From an interview with The Dharma of Don, talking with fellow indie author and artist Curcio about the ins and outs of writing, publishing, collaborative artwork and art collectives, and everything in-between!
Don: The Words of Traitors is published under Mythos Media which is your imprint, if I am not mistaken. What other houses have you published under, and have you succeeded with Mythos Media where you felt you struggled with branding under your own name?
James: My first book was released through New Falcon Press, who published Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson, Aleister Crowley, Israel Regardi — it was because of them I think that I got branded an “occult author” although that isn’t really entirely accurate. I’ve worked on several books since then that have been released by Weaponized, which is a UK based imprint.
You will see most of those books also on the Mythos Media website. We are a brand but it isn’t restrictive in the way a traditional publisher might be. For instance, several of the books with the Mythos Media imprint have other publishers, and the film we worked on was through another production house. Mythos Media at the moment is about 90% projects that I’ve been heavily involved in, but that isn’t a rule either.
So there’s essentially two things that help me decide what I want to bring in, aside from sheer circumstance. The first is the basic definition:
Mythos: (n) A story or set of stories relevant to or having a significant truth or meaning for a particular culture, religion, society, or other group
Media: (n) Tools used to store and deliver information.
That’s probably the one thing we take literally. Mythos also originally meant “by mouth,” it is that which is conveyed culturally, as opposed to logos. Any form of media, any story could theoretically come on our radar.
So then there’s the 2nd question, which is whether it fits in with the others as sort of counter-culture media. In other words, would they make more sense being listed with a major publisher, or is it a story that would likely show up on prime-time TV? If so, then it’s probably not Mythos Media material. There’s a bit more about the history of the project on the About page. ( http://www.mythosmedia.net/p/rather-than-avoiding-unsettling-unusual.html )
Don: Can you tell us about your publishing process and how you made decisions on The Words of Traitors? I’m particularly interested in why you chose the size you did, the paper quality, and the type of cover.
James: The size was a very conscious decision, based on the standard for art books — though it’s within several millimeters of standard magazine size as well. It’s funny to me that the standard for our supposedly least and most disposable print media are almost the same, but most standards are historically arbitrary, anyway.
That decision was arrived at as a result of the nature of the art. A lot of it includes dioramas that quite frankly are only fully revealed in their detail at poster size — I’ve been running an art show for Words of Traitors that includes canvas prints at 16″ x 20″ and 20″ x 24″ size, as well as some of the originals, some of which were larger than that.
There’s no way that it would work at standard paperback size. If it could’ve made any sense I would’ve liked it to be even larger than A4, but 11″ x 17″ is really only feasible if it’s hardbound.What else was intentional… Well, I wanted to make a book that was more about the book itself rather than just the text — in other words, a book that wouldn’t translate well into Kindle format. It’s kind of a reaction against the trend, in that way. Not all of my books are like that, certainly, but it was what made sense to me for this one.
I was actually pretty happy with the interior print quality, and that was something of a surprise. I was afraid it was going to be too glossy. It was printed by Amazon directly, and that was the part of the process I had no say in if I wanted to get it out. Paper stock and print process isn’t a choice, and full color is so incredibly expensive that at $29.99 our cut is a smaller % than any of our other books. That’s how it had to be — our Indiegogo campaign raised about 1/3 of the goal, so we had to cut back — a lot of people might have just pocketed the money and said “We’ll put it out later,” but that’s just not how I do things. It did mean that we had to consolidate as much as possible, and it did restrict the scope of what was initially planned.The full process involved in the book, though. That would take a lot more time and space than the average reader would probably want to take. A single piece of art in the book might have gone back and forth between myself and the artist many times before it was finished. For other pieces, I took art that was sent to me, printed it out myself, and worked it into collages or dioramas that included art I’d made, lit and photographed that, brought it into Photoshop, did a lot of digital painting with the Wacom tablet, and then maybe I’d blend it with one of the textures I’d made.
But I will say that like several Mythos Media projects before, it began with an open call to the internet, as well as to those I’ve worked with before, in terms of you know, here’s a new project we’re working on, here is the concept, do you want to collaborate? So there’s always an opportunity for new blood. And it starts there…
Don: Will there be other editions of The Words of Traitors in the near future, and how will they differ from this first run?
James: The near future? Dear God no, probably not. But in the future at some point, hopefully we will release the hardcover edition I’d planned. In my dreams, I imagine a hand-made edition, or a reproduction that looks like the handmade demo that we first constructed internally. But I don’t see any feasible way that could happen. It would cost far more than most would be willing to pay for what has become a sadly disposable medium.
Don: Of course there is a lot of yourself in the book. It’s not a standard narrative that we might otherwise expect. Where did it all come from, internally and externally?
James: When I started Words of Traitors, I was in an incredible amount of pain. Emotional, physical, you might even say spiritual. Writing a book was really the furthest thing from my mind.
