Tagged interviews

Meet the Microcosm Staff!: Cyn Marts, sales associate

Cyn started out last year as an especially-committed intern, and is now is the newest member of our staff, our sales associate, working with Thea to get our books into stores and figure out new, mind-blowing ways to make google spreadsheets do our bidding. I asked her a few questions about her job, her hopes, and important matters of character and morality—like snacks. 

cyn with snack1. What do you do at Microcosm? What parts of the work you do here (and used to do as an intern) are the most entertaining?

The short description that I really like is that I keep Microcosm fresh in people’s minds and remind them that we exist and make awesome stuff! Whether this is achieved via stuffing envelopes with catalogs and awesome stickers, emailing retail stores when we have new titles, or tracking down obscure sales leads. I imagine this will eventually lead to my becoming Microcosm’s unofficial mascot (second to Ruby, of course), as I spread the word and get Microcosm titles onto every bookshelf.

I have to say my favorite thing to do, though, is proofreading. Maybe that’s what everybody likes to do, but there’s something about getting to read a brand new book and help shape it for readers that draws me in every time.

2. You’re really passionate about publishing. What’s the story there?

I have no idea. Pretty much any bibliophile can tell you how great it is to just hold a book, and how the smell of libraries and ink and old books just feels comfortable and right. I’ve always loved books and writing in most forms. My dad read The Hobbit to me when I was a kid, and I remember spending a lot of time growing up with kids’ fantasy books and angsty teen dramas.

Books were something to do and something to connect to on a very personal, emotional level. I wanted to write, too, to tell stories, but I always felt like I lacked motivation and discipline. At some point, though, I realized that whether or not I wrote books, I wanted to be a part of making them. It’s this industry founded in expression and communication and language, throughout history, and I felt like I needed to be a part of it and help good books get to the people that want and need them. Along with that, holding a finished product that has so much context and history—that I got to be a part of making—is kind of amazing. It became the only thing I really, really wanted to do in my life other than travel.

3. What do you like to do when you don’t have to be at work?

Right now I’m kind of too busy to do anything, but when I can, I like to eat crazy foods from around the world and spend time with my husband and dogs. We moved to Portland last spring and once we both got jobs we stopped being able to explore the city. I’d like to go back to doing that when I have more time. Right now… we mostly watch a lot of tv.

cyn with family in car4. Favorites!

– What’s your favorite Microcosm book? Non-Microcosm book?

The easiest answer is This Is Portland, because it was the first book I bought when I moved here. I didn’t even know it was a Microcosm book until I sat down to read it! In a similar way, though, Velocipede Races will probably always be special because I think it was the first book I proofread here, and YA stories are a soft spot for me, so it’s exciting to be a part of this newer chapter of Microcosm’s titles.

My favorite non-Micro book…. well, I love pretty much everything by Francesca Lia Block because she writes such poetic narrative, but lately I have also been incredibly addicted to Joe Hill; Horns and Heart Shaped Box really brought me back into books at a time when I had lost passion for reading.

Favorite snack food?

I probably love food too much to have a favorite…and I don’t eat that much junk food… Well, I love sushi, Indian, and Ethiopian, and I’d rather have any of them than a snack any day.

Favorite place in the world? Place in Portland?

So far, New York City is kind of my favorite place in the world. For a million reasons mostly having to do with diversity and variety and the intense big city feel. In Portland, I love when you’re on one of the bridges headed east, and you can see Mt. Hood and it’s huge and snow-capped and all-around amazing.

5. Anything else I ought to be asking?

My dogs names are Kaylee and Leelu. I feel like that says a lot about me. That’s about it.

Wait! I lied! My favorite snack is marshmallows toasted in the oven! I can eat like a bag at a time.

Train-hopping and zine-making: An interview with Railroad Semantics author Aaron Dactyl

Aaron Dactyl’s Railroad Semantics zines have flown off the shelves, racks, and rummage boxes since we started carrying them. They were so popular that we began to publish them as books. The fourth book just came out, and after a lot of work and design and effort, all four are now collected in a brand new box set, Railroad Semantics: Better Living Through Graffiti and Trainhopping.

an original railroad semantics zine1. How did Railroad Semantics, the zine, start? How did they end up becoming books?

There were a lot of factors that played in to seriously making a zine. I guess the main thing is that I was doing all this really extensive traveling and had all these amazing pictures and stories and I wanted to make something out of them rather than just keep them to myself or within a small circle of friends. And I wasn’t really a writer at the time but I decided to learn. I came across an older train-hopping zine one day and sort of mimicked its layout, putting all the things together from my most recent trips. It took about two weeks to compile, and I started selling them at books shops in Portland. They sold fairly well and people seemed to like them so I made a second one, over the summer, at bit more ambitious than the first, and I eventually submitted that one to Microcosm and a couple other distributors. It was a big deal for me when Microcosm accepted the zine for distribution. Several years later, after I’d made several others, Microcosm contacted me about opting to publish each issue successively, and I went back through and re-edited them, which is a process that is still happening. 

very legitimate zine tabling

2. We did a signing together at a book fair last year, and it was cool to see the number of people who were excited about your books. Would you say you have a prototypical reader? Who do you end up connecting with about this stuff?

