Bookseller / author Hastings talks e-reading technology, supporting local stores, and fiction that mirrors the times.
Kevin Catalano: William “Buffy” Hastings is a rogue citizen of a century that doesn’t seem to fit him. To me, Mr. Hastings seems better suited to the 19th Century, in a wild part of the country that requires a shotgun, a good knife, a loyal dog, and stacks of books. This is a compliment. What I admire most about Buffy is that he refuses to adapt to our society’s “necessary evils,” like the ease of using Amazon and Kindles. He’s also a fantastically original thinker and writer, and a passionate purveyor of books. (He’s a longtime employee at the great Farley’s Bookshop in New Hope, Pennsylvania.) Like many radical thinkers, Buffy has a lot to say, which is exactly why I wanted to interview him. This interview is long, but believe me, you want to read what Hastings has to say. (Teaser: he once broke up with a beautiful woman because she didn’t own any books.)
Let’s begin with some warm-up questions: If you could kick any fictional character in the teeth, who would it be?
William “Buffy” Hastings: I don’t know about a character, but there are some writers, artists, land-rapers, and politicians I wouldn’t mind kicking right in their racist, bigot, Earth-destroying faces. I would start with the Bush family and work my way up from the bottom. War-hawking, torture-loving, tar-sand drilling, eleventh-horn motherfuckers.
What do you have in your shave bag?
This depends on whether I am traveling or not. If I am traveling, that is to say living somewhere else, then I like it to have toothpaste, toothbrush, beard trimmer, deodorant, small bottles of shampoo and conditioner, rolling papers, nail clippers, and prepaid calling cards. Right now I do not live abroad, so my kit is only used when I take off for a bit. Then it is just deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste, and shampoo.
Would you mind looking to see if there’s a stray penny in there? I’m doing an informal survey on pennies and shave bags.
There’s definitely a stray penny in there. I remember when I left Mexico, where I lived on an island for a little bit, and I got back to the United States, I opened my dop kit to clean it out and found coins from Mexico, Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the U.S. in it. How do they get there? I mean, we have wallets, you know?
Knives or knuckles?
Knuckles are for kneading bread or the muscles in your lover’s back. Knives are for cutting food and meat, whittling duck decoys, or sharpening pencils. I use them both.
Okay, let’s get to it … As an employee of Farley’s Bookshop, you have a unique perspective on book sales and what’s trending. In your years of working there, what insights have you come away with in terms of the types of books people are buying, or how people are reading?
At the end of the day, I think that people will always want a good book. Good books sell and will always sell. This means that I sell quite a few classics, but also these new classics, the new great books of our world. Fad books come and go very quickly, you will never sell them after the fad has died. But a good book, one that hits the reader in the heart and soul and head, will always sell continually.
We sell the fad books here, people want them, but our focus is on a deeper, better-cultivated “backlist” and “frontlist.” This means that we very carefully go through the new releases and try to bring in only the best books, the books we know we’ll love, or books that we know our customers will love. But because we know that good books sell always, we spend a huge amount of time and money cultivating the various sections of the store so that they carry a solid selection of the best backlist books in each category. We read a ton and try to bring in the books that we love, that inspired us, but that also speak to and come from the books that we love. If Blaise Cendrars was an influence on Henry Miller, then I should have Cendrars’ books here for the Miller fan.
Because we carry a wide variety of books, we see all kinds of buying patterns and styles. Again, fads happen and people want to stay with the fad. Beyond that, we see everything from people coming in every week and buying armfuls of books, to people who only come in once a month to buy a very narrow selection of books. But what I see here reminds me very much of when I was a middle and high school English teacher: As an English teacher, you think it is going to be a massive battle to get kids to learn to love books and the pursuit of knowledge. In some ways it is, but the thing I kept seeing was that if the book was good enough, the kids got eager to read it. Beyond that, kids want to read; they want to learn because they know that it is valuable to their intellectual and soul growth. Our educational system does much to murder that desire, but beneath it all, kids really enjoy learning. Watch their faces light up when they walk past a bookstore when they are young, and you’ll see what I mean. Watch their faces light up in a classroom, and you’ll see what I mean. This feeling, this desire, even as beaten as it is in people, is still there, and in a bookshop we see it rise up every day. This is what I mean by good books always selling. And they always will sell. Our job is to make sure that the good books get into people’s hands.
