Interview with author Mickey Hess

After coming across author Mickey Hess’s Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory [BUY]and then catching him reading at Powell’s Books, we were fortunate enough to catch up with him for a few minutes over the phone to talk writing, hip-hop and other things.

He was a pleasure to talk to and I feel as though, despite being off my game for a variety of reasons, I could’ve kept him on the phone all night.? If you have the chance you can look up some of his writings on McSweeney’s or The2ndhand.

Luckily for you, dear readers, we’ve been allowed to include one of his stories, Ghost Walk (PDF), to download and take with you, since Hess is a huge proponent of making his writing available to all through a variety of free methods.

But for real, you should get to know this writer since he’s that good.? Not in a show-offy kind of way, but in an easy-going enjoyable one.? He switches effortlessly between the funny and the serious, the absurd and the sincere.

Hi Mickey, how’s it going?? Are you still in Portland?

No, I flew back to Philadelphia after the reading.

So it was a quick visit then?

Usually the readings are a a hit and run and I got to spend the morning in Portland and visit Powell’s, which is what you’re supposed to do.

I know some authors love readings, like Chuck Palahniuk turns them into a big spectacle, and others loathe them.? What’s your take, especially because you’re still making a name for yourself and at your Portland reading there was a small crowd, but more than I thought would be there.

I think the readings are fun, it?s tough to get feedback when you write.? You can?t sit down and watch someone read your book, that would be weird.? At a reading you can see people in the crowd and see them laugh at parts and react to things and that?s great because it’s just another way to tell what works and what doesn’t in a book or story.

Is it difficult having yourself be a central character in your writing?? You’re very honest in both the good and the negative in terms of your portrayal of “Mickey Hess.”? Is there a tendency to alter things and make yourself come off better.

Surprisingly it?s easy and the trick is not changing anything when you look back at it. You always have your own perspective and then you go to revise it two or three months down the road you think I don?t believe any of this anymore and you want to tweak everything.? You lose that immediacy to the events that happened.? Once it?s down you have to question is it poorly written or am I embarrassed by it.

You’re smarter six-months later or you think differently about things that happened.? It’s a better perspective, so of course there’s a tendency to be embarrassed by things.? I work really hard to not change things I’m embarrassed by only if it’s poorly written.

Talk about the process that Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory has gone through.? It’s been available for a few years now and has been available by a few different publishers, correct?

It first came out in 2003 and I just did a small self-published run and GK Darby saw me read and asked if I had anything to put out. And then they published it and it’s been doing alright.

Do you prefer self-publishing and making your writing free, because you put out Los Cumpleanos de Paco in the same way.? Is it easier that way then dealing with publishing?

You get one thing out and it?s still frustrating. It’s a difficult process getting your writing out there.? I put Paco out in 2000 and I got a lot of resistance to it and people would just toss it away. I’d bring it to book stores for them to just give it to people and they would tell me we sell books you can?t leave them here. So I left them at Burger King, subways, records stores, but what I enjoy about it, I think, I?ve gotten a couple of emails from my published writing but the stuff I’ve just left places I’ve gotten a tons of emails.

I got a letter from Tokyo and he said he got Paco from someone from Italy.? That just blows me away.

That’s not a bad marketing strategy, though.? I always wonder how that happens, especially with this website were people will leave comments from Russia or England or I have stats that says I get visitors from strange countries.? And I think, cool, but how does that happen.? Do you think about the marketing side of Mickey Hess, of you as a commodity.

I wish I was better at it, I?m still uncomfortable with that part of writing.? I know people that are so good at it. I?m trying, I wish I knew how it worked.

What’s your method to madness, so to speak?? When it comes to writing how do you go about it?

I try to write every morning, sometimes I take a Saturday or Sunday off.? I write for about two hours or three good pages everyday.? When the semester [Hess teaches at Rider College in New Jersey] starts it can get crazy.? I work on several things at once in case I get bored with stuff. I just bounce from one project to the next, putting things down and picking them.? Also, I have to write in public, find a good coffee shop to bunker down in. If I’m at home I can?t keep my mind on it, so I have to be in public.

That’s funny, I’m just the opposite.? I need to be at home with music piping through some headphones.

Sometimes I have music on to keep people from talking to me.? It?s a free pass to not be social.

So what’s up next for you.? We do you have on the horizon that we can keep an eye out for.

I?ve got a book on regional hip-hop coming out on Greenwood Press.? It’s 25 chapters in US cities from New York to Honolulu looking at their hip-hop scene, the history, the MCs, that sort of stuff and a good collection of short stories that?s shaping up. Though I’m still picking what stories are going to be included.? It’s called Someone Has Plagiarized Faulkner (Gorsky Press) and it’s all sorts of different stuff.? Like Nobel Laureates hanging out with hip-hop stars.

It sounds like the regional hip-hop book is a nice companion to your other two books on the subject, which looked at the current state of the genre and some of the famous icons.? How did that fall into place?