Ya, that was a first for me. It was interesting to see the wide array of people there. And as far as having a prototypical reader goes, other than just a general younger demographic, I hope not. It’s not that exclusive, I don’t think. I don’t play into the train-hopping or graffiti scenes at all and I’ve always wanted RR Semantics to be its own thing and to stand on its own. I consider it to be travel writing so I suppose if someone’s interested in the genre then it would appeal to them.

3. A lot of people see graffiti and think of it as either as expressive art or senseless vandalism. But it seems like there’s more to it than that, it’s quite political. Can you give a basic primer of what that is all about?

graffiti in action

People’ve always had a love-hate relationship with graffiti. While it’s criminalized by society and prosecuted by the law, that same institution turns around and uses to promote the non-profit youth centers, political campaigns, and advertisements. Everyone wants to control it in their own way, and you can’t. Even on the inside, the people who do it turn into vigilantes and don’t want you to do it, or don’t like the way in which you do it. Graffiti’s an all inclusive sport (albeit, probably more of a bourgeois sport), and it goes back a long, long time—everybody knows this—to the Oregon Trail, Native American petroglyphs, and long before that. Only in the last hundred years or so did people start coming up with more creative monikers to express themselves, and pictures to go with, and in America, freight trains, because of their extensive range and high level of visibility, spawned a subculture that defies label. It’s not just hobo and train-hoppers that draw on train cars, it’s rail workers too, tramps in general, artists, punks, the whole gamut. And yet still certain people involved want to regulate that and for everyone to behave under a strict code of conduct because the rails are sacred and this and that. But that’s ridiculous, and egomaniacal.

4. What’s your next trip?

riding the trains

I’ve been able to do a lot of traveling over the last couple years outside the U.S., which was a first for me. Traveling in Southeast Asia for four months was a revelation, and a summer spent traveling across South America changed things for me completely. I have a couple of writing projects regarding those trips that I’m trying to get out of the way right now before I do any more serious traveling in the futures. But I may try and make it to Hawaii this summer. That’s a trip that’s been long overdue.


This has been an interview with Railroad Semantics author Aaron Dactyl. Our last author interview was with Velocipede Races author Emily June Street.

Rebellious Girls: An interview with Velocipede Races author Emily June Street

ejs in steampunk velo gear“A tough girl rebels against stifling gender rules in a quasi-historical steampunk world, dreaming of racing her bicycle in the cutthroat velocipede races. But can her dream survive scandal, scrutiny, and heartbreak?” That’s how Emily June Street describes her debut young adult novel, The Velocipede Races, which is also Microcosm’s first venture into the genre. It officially comes out on April 12th, but we just got them back from the printer and you can snag one directly from us right now.

 

1. Congratulations on the publication of The Velocipede Races! What is the story behind the book? Where did you come up with the idea?

I spend a lot of time on my bicycle on my fourteen-mile commute most days of the week. The idea for The Velocipede Races popped into my head during a ride. I was focusing on my breathing, on really letting my ribcage expand and contract in three dimensions while I rode hard, and the constricting notion of a corset popped into my mind. I felt so grateful that I lived in a time when I wasn’t expected to wear a corset and that I was free to ride my bike pretty much anywhere I pleased. In that moment, I made the connection between the rational dress movement, the bicycle, and the first wave of western feminism. I got home and did research—as I often do—and discovered the fascinating, tangled history of feminism and the bicycle. I’d long wanted to write a scifi story about track-bicycle racing, and these percolating ideas came together in my imagination. So I decided to mash-up the feminist history of the bicycle, some sci-fi/steampunk-style track racing, and some romance. These elements dovetailed into the story that is The Velocipede Races. I call my genre quasi-historical femmepunk.

2. You’ve been writing and self-publishing fiction for a while now. Can you talk a bit more about that? How did you learn the craft? What are you currently working on?

I’ve been writing on a regular basis since I was eleven years old, when I got my first diary. I fell for reading early and hard, and it remains a persistent and utterly incurable addiction. Writing has always been a natural progression from reading for me. They are two sides of the same coin. I read, therefore, I write. Reading has certainly taught me most of what I know about writing. I absorb so much about how to write by reading—everything from style to grammar to cadence to what could be possible in a book. I did minor in English many years ago, emphasizing writing in my coursework, and later I got a Master’s degree in Library Science, mainly to enable my reading addiction while gaining practical work skills.

velocipede races book coverBeing such a book addict, I’ve always wanted to write them, and along with that, I wanted to publish them—but I have a full-time life teaching Pilates. My husband and I own our studio, and that passion/career takes a lot of time and energy. Self-publishing originally appealed to me because I could set my own deadlines, work at my own natural and (admittedly very slow) pace without having my writing life interfere with my Pilates life. I also like to learn new things, and so I set out to learn how to make books. My friend, mentor, and writing buddy, Beth Deitchman, was my intrepid partner in this endeavor. We learned everything as we went, and we made our first books from the ground up. It’s been a lot of fun. It has been equally fun to work with Microcosm and make a book on a grander scale with you fine people.

