It was a big hit. Translated into over a dozen languages and a critical darling, the book was Fatal Light by Richard Currey. It was a story about an unnamed young man from Parkersburg, West Virginia who gets drafted into the Vietnam War. He becomes a corpsman, attached to a Marine recon unit, and his experiences are told as if in a fever dream. The malarial jungles come alive in tightly woven prose, a series of vignettes that drift through the war-torn jungle, a hospital ward in Saigon, and, finally, back home in Parkersburg where the young man just can’t talk about what he felt and saw during his punishing tour of duty.
Fatal Light grew out of an earlier book called Crossing Over, released in 1980. Crossing Over also told the tale of an unnamed protagonist in Vietnam, but it took a more spiritual path, and a path that was much more experimental. It is a collection of flash fiction, and an antiwar treatise written and published at a time when America wasn’t quite ready to unpack the Vietnam experience. Antiwar activist Daniel Berrigan said:
“I read Crossing Over with a heart that sank and lifted with these tides of passion, affliction, exaltation. This little book wounds one with a glimpse into the depths, the horrors of which we are capable. At the same it heals … I thank Richard Currey for recalling to an amnesiac, bewildered people the limits of crime and the grandeur of conscience.”
So, last time, I talked about the origins of SFWP. There I was, in 1998, at that bar in Santa Fe, looking up at that big sky. My mind shifted from a laser focus on the trigeminal pain that roared through my face and turned inward, thinking of the books that I have loved. At that point, both Crossing Over and Fatal Light were out of print, and I would soon find that the rights were tied up with the publishers, the works themselves all but vanished except for dog-eared used copies floating around. And those weren’t the only books important to me that had vanished from the shelves.
As a troubled teenager in high school, I discovered the zine culture. Zines, in the 80s, were where we shared our insane rants with the world in the days before the internet. Sold (or, more often, free) at the front counters of head shops, record stores, and comic shops, zines were homemade collections of writing that ranged from politics to literature to fan-fiction to the lunatic fringe. I was drawn at first to the bizarre art. Almost every zine cover featured hand-drawn images or collage-style clip-art, nutty and surreal. The contents were out of this world. Some rambled on about politics. Others were pornographic, violent, and alarming. Some were hilarious. A few were bizarre rants that were just cries in the night from severely damaged people. And some opened my mind to a whole new world of literature and poetry. Zines taught me that it was okay to express myself, it was healthy to rant and scream and complain. Anger and love could be channeled into writing. The demons, once on the page, didn’t seem as powerful as they were when they were stuck in my head.
One zinester has since been called the “queen of the zines.” Pagan Kennedy (pictured above) burst onto the zine scene with “Pagan’s Head,” which ranged from guides to dumpster diving for fun and profit to interviews with scientists and entrepreneurs who were changing the face of the world. By the early ‘90s, Kennedy spun her zine out into books—Living, a “handbook for maturing hipsters,” Platforms, a study of pop-culture from the ‘70s, and Zine, a collection of every issue of “Pagan’s Head.” By 1999, as SFWP started down the publishing tracks, Kennedy had rebranded herself as a journalist and her strange, absurdist, and utterly compelling “zine culture” books were out of print and all but forgotten in a society where the early internet was taking over.
SFWP isn’t just about some revelation I had in Santa Fe while on the verge of suicide. In a way, it had been building in my mind since I picked up that first zine in the ‘80s. It was there when I read experimental flash fiction instead of going to parties, and when I laughed my way through Living instead of doing my math homework. These foundational books that guided me and, perhaps, saved me when I most needed saving, simply had to be preserved. There was no choice, from my viewpoint, but to return the favor and save those books from obscurity. To return them to the shelves so that, perhaps, a kid like me here in 2018 could discover them and be saved, too.
By 2002, SFWP’s mission had started to crystallize. I wanted to provide a different literary voice. One that didn’t bow to the catalogs, or the markets, or the cynical expectations of the publicity machine and the big box vendors. For me, a book is a piece of art, as precious as anything you would hang on your wall. The nature of that art should not be dictated by the non-literary person sitting behind the bulk sales desk at Barnes and Noble, or the robots at Amazon. SFWP is just as much about preservation. Books like Fatal Light and Living should never be out of print, especially as the printing technology catches up with the 21st century. No longer do publishers have to gamble on huge print runs. Now, that strange little book that probably won’t sell well can, and should, still be available everywhere and the bottom line isn’t shattered by printing costs and marketing.
Photos from Pagan Kennedy’s Zine and Living.
Today, the mission statement has become very simple, basic: If I love your book, it will be out there, it will have a presence, and it will always be out there no matter what the sales figures look like, or what the accountants say, or what the marketing experts advise. I aim to preserve not just the stunning books that have long been forgotten, but also new work that deserves a chance to scream out at the world.
For 20 years, I’ve ignored the rules. And, you know what? It’s worked.
Next time: I’ll look at our fall 2018 titles, and how I’ve spent decades pursuing rights to a couple of the releases.