Why are there so many post-apocalyptic books these days? Have you noticed that?
I have noticed it. I would say that it is partly because the marketing teams are pushing it, and wanting to participate in the trend, people buy it. Because people buy it and the publishers are run by MBAs and not writer/editors, they print more of it. This is only one reason, though. If you eliminate the idea that the trend is a conscious effort of many and look at it as being symbolic of a deeper psychological current running through our society, I think you get closer to the source of the reason. Looking at it this way, as a subconscious swelling of this current, we also see more about our society.
Let’s start with television, since it, too, invokes this subconscious swelling and shares many similarities to this post-apocalyptic genre. In the last few years, there has been an increasing trend on television to broadcast reality shows that display the symbolic yearnings of our capitalist society: shows that pitch men against nature as they fight other men to rip things from nature to make more money than the other guy. Shows like Deadliest Catch, Bering Sea Gold, etc. At the same time, television is full of shows of humans surviving on the edges: Yukon Men, etc. The longest running of all of these, and the most symbolically important among them, is Survivor. Look at Survivor: Men and women in fake tribes full of stolen iconography team together to try and make it through a series of tests and trials given to them by a corporation in order to crown a winner. The teams utilize backstabbing and turncoats to force a winner to rise to the top. This is not anything that resembles what we know from Darwin and Kropotkin, that mutual aid is needed amongst members of a species to ensure survival. Instead, we see a brutal capitalistic ethos writ large on the screen, the demolition of the earth for material gain between groups of humans pitched against each other in economic battle. Remember that at Harvard Business School, a required reading text is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Our business classes have, in the globalization of capital, fashioned themselves as the new warrior classes. Warrior classes have their own epics, and these new classes have used television not only to write their epics, but also to show us, and get us to buy into, their stories about themselves. And the necessity and inevitability of those stories.
You should check out an award-winning BBC documentary called The Century of Self, which deals with Edward Bernays and the rise of public relations. Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, was interested in how mass psychology could be manipulated toward a direct, commercial end. He knew the word “propaganda” was tainted after World War I, because the Kaiser used it, so he purposefully changed the word, to describe his work, from “propaganda” to “public relations.” You can read about this in Bernays’ own books. So, growing outward from Bernays, we have a massive economic structure that has learned to use and manipulate the public for the betterment of the new false-kings, the rich and lawyered, and their warrior classes, the businessmen. These television shows are at once propaganda and public relations: they show the public how the few want the many to relate to one another. Economic competition torn from nature.
Now, this has led to fracked and poisoned rivers and oceans, water shortages in Sao Paolo, deforestation, mineral pillaging, slave labor in Africa to dig coltan out of pits for cellphone microchips, poisoned air, mass bird deaths, climate change. The long-term forecasts for humanity are dire: megadroughts, population unrest, vast brutal landscapes, few arid places. Post-apocalyptic literature asks us: who will live in these places? Post-apocalyptic literature grows out of the deep-seated recognition that the few who are ruining and raping the earth for their gain, pitching us against each other in survival battles, will lead us into a future that is dire and bleak. This literature questions the very narratives, the public relations propaganda, that television shows us, while at the same time growing out of those narratives. If the popularity of this genre is to attest to anything, then it is to attest to the fact that more and more people are becoming increasingly aware of the precarious situation we find ourselves in, or if they are not outwardly conscious of this, then it shows us that, subconsciously, they are yearning for something that speaks to a vision they see but cannot describe, a reality they are afraid of but cannot name.
When I first went into Farley’s, I noticed right away how many shelves are devoted to small press titles. I’m not very business-minded, but I can guess that this takes away shelf space from bestselling books, and thus decreases book sales. Can you talk about this decision? (I applaud it, by the way.)