As far as what I’m doing now—I’m in the midst of a seven-book fantasy series. I’ve put out Books One and Two, The Gantean and The Cedna, and I’m working on revisions to Books Three and Four. I have about twelve other partly-written novel manuscripts. I rotate among them, writing bits in my spare time. I’m really a turtle when it comes to writing. I work slowly but steadily. Books take me years, not months, to write.

I’m also working on a two non-fiction projects, both related to Pilates. One is sort of a memoir crossed with an instruction manual for the basic Pilates matwork, collecting my ideas about Pilates and what I’ve learned teaching it. The other is a project I call “Fix Yourself” which is about simple stretches to help alleviate common aches and pains.

3. What kind of bike do you ride, and where is your favorite place to ride?

I have two bikes right now. I do not love either of them with all my heart. I struggle finding the right fit on a bicycle because I am in the murky under-five-foot-four category. My “Big Beater” is an old Felt F65 road bike that’s a little too big. My “Little Twitcher” is a custom Merlin from the 1990s that I got secondhand from a woman who rode seventy miles on her seventieth birthday (I aspire to this, and I superstitiously think the bike will help). I love the Merlin, but it is just a little small. I know I sound like Goldilocks, but my dream is to someday get THE ONE, my own custom velo.

As far as where I like to ride, I regret to say I am very boring, since I mainly ride for transportation. I ride anywhere I need to go, but rarely for recreation. My current commute is a beautiful ride through a rural valley and up over a hill with a vista. But I’ll ride almost anywhere happily.

4. What are you planning to do to celebrate your new book?

I’ll definitely drink some malt whisk or at least some prosecco. I may indulge in a trip to a velodrome if I can find anyone brave enough to go with me.

ejs signing books

Dispatch from the Education Front: An Interview with Kaycee Eckhardt

kaycee with katrinas sandcastlesKatrina’s Sandcastles packs a lot of book into 192 pages—it’s a personal memoir of learning to become a teacher, an—at times hopeful, at times critical—portrait of the charter school education system, and a recent history of New Orleans in the decade since the city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina and the botched governmental response, and a compelling look inside the lives and prospects of some of the most underpriveleged kids in the US. So when I finally met its author, Kaycee Eckhardt, it didn’t surprise me that she’s doing eight things at once—making tea, tending her dogs, talking about big ideas, and planning the details of her day—all at a mile a minute without even looking particularly frazzled. I sent her a few questions over email, and she miraculously found some time to answer them. 


1. The end of Katrina’s Sandcastles sees you leaving the New Orleans charter school of which you’d been a founding faculty member and planning to pursue non-classroom work. What have you been up to since then? Where are you right now?

I have a lot of gratitude for the work that I am able to do now. As a teacher, I had a great impact on the students in my room and school, and while I miss that work terribly, my current work allows me to share what I have learned and to work for education reform on a national scale. I run a summer institute for experienced teachers, where we learn about the real causes of the literacy gap and how to combat them with students in high needs schools. I also work directly with some K-2 teachers and classrooms on their early literacy instruction, and with some early career teachers in Nashville on curriculum preparation. All of my work is focused on high standards and high expectations for students, as well as pushing for equity in schools and districts. We are in the middle of a sea change in education right now, and it’s an exciting time to be doing good work for kids.

 

kaycee and students2. The charter school that you describe in the book had a militaristic approach to discipline and structuring the students’ (and teachers’) activities. What are your thoughts about the benefits and drawbacks of that model?

We need to take a close look at what we are asking from students, and why. Students do need a high level of structure when they first enter a school – they need to understand the culture and what is expected. The purpose of initial compliance is to create an environment in which students can learn. However, often teachers and schools end up focusing on compliance instead of remembering that structure should be a means to an end = student’s learning. And often developmentally appropriate learning doesn’t look like students sitting quietly while the teacher presents, or until she involves them. It’s often messy and loud—it involves debate and discussion, group work and also a lot of time to think critique and contemplate. Teachers need to get out of the way and allow students to do the work—this means allowing some rule-breaking in place of academic experimentation. Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves constantly if the rules we impose on students—and teachers!—are a means to an end, or if they stifle the creativity and freedom of thought we want to foster in children. 

 

3. A lot of the book is about your struggle to maintain your health and personal life in the midst of an all-consuming and high-stress job. That’s something a lot of readers in many fields can relate to—can you offer any life advice for your fellow committed-but-overwhelmed workers? 

I don’t know if I have any advice, given that this is an ongoing struggle for me, as it is with many of us. But I do know that sometimes we forget that our relationships, families, and our bodies are jobs as well—they take effort, consideration, attention and a lot responsibility. Too often we allow our “work” to consume us and we allow that to be an excuse for investing less in what actually, in the long run, matters more. If I had any advice, it would be to ask yourself if you allow your “job” to give you a reason not to attend to other important things—yoga class, a bike ride with your partner, a dog walk, sitting down to dinner that you prepare, calling your grandmother, painting that wall in your house a joyful orange. Caring for yourself and what sustains you is your most important job. 

 

kayce in the classroom4. If you were to sit down with the president tomorrow, what three policy proposals for education would you recommend? 

