Family Business: Joe Meno
Late in the summer of 2004, working as a bookseller in Chattanooga, Tennessee, I opened a plastic tote of new arrivals to discover a book that was impossible not to look at. Against a bright green background was the back of a defiant teenager's head, a set of large headphones wrapped around his vibrant pink and tousled hair. I thumbed through the book's pages, noting its short chapters, its varying fonts, and a facsimile of a cassette tape listing bands like the Ramones, the Dead Milkmen, and the Descendants.
At the end of the book was a photo of the author that mirrored the cover: headphoned, back turned. His bio stated that he taught fiction at a school in Chicago, one I had never heard of, and that he had written for several magazines I was vaguely familiar with because we sold them at the bookstore--Bail and Punk Planet. Without giving the author a second thought, I shrugged and dropped the book back in the tote.
With no inclination towards pursuing graduate school at the time, it had never occurred to me that I would not only encounter that same novel--Hairstyles of the Damned--three years later, but that I would end up at Columbia College Chicago, where I would meet the book's author, Joe Meno, one of the hardest-working writers in the city.
On a cold and sunny Saturday afternoon, I wait in line with Joe to place our order at Alliance Cafe in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood, near the home Joe shares with his wife, Koren, and baby daughter, Lucia. Joe comes here sometimes to get out of the house, or for interviews--but never to write. Too many distractions, he says.
"I think I'm just going to order a coffee," he says, shuffling his feet to get a better look at the cookies in the display case. He is wearing blue jeans and a gray coat with a faux fur-lined hood, and crossed over his chest is a shoulder bag. At the counter he asks for a decaf Americano. He's been trying to cut caffeine from his diet. "I just can't do it anymore," he says.
After requesting our drinks and moving aside, a couple steps up to the counter before we have paid. Joe keeps looking at the bake cases.
"I think I might have a cookie or something," he says. "You want anything?" When the barista slides our drinks across the counter Joe points to the bottom of the case.
"I'd like the spinach quiche," he says.
Every time the door opens, a bell dings and a cold draft spills inside. As we wait for the quiche to be heated, the room grows more crowded, so eventually we get crammed into a corner between the condiments table and one of the bake cases.
Suddenly, Joe's face lights up.
"I just got a galley copy of my next book," he says, reaching around for his shoulder bag. He opens the bag and takes out the book, handing it to me. The cover is white and reveals a collage of images--a pink jet, a blue pigeon, a brown squid, and a bundle of explosives. On top of everything, in the center of the cover, is a black cloud with the book's title printed in white: The Great Perhaps.
He says the book is about a family of cowards who live in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. It takes place just weeks before the 2004 presidential election and deals with obsessive scientists, a mysterious cloud, a giant squid, and the search for God.
"What more can you ask for?" he says.
The truth is, you really couldn't ask for much more from Joe Meno. The novel, his fifth in nearly ten years, is due out from W.W. Norton in May of 2009 and will be the follow-up to his recently released collection of stories--his second--Demons in the Spring. Add to that two recently produced plays, including a commissioned musical adaptation of his novel The Boy Detective Fails, occasional freelance work, a recent return to teaching full-time at Columbia after a yearlong sabbatical, and the addition of a baby daughter, and you have one very busy man.
All this, and he's only thirty-four years old.
At the back of Alliance we find the only room that offers a little privacy. It is lit by a table lamp and a ceiling fan, and the walls are beige with dark wood trim. We sit down across from each other beside a drafty window. Joe, still wearing his coat and bag, sits on the right side of a squatty red velveteen couch, perhaps an antique, the kind children can draw on with their fingers and erase with their hands. It's quiet except for the sound of students clacking away at their laptops in the next room, the door to the lone bathroom occasionally slamming shut behind Joe, and the loud pop songs that cycle from the corner speakers, currently a Flaming Lips song: "Do You Realize?"
"So how do you manage to juggle it all?" I ask.
He leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees. He chews his quiche and swallows it with a sip of his coffee, which he then places on the hardwood floor beside him. "My dad worked in stone and steel fabrication, where he did a lot of facade work on buildings with limestone," he says. "I worked with him during the summers. Dad woke me up at 5:30 on Saturday mornings to take me with him. It made me really grateful, and gave me a great perspective on what it means to be an adult; it was that same sense of commitment I now apply to my work. "When I was a kid he used to take me to these skeletons of buildings and point out things I didn't understand. The thing I most enjoy about writing fiction is the building aspect, the structure, and how stories are put together. Dad taught me to create things that have permanence, to devote my life to building something that lasts longer than I do."