They neither take shelf space away nor decrease sales. They do the opposite: they become best sellers and increase sales. In 2008, when the economy tanked and people grew afraid of spending, we had to find new ways to bring in stock without putting out too much money, since little was coming in. As we were thinking about this, we noticed that we were reading more small press books than we had in the past. This was because some of the fallout of 2008 included midlist writers who the publishers unwisely shucked from their rosters in favor of betting on bigger sellers (even though we know it is the midlist writers who, over a long period of time, consistently sell and sell better than the fads). These midlist writers ended up on the small presses.
One night, drinking red wine and listening to Sam Cooke if I recall it correctly, a few of us hit on the idea that we should reach out to a handful of the small presses we loved and see if they would send us books on consignment in exchange for face-out displays grouped by press with personally written shelf-talkers for each book. We wrote to six presses and all said, “Yes.” We couldn’t believe it. There was no danger to the presses; they had already printed the books. And there was no financial danger to us; we weren’t paying for the books upfront. If they sold, they sold, and we would cut a check; and if not, we would return them, and all it cost us was shipping. We have yet to return books, though. These books sell, and sell well. Really well.
In the first six months we did this, we moved 300 small press poetry titles. Think about that. The news at the time said bookstores were dead, books were dead, the major publishers had all but abandoned poets, and here we were, moving 300 small press poetry books in six months. Without getting into too much of our finances, I will say that right now, I sell about $1,200 of poetry a month, and the majority of that is from small presses. That’s incredible, heartwarming, and righteous.
We expanded this consignment idea to other presses we loved, presses that publish art books and fiction and cookbooks, and it has worked equally as well there. We work with 20 presses now on this kind of a set-up. We’ve diversified our stock, been able to bring in amazing books, sell great books, and show customers that we have things they won’t find anywhere else. That last piece is what is important: we are better than an algorithm, and we can talk books. There are excellent things happening in the small press world, and customers are learning that. By taking a little time to cultivate the sections, read and research what is out there, we’re selling small press books like they were major releases. I’ve sold more Eric Miles Williamson and Larry Fondation books than I have Tea Obrecht or Wells Tower. Remember those last two names? Exactly. What makes a bookstore survive is selling books, and as I said before, good books sell always.
Since this is Children’s Book Week, how does Farley’s try to nurture young readers?
Our children’s section has always been large, and it is something we keep large and diverse. Nancy Farley, one of the store’s founders and owners, was a kindergarten teacher before she owned the shop. It was important to her to have a large children’s section that carried a wide variety of the best in children’s books. The section of the store was designed by her to make a kid feel welcome. There are low chairs and carpeting, low shelves to inspire browsing. Nancy’s daughters, Rebekah and Jen, who are now the store’s owners, have kept this tradition alive. They, along with our secret weapon, Lauren, who is a children’s librarian at a local elementary school and works here on the weekends, spend an incredible amount of time making sure the children’s section is top-notch. Keeping the section this way, diverse and well-stocked with the best books, is the easiest way to encourage reading. Kids are curious, and they like books. Even if the parents themselves don’t read, they know that their kids should; this is one reason why children’s books sell so well. By having a large and good section, you nurture reading by playing toward kids’ curiosity and desire and to their parents’ desires for them to read.
Every once in a while, though, we’ll hear in the store a parent discouraging a kid from getting a book and not necessarily because of content. If the reason isn’t because of cost, that’s when the bookseller steps in and tells the kid that the book the kid is holding is amazing and that he’ll love it. It would take a hard, hard heart in a parent to deny the kid then. I don’t like seeing kids discouraged to read. Ever. Beyond this, we encourage reading simply by reaching out to the kids who are in the store, getting to know them and their parents, offering suggestions, and if the kid is looking a little lost, pointing the way. Too many people are trying too hard to get kids not to like books. We fight that every day in very active ways. But our thinking on this goes back to the example Nancy Farley set: The children’s section is a type of classroom. In it, kids can explore and discover. We want to give them the space and books to do that. In my own thinking, if we want to change society for the better, it starts by getting kids into books.