If I could wave a magic wand, and address three issues in education today, it would first be to put a great teacher in front of every child, regardless of that child’s neighborhood, city, socioeconomic status, race, or age. Great teaching is the number one indicator of academic success in students: a student with a great teacher can generate 5-6 months more learning in a single year than a poor performing teacher. But poor school leadership, low pay, and lack of support and training drive many of our best and developing teachers from the classroom. Retention of our best teachers need to be a major focus—and this includes the removal of teachers who are not up to par.

 

I would also ask for a significant focus on early education. A child’s reading level by third grade is one of the most consistent predictors of success or failureA child who can’t read on grade level by 3rd grade is four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who does read proficiently by that time. Add poverty to the mix, and a student is 13 times less likely to graduate on time than his or her proficient, wealthier peer. This should call our attention to what is happening before third grade—not after. A greater focus on knowledge-building, vocabulary, read alouds, and literacy in all content areas would shore up some of this—and there are some great programs, like Core Knowledge (which is free!) to do this. 

 

Finally, I believe strongly that the adoption of the Common Core State Standards was the right move for our country. Contrary to the white noise of the media and a few loud, uneducated people, the standards do not mandate curriculum—they simply outline what student should know at the end of each grade. We are falling further and further behind other first world countries and this, in great part, has been due to the fact that we have been teaching to low standards, or erratic standards that changed from state to stateI encourage anyone who’s skeptical to go read them—they outline a clear, rigorous progression of what a student needs to do to be a competitive critical thinker by the end of high school. The shifts for Literacy and Math called for by the Common Core call for powerful changes in our classroom practice and changes that, if we stay the course, could increase equity in our schools, as well as drastically improve the quality of instruction.

 

This is part of a series of interviews with Microcosm authors. The most recent one was with another New Orleans writer, Urban Revolutions author Emilie Bahr.

Urban Revolutionary: An interview with Emilie Bahr

urban revolutions book coverEmilie Bahr’s new book Urban Revolutions: A Woman’s Guide to Two-Wheeled Transportation just turned up from the printer, to the delight of everyone at the office. So much hard work and love went into this book. Emilie fully deployed her chops as a journalist and urban planner, her hard-won knowledge of urban transportation bicycling, and her love and knowledge of her home city of New Orleans (we’re pretty sure this is the only book out there with advice about biking during Mardi Gras!). Pretty much everyone at Microcosm worked hard on this book, and our graphic designer Meggyn actually started biking while laying it out. She’d been wanting to ride for a while and reports that this book “answered a lot of my questions… that I didn’t want to ask!” With a pre-publication track record like that, we have high hopes for the rest of this book’s life!

In honor of the book’s existence (it officially comes out on April 12th, and is available directly via Microcosm until then), we sent the author some questions about how and why the book came to be, New Orleans’s surprising rise to bicycling prominence, as well as (feeding a longstanding fascination of mine) the role of bicycles during and after Katrina. Read through to the end for an extra surprise!

1. Congrats on your new book, Urban Revolutions! What’s the origin story of the book—what gave you the idea to write it?

Although I haven’t always known how to define it, as a longtime fan and observer of cities, I’ve always been interested in how the shape of our environments affects opportunity: everything from transportation options to health to access to jobs (all of which, in the end, are fundamentally related). At a very basic level, the book was inspired by forging connections over the years between these ideas. It’s also inspired by my own experience as a pretty typical, car-dependent American who was woken up to another way of getting around not all that long ago and who suddenly felt (at the risk of sounding melodramatic) as though a veil had been lifted from my eyes. As I started using my bike more and more to get around, I realized that there were lots of other people out there like me – and yet also many more people, including many of my friends, for whom the idea of using the bike as a means of transport was as foreign a concept as it had once been for me. I was especially interested in this latter group and what it was exactly that kept them out of the saddle, and that became the basis for my graduate school research. I also noticed that among my friends who didn’t bike or who didn’t bike regularly (most of them women), many were intrigued by the idea of biking, but were held back by various obstacles, and a number of them really had no idea where to begin. I wanted to create a tool to help them overcome those barriers by really honing in on their specific concerns.

emilie in paris2. The book’s subtitle is “A Woman’s Guide to Two-Wheeled Transportation.” Why that subtitle? Is the book only for women?

It turns out the resistance to bicycling among women isn’t unique to my friend circle. Nationally, only about a quarter of transportation bicyclists are female, a phenomenon that is not universal in the developed world and likely relates to a whole variety of factors, from social policies and norms that place more of the burden for household and childcare duties on women to very valid concerns in our car-centric environments about vulnerability to traffic crashes and crime to the fact that women are simply not as exposed to the practice, which means many of us don’t even consider it as a possibility. This book started out as a how-to guide designed to address concerns that are specific to women, though many of these concerns are also shared by men too. And I would say it turned out to be much more than a how-to guide. In the end, it’s really an exploration of the state of the American transportation landscape, how it’s changing, and what this means for everyone. I think this book should appeal to anyone who is interested in urban environments, how people get around, and who might want to brush up on how to ride and maintain a bike.

3. Two chapters of the book are devoted to your home city of New Orleans, which is one of the best unsung bike cities in the US. What makes cycling work there? What makes it different?