I have several contributors and people digging around, a few journalist from Vibe or XXl that had lived in a city and I?m doing the Philadelphia chapter.? A lot of energy going into it.? We’ve got RUN DMC talking about the early days in Queens.? Really it’s a solid overview from when it began to right now.? People are going to be surprised by how quickly it made it out of New York and into other cities.? There was a hip-hop radio show in St. Louis there in 1981 and the DJ had a connection and they played “Rappers Delight” and they say they’re the first station to do so, or one of the first, but there’s like three or four DJs that make that claim. It?s all from a couple months of each other.

That’ll be out on Greenwood Press as a two volume set. I?m trying to get everything we can in there. Professors are a lot less reliable than students. The ones you get to write for you.? It?s funny to talk about not funny to think about, but they can be pretty flakey. Oddly, I have a few pieces from rappers in the book and they are always polished, needs no editing and on-time.

That’s funny.? Probably ghost-written.

No, no.? It’s … you would think that, but no, none of them are ghost written.? I think it just means something to them.

So what angle or subject in hip-hop would you like to explore next?? Now that you’ve tackled icons, cities and the meaning of it all.

I?ve written a little bit about white people in their relationship to hip-hop and a project that delves more into that would be fascinating.? Especially looking at white professors that teach classes on the subject.? It?s odd because you feel more apart or it, but on the other side you stepped in uninvited.?? ?Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop? Bakari Kitwana, have you read that book?? It’s a great read and I think that’s something that would just be great to explore.

There’s a new guy Asher Roth, from West Chester, PA. He seems to flaunt his wealth more, he?s a major label guy. I don’t know much about him, but it?ll be interesting to see his reception. He’s white and graduated from West Chester High.? You know it?s tough to say, because there are several ways white rappers have dealt with wealth and race.? The Beastie Boys didn?t mention it but they had the luxury of being there from the start, then Vanilla Ice tried to lie about his background, and then Eminem came out having being poor is better than being white.

Should be interesting.? I’ve heard of Asher Roth, but I don’t know anything about him, other than his schtick is country club rap.

I don?t know how people are going to react. I don?t know enough about him. He?s on Steve Rifkin?s label. It could be the new approach. It?s a totally different form of wealth, saying I?m a rich kid, I?ve always had it.

You see those types of narratives a lot in rock music.? Especially, recently, with that band Vampire Weekend, do you know of them?


Well, they unabashedly have their wealth and country club ways as part of their narrative, but a band like The Strokes, who are all wealthy, try to hide it and made themselves seem like they came up through the dirty kids.

It goes through every form of music. I should do a blog about poor I was. It?s how politicians introduce themselves, you never see them say I have money or I came from money.? When I was young I couldn?t even afford books. I’d probably sell a lot more, if I said that.

Changing gears really quickly, I wanted to talk about your stance on giving your stuff away.? It’s such a big thing in the music community, but one that hasn’t been as prevelant in the book world, with the exception of Cory Doctrow.? Is this something you would like to see become commonplace?

I would love it if people started trading PDFs like Mp3s!? I don?t see why people couldn?t file share books, like having a PDF blog.? I can go to Google books and get old books, but I can’t really get new stuff.? When I was a kid I was fascinated with the public library and you could go get more books and take them back and there wasn?t anything else you can get them with. At the time there were no videos or CDs, just books.? It amazed me. I got all these books and they were all free.

But, it?s an unpopular opinion.? People love to hoard old books and collect them and McSweeney?s puts out some awesome stuff that people would want. But I would love to just take them back to the library.? With books people are just resistant.? When I loan a book out it?s rare to get it back. They read it and loved it and I never get the book back when I loan them to people.

Yeah, it’d be better if people could swap books or trade and just pass them around online.? You actually do most of your reading online now.

Yeah, I do.? It’s much better.? But again, I’m one of the few.? I’d rather get a PDF and print it out and pass it along.? I don’t know much about Kindle, Amazon’s digital reader, but I hope something like that takes off in the same way the iPod did.

Alright.? Before I let you go, you’ve gotta give Sly Oyster readers five hip-hop acts they should be listening to right now.? You know besides the obvious ones.

Oh man, you’re totally putting me on the spot.? Okay. Wise Intelligent, his album is great, The Talented Timothy Taylor and his EP Blessed be the Poor came out in the last year or two; Reef the Lost Cauze from Philly; Bahamadia, and her latest album Good Rap Music is really good; and Trom Diggs he?s from Philly by way of Brooklyn.? I’d say Nas, but his last album wasn’t any good.? So, it’s tough to top Lil Wayne right now.

Right on.? Okay, one more.? I’m greedy.? What do you listen for for finding that great album?

A lot of people say that they want an album to be political, like Public Enemy, but I?m happy to have a party album. More than anything it’s the vocal quality and the complexity of the rhymes.? If it?s the a-a-b-b rhyming pattern sounding like Curtis Blow in 1982, it doesn?t do much for me at all.

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