For five or six months prior I’d been reading primarily Japanese fiction — Haruki Murakami’s short stories made me realize that I could do something I’d wanted to for years, which is to focus a story entirely internally — and I was also immersing myself in Surrealism, both the visual art and literary tradition. I can’t say that was intentional, it’s just something I see now in retrospect.
There’s a related tradition to surrealism of “drifting” (dérive). It’s called several different things by different people actually, but it amounts to turning yourself over to what seems like happenstance. Walk through the city and follow your instincts and take turns and go to places you don’t normally. If your instinct tells you to speak to a certain person, or to pick up a certain rock, follow it.
If you are very in tune with your intuition, this sort of practice can be surprisingly powerful. A lot of times those events came about as a result of some seemingly small decision or circumstance that you had no say in, but you chose to be at a certain place at a certain time. We like to think that our plans, especially the grandiose ones, determine the direction of our lives, but that has not been my experience at all. In fact, our plans oftentimes are a distraction! And distraction has its place, but we can very easily get tied up in it.
So all of these things played a role in the creation of this book. I was listening to one of Murakami’s audiobooks, and he said in an aside that he didn’t imagine that anyone could write a story while in the grips of extreme tooth pain. As it so happened, one of the many sources of my physical pain was from a tooth that needed a root canal. I took it as a challenge and started writing.
I had no real sense at that point what it would be, but I knew that I had to do something or I was going to go insane. And I knew that I wanted to focus on the various forms of the pain by literally giving the characters some of my memories, but at the same time I wanted the characters to be very different from me and to not speak a single word of the actual sources of the pain that was informing the work. This is very different from my process with Fallen Nation: Party At The World’s End, which was planned down to every beat of every scene for years before I wrote the draft that would become the book. Different stories have different requirements, and some don’t even know what they are at first.
|At the Gold Standard Words of Traitorsart show|
The artwork I’d been immersing myself played a role in what came out –Words of Traitors is very much a work in a sort of mixed tradition of Surrealism and Japanese fiction and folklore. That wasn’t intentional, but it’s what happened. That intuitive process I was talking about can apply to a story, too. After a point, I realized I was working on a book, and I wanted it to be a mixture of illustration and text, but not in a way that could be mistaken for a graphic novel. It might seem that the selection process of drifting is totally arbitrary, but it is the opposite of arbitrary. Every piece that you select has to be that specific thing and nothing else. You simply couldn’t have picked it if you were doing it entirely consciously. At one point I was stuck with one of the stories and I went for a walk, and I happened upon a giant frame that’s used for screen printing. On that screen was an ouroboros. At that moment I realized that I needed to tie that story with an element from Fallen Nation, both tied around the symbol of the ouroborus.
I suppose that’s the idea I’ll close with here, though I could talk about this for quite some time: stories like this are essentially a collection of the symbols that comprise an identity or character. I think they can reflect back on the symbols that we have used to construct our own self identity. That’s a very powerful thing, though it is impossible to talk about directly. It has to be approached indirectly. Thus the purpose of these stories.
Don: Wow. Thanks for that. The back cover to The Words of Traitors is compelling. You do an excellent job wrapping up the context of the anthology in your snippet. However, can you tell us a little about David Mack’s testimonial, how he came about reading your book, and have you had similar testimonials for your other works?
|David Mack’s “The Alchemy”from Kabuki.|
James: I first interviewed David when I was senior editor of Alterati in 2007, which was a sort of internet-based counterculture magazine. We revised that interview and expanded on it for The Immanence of Myth, which was a huge anthology that I put together and released through Weaponized in 2010.
We’ve kept correspondence on and off since then. Actually, he was going to do the cover for Words of Traitors initially but the Dexter project obviously took precedence, and we were working at a fever pitch. By the time he had a chance to check back, we were pretty much done. So I sent him a copy and he seemed to be very pleased with it, which of course made me incredibly happy as well. I absolutely adore his work. I’d like to think it’s not a fanboy kind of thing, I mean what I love most about his work is that I see it as transcending a lot of the previous standards of comic storytelling. And I discovered a lot of his work in preparation for our interview. But if I’ve got to be a fanboy of some comic artist, I’d certainly rather him than almost anyone else. Also, he’s just a nice guy.
Don: We’ve discussed that you carry and manipulate art under a Creative Commons liscence. Is the whole work Creative Commons? How do you interact with the value of an artists work (including yourself) and their ability have their art be their work in view of a free medium?
James: This is to simplify things as much as possible — the point is that whatever an artist sends me, they still own. So if someone sent me a drawing of krampus that they want to turn into a poster later or whatever, that’s completely cool. It’s their work, after all. Also, because we are a small operation, we oftentimes can’t afford to pay artists upfront, or sometimes at all, so I’d really rather not claim ownership. It’s the only way that I could collaborate with artists like Laurie Lipton, and even if that wasn’t the case I think it’s just the right way to go.