I said earlier that my own experience helped inspire this book, and that experience is inextricably tied to New Orleans. I write in the introduction to Urban Revolutions about hearing about what then sounded to me like a crazy plan to begin installing bike infrastructure in New Orleans. I was working as a reporter and decided to write a story about this, in part because I wanted to find out what insane people would dare ride a bike in my city. What I didn’t realize at the time was that New Orleans already had a strong bicycling culture – it had just been sailing under my radar.

In terms of what makes New Orleans different, this city has a number of inherent advantages over many other American cities, and particularly many other southern cities, when it comes to bicycling. We developed before the rise of the car, and we’ve retained a lot of the street connectivity, intermixing of land uses, and pedestrian-scale development patterns that come with that that really facilitate bicycling. It also helps that we’re flat. Moreover, we’ve seen pretty substantial infrastructure investments here in recent years that I would say have helped to advertise the bicycling possibilities that have long existed and helped make many more people feel comfortable bicycling here.

emilie and trailerWhat’s also important to note about New Orleans is that we’re a poor city. Our poverty rate is significantly higher than the national average and a large proportion of people don’t have access to cars, so there are a number of people who get around by bike and have for many years before the infrastructure was installed because they have no other option. I would say that our bicycling community is very racially and economically diverse, which is increasingly true across the country, but New Orleans bicyclists really defy the stereotype of bicyclist as wealthy, white male. More and more, I notice a whole lot of women biking here too.

Another thing that I think really helps to set New Orleans apart from much of the rest of the world is that we have these massive street celebrations here several times a year, the most famous and massive of them, of course, being Mardi Gras. At Mardi Gras, our streets are essentially shut down to automobile traffic for days at a time, and residents are forced to reconsider our relationship with the streets, even if for a finite period. I would say that Mardi Gras and some of our other major festivals are what introduce a lot of people to the possibility of biking and help us to think about the streets as being something other than channels for moving cars as quickly as possible.

4. There’s been a lot of focus in the news lately around the 10 year anniversary of Katrina. Were you in the city during Katrina? Did bikes play a role in disaster relief or recovery? Or did the hurricane pave the way for bike infrastructure and culture in some sense?

In August 2005, I was splitting my time between New Orleans, where my boyfriend at the time lived, and Thibodaux, a small town about an hour’s drive from the city where I was working for the local newspaper. Before the storm, I evacuated from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, where my dad lives, and spent a long night until the power went out desperately trying to figure out what was going on in the city, the extent of which wouldn’t become clear to us for some time after the rest of the world knew.

So much can be and has been said about Katrina and its aftermath, but one of the things the storm revealed was just how cut off a modern society becomes when electricity and gasoline lines are severed. I sneaked back into the city about a week after the storm, and even in places that didn’t flood, it resembled something out of a post-apocalyptic novel: there was no power, no gas, military people marched in the streets. And the people who refused to leave had to rethink how they got around. You might say they resorted to old-fashioned means, using canoes, bikes, their own two feet. For many people, getting in to see their homes, especially in flooded areas, required using a bike, and some of the most powerful early footage of the damage from the storm was shot by people riding around on bike.

In the recovery from the storm, one of the silver linings has been that it’s allowed us to reconsider how we do things here. I wouldn’t say we’ve fully taken advantage of these opportunities, but one area in which it’s really caused a shifting in the public consciousness is transportation, and this is in part because the city suddenly got a lot of federal rebuilding money to redo its streets after the storm. Starting in 2008, thanks to the advocacy and creativity of a number of folks here, many of the streets that were being resurfaced were striped with bikeways for the first time. A few years later, a local city councilwoman who cares a lot about transportation beyond just moving people in cars successfully won passage of citywide policy requiring that all users – pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, people with physical disabilities, and drivers – be considered in rebuilding our streets. At the same time that this new infrastructure continues to take shape, we’ve experienced a surge in new people moving to New Orleans post-Katrina. Many of them come from cities with strong bicycling traditions and they have continued to spread the gospel in their adopted home, even if it’s just by example. There was a time not all that long ago when a bike commuter would have seemed like an exotic species here. Today that is definitely no longer the case.

5. Anything else I ought to ask you about?

Well, I guess I could mention that I’m six months pregnant. I write in the book about parenthood as one of the obstacles many women face in getting on the bike, and I’m interested to see how pregnancy and motherhood affect my own bicycling patterns. I’m determined to continue biking but this will definitely require tweaking my routines. Already, I’ve found myself opting for my upright, Dutch-style bike over the speedier model I typically ride because it more readily accommodates my rapidly-changing figure. That said, I’m excited about the challenges and the new perspective parenthood will provide. And I’m looking forward to having a reason to invest in some of those adorable contraptions for toting around kids on bike.

This interview with Urban Revolutions author Emilie Bahr is part of a series. The last interview was with Alexander Barrett. The next one is with Kaycee Eckhardt, author of Katrina’s Sandcastles.

Love Letters to Cities: An interview with Alexander Barrett

alexander barrett with puppyAlexander Barrett had only lived in our city for a year when he wrote and illustrated one of our most charming books, This is Portland: The City You’ve Heard You Should Like, telling the real story of just how weird things are here…much weirder than as shown on the television show Portlandia, thank you very much. Later, he moved to China for a short time, and the result is the just-as-charming book about a very different place: This is Shanghai: What it’s Like to Live in the World’s Most Populous City (which, by the way, comes out this month!). He took a minute to answer some questions about his work and plans and where he’s at right now in San Francisco. Readers of This is Shanghai will recognize one important theme from that book which has stayed with him…as illustrated in the photos here.