I know you have strong feelings against e-readers. I’ve heard the arguments, but I want to hear yours.
Let’s begin this way: I love books, and e-readers are not books. They are digital files. A book is tangible. It smells and has beautiful cover art that I want to display in my home. I can pass it to a friend. I can cut out a huge hole in it and use it to smuggle a weapon to a fellow revolutionary. I can slip a note into it for my lover. I can inscribe it to a friend. I can build a library for my children. None of that happens with digital files. If everyone converts to digital files, then I would walk into a home and not see any books on the shelves. If I walk into someone’s home, and I don’t see books on shelves, lots of them, I don’t trust the person, and I walk out. I once went home with a woman, a beautiful woman, and saw no books in her home. We drank wine and listened to music, but I couldn’t find a book. I went to the bathroom. I had to go through the bedroom to get to the bathroom. In the bedroom, I saw the only book in the apartment, Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook. When I was done in the bathroom, I walked right out of the apartment without saying goodbye and never spoke to her again. I take books, and people who read them, seriously.
In France, 90% of the population, when polled, said they would never own an e-reader and had no interest in reading books digitally. The book industry in France, Germany, and the UK is thriving in ways that the American book industry is not. There are excellent articles out there discussing this. In Beirut, my favorite city in the world, there are bookshops on what feels like every corner. I didn’t see one damned e-reader in that city. These things show us, then, that e-readers, and the discussion of them, are something specific to the United States. Why is this? Part of it goes back to Bernays and propaganda: the technology industry needs new products to sell, so the public relations machine is wound up to sell them to us, to make us think that we need new things. It is a recent invention in modern American history to have people buy things they do not need but want. It is more recent to get them to want things they do not need as displays of their status and class, to outwardly display their vision of identity. E-readers are another way for major corporations to make money off people, to get them to buy something they do not need. Why do people walk around with e-cigarettes in their mouths indoors? I saw this today in the general store when I went for breakfast. A guy came in for coffee in a bad suit with an e-cigarette in his mouth, lipping the thing in a grotesque display of his oral inefficiency. It is not because they need the e-cigarettes indoors, it is to show that they have the e-cigarette, the latest thing. Likewise, people walking around with e-readers. A book is technology perfected; you cannot improve upon the book as a delivery method for the written word.
The push to digitalize everything, to make e-readers more popular, is also a way to make certain that the poor have less access to books. E-readers are not cheap, and they threaten libraries where knowledge is free. It centralizes access to knowledge and increases the number of people who do not have access to technology. This centralization is to be feared and stopped because it increases class differences and creates a more streamlined method for control of the many by the few. Think about it: in an increasingly technologically driven society, there are few specialists who can make the technology and the codes to write the technology’s programs, and these specialists work for, for the most part, the corporations that own and sell us the technology. What is to prevent these corporations from not allowing us access to books, to making us have access only to what they want us to read, if they control the delivery method of information? Amazon pulled 1984 from people’s e-readers, remember. E-readers are made by the very companies that are in bed with the government and their increasingly paranoid surveillance and tracking programs. We know that e-readers track what you read, how fast you read it, and where you read it. Why would you give anyone that information without permission? E-readers’ tracking abilities are part of the same mentality that tracks and stores license plate information (what the DEA just got busted for) and puts microchips in our passports. It is surveillance state welcomed into the home. Just like Samsung’s “smart television” and its recording of our conversations. Why welcome the police state into your home?
The biggest issue with e-readers that I have, though, is that they do not support local economies. When you buy online through Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon, you send your money out of state. This decreases the money your community has to support vital institutions. The decrease in school funding has directly coincided with a rise in internet buying: sales taxes support school systems. Our towns are not the cultural centers they once were because we support our towns less and less. Local bookshops, like local grocers and local independent record stores, curate and maintain culture, and because of this, they are our last revolutionary defense against the shit-stem. Algorithms tell you what to buy from a preselected list. Bookshops encourage you to browse. If you want thriving beautiful towns with good schools, healthy food, and safe streets, you must shop locally. Stop giving money to the very things that are destroying us.
