Go Forth (Vol. 47): an Interview with Writer and Publisher James Reich

Writer, publisher, and former bookseller, James Reich is a force to be reckoned with in the world of small press letters. Born in 1971, in Stroud, Gloucestershire in the west of England, Reich calls Bath his English home. It’s where he was a bookseller for ten years. Since 2009, Reich has lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His time in this country has been quite productive. It’s where he wrote his first book—I, Judas, published by Soft Skull in 2011—and founded Stalking Horse press in 2015. 

Founded with a condition that each author select a charitable or humanitarian organization to receive a percentage of book sales, Stalking Horse Press began with a righteous ethic combined with a mission committed to radical voices in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. It’s first and maybe still most notable title is Patricide by D Foy, a dark and gritty novel that deservedly found its way onto several “best of 2016” lists. But the range of work is what marks Stalking Horse’s reputation with books such as: The Messenger Is Already Dead, Jennifer MacBain-Stephens’ poetry collection reinforcing Joan of Arc’s status as a 21st Century feminist icon; Pax Americana, Kurt Baumeister’s dystopian novel of a future America, at turns quirky, hilarious, and darkly prescient; Jason DeBoer’s Annihilation Songs, a collection of three short stories, all reformations the words from a different Shakespeare play each; and Duncan Barlow’s haunting metaphysical noir novel, The City Awake

The end of 2017 also saw the release of Reich’s fourth novel, from Anti-Oedipus Press, Soft Invasions. The setting is a stylized wartime Los Angeles reminiscent of Steve Erickson’s forays into “historical” fiction while telling the story of analyst Max McKinney, his wife, their wounded son returned from the field of battle, and Sid Starr, a screenwriter and Max’s doppelgänger. Soft Invasions comes off like a psychoanalytic noir in the vein of Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” but it reads like Raymond Chandler with a greater maturity, vocabulary, and ear for semantic nuance. The sentences themselves are something to relish. They assert and turn, a one-two punch, baiting and switching the reader between each period. Even the most utilitarian sentence has a subtle beauty. 

James Reich and I chatted through email about his new book and what it is to be a small press publisher. 

—Jordan A. Rothacker

THE BELIEVER: You were a novelist before you became a publisher, but your two most recent novels came out with Anti-Oedpius Press. Why not publish yourself? It’s certainly not unheard of at small presses.

JAMES REICH: It was fine for Ferlinghetti, right? When I think about William Blake, the Marxist in me can become quite romantic about self-publishing, as if it should be the only extant form. Writers should learn publishing forms like painters learn canvas preparation. We do need to be familiar with the technology, and the media in and upon which our literature is distributed. I believe that the more self-sufficient a writer can become, the better. Particularly outsiders like me.

But “literature” as an idealized mode, as an officiated and mediated culture tends to devalue self-sufficiency, the artistic control implied by punk, DIY, the auteur, and amateur. With all that said, I’m wary of the perception shift that might occur with Stalking Horse if it became a vehicle for my work. It just hasn’t come up. And I love working with D. Harlan Wilson at Anti-Oedipus. He’s a kindred kind of no bullshit writer and editor.

BLVR: Why start your own press?

JR: Part of the impetus for starting the press, aside from wanting to support great literature, was a love of the object, of the paperback book, of typography, and design. I haven’t been to AWP more than a few times, but I’m always struck—as we all are, I think—by the diversity and difference on display from the small presses at the book fair. For me, it’s the only reason to attend. Most book buyers don’t venture into that territory, out of the major houses and their imprints, but events like that offer a visionary paradigm, even if only for a few days at a time. There’s a lot of unpaid talent working against the grain. Every single person involved is risking a great deal, but there’s exhilaration in that. I’m not interested in risk-averse culture.

Young writers should read as many banned books as possible, immerse themselves in the anti-canon and the countercultures that earned them their contemporary freedoms. My undergraduate students could turn in work that would have been considered obscene up until quite recently. We owe a profound debt to the writers and publishers who went to trial for us. I also believe every writer worth their salt must be conscious that literacy is a civil liberty, that it has been hard won, is recent and fragile, and requires protection.

BLVR: As someone who gets sent manuscripts, are you shocked by the great amount of talent around lately, or is it hit or miss?

JR: It’s difficult to say. Stalking Horse has only been around since 2015, so I’m not sure whether our submissions are a representative sample, yet. I am offered more good work than I can afford to publish. I say this all the time, but there is no meritocracy in literature or anything else, but that’s the tragedy and libido of art, the labor against mediocrity and consensus. It’s also true that it’s more important that you have an idea, than it is that someone pays you for it. Yeah, self-publish if you believe in it.

It’s also true that, like everyone else, I get some absolute shit. I’m more shocked by the bad than the good, to be honest.

BLVR: I once heard you say that your Mistah Kurtz! book could’ve been about Arthur Rimbaud. I find this quite intriguing and it got me thinking about the connection. How do you see a similarity between Rimbaud and Joseph Conrad’s character? And why didn’t you just write about Rimbaud?

