Friday 3 June 2011

Andrez Bergen interview: Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat

Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat by Andrez Bergen
FREE PDF!/Paperback $4.74+

Andrez Bergen is an expatriate Australian journalist, musician, photographer, DJ, artist, some-time filmmaker, wayward graphic designer, and ad hoc beer and sake connoisseur who's been entrenched in Tokyo, Japan, for the past 10 years. He published his debut novel Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat in April 2011.

Can you sum up your book in no more than 25 words?

My editor says Blade Runner with a touch of Sam Spade, a smattering of Orson Welles circa Touch of Evil, and a shot of bourbon.

Can you tell us a little about our publisher? They have a particularly interesting approach to sales.

I ended up going with my publishers at Another Sky Press in the U.S. mostly because of their philosophy and a superb ‘punk’ ethic I love. I’ll ‘fess up here, I was a post-punk in the late ‘80s with a hack orange mohawk, and even though I’ve always been wary of particular fixed ideals—a lot of punk and hippy concepts drive me batty—I do love the DIY/indie/quid pro quo dream.

Another Sky Press sells the paperback at cost price in order to keep it as cheap as possible for readers—who in turn can set the final price in the purchase by choosing what you’d like to contribute (if anything) to the creative team behind the book. They call this pro-artist, pro-audience system neo-patronage, and it’s along the same lines as Radiohead did.

I really, really dig this system, and I’m glad I chose Another Sky for other reasons as well—they’ve turned out be incredibly supportive, and were the perfect people to embark with in the editing process.

How much difference does an editor make?

In my case—with this novel—a world of difference.

Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat was put together over the course of 20 years, tucked neatly away in the rusted-up coin locker that passes itself off as my headspace, and read by no one until Another Sky Press took it on board in 2007. Then I worked in a stop-start manner with Kristopher Young and Bob Young, polishing up the bugger and ironing-out some serious issues. I say ‘stop-start’ because all of us were involved in other projects at the same time, but even so we did divert a helluva lot of attention into fine-tuning the novel.

Also, with Kristopher being an established writer himself—he’s the author of Click, a novel that, luckily, I really dig—I was able to see the book through another writer’s eyes, and you cannot overestimate how much he contributed to the final version. Seriously, without him and the constant support and input of Bob, there would be a significantly different version of TSMG.

I loved working with them. We had our disputes, but always with the greater good in mind.

Funnily enough I didn’t have a clue about the nature of this kind of intimate editor-writer relationship until we began that mad journey!

How long did it take you to write?

Crazily enough, Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat has taken about half my lifetime to finish.

Not the paperback that was published in April this year, per se, but the story behind the rather wayward moniker.

So it has a long, drawn-out story and I hope you don’t fall asleep before finishing my meandering answer here.

Where to start?

Well, it first surfaced in a six-page short story I wrote in the late 1980s. After it was written I shelved the piece for several years, but its concept continued to ferment until 1992, when I resurrected the romp and extended it to a 162-page manuscript. I still have that version in a drawer next to my desk here in Tokyo—it’s all dog-eared and there’re different typefaces within the same tome as I started out on my mum’s electric typewriter, which of course ran out of ink, then graduated to my partner’s dad’s boxy, black-and-white screened Apple Macintosh with a dot matrix printer. That was 1992, remember? Technology wasn’t quite so sweet.

The book then sat on a dusty back-burner (in various drawers and boxes) for another decade. In 2001 I moved to Japan, and somehow got inspired to begin another version of the novel the following year after copping a screening of Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love.

Things had quite obviously changed since the short story and even the ’92 version. The Cold War was well and truly kaput and VHS had given up the ghost for DVD. I was living in a hugely influential foreign city (Tokyo) and had been working as a journalist for several years, focusing on my two offbeat passions: movies (preferably innovative cinema) and experimental electronic music.

After the 2002 version, I put the book on hold again until 2007. I was now the father of a daughter (Cocoa, born in 2005) and I think that experience has influenced proceedings—beyond the novel itself being dedicated to her.

Towards end of 2007 I bit the bullet and started to farm out what I had—then Another Sky Press took on the project, and I had a publisher.

What was your motivation for writing it?

I know this may come across as kind of twee, but my ongoing motivation for writing is just plain joy at doing so. I love writing, and have been tossing together stories since I started primary school. There’s something about stringing together words and sentences to create a whole new world that just makes me exceptionally satisfied, and I think it’s a habit that improves over time, and continues to develop no matter how old you are.