1. Where are you *right now* and what is the most important thing to know about what’s going on around you there?

Right this second, I’m in a sunny edit suite in San Francisco, working on a short documentary about a street sign and getting ready for Beer Feelings, a show of illustrations I do in San Diego every November. But most importantly, I’m hanging out with a super chill puppy.

2. I know it’s crass to ask, but when you aren’t making charming illustrated books about places you’re getting to know, what exactly do you do for a living?

I used to know, I think. I used to be a copywriter at ad agencies. Now I’m kind of a copywriter and mostly a regular writer at YouTube. I guess I’m trying to put okay things into the world for a living.

alexander barrett with another puppy3. What’s your favorite book that you’ve read this year?

This year I finally finished Raymond Chandler’s oeuvre. And that’s the first time I’ve ever typed “oeuvre.” I wish I could say I read The Long Goodbye this year, but I have to be honest and say Farewell, My Lovely, which is also incredible.

4. What’s next for you? Will there be a This is San Francisco? And finally, the question on everyone’s mind: Where will you live next?

With Portland and Shanghai, it took a year to realize I had enough stories to put a book together. I’ll see if that happens with SF. For the first time in a while, I’m not thinking about where I’ll go next. In between the Portland and Shanghai books, I lived in three cities. Three cities that didn’t inspire books. I’m really excited about being in one place for a while. One place with super chill puppies.

alexander barrett with people and puppies in china

This is the latest in our series of author interviews. The previous interview was with Our Bodies, Our Bikes contributor, Bikeyface.

America’s #1 Bike Cartoonist: An interview with Bikeyface

cartoon of bikeyface on a bikeOf the fifty-plus contributors to our brand-new book Our Bodies, Our Bikes, few are as renowned as the artist known as Bikeyface. From her secret bunker in the Boston area, she’s been alternately delighting and enraging anyone who types a bicycle-related question into google for years now with her series of ongoing web comics that provide wry commentary on everything from safety to sweat to driver behavior to that giant, unladylike smile that gets plastered to your face when you spend a lot of time on your bike. 

I’ve long been curious about Bikeyface’s bike comics career, and she kindly agreed to answer a few questions over email.

1. Tell us a story… how did you become America’s #1 Bikey Cartoonist?

I didn’t plan to be a bike cartoonist, it was something that happened when a lot of things in my life intersected. I was an artist who had just moved to Boston, started a new job, and started biking everywhere. I didn’t know many people in Boston and making art can often be solitary. But I wondered if getting involved with the local bike community would be a better way to meet people. I didn’t know much about the bike community and I was a real newbie. But I muddled through volunteering at a couple events, went to some workshops, and tried joining an organized ride—but it was harder than I expected to find my niche. (Note to new bicyclists: do not pick the Ride of Silence as your first “organized ride.”) 

In the midst of this trial and error of finding community I also decided to start a blog on a community bike site, bostonbiker.org. It was the middle of the night, and a half-baked idea I assumed I would abandon very quickly. I did it anonymously at first—I had read the comments section before. In the beginning it was quick anecdotes, photos, thoughts, even recipes. But because I’m an artist by nature I started throwing cartoons in there too. After a few compliments I started doing more cartoons. Suddenly I found myself getting web traffic from around the country. So I went all in and that’s when I started Bikeyface. And eventually I did meet some other people who bike in Boston too.

2. Many of your comics have included a feminist critique of parts of bicycle culture. Your comic in Our Bodies, Our Bikes depicts a woman going into a bike shop and not having the greatest experience. Have you seen changes for the better/worse/neutral in bike culture in the time that you’ve been riding? What would you like to see happen next?

I’m not really sure how much has changed for women in bicycling industry—or if I’ve changed more? I struggled a lot in the beginning and had many awkward interactions in bike shops. I couldn’t tell if it was lack of knowledge about bikes, having limited bike experience, or being a woman. I was definitely aware I didn’t know anything about bikes but I also didn’t know much about gender issues in cycling aside from the “girl” bikes always having flowers on them (yuck.) I wouldn’t have called myself a feminist then, either. But somewhere along the way as I got more experience with biking it brought me to feminism. I notice much more of the nonsense than I did before so in some ways it seems worse. I think there is a heightened awareness overall and desire to call the industry out on it. I’ve also seen two women-owned bike shops open in my neighborhood, so that is a measure of progress (and luxury).  I’d like to see more women-friendly bike shops around the country as well as more robust product lines that appeal to women. 

cartoon of bikeyface and her two bikes and gear3. What’s your favorite comic that you’ve drawn? What (if it’s different) has been the most popular one? 

My favorite cartoons are ones that make me crack up so much while I’m drawing them that I have difficulty drawing a straight line—like So Ladies. The most popular was Not Asking For It which was a surprise to me—it definitely made the rounds more than I anticipated.

