Northern ExposureInterview by Will Tupper
Here’s a bit of hyperbole my friends tell me I’m famous for: “primarily” sci-fi novelist Jim Munroe is the Tyler Durden of modern, “gutter” culture.
Don’t buy it? Check the facts. This is the man who got picked up from the slush pile of Rupert Murdoch’s corporate publishing giant, HarperCollins. His first novel, the hilarious Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gasmask, a kind-of Generation X Monkeywrench Gang with superheroes, was published by HC, and considered successful enough by the moneyed bigwigs to warrant a contract for a second book.
But Jim didn’t want to do that second book. Not with HarperCollins, at least. No longer willing to be a lapdog to big business, he decided to publish his second book, the fish-out-of-water tale of an English teacher in the future, Angry Young Spaceman, independently. He’s gone on to do the same with his other books, novels and now graphic novels, tales of the independent and outcast, devils and angels… outsider culture at its very best.
He’s also made mini-movies, flash-animations about how to dump the bosses off your back, independent DVDs, and a full-length sci-fi film. He’s self-published zines, invoiced corporations for the advertising he gave them (through lampooning them in his books), made his own video games, and supported others in their independence by running a modern vaudevillian touring road show, sending authors up and down the east coast together. Oh, yeah. And he worked for a year as the managing editor at Adbusters.
His website, No Media Kings, is a treasure-trove for the aspiring writer, filmmaker, or any other sort of cultural creator. He’s living proof that Thoreau’s maxim, “If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away,” is real, and attainable.
Jim took a bit of time out of his busy schedule to tell me a little about how he does all that he does, how it all started, and why he keeps going.
Will Tupper: Jim, your body of work’s always reminded me of a quote from Social Realist painter and photographer, Ben Shahn: "I believe that if it were left to artists to choose their own labels, most would choose none."
You write books, you make movies, you publish zines, you create video games, you put on a touring road show… there isn’t a whole lot you DON’T do. So when you meet someone new at a party or something, do you tell them, “I am Jim Munroe, the GOD OF ALL MEDIA!” or what?
Jim Munroe: I say, "I'm a science fiction novelist, primarily." It's not the whole story but it gets across a) my love of gutter culture and b ) a certain level of dedication. If I say I'm a "writer", people start skirting around the "are you published" question, and if I say "I'm a culture maker" I feel pretentious.
WT: That’s cool. Your first book, Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gas Mask, was first published by mainstream, Murdoch-conglomerate, HarperCollins. How’d you make that happen? Were you a Willy Wonka-style, golden ticket "slush pile" discovery?
WT: Okay, so you didn’t have an agent when you got that first contract. I hate to play devil’s advocate here, Jim. But have you ever wondered if your experience at HarperCollins might have been different if you DID have an agent?
JM: The experience wasn't bad, it just wasn't good enough to make up for the queasy feeling I had being connected to Rupert Murdoch. It's possible an agent could have gotten me more money for the Canadian deal, but selling the US rights (which is something the HarperCollins editor did on my behalf) might never have happened.
WT: Is productivity the key to independence? One of my favorite songs is “Dump the Bosses” by the late, great Utah Phillips. In it, he sang:
Are you poor, forlorn and hungry?
Are there lots of things you lack?
Is your life made up of misery?
Then dump the bosses off your back.
Are your clothes all patched and tattered?
Are you living in a shack?
Would you have your troubles scattered?
Then dump the bosses off your back.
You’ve managed to do just that, Jim. How do you structure your days? How do you organize your life? And you and your wife recently had a baby girl. Have things changed since then?
JM: When I sat down to write my first full length book, I tried a bunch of different schedules:
With our little girl in the picture, we've had to rejig. At the moment we're both home full time so it's relatively easy (I do four three-hour sessions a week rather than four-hour sessions) for us both to get a few hours a day but when my wife goes back to the lab to finish her biochem PhD, that'll change. Scaling back, for sure, but still getting enough done to feel good about it.
WT: You once worked for Adbusters, a magazine dealing with very simiilar themes as many of Chuck Palahniuk's books. And yet you walked away from that job. Why? What was it like working there/ I imagine this independent free-for-all... but in the end, was it just like any other gig?
JM: No, not at all like any other gig: it was the best job I could hope for. It was my favourite magazine, and I got to be managing editor for it for a year. The politics were inspiring, the project was successful, and my boss was a great guy. But I knew that even in these ideal conditions I wasn't firing on all thrusters, and that I'd only achieved that kind of state when I was working on my own projects. So I was lucky to realize that young (I was 23 at the time) that working for myself was what I really wanted to do.
WT: American filmmaker Michael Moore stirred up a real storm with his film, "Sicko," which talked quite a bit about Universal Healthcare in Canada. What's your experience with doctors, hospitals, etc? Do you think the US has a lot of misconceptions about what's it like with UHC in Canada?
JM: Moore's a bit bombastic, but maybe he needs to be: Canada is a better place to live thanks to Universal Healthcare. Everybody gets sick. Accidents happen. It's already a crappy time of your life when you need to go to the hospital, why make it worse by adding money worries to the mix? And yeah, anarchist though I am, I prefer the checked-and-balanced government to the profit-motivated company to be taking care of it..