I also know you vehemently despise Amazon (for good reason). I’ll let you rant, if you wish. Just keep in mind that there are laws against death threats and what-not.
Amazon is Satan. If Amazon’s headquarters were burning to the ground, I would stand on the sidewalk and cheer as the flames rose into the sky while I passed bottles of champagne around to anyone who walked by.
Fact: Amazon hired neo-Nazi guards to monitor warehouse workers in Germany. Fact: Amazon’s warehouses, particularly in Pennsylvania where I live, are routinely listed as some of the most unsafe places in the U.S. to work. A handful of people died in one of the Pennsylvania warehouses this summer alone. Fact: Amazon has a ~$700 million a year contract with the CIA to host the CIA’s data gathering networks in their cloud software. These are the same networks and data dumps we now know the CIA was using to spy on American citizens. Idea: What do you think Amazon does with your shopping information and their algorithms?
Fact: shopping with Amazon drives money out of local economies. Fact: shopping with Amazon drives the costs of books up because of the losses incurred by the publishers for doing business with Amazon (who manipulates the returns and discount structure of publishing to their benefit and to the publishers’ losses). Idea: if you want less expensive books, shop locally; stop supporting chains and Amazon, and prices will drop. Book prices have tripled in price against the rate of inflation thanks to Amazon and the chains. This did not happen when independent bookshops were the majority. Amazon decreases the value of art because they train people to think that art should be free.
Shopping on Amazon encourages children not to go into stores, not to cultivate relationships with their local communities. Kids think to buy on Amazon first, and they never get turned on to things they didn’t know they needed by local booksellers or local record shops. I’ve gotten so much enjoyment in my life from recommendations given to me by record store employees and booksellers, things that have changed my life. I would never have had those experiences if I went to Amazon.
Why would you give your money to a Nazi-supporting, CIA-colluding, worker-abusing, local economy-wrecking, book-business destroying, drone-flying corporation?
What are you reading now?
I am re-reading the Old Testament and Apocrypha for the first time since I was an undergraduate. The books are beautifully written and fascinating, and I am discovering new things that send me on new intellectual discoveries and chases. I am also reading Edward Abbey’s The Monkeywrench Gang, Jim Harrison’s The Shape of the Journey, and Marc Bloch’s two-volume history of feudalism. I also have a handful of lit mags and other magazines, as well. I like to read multiple things at once.
What are the books you’re most looking forward to reading in 2015 [NB: when the interview was originally conducted]?
Stephen Bodio’s Eagle Dreams, Guy de la Valdene’s On Water, T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, Bill Porter’s Road to Heaven, Charles Bowden’s Red Line, Michael Barnett’s Rastafari in the New Millennium, Gary Paul Nabhan’s Arab/American: Landscape, Culture, and Cuisine in Two Great Deserts, Tewfik al-Hakim’s Revolt of the Young, Wilfred Thesiger’s The Life of My Choice, Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris, and L. Jackson Newell’s The Electric Edge of Academe: The Saga of Lucien L. Nunn and Deep Springs College.
Your book, The Hard Way, has to be the most original thing I’ve read in a long, long time. I would call it a travel-cookbook-manifesto, but even that description doesn’t do it justice. How would you describe it?
I have always loved songs of wandering. Two of my favorites are Gov’t Mule’s “Wandering Child” and Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man.” My mother is Jewish, a people who wandered the wilderness and desert, and my father’s people came over on the Mayflower. My brother’s middle name is Alden. I think my love of these songs is in my blood. This blood might also be the cause of my own desert, wilderness, and sea wanderings. When I began to write The Hard Way, I set out to write my own wandering song, a song of snow and dust and heat. But I can’t write of these things without writing of food, since we carry our foods with us when we move and discover new foods when we get to where we are going. Food itself is a symbol of human wanderings, how peoples meet and influence one another.
