The light is out on the 17th floor on Lomax Street, at the retirement community Alan Justiss called home at the end of his life. That light has burned out, and it will shine no more. The light, like the man, was a beacon for people seeking the kind of real talk that is getting harder and harder to find anymore. No more late-night phone-calls with the smell of beer and cigarettes and wet typewriter ink digitized and dispersed by satellites into time and space, where scholars in distant galaxies transcribe them now.
The greatest writer our city ever produced will spend eternity nestled in a pine box in the pauper’s field, maybe with a marker or a mention and some care to his last intention. His overworked Underhill went underground, laid across a chest clothed cheaper than the baby Jesus, his hands clasped across corroding keys in propriety and prayer. His entire body gave out slowly, over the course of 20 years, but you see those hands and you know that serious work was done.
The above collage features a section of a photograph by Pieter M. vanHattem showing Richard Nash, Lee Boudreaux, Alexis Gargagliano, and Eric Chinski
Here are some of the best parts, not necessarily in order:
NASH: I went to see a (Bruce Nauman) retrospective before I was in publishing. There was this sense, as you went from room to room, that the guy just had access to something that he wasn’t going to lose access to. You know what I mean? There was a certain frequency of the world to which he was tuned in. It could express itself in different ways, but he wasn’t going to lose his capacity to listen to it, as a result of which the work was always going to be operating on a certain level.
BOUDREAUX: You’re never going to get a whole roomful of people to agree on fiction the way you sometimes can with nonfiction: “Is this the right book at the right time by the right person with the right platform to write the book on whatever?” With fiction it’s all sort of amorphous, and you’ve just got to feel like you’re picking the ones that are potent enough to go the distance.
CHINSKI: The word necessary always comes to mind for me. Beyond a good story, beyond good writing, does the novel feel necessary? A lot of good books are written, and I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be published, but as an editor you can’t work on everything, and the ones I tend to be drawn to are the ones that either feel personally necessary or globally necessary in some vague way that’s hard to define. And that should be at the sentence level, too. People who can write really well sometimes get carried away by their own writing and forget what’s actually necessary on the page. I would also raise the question of believability. A book can be surreal and fantastical and all that, so it’s not believable in any straight sense, but it has to be believable in the sense that the author believes in what he or she is doing.
GARGAGLIANO: This is one of the things that I get most frustrated by, partly because I didn’t care about book reviews when I wasn’t in publishing. I would never read the New York Times Book Review. I just wanted to walk into a bookstore and find something. But people don’t do that anymore. People aren’t interested in the community of books. So it’s finding the niche markets. I just published a book called The Wettest County in the World. It’s a novel about the author’s grandfather and granduncles, who ran a bootlegging ring during Prohibition. It’s amazing. And we’ve gotten IndieBound, we’ve gotten lots of things for it, and it’s gotten amazing reviews. But the sales aren’t going to happen on that alone. So I’ve been mailing it to bloggers who have beer blogs and whiskey blogs, and bourbon drinkers, and distilleries. I’m trying to find the niche market. I think that’s the way things are going. I think that kind of thinking is much more exciting-you’re more likely to find the readers who are interested-but publishers aren’t set up to find niche markets for every single book.