Andy Thomas on Hell is in New Jersey, Etgar Keret and Shel Silverstein
Reading is about more than following a narrative or learning facts; it can also be a profound shared experience that culminates in a better understanding of ourselves and each other. In that spirit, welcome to the Westword Book Club, a bi-weekly feature celebrating the books that inspire Denver artists.
After a brief hiatus, the Westword Book Club is back to conclude our series chronicling the reading habits of Denver area Andys. This week's Andy is Andy Thomas, a local musician and gadabout who recently self-published his debut novel, Hell is in New Jersey, which takes place in a gift shop on the border of Hell. He's also been the vocalist and guitarist of Tin Horn Prayer and released a solo album featuring songs inspired by Coen Brothers films called Andy Thomas' Dust Heart. Thomas plays drums for The Knew, too, which will be performing at the Snowball Music Festival at Sports Authority Stadium April 4 through April 6.
Westword: Does being a musician conflict with writing? All the late nights and such?
Andy Thomas: Yeah. A lot of things conflict with writing. I wrote the majority of Hell is in New Jersey while I was unemployed. That's when you get a lot of motivation to do things, when you realize you have all this free time. Now I work a full-time job and play in a few bands. I haven't done it as much lately, but yeah, writing is something you have to be pretty disciplined to sit down and do.
Where were you introduced to the Etgar Keret short story that inspired you to write your book?
A roommate I used to live with gave me the book. I knew about him from beforehand because he wrote a short story that was adapted into the movie Wristcutters: A Love Story. My roommate said, "If you like that movie, you should read the short story it came from," so I picked up his collection of about twenty short stories and I really liked the concept of this one particular story, "A Souvenir of Hell." It's only about four pages long, so the concept is not very fleshed-out. Because it was so short, I thought that if you expanded upon it, I thought you could do some really cool things.
It's a cool conceit. I haven't read the original story, but I imagine four pages isn't enough to go into the Orpheus journey that the protagonist, Dylan, goes on.
No. What happens in the short story -- it's a female character -- she works at the gift shop on the border of Hell. People coming out of Hell are actually condemned to walk into the gift shop to buy souvenirs, and she ends of sleeping with one of the dead people. The story ends with the implication that she's pregnant, and the "Souvenir from Hell" of the title actually refers to this demon spawn. I didn't continue with that theme, maybe because I was putting much of myself into the character, so now it's a guy.
That's an enduring romantic idea, going into the depths of Hell for someone you love. Even though it seldom pans out for anybody.
In a way, it's that concept of you reaching your goal and not knowing what else to do. It's a bit like writing a book -- which was this great goal I'd had -- once I'm finished it's like, "Now what?" With Dylan, he completes his journey and does everything he's supposed to do and things don't turn out exactly how he'd want them to be. I don't think I'd ever write a sequel, but I do wonder if there's another story that's just him saying, "Fuck, now I have to get out of this!" It's a pretty common problem for listless twenty- and thirtysomethings just trying to figure out what they want out of life.
I noticed that the book is dedicated to your grandfather. Was he someone who was important to your development as a reader?
Not really. The photo on the cover is of my grandfather.
I read the digital version, so I never saw the cover.
There's this old photo of him that I used with my mom's permission, where he's looking like Don Draper and driving his Cadillac, so we used it. We doctored it up a little bit. My parents were the ones who read to me a lot.
Do you remember any favorites from back then?
I was a big Shel Silverstein fan when I was a kid.
How old were you when you heard his weird music?
He has music?
Yeah, and it's super-weird. He has songs about quaaludes and venereal disease -- not what you'd necessarily expect.
Well, he was always a little dark. My mom actually used to get concerned because I gravitate towards dark stories, and a lot of the music I write is pretty dark. She worried that the character of the mom with brain damage in my book has parallels to her. I think it's because I'm a pretty well-balanced guy that I can write those. I've always had that theory that the people writing kids' books are way more disturbed than writers who take on dark themes.
Like a catharsis-of-expression thing?
Yeah, it's like a sad clown things. I have a lot of comedian friends and they are not happy people. You're getting out there and you've got your wit, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to be all jolly.
There's some interpersonal detachment that comes as a result of trying to turn your brain into a joke factory. There's the catharsis too, though. Telling a really dark joke that a crowd of people laugh at creates unity that few other things can.
It's the absurdity of it, too.
How did the self-publishing process work? Did it stem from your DIY music roots?
It was very similar to trying to get someone to sign my band. Doing things myself was always kind of --- well, not a last resort, but a necessity once I inferred that nobody would do it for me. I've had people help and pay for stuff here and there. I shopped it around to agents with the idea of self-publishing already in the back of my mind. It was a lot of rejection and a lot of notes saying, "It's fine, but it wasn't for us." So the self-publishing route seemed pretty necessary. Luckily, because I have those resources from music, I had a buddy who knows how to do graphic design, and my fiancee's aunt helped publish it. When you self-publish, you keep going back to people you can relay on.
Did you approach anybody locally?
I worked right across the street from an agency downtown, and so I just walked in even though you're supposed to e-mail them. I walked in and said, "Hey, I'm an author," and they recoiled in horror. They insisted that I didn't hand them anything. Now that it's out, I don't know who to send it to or how to sell it. It's not like a show. I did a release party at Mutiny when it came out, and I sold 100 copies and got drunk with my friends, but after that, yeah, I don't know what to do with it next. Other than try to start another one. People have this conception that they'll write a book and people will attach themselves to it right away, so you can quit your job and move on with your life. But in reality, it's like everything else, building longevity. I have to keep writing. The plan is just to keep churning them out, so I can look back and say that I was a writer. I didn't just write one book, I kept writing.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
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