I had to write of these influences in my life. This blood. I had to write of what I saw happening in the world well beyond myself. The more I wrote, read, and researched what was out there, the more I decided to take on the travel writing, food writing, and memoir genres. So many people are writing such horrible things there now, trivializing travel (which comes from the word travail) and journey into new-age self-help escapism or making concepts of self myopic and solipsistic, always failing to see a greater whole. Whitman’s “I” was a “part of the kosmos,” and Heidegger in “Being and Time” asked us what it means “to be a being in Being,” remember. I wanted to take these things back. To reclaim them. To do that, I had to have a philosophy, since philosophy is a love of wisdom, and much of what I now see in these genres is not wise. This sounds like hubris; perhaps it is, but I think that a single-mindedness of purpose, blended with both ego and good humility, fortified by deep reading, creates good writing. At the end of the day, I want to read good writing, and I push myself to make good writing. I hope that in The Hard Way, readers find just that, as well as things to love and debate over.
After my publisher/editor finished the final draft, he wrote to me and said, “This is travel writing, philosophy, memoir, and cooking, and not necessarily in that order.” I like that. I think his, yours, and my own inability to pigeonhole the book into a genre leaves me to think that it’s just a book.
I absolutely love this passage from The Hard Way: “Smooth and judicious farts! Lust and legs! Humans! For that is what lacks from too much of our fiction today, humans, or characters recognizable as humans. If they don’t fart or smell or blister or ache, what are they? And why should we read, let alone care, about them?” This resonates a lot with me, but talk about what you mean by this.
Well, for those who haven’t read the book, the first few sentences of that quote relate to a Catullus poem I reference. That Catullus poem is full of life and real people and the funky weird smelly things that we do, things that make us human. As writers, we write about humans and what it means to be human, what it means to live as a human. Society is trying to get us not to be human, to be machines and assembly lines and drones. But the best writers remind us of our humanity, its challenges and difficulties and remarkable glories. Too much of the writing I see in lit mags, on bookshelves, and in publishers’ catalogs do not have humans in them. They have characters. The characters don’t ache. The characters don’t lust, they don’t fart, they don’t smell, they don’t anoint or bless or feel grace or awe.
The rise in faux-“magical realism” in American writing indicates that writers are more and more drawn toward moving away from the very humanity they should be engaging with. This is because they have divorced themselves from life. Their writing falsely attempts to highlight the remarkable through extravagance. A tree does not need adornment; it is beautiful enough. Their characters are divorced from life. They have bought into the machinery they have been sold. These characters are products of an imagination, but they are not real; and if they aren’t real, if they don’t engage with the problems of what it means to be human, why should I care about them? Why are they important? Why should I give them my precious time? And time is the most precious thing I have being mortal. If we writers are to ask our readers to give us their precious time, then we had better goddamn well earn it and make their time expand into the remarkable by addressing their very humanity.
Don’t think I am discounting fables or science fiction/fantasy writing here. Some of the best books we’ve got now, that are the most real discussions of humans and human fate, happen in these genres. Partly, I think, because so much pretentious literature has failed us.
Remember what Charles Bukowski wrote: “don’t be like so many writers, don’t be like so many thousands of people who call themselves writers, don’t be dull and boring and pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-love. the libraries of the world have yawned themselves to sleep over your kind. don’t add to that.”
That’s fantastic. This isn’t exactly the same, but Bukowski also said: “and he took up the knife and unhooked his belt and tore away the cloth before her and cut off his balls. and carried them in his hands like apricots and flushed them down the toilet bowl.”
I love that one. That’s Bukowski referencing Catullus’ poem about Attis. It was Bukowski who turned me on to Catullus’ poems. In one of Bukowski’s poems, he talks about a woman stealing his copy of Catullus off the back of his toilet. I saw the reference and thought I should take the hint and read Catullus. But both Bukowski and Catullus are good examples of what we are talking about: superior writing aimed at the guts, heart, and loins without any false pretense.
