SK: Hi Kim, congrats on the publication of China Cowboy! A portion of this book was published as the chapbook, Run. How long did you work on China Cowboy? Was the book already finished when Run was released?
KGLS: Yes, China Cowboy was mostly finished and accepted for publication with Tarpaulin Sky before Run was released. Actually, China Cowboy existed well before the chap Run did, Run was an excerpt I pulled together after I had completed China Cowboy. Similarly my chapbook The Residents was an excerpt of an already completed full-length, The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits. Thus far, that’s how I’ve rolled I guess—making my chaps from parts of a “whole.” But I kept tinkering with China Cowboy until it was published in 2012. Publication can be a bullet that way, and an afterlife.
I don’t know exactly how long I worked on China Cowboy. Years. Mentally I worked on it for like 10 years. I didn’t write it for 10 years or anything, more like 2-3—I don’t tend to hit my targets that rapidly or from one direction. Also, it is hard to let a story go, to finish. For me, it is harder than starting in some ways. But I’d say I worked on China Cowboy as a mostly-daily thing for 2-3 years. I had the story in my mind for ten years though, and the characters too, La La and Ren, were part of my life and my family’s life for all those years, as demented as that is. My daughter even has a stuffed cat named La La! I’d be worried if she had doll named Ren.
SK: Tarpaulin Sky Press previously published your brilliant first book, The Bugging Watch. How did you get hooked up with TSKY?
KGLS: I sent Christian Peet some prose poems from The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits sometime in 2009, for publication in an issue of Tarpaulin Sky journal. He emailed me a fast acceptance and said he’d read some of my work in an issue of Caketrain, and asked if I had any more poems about these characters, Harlan and Toland, “enough for a book”? I did. So when Tarpaulin Sky opened their reading period, I mailed them my manuscript. A couple weeks later, Christian left me a voice-mail to say he wanted to publish The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits. My daughter was turning 3 around that time. Lots of great things happening all at once.
SK: Did you enjoy working with the press again for the second book?
KGLS: Did you ever see Fitzcarraldo? Or rather the documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo, called The Burden of Dreams? Making China Cowboy the book object was like that except our Mick Jagger was my friend Dan Rhodes. Did you know that Mick Jagger was originally part of Fitzcarraldo? He was! Although maybe Dan was more like our Jason Robards. I guess it depends on how you interpret what went down.
Anyway, some backstory: my friend Dan Rhodes is the amazing artist who did the illustrations for my first book The Bugging Watch & Other Exhibits. He was also gonna do the cover work for China Cowboy. Dan and I had brainstormed a cover image—a collage of illustration & old movie posters, with the ominous iconic silhouette of Clint Eastwood from an old The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly poster that was made for the Alamo Drafthouse Rolling Road Show.
This image of Clint was something we both loved and agreed on for my book, and so was the movie poster-ese. I really loved that we could say “Original Story by. . .” and just get around the whole pesky genre thing. But planning the cover was as far as Dan and I got. Why? Because my dear friend Dan got bit on the face by a spider and had developed temporary Bell’s Palsy. I shit you not. Poor Dan couldn’t even hold a pen without shaking, so Christian and I had to look for another artist to make the China Cowboy cover.
I remembered that a year or so earlier I had met Andrew Shuta at AWP 2010—he does lots of cover and design work for Action Books. When I met him he had asked if I had someone to do the cover for my next book. So when Dan had to bow out, I contacted Andrew to ask him if he’d want to give China Cowboy’s cover a shot and he said yes. This might make him our Klaus Kinski, except that we all got along really well. Anyway, the cover Andrew designed was brilliant, and I actually don’t think things could have turned out any better, really. It was meant to be. Just like Fitzcarraldo.
SK: China Cowboy is a beautifully designed book. I mean you and the press really went for it. How much of the design aspect did you take part in? Where did all the illustrations that mark the sections come from?
KGLS: Thanks. Tarpaulin Sky is great to work with for many reasons, but a biggie for me is that they really let their authors take part in the design of the book object. Not all authors want to do this, but I like to. I had pretty specific ideas for the cover and section title pages. For the cover I emailed a tragically rough mock-up of a wraparound to Andrew Shuta, based on what Dan and I had thunk up, and then Andrew made something a thousand times better for the real live thing. And the color palette (primarily bright yellow and black—a color combo that in the insect world indicates danger) and the awesome western typeface was all Andrew. He’s awesome.