As a teenager he soon applied his father's work ethic to everything he did: singing in punk and metal bands, skateboarding, and eventually writing. He also took from his father the inspiration that comes from working with his hands. This is most evident in Demons in the Spring, released by Akashic Books as a limited-edition cloth-bound hardcover that feels, in your hands, like an object that's been meticulously crafted. Each of the twenty stories is illustrated with a contribution from a different graphic novelist or visual artist, such as Charles Burns, Archer Prewitt, Jay Ryan, and Columbia's Ivan Brunetti. The concept of the book occurred to Joe after he realized how much inspiration he had received from his visual artist friends. When I asked who first read his story and novel drafts, Joe named his wife, but said he mostly voiced his stories and frustrations to those artists, in a manner not unlike the oral-telling exercises emphasized in Columbia's writing program.
"My friends Cody Hudson and Todd Baxter and Nick Butcher--these are guys I've collaborated with in the past," he says. "What I like about what they do is that they let their work speak for itself. I think it's very easy for writers to talk about what they are doing rather than actually doing it, to get caught up in the intellectual arguments in their heads. "Visual artists often tend to be quiet guys, and their process is similar to my dad's: part of your job as an artist is to just do the work. I'm always happiest when I'm banging away, caught up in the physical activity of what I do. I think I'm at my best when I'm not overanalyzing it, the way my friend Cody is in front of a painting."
Demons is Joe's most visually arresting book, and among some of his more ambitious work to date. Joe proposed to Akashic publisher Johnny Temple that all the proceeds from the book's sales be donated to the McSweeney's-based children's tutoring organization 826 Chicago. "It was about the same time that Amazon's Kindle thing came out, and we wanted to make a book that couldn't simply be downloaded like other books," he says. "We wanted it to have some permanence, but I didn't want to ruin Akashic by making some expensive product that would never sell."
For Joe, much of his artistic process is based on the idea of performance. "The way I got into writing was from being in bands," he says. "There's always been this aspect of what I do as a writer that is connected to music and performance. I feel like I have a hard time understanding if something's finished until I read it aloud to an audience. I feel like that's what completes it."
This February, at the 2009 Associated Writing Programs Conference, he'll take the stage alongside National Book Award Finalist Dorothy Allison and ZZ Packer as part of Columbia's Story Week Goes to AWP: Literary Rock 'n' Roll. Usually the flagship event of the Fiction Writing Department's Story Week Festival of Writers that's held at Chicago's storied concert venue, Metro, Joe's turn at AWP will be his third appearance in seven years.
"The first time was with Irvine Welsh [in 2002]," he says. "And I was terrified, because I'm a huge fan of his, and he's a powerful reader. I thought, I'm just going to get blown off the stage."
"How old were you?" I ask.
He pauses and squints at the window. "I was twenty-eight," he says. "I decided I was going to write things just for that reading specifically so I could hack it. So I wrote this short little story and read it, and it actually became Hairstyles of the Damned. So I owe Irvine Welsh that book. I was so intimidated that I wrote this thing that came out and worked really well." Then in 2005 he read alongside literary superstar Dave Eggers, only this time he felt more comfortable. "I got this band called the Scotland Yard Gospel Choir," he says. "What I did was read the first chapter from that Hairstyles book. Every time I mentioned a song I would stop reading and they would play a section of that song--everyone from The Smiths to The Clash to the Mamas and the Papas."
After his wife, Koren, gave birth to Lucia in January 2008, everything changed, including his performance audience. "[Books and music are] where I go to find answers to things," he says. "And as a dad, that's kind of all I do. We listen to records, and we sing and dance around, and we read books. It's like, I got this covered; I know how to do this." He pauses, then laughs. "So it's like I've been practicing for this my whole life." Joe picks up his coffee from the floor and takes another sip. Not everything about father-hood has been easy on his writing, he says. "It's definitely more of a challenge for time. That's the biggest thing about being a parent. But the time you do have ... becomes even more important, so you try not to squander it. Because I'm not writing for four hours a day like I used to, I'm thinking more about the stories. I'm doing a lot of drafts in my head, so when I get to writing the next day I kind of know what's going to happen, or have a real good sense. So I feel like I'm a lot more focused."
But perhaps the most beneficial aspect of fatherhood has been the constant reminder of the childlike sense of wonder he strives to portray in much of his work. "Reading these children's books," he says, his eyes sparkling, "like Madeline--you know that one? I love that one. It just reminds me so much of why I do what I do, why I want to be a writer--like, what's the purpose of storytelling. And this idea that it's always about the relationship between the writer and the audience, whether it occurs with your kid sitting on your lap, or if you write a book and fifty years later someone picks it up. "There's such a playfulness in those children's books. There's a sense of magic. Like, of course bears talk; or the gingerbread man runs off. All those fairytale and folktale tropes, and that sense of magic and possibility is what I love about fiction and storytelling, and have a huge influence on the work I do."�***fic***