In Hiding Out, you have these neat little touches, like you include a 50-word story on the copyright page. I kind of thought this was like finding the hidden track on a CD.

JM: That’s exactly what I was going for. And sticking with the image of hiding—hiding stories within the book. It’s been fun doing the book with Featherproof, because I basically was able to invite friends to work with me on it. So Zach [Dodson], who’s my partner at Featherproof, designed it, and my friend Nathan [Keay], I used his photo for the cover of it. And then my friend Rob [Funderburk], I asked him if he would do the illustrations inside. So it’s nice, when it comes out, it doesn’t just feel like it’s something that Jonathan Messinger did. It feels like this group project that I did with my friends.

C: Is it strange putting your book out using your own press?

JM: It’s one of those things where, when I tell people that Featherproof is putting it out, I always get the response like, “Oh, was it hard to get them to accept it?” Or, “Oh, did you have to go to a lot of meetings?” Or, “That’s one way to get a book out.” That stuff maybe irked me at first, but it doesn’t bother me anymore, because I feel like Featherproof is very much about trying to create a publisher that does things in a different way. I think that, if you’re really committed to doing anything independently, you just have to view what you’re doing as independent from the assumptions of, for lack of a better term, the mainstream. The assumption in the literary world is that if you are putting out your book yourself or on your own press, it’s not good enough to have been put out by another press.

I just think that there’s this weird status mania in the literary world. Depending on what press puts out your book, who your agent is, what credits you have going into putting out your book, what magazines have published your work before that: it’s all about building status. And I just have no interest in that. I never asked any other press if they wanted to put this book out, because I never thought it would be as fun to do it with another press. And, to me, the whole point of doing this was to get the work out and to have fun doing it.

C: I understand that you’ve promised to write a letter to everyone who preorders your book on a topic of their choosing.

JM: I think it’ll be a fun thing to do. I like the idea of being able to interact with people who buy the book or read the book. I don’t want it to be one of those things where the book goes out, and people read it, and then I have no idea who they are or if they liked it or what they thought about it. It’s a fun way for me to be able to personalize the book for them, and—not that I expect everyone to call me or write back, that’s kind of pathetic—but the idea that somebody would buy my book makes me so grateful to whoever that person is, whether it’s a stranger or my mother, that I feel like writing them a letter is the least I could do.

C: What do you think your mother would ask you to write you a letter about?

JM: This is going to sound like the worst stand-up comedy joke or something, but she would ask me why I don’t call home more. And I would have to write her this letter explaining to her my deep, deep guilt about why I don’t call home more, because that’s 90% of our phone conversation when I do call home, to explain why I haven’t called home in a while.

C: Yeah, just because you’re a big hotshot literary superstar doesn’t mean you don’t need to call your mom.

JM: Nothing makes me less happy than being called a "hotshot literary superstar." I just got my first review in Publishers Weekly, and it was not positive. It was very mixed. So, I know you’re teasing me when you say “hotshot literary superstar,” but it also takes on all these really dark overtones. Like, ohhh, I am the exact opposite of that right now. I am no one.

Having spent three years at Time Out now, writing at least one if not two or three reviews a week, to have been reviewed has been an eye-opening experience. I’ve had people write stuff about the Dollar Store and review Featherproof books that I’ve edited, but this is my first book, so I’ve never had a review like that. It was harrowing, but also really good. It made me think a lot about the book, why the critic responded this way to the book, but it actually made me think more about book criticism. Because the review did a lot of the things that I don’t let the writers in my section do. It made me sort of evaluate all that stuff.

C: You’re on a lot of sides of the book industry, even if it’s not on a huge scale: writer, editor, publisher, reviewer. I guess that’s why I called you a “big hotshot literary superstar.” Because you have a hand in a lot of different things.

JM: Stop saying that.

The release party for Hiding Out will be at the Hideout (a total coincidence, Messinger swears) Thursday, September 27, at 8 p.m. Admission is a whopping $5. For information on how to preorder Hiding Out, check out Featherproof here.

Photos courtesy of Messinger and Featherproof.