4. Do you get to make art for a living? Any advice for other comics artists who want to do something similar?

I don’t make art for a living. Sometimes I wish I did—but most of the time I’m really glad I do not. If I were paid for making art everyday it would become another job and I wouldn’t be drawing the things I personally enjoy (like Bikeyface.) I occasionally take freelance jobs that are interesting to me but full time freelance can be a roller coaster—I learned early on that I’m too much of an anxious person to go on that ride. I have an office job because I’m more creative when I have stability (and regular food). So I work during the day and draw in the limited evenings and weekend hours. This means I go to very few social events but that’s okay for an introvert. The only downside to this system is that I often run out of time and can’t do everything I would like to. 

I recommend other comic artists think about their own style and personality and find an art/life/money balance that works for them. The internet is a great way to find an audience and build it. However, it’s not a great way to make money. So that means you have to have a day job or a willingness to embrace the struggle to build the business side of your art.

This is one of a series of interviews with Microcosm contributors. The previous interview was with vegan chef Joshua Ploeg. The next interview is with Alexander Barrett, who writes illustrated love letters to cities in book form.

Podcast Episode 1: An interview with John “Jughead” Pierson

Check out this brand new episode of our first ever podcast:

The premiere episode of Microcosm Publishing’s brand new podcast, featuring Johnny “Jughead” Pierson of Screeching Weasel and the Neofuturists about growing up as a musician, an author, and an actor in a chaotic household and how it directed his adult life when these hobbies turned professional.

Strategies Against Amateurs: Four questions for Joshua Ploeg

joshua ploeg in a candid moment

I just spent an entire month in a smelly van with wickedly funny rocker and vegan chef Joshua Ploeg, author of four Microcosm cookbooks, going around on the Dinner and Bikes tour. Tour life is a mixture of hectic and regimented, and in that time we never got a chance to sit down and do a proper interview. You can follow Joshua’s schedule here, keep track of his doings here, and buy his new album here (vinyl) or here (digital)

You’re the Traveling Vegan Chef—and that’s so much more than just going places and cooking. What does it mean? How is what you do different than, say, a catering company or a chef who works at a restaurant?

Well, I go from town to town, usually on public transportation or rideshare… I don’t really bring any gear, not even my knives lately. I cook often in apartments or homes for dinner parties, sometimes in random facilities for multimedia or art events and presentations, sometimes popups in restaurants, and occasionally a wedding thrown in there. It’s pretty ramshackle… the good things are I get to hang out and party with the hosts, I don’t have a boss and the trips usually cover themselves as I go along. I’ll spend a few days to a few weeks in each town then move on to the next. In a way it’s sort of a medieval model crossed with a punk rock touring concept.

What was the first cookbook or cookzine that you wrote? How many have you made since? Any favorites?

The first one was a comb-bound, photocopied tome called Something Delicious This Way Comes: Spellbinding Vegan Cookery. It was fun. That’s why I started touring with dinner parties, I was trying to sell that thing. Although I had been doing random events and regular dinners already for several years before that started, I just stayed mostly in my own area (the Pacific Northwest) before. I’ve made I think eight since then, with several more in the queue, with two publishers and still some self-made items as well. I like This Ain’t No Picnic a lot because it has some fun photos, interesting commentary, playlists, etc. It’s fun conceptually and is fairly interactive and involved a bunch of friends in the whole affair. Also So Raw It’s Downright Filthy which I like because it has pictures of garbage and is a garish colour.

Your band Select Sex has a new album! Tell me about it!

Yes, comes out end of June/early July! It’s on the German queercore label Our Voltage. They also put out Vow, Body Betrayal, Red Monkey, Wishbeard and our Select Sex 7″ so far. Vinyl will be limited and is an import. People will be able to mail order them, or can get them at our live shows. The download will be easier to come by, the label should have a link to that. The record is called Strategies Against Amateurs. You’re welcome! It’s good hardcore with some pretty melodic parts, I think it’s my favorite thing I’ve been on so far. Catchy and moody but also pretty brutal here and there. Live show wise, I have some exciting things planned for the next year as far as performance. Gonna take it up a notch. You’ll see. (Update: You can now get Strategies Against Amateurs on vinyl or as a digital download.)

Can you talk about how your music and your cooking are connected? Logistically, thematically, methodologically, however else you’re thinking about it?

My music has always been chaotic and not pretty, so is my life, so is my cooking. It can be challenging, I use weird but functional methods sometimes. I believe in using what you find around you and living in the circumstances you find yourself in and shopping where the people in each place shop and selling your stuff at a reasonable price. Sometimes things are abrasive or challenging, not everyone is going to like everything I do. I don’t try to alter the course for greater demand or pay any attention to trends. I do this more or less how I want to do it and it is generally only affected by logistics. If it is too screwy for some but inspiring to others, fine. It ain’t pretty but it is beautiful.

This interview with Joshua Ploeg is part of our ongoing series of author interviews. The previous one was with Teenage Rebels author Dawson Barrett. The next is with cartoonist Bikeyface.

Meet the Microcosm workers: An interview with sales director Thea Kuticka

thea kuticka at the beachA big welcome to our newest Microcosm worker, sales director Thea Kuticka. Thea has been here for a month, getting to know our systems (aka, epic wading through lots and lots of spreadsheets), getting acquainted with everyone, and sharing her experience and insights from over a decade in publishing (and also her home grown blackberries, yum!). I asked her some questions over email.