Most Americans I talk to are poor and left-leaning, so they realize we have it better. But I wouldn't be surprised to hear that the majority of Americans think otherwise: I mean, think of the money and lobbyists on the side of the medical status quo! Wouldn't it be weird if they DIDN'T have a PR campaign against universal healthcare?
Anecdotally: two friends of mine had medical needs. One was in Chicago, and got hit by a car on his bike and woke up in the hospital with some bumps and bruises and a $10,000 debt. Another friend of mine, in Toronto, needed his liver replaced -- twice -- and didn't have to pay for it.
WT: I've really loved the "cottage industry" quality of much of your latest work. There was An Opening Act of Unspeakable Evil, a funny (and creepy!) novel told through Blog entries. And there was your free webcomic, The Bold Explorers, starring the same characters. And now, now! You (along with the amazing artist Salgood Sam) have put out, Therefore Repent!, a graphic novel praised by novelist Joe Meno, Pulitzer-winner Junot Diaz (of whom Chuck Palahniuk is a huge fan), and um... me (I loved it). Is any of this media-hopping a conscious decision on your part, or do you go from form-to-form for your own curiosity's sake? Have you ever been accused of a kind-of dilettante-ism?
JM: No, no one has formally accused me of that. But I expect it annoys artists who themselves feel constrained/intimidated by medium-hopping, and critics who want to categorize, and audience members who want you to simply focus on the thing you do best. Because of the things I do, I guess I'm best at writing novels.
WT: I love that you decided to make your own movie, "Infest Wisely," because it was going to take such a long time for the art of Therefore Repent! to be finished, and you wanted to stay busy. Having made so many other forms of art, was filmmaking a similar venture?
JM: Yeah. Similar to going from short stories to novellas to novels, I'd made a bunch of short vids over the years and felt like it'd be fun to work on something more collaborative and longer. It helped that I'd done ridiculously complex organizational projects like the Perpetual Motion Roadshow, so I had built up a certain amount of logistical muscle mass when it came to coping with stress and people.
WT: You champion a number of other folks through your websites, but rarely talk about the books you've liked, that have shaped your indie philosophy. What were the books you loved, growing up? And how about now?
JM: Then: A Clockwork Orange blew my mind when I was 16. I cross referenced it to create my own nadsat dictionary. Now: China Mieville's The Scar is insanely good, an alternate world filled with pirates and vampire mobsters detailed down to the politics and the culture.
WT: One of my all-time favorite pieces of yours has always been the "Time Management for Anarchists" Flash animation. In a posted comment on the movie's page, you write:
"In regards to the comment on people being lazy–I'm glad you brought that up. I don't really believe in lazy. I think it's a (kind of lazy) catchall that simplifies a collection of psychological and environmental reasons into an almost physiological condition ("He's/I'm just lazy.").
"I don't know any lazy people myself–I know people who are unfocused, people who don't have confidence in their projects, people who are sucked dry by their day jobs–but I don't know any lazy people.
"Productivity is fun, fulfilling, and connects you with other people. To me, people who aren't productive are missing out, just like people who never read are missing out. But I'm not going to denounce them as lazy, any more than I'd tut-tut at someone who doesn't read as much as me."
Jim, in my experience my "laziness" comes from that flat-out lack of self-confidence. I've gotten better over the years, to be sure, but still. I think it's a very American idea that we NEED bosses, we NEED those babysitters, lest me laze about all day, doing nothing. Where does your strength come from to say, "Forget that," and just go do your own thing?
JM: I get depressed when I'm not working on something. I've been lucky enough that I've always found a couple of appreciative people for what I chose to do, so it's just built on that. Pure "doing nothing" time is only meaningful in contrast to time spent working hard. Generally I build a lot of leisure into my daily work life so knocking off at 5pm isn't as appealing.
WT: Finally Jim, Therefore Repent! was published here in the US by independent comic publisher IDW. You've written on your site how this happened. So what are you going to work on next - an opera, a magnum opus, or just raising your kid, loving your wife, and living your life?
JM: I don't really make big jumps into magnum opus style work. I just keep making incremental steps in various mediums, plodding along, expanding and improving what I can do. This week I did revisions on a text game I made called EVERYBODY DIES, met with the artist for the continuation of my post-Rapture comic story, met up with an actor for my next lo-fi sci-fi movie and got the cover art for a new non-fiction comic book based on the TIME MANAGEMENT FOR ANARCHISTS animation. So, lots of stuff. I imagine my productivity will take a hit when my wife goes back to finish her PhD as I'll be taking care of our baby during the day, but I'm looking forward to the challenge.
At the beginning of the week, I schedule 4 sessions that are 4 hours a piece. This allows me to write a chapter a week, and a 250 page novel in six months. Obviously mileages vary on this, but I would say it's neither unusually fast word-per-minute or unusually industrious. It's 16 hours a week doing something I love. I've applied the same method to my other projects, and it works for them as well. The beauty to it is that it's flexible and makes me feel like progress is being made, which is essential to my mental health.
No Media Kings – Jim Munroe’s homepage / culture creator resource site
How and Why Jim Made It – Excellent essay on Jim’s methodology
Albini’s Theorem – Essay on the economic argument for DIY
Threat By Example – Jim’s interviews with other DIYers
Buy Jim’s Books:
(Note: all of the following, as well as Jim’s DIY movie and No Media Kings T-shirts, can also be ordered directly from Jim. Cut out the middleman at: http://nomediakings.org/store):