But I’ll be honest here, too—with Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat I really wanted to be published in paperback form. Not only did I feel it was a stronger story that may appeal to others, but also I felt it was my best writing yet… and I wanted to be able to give my daughter something when she grows up. You know, to let her know that her dad did something kind’a neat, in a crazy cover with goats on it.

Who designed your cover?

The cover was designed by American illustrator/artist Scott Campbell.

If you want the straight out truth, I adore Scott’s work.

About five years ago I started writing for a now-defunct American magazine called Geek Monthly, and a few issues on, they showcased a relatively new artist/illustrator named Scott Campbell, alias Scott C. To me, his images were akin to the insanely cool Alice and Martin Provensen and Leonard Weisgard picture book stuff I grew up with, blended with Chuck Jones’ cartoons, then channeled into the surreal hilarity of Dr. Seuss. The standout for me was a picture of a horde of ninja battling away, with monsters chilling out in a hot spring. Obviously I loved it.

I contacted Scott to let him know my fan-boy thoughts, and a year later—once Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat was accepted for publication—I straight away asked him if he was interested in doing the cover art. Luckily Scott agreed in an instant, few questions asked.

The outcome? A suitably debonair, upright goat in a smoking jacket, with a cigarette and a martini. After all the novel has a lot to do with drinking, smoking, a goat, and actor/cad George Sanders.

Scott started on the back cover art in 2010. This time I asked for a femme fatale goat with cat’s-eye sunglasses, long gloves, and a cigarette trailing smoke that formed the kanji ‘zuzushi’ (literally ‘shameless/impudent’).

This is the character Laurel and her tattoo. I'd previously commissioned Yasuko Sekine, a friend of mine here in Tokyo, to do the freestyle kanji calligraphy for the novel; Scott adapted that and my wayward concept into an absolute work of magic.

I'm still gob-smacked.

From an artistic rather than financial perspective, what book do you wish you had written?

I’d jump here at two books: Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. For me they’re the perfect noir novels, but to be honest I’m not sure if this infatuation is in some way based upon growing up watching the movie versions of both, starring Humphrey Bogart, respectively directed by John Huston and Howard Hawks.

I love the twitchy, often cynical/sometimes hilarious rapid-fire dialogue, the interaction between the characters, and the manner in which both are laid out on the page. I’ve read both novels dozens of times, and it’s pretty obvious that they’re a huge influence on TSMG.

There are other books, too, that I love and respect and wish to god I’d written, but for different reasons; these ones stand out right now.

And to be honest, if I’d written them I probably wouldn’t enjoy reading the books quite so much.

What was your favourite book as a child?

I could never limit myself to one, even as a wee tacker. There were three stand-out picture books for me: Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Kathryn Jackson and Leonard Weisgard’s Pantaloon, and Dr. Seuss’ Fox in Socks. Funnily enough I read all three now with my five-year old daughter.

Novel-wise I loved Treasure Island, Winnie-the-Pooh and Paddington.

What's the best piece of craft advice you've been given?

I remember my English teacher in high school telling me that I should try to be more subjective in my creative writing, and put more of myself into the characters.

Until then I’d focused on a lot of off-world sci-fi with heroic, gung-ho characters based on people I admired or wanted to be. Personally I wasn’t quite so heroic at all, and I was terrified of a cricket ball. I didn’t think anyone would want to read about that kind of character, but I took her advice and wrote a short story about my experience of the last time I saw my grandfather in hospital, when I was four years old, and I got an A+. That changed everything.

You might not be surprised how much Floyd, in TSMG, is like I see myself—but equally so is his less-than-cool colleague Hank; other characters have been shaped and tuned-up according to traits and habits of mates of mine.

The subjectivity thing does indeed rock.

As a reader, how would you describe your taste in crime fiction?

I’ll read anything, but I do tend to prefer the classics by people like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Elmore Leonard and Mickey Spillane; I’ve also read most of James Ellroy’s novels. Obviously I‘m more intrigued with the noir/hardboiled detective and police officer angle, but I also like the setting to be that smoky, jazz-laced American 1940s-‘50s feel. I’m not so into it in a contemporary setting, funnily enough.

As a writer, how would you describe your ideal reader's taste in crime fiction?

Two words, nice and simple: open minded. And perhaps not so critical about the background setting and timeline as I am!

If you had to re-read a crime novel right now, what would you choose?

Easy. Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.

Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat by Andrez Bergen
FREE PDF!/Paperback $4.74+

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