But the sections—well, for one thing, there are so many section titles pages in China Cowboy (7, I think, not including the two interior title pages—so, 9) and it is a lot of work—I just had such specific ideas (microphones and vintage Chinese cowgirl pop-art) that I ended-up creating the interior pages myself. It is hard not to be captivated by images of a passed era, and that is what La La is in many ways, and children who are missing. They become posters. And then silhouettes (mysteries). So I wanted posters posters posters—an art form children usually appreciate more than adults (shame!). I had an image in my mind of Josephine Siao & Connie Chan—the sense of an era passed. So in making the interior pages for China Cowboy I just riffed on vintage Hong Kong record label art & posters.
SK: China Cowboy weaves fractured narratives that are often terrifying and haunting, and yet there’s such an innocence, at times, to La La especially regarding her big dreams. Because of this your book captures the difficult complexity which relates to all of us— that is what it means to be human, to be naive, to dream, to feel alienation from family, to question one’s identity, to speculate on how much ethnicity (or the perceived culture of a “race”) functions as a marker for identity, the need to escape, and also the violent brutal behavior that has sadly become a partial definition of the history of human experience. How did you decide to negotiate all of these huge topics within the structure of your book?
KGLS: Actually, I didn’t. I left lots of stuff out, tons, a good 275 pages of stuff. So it’s funny and wonderful to hear it described that way because it sounds like I’ve left nothing out! But I tend to be a very ruthless editor, I hate when I pick up a book and think: Do you have no unspoken thoughts? Shut up! So I would never want to write a book like that.
But, those things—dreaming, being alienated, wondering who we are as individuals and as members of a race or nationality or gender—these qualities of self are inherent to all characters, or should be. These sorts of questions—what is human—confront all writers and hopefully, all readers. We read and write to learn about ourselves and the world—to develop our working theories of ontology, all to further our investigation into what is human. We can’t help it. We are like lumps of quartz refracting our own private Idahos. We are social and individualistic, and we’re violent and brutal, but also romantic—mutable mutable thanatos-eros. Other things always come into play—memory and time, and their problems. Namely, unreliability.
Negotiating these topics into a book is not that hard. These are things readers look for. And usually something that is looked for will be found, even if only in puny facsimile. Also “violent brutal behavior,” especially against girls, is so let’s-face-it-ordinary. Yet, at the same time, it is this horrible secret. Why? Because if we are good people, we must be shocked by such things.
The original China Cowboy—the one I worked on for a year or so in the early 2000s and then put away until several years later—was over 300 pages. Back then, there was way more story in this story. But I felt that for China Cowboy, those topics came most vividly to life as the story shrunk. Strange, huh? There was a whole lot more obvious political stuff in that version, and everything was from Ren’s Clive Wearing-esque unreliable perspective. But the more there was, the more that was missing. So to get it all in, I had to take stuff out.
SK: Since publishing Run and The Bugging Watch you have done some pretty extensive touring in support of your books. Do you remember how many cities you went to? More recently you did a min-tour with Bruce Covey, where did you go? Are there any upcoming readings scheduled or in works?
KGLS: I don’t know exactly how may cities I went to after The Bugging Watch and Run were published. A lot. And it has been truly marvelous. But ever since my daughter was born, I also sometimes feel there are just two cities: Home and Not Home. How precious, right? But it’s true. I can’t stand to be away from her. I used to take my daughter with me a lot when I traveled to read, but now she’s started school so I can’t take her as much; hence, I travel a little less. But, as you said, I did do some touring with Bruce Covey. We went to Denver (I brought my daughter). Bruce and I had lots of fun reading at Counterpath with Joshua Ware and Danielle Vogel—amazing amazing talent those two. And then Bruce and I went to Reb Livingston’s house for her No Tell Salon where we read with the lovely Lee Ann Roripaugh. Reb is a wonderful & witty host, and so smart, and always cracks me up. Her salon is very well done, which is no surprise because Reb doesn’t seem to do anything half-assed. Let’s see. . .what else? Later this month (September), I’ll be reading for the So and So Series and also for Chapter and Verse in Philadelphia. (Click here for exact dates and location.)
SK: Speaking of readings, you have generously given many poets a space to showcase their talents in Philly. How long have you been curating General Idea?
KGLS: Debrah Morkun (my GI co-curator) and I had hosted some non-series readings together off and on starting in 2010, and then we started thinking that it would be neat to host some marathon-style readings in which we featured poets & writers of a particular city. That is how General Idea started. We still have lots of cities we want to feature. In addition to that we host many non-marathon readings in which we feature 3-6 readers from different cities. We began archiving it on a blog in 2011, I think.
SK: Are you working on anything now or involved with any new exciting projects?
KGLS: Yes! I am mostly working on a novel right now. I’ve also got a couple of collaborative works-in-progress. I like to work on more than one collection at a time, so right now these projects are making me very happy.
Steven Karl is a news editor for Coldfront Magazine.