JR: I dedicated that book to Henry Miller, and The Time of the Assassins. Miller observed the ascendance of the Rimbaud-type. I observed that the Rimbaud-type and the Kurtz-type were uncanny doubles, in delirium, in their fading into Africa. The Kurtz in my novel is born in Rimbaud’s town, shares his birthdate, his cancer, and so on. His station in the Congo is literally his Season in Hell, so the novel pulls that poem in, or the poem draws Kurtz out.

BLVR: Your most recent novel, Soft Invasions, is as different from your others works as they all are from each other. The story takes place in 1942. What drew you to this time period?

JR: It’s a latent presence in me. Even in my first novel, I, Judas, I wrote Pontius Pilate onto a displaced aircraft carrier, and there are Grumman F6F Hellcats collaged into ancient Palestine. It’s in the science fiction novel I’m writing now. This is such a great question to ask, because it invites me to psychoanalyze my writing. Before I was a teenager, I had already introjected an imaginative architecture, influenced by popular culture and the resonances of WWII, that fused the war, the spectral, the paranormal, and the unexplained; time-travel, disappearances, UFOs. It was all anachronism, multivalent: H.G. Wells, The Battle of Britain, Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Philadelphia Experiment, Roswell, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the science fiction and fantasy writing I became aware of, including Michael Moorcock and his multiversal fiction, the supernatural, disaster stories, war films… all fusing. This was all long before I had a sense of an avant-garde. I don’t know if the period—I was very young—set an unconscious postmodern project to work in my unconscious, or if the way I read culture today is just my natural idiom. Whatever happened, it’s clear to me that my unconscious is never going to admit the twenty-first century, that when all is said and done, I am and will always be a late-modernist.

BLVR: Some of the most famous doppelgängers we have seen in literature are Dostoevsky’s The Double, Jose Saramago’s book of the same title, Poe’s story William Wilson, and in Soft Invasions you work with this device, too. What drew you to employing doppelgängers?

JR: At one point, in 2016, I was going to write a queer submariner novel. It was going to be based on W.H. Auden’s The Orators: An English Study (1932) which is one of the strangest, most inventive, and underrated—if not ignored—books I’ve ever read. I had revisited Das Boot, and I bought about a dozen U-Boat books, from pulp war novels to Nazi memoirs. They all arrived in the mail on the same day, which I thought was a good omen. I took my Stanley knife to them, working at cut-ups and fold-ins for several hours, but the texts rejected me. That had never happened before. So, there’s a landfill somewhere strewn over with strips of U-Boat novels. The U-Boat novel was going to involve a doppelgänger, or the suggestion of a divided or doubled self.

It remains as an aspect of Soft Invasions, in the movie that characters in the book conspire to produce. And, earlier in the year, I had been at City Lights with Laurence Rickels. We had been talking about “the psychopathology of science fiction” and he’d just published his book Germany: A Science Fiction, and we had talked about unconscious desires for invasion. Soon after, I saw a photograph of the Burbank terminal covered with camouflage netting and the doubling of the city, as well as the protagonists, was arranged with all of their metaphors. I’d also taught Gothic literature for years, so the doppelgänger, that I read through Otto Rank and Freud, is a prominent presence. William Wilson was an influence on Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and so there’s some Wilde in Soft Invasions also.

BLVR: It feels like there is an influence of D.H. Lawrence in the text, a psycho-sexual tension in his vein, but more modern. There is also the presence of Freud and William S. Burroughs (who was constantly enthralled by new and different approaches to psychology). Can you explain the intellectual apparatus behind the book? It feels like so much tension charges through the text right under the surface. And the whole narrative feels very cinematic.

JR: Lawrence is vital. The quotation that precedes Soft Invasions is from one of Lawrence’s letters, from 1914, about The Rainbow. The idea of the unstable ego is behind all of my fiction, passing through what Lawrence called “allotropic states”. It is behind the multiple iterations of Judas in I, Judas, the combinations of Varyushka Cash and Valerie Solanas in Bombshell, of Kurtz-Rimbaud in Mistah Kurtz!, and of course, you see it in Soft Invasions. 

Lawrence’s Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious are wild. Lawrence was skeptical of psychoanalysis, but his work presents an idiosyncratic libidinal, pantheistic view, and that is part of its power. In that respect, he’s like Blake. Ken Russell, the British filmmaker was a great influence on me, again when I was very young, and as a teenager. His films of Lawrence’s work, and stuff like Tommy, all very psycho-sexual, hyper-Freudian, and what he did for new cinema and documenting youth culture are very important to me. Ken Russell and Nic Roeg. They’re in my novels. Burroughs was also a big influence, although there are probably only about a few hundred words of cut-up material in my novels thus far, mostly one section of I, Judas. I gravitated toward Burroughs because he fulfilled what my childhood unconscious had already formulated: anachronism, fused bodies, collapsing genres, the paranormal and science fiction. Lawrence’s remains are in a chapel here in New Mexico, and Burroughs went to school here at Los Alamos. The Man Who Fell to Earth was filmed down the road from where I first came to live here. It all makes sense.

Jordan A. Rothacker is the author of three works of fiction: The Pit, and No Other Stories (Black Hill Press/1888, 2015), And Wind Will Wash Away (Deeds, 2016), and My Shadow Book by Maawaam (Spaceboy Books, 2017).  He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature and a MA in Religion from the University of Georgia. He lives in Athens, Georgia.

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