You’re the newest staff person at Microcosm. How are you settling in? What’s your favorite part about your work space here?

I’m very excited to have landed at Microcosm and feel lucky to be working with such a welcoming group. My favorite part of my workstation is a hand-sewn Harvey Pekar mascot sporting a Microcosm patch. Pekar is an excellent reminder of the extraordinary events that can come out of ordinary life.

What’s been the most fun?

Spontaneous conversations about food and book cover art and the pink plunger. [Editor’s note: We learned something new in the office last week: pink plungers are designed for sinks with a flat bottom. Incidentally, we are always on the look out for books to publish about DIY handy work!]

You came to us with a whole lot of publishing industry experience. Can you recap some of the highlights?

I caught the publishing bug in Eugene, Oregon, where I started out watching friends assemble skate mags with glue and scissors and plenty of hours at Kinko’s. I soon volunteered with some literary magazines (Emergency Horse, Two Girls Review, and Northwest Review), and was lucky enough to get a job at Black Sun Books (I harassed the owner daily until he finally gave in). At Black Sun, I found an amazing mentor who taught me a lot about acquiring and selling books, by hand, by suggestion, and by listening. Later highlights include working for a nonprofit Chicana/o publisher in Arizona, then joining Dark Horse Comics at a time when the big box stores were clamoring for manga and comics in book format. More recently, I fell into an outreach role for a start-up publisher with a list of beautifully created children’s books.

What’s your favorite kind of book to read? Any recent standouts? Or long-time favorites?

harvey pekar at the officeMy favorite kind of book to read is one that will inspire me creatively. I look for stories that come from a creative impulse. These are inspired novels and memoirs such as Woman Warrior or Blood Meridian or Giving Up the Ghost. I’ll read National Book Award books and then pick up a book on the Zodiac Killer.

I don’t like to admit this, but I am an impatient reader. If a book doesn’t grab me in the first few pages I tend to set it down. I love all types of cookbooks though (eye candy!), especially about fermentation (Wild Fermentation, yes!). 

New favorites include Ruby by Cynthia Bond, a haunting ghost story of survival with a satisfying dose of magical realism. I recently discovered Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. A new edition had been released with this haunting cover art by Thomas Ott and I had to read what was inside. See how easily persuaded I am?

What’s your favorite kind of knotty publishing problem to figure out?

There’s something very communal about sharing a good book, and for me the question is: How to get a book that I love into everybody else’s hands. Once I discover a book, I can’t help but talk about it and want to share it. There’s something intimate about reading that touches all of the senses—this may sound weird, but if a book doesn’t feel good in my hand, I have a difficult time sticking with it for two or three hundred pages. I know, they say don’t judge a book by it’s cover, but the thing is we do. We judge the cover, the size of the text, the blurbs on the back and the people who are saying, read this fucking book, it’s a New York Times pick damnit!

It’s not enough to create a good book. Now you’re competing with all of these other forms of entertainment, because for most people, reading is such a commitment (wait! There’s a movie?) that the challenge for publishers is to overcome information overload. Readers think they already know what they want to read until they find the one book on the one subject they haven’t yet discovered. It’s like being the first on your block. It’s what makes you want to share. We’ve become such expert browsers that we may have forgotten that at the heart of all of this is a community, and for a publisher like Microcosm, books are the community that informs and inspires. All of the rest—the social networking, the online gamers, and niche markets is gossip that involves books, so it may as well be Microcosm’s books. There’s so much potential emerging in the industry and that bodes very well for readers and writers alike.

Can you talk a little about the direction you think the publishing industry is heading, but also what you would like to see the future hold for books and readers?

we have always lived in the castle coverI’m optimistic! And this is coming from someone who tends to see the glass half empty. The desire to read is as strong as ever—it’s just how we read and the tools we use to access those ideas that have changed. It used to be TV that would kill the book, then it was gaming, now it’s ebooks. But what hasn’t changed is our insatiable need for more—we still want to be entertained, inspired, discovered—there’s a huge collaboration going on now between readers and publishers.

What this all means? The consolidation of big publishers has created opportunities for smaller publishers by providing a place where readers and authors can feel understood and appreciated. A company like Microcosm now has the ability to respond more quickly to market changes than a larger publishing house. Because readers are savvy, they adjust their habits to conveniently fit their needs. The variety of platforms also increases the ability for readers and publishers to get the word out. The downside is that there’s more of a strain on resources for small publishers when it comes to outreach. But that’s a different conversation.

How we discover, read, and access books may change, but if a publisher rethinks their strategies by printing closer to their distribution centers (domestic) and adjust their print runs to more realistic numbers, they will be more nimble in the long term.

Lots of books don’t find their readers no matter how hard you try, but it helps to take chances, and the digital world (because Twitter is free buzz) helps publishers do this—the tone is less formal, more collaborative, but the goals are similar. Rather than depending on the Oprah Factor or the coveted Publishers Weekly review, publishers can begin to understand that their readers have become some of the best advocates and sales people for the books they love. The difficulty I see now is how a small publisher can maintain an edge and still remain sustainable.


This is part of a series of interviews with Microcosm workers. The last interview was with Nathan Lee Thomas.