The point of a collaboration is to see what inspires you and run with that inspiration. If it’s a truly successful collaboration, you get to a point where you really don’t know whose ideas are whose, and “ownership” becomes either irrelevant or incredibly problematic. Creative Commons makes that a little easier, although it depends on the project. Everything does. What makes sense for one might not make sense for another. I can’t say that there was such a complete blending with Words of Traitors, but that’s partially because the artists that wound up sticking with it for the long haul were literally all over the globe — UK, Thailand, Australia, etc — and some of them were very busy with other projects so they just wanted to send their pieces for me to work with and then move on.
It’s oftentimes the artists that throw themselves into the collaboration and wind up being real partners that are the least interested in ownership, and in my experience, the ones that wind up becoming a problem are often those that contributed a single piece in a book with 500 pieces. I’m not sure why that is, but I’ve seen it often enough to say that it is a “thing.” There can be some confusion with artists that are so used to work-for-hire that they’ve forgotten that there are other ways of doing things. I’ve done both myself, and am very clear upfront which is which.
Don: I noticed that you’ve tied in some of the short stories with other works as well as a few stories related to one another. Is there a shared universe here? How does Gabriel’s ponderings about string theory interact with a larger picture of your body of work?
James: Almost all of the Mythos Media material ties together. This is one of those things that I try to avoid explaining upfront because I could probably talk for hours about how a character in this one story shows up in this other story at a later point in their life, or how a character that is just a background note in one story shows up as a protagonist of an illustrated short story later. At the same time, with this kind of work, you have to do your damnedest to ensure that each product can really stand on its own as a product — not that they aren’t enriched by each other, and we’ve buried enough details to allow for multiple re-readings — but if you have to have read all the books in the Mythos Media line to get anything from Words of Traitors, then we’ve failed in our primary objective.
What’s that? It is the challenge of all storytelling, to take people out of themselves and yet at the same time show them something about themselves that they didn’t know before. I can’t say we can pull it off always for everyone. No way. But that’s the goal.
Gabriel’s ponderings in 5 Miles — you’ll note that he’s also the protagonist of College Buddies though that isn’t revealed until the end, and it is after he has died — are all the slow unveiling of his character.
Those two stories are very Japanese in a way. In contrast to what you might say is the American standard of always leading with action — and closing with it too, and ideally, in the middle…in fact, just action all the way through, please — you have a character that is stuck between one path and the other. This is the thing about choices, you know — no matter what choice you make, there was another one you could have made and that entire universe is negated by you decision. This isn’t string theory so much as a very literary interpretation of the multiple universe premise of quantum physics. I’d rather frame it in a literary sense,
“Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow.”
That’s Gabriel’s character, at least in this incarnation. He’s stuck. That is a particular problem for him because his act is supposed to be to alert the world to its undoing. So it was a very interesting challenge for myself to write these two pieces about a character’s reflection on their life before they die, and then after, or you might say as they are dying, in the tradition of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. He’s in a Bardo realm from the beginning of 5 Miles to the end of College Buddies. He did come to realize who he was, finally, but he never really came to terms with his attachments, and so invariably he’ll be reborn.
There is a cosmology and world history and framework behind most of my work, at least since 2003, which we developed at first as world development for “Fas Ferox.” We got a sort of demo book that explained some of the characters and world out, with a nice little intro from Neil Gaiman — he was a creative consultant for the project, brought on by the executive producer that also brought me in — but like so many creative projects it just was a matter of timing I think. It didn’t line up right. Like baking, you put all the ingredients in but if they don’t get processed in the right order and cooked at the right moment in the process, it doesn’t come out.
We spent two years on world development, and that was that. But the work we do is in a sense never lost. I do like to give a nod to that project, in that the group that was involved with me in developing that world had a real influence on the work I’ve done since. I don’t really know how it could not.
Don: Orson Scott Card has come under fire of late due to his personal views on his work and how it interacts with his religious beliefs. Myths and spirituality have an obvious part to play in your narratives. Is this simply scholastic or do you hold your own particular beliefs that color your work?
James: I don’t think it’s possible to separate yourself entirely from your beliefs in your writing, even though for instance every character in Words of Traitors is different from me (even if they are all stuck with many of my memories as their own.) I also don’t think it matters in some sense.
I don’t know much about Orson Scott Card, but I’ll give an example that I do know from experience. I really enjoyed C. S. Louis’ Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe as a child.
The first time around I was too young to really see the Christian elements, especially as I was raised without any religious tradition at all. It was just a story that I enjoyed. So later I saw all this Christian symbolism and I thought about it, and realized that whether or not it was part of an “agenda,” the story held up for me. On the other hand you have an author like Ayn Rand that also has a very clear programme, even if it is atheistic, and it’s the same issue really. Except in her case I don’t think her stories hold up without that agenda, so in my mind that makes them somewhat lesser. But that’s all a matter of interpretation.
If I identify with any belief it is Taoism. Taoism is, to Western thinking, kind of a system of anti-belief. So… I think it’d be pretty hard to look at a Taoist agenda as particularly nefarious. But I’m sure it colors my work, yeah.
So be certain to check out The Words of traitors and James’s other titles over at Mythos Media. Thank for your time and art, James.