Like most of us, I think about money probably five, six times a day: Do I have enough? Will I make it to the next paycheck? Will I have enough to retire or to help my kids when they’re older? Etc. I can’t tell you how disappointing it is, then, to read fiction where the characters, who are supposed to be “realistic,” don’t think about money. Therefore, it was refreshing to read the collection you edited, Stray Dogs: Writing from the Other America, where the stories realistically represent class. I know you have strong feelings about class and politics when it comes to fiction, especially in choosing work for this collection. Can you talk about your decision-making process in this regard?
I couldn’t agree with you more. America’s big elephant in the room is class, and if the books we are reading do not address class and that hard fear of not having enough money, then they are willfully ignoring a dangerous and important facet of American life. This lack of real thinking about money in our fiction tells us much about who produces that fiction, and who publishes it: upper-middle class to wealthy people for whom money is not a fear.
There are more poor and struggling people in this country than comfortable people. A lot more. And they are getting very angry. The more television and print media shows the poor what they don’t have and can never attain, especially when their labor produces wealth for others, the angrier they will get. Check out Sherwood Anderson’s Poor White. He wrote about this 94 years ago and nailed it on the head. He called what was coming in the 20th century a “long silent war between those who have and those who can’t get.”
These were the thoughts I held in my head as I approached the Stray Dogs collection. I wanted a book that some kid could find in a library or a bookshop, pick up and say to himself, “Shit. They aren’t teaching this in school.” I wanted that kid to find something in there that spoke to his way of life, what he sees. To do this, I wanted a book that had stories, poems, songs, and essays in it, something that would hit home. I felt I could get the widest range of voices in the book if I cast the book beyond a single genre, and thus gave a reader more chances to find something that really moved him. I also wanted the writers in the book to discover writers outside of their genre that would influence their own work. Jason Isbell is in the book, and I thought he should know about Steven Huff and Mark Turcotte. I wanted Daniel Woodrell to read Patrick Michael Finn and Michael Gills and Ron Cooper. I wanted Esther Belin and Chris Hedges to meet, you know? I wanted a reader to meet them all.
I wanted writers who wrote about class, who wrote about the America the news and the glossies and the big screens aren’t showing, who came from those places, who won’t let us forget those places and people and stories and hearts.
This being said, there were a handful of writers I wasn’t able to get into the collection, for various reasons related to missed emails and lazy publicists, and the loss of those voices is to the book’s detriment, for all that I love it. So that people can discover them, and hear them in relation to the ones in the book, those writers I wanted in there, but aren’t, are: Immortal Technique, Black Thought, Dead Prez, Vaughn Benjamin, Gary Phillips, Walter Mosley, Simon Ortiz (Everyone should be reading Simon Ortiz), Brian Turner, Laila el-Haddad, Siobhan Fallon, and Michael Twitty.
When I was young, my grandfather was butchering a deer in his garage. I asked him if I could have the leg. He cut off the lower part of the leg and gave it to me. I put it in a Ziploc bag and kept it for as long as my mom would let me. I still remember how it smelled, kind of sweet and gamey. I remember licking the bone once. This isn’t a question. I just thought you’d appreciate it.
I do appreciate it. We need to lick bones and smell blood and sweat and get hot and be cold. We need to treasure animals that gave up their lives so that we may survive. If we take what the Old Testament tells us about man as something worth thinking about, then what makes men similar to gods is our knowledge of good and evil. This is powerful knowledge to hold. This is also what makes us human. That, and bones and skin. We should celebrate these things.
WILLIAM “BUFFY” HASTINGS is the author of The Hard Way (Tiger Bark Press) and the editor of Stray Dogs: Writing from the Other America (Down & Out Books). He lives in Pennsylvania where he works as a farmhand and as a bookseller. He’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
KEVIN CATALANO is the author of the novel, Where the Sun Shines Out (Skyhorse). His writing has appeared in PANK, Fanzine, Gargoyle Magazine, and storySouth, among other places. For more, visit kevincatalano.com.
Interview first appeared on The Spark on 5/7/15.