Monday, December 21, 2009

Walking in a Winter Murdaland

Three years ago I was at a couples' party - one of those things married folks get invited to because no one invites them to real parties any more. I was minding my own business in the corner, trying not to scratch under the collar of my respectable sweater too much and not drink too much and not make crass jokes too loud... Trying not to party I suppose. My friend, the host, spotted me biting my tongue and rationing my drinks and did the best turn he ever did me, put the first issue of Murdaland in my hand. It was a fiction journal bound like a trade paperback book and the photo of a shirtless man leveling a shotgun at me gave me a tingly feeling. My buddy says, "I saw this at the newsstand the other day and thought of you." No wonder, two of my favorite authors were listed on the jacket, Ken Bruen and Daniel Woodrell. The couples' party stopped sucking immediately. That first issue included a David Goodis reprint and introduced me to a bunch of great writers like Mary Gaitskill, Tom Franklin, Patricia Abbott, Anthony Neil Smith and Gary Phillips.

At the time, I'd written a couple of novellas that I was less than happy with and discouraged with writing in general. I'd never written short fiction before, but this thing in my hand, this nasty little piece of literature crystallized the aesthetic I was looking for and lit a fire under my lazy ass. I was excited to participate in the crime fiction world again and started writing short stories immediately in an attempt to churn out something worthy by the submission deadline two weeks away.

The second issue featured Scott Phillips, Harry Hunsicker, Vicki Hendricks and Jayne Ann Phillips among others, (that did not include me), and followed through on the promise of the first, delivering dark, unsettling and often hilarious tales from the uncomfortably near wrong side of the tracks. I redoubled my efforts to get published there and submitted a story I was sure they'd flip for.

The third issue never came.

Just like that, Murdaland was a thing of the past, put under by a largely indifferent community who didn't know what they were neglecting. The Murdaland crew wasn't making a lot of powerful friends either, outspoken about their frustration and irritation with the state of crime fiction and publishing, they answered the unheard cry of an uh un-large and un-powerful, but enthusiastic cult of readers and writers that I count myself among.

Michael Langnas, the Editor of Murdaland was kind enough to come out of hiding and answer a few questions.

What was the dream for Murdaland?

When we were coasting - maybe teeth inexplicably falling out or showing up for your Geometry exam unprepared and naked. You know, traditional dream stuff. When we were truly on our game - something darker and truly sick and perhaps a lot more Freudian. Something you'd be embarrassed to tell your court-ordered psychiatrist even if there was the chance it might help in the sentencing.

Content-wise what was it what you wanted?

Good dark writing. Nice prose, nice details, psychologically valid. Schlock-free.

Psychologically valid - can you expand on that?

Credible behavior, credible motivation, credible dialogue. If the author tells you what a character is thinking that should be credible as well. With crime fiction there's always the danger of lapsing into fantasy or kitsch. That may be less an indictment of the genre than just a reflection on how hard and disturbing it is to write about violence in an honest way. It's truly upsetting stuff. And readers often want a surrogate character who's super cool. That or a cartoonish villain. Most American crime fiction has one or the other or both.

What was the appeal of a magazine/journal format as opposed to a book anthology?

At the time there seemed to be ten million anthologies. 'Murder and Miniature Golf.' 'Best Mysteries about Fantasy Baseball.' So on and so on. They often were geared around a novelty concept and there was always a lot of padding.

In addition, Cortright McMeel who came up with the idea for Murdaland thought the time was right for a new mystery magazine. Something different than 'Ellery Queen' or 'Alfred Hitchcock'. Neither of which he enjoyed.

It probably says something about our respective personalities - something not particularly flattering to mine - that I wanted to flee from the thing I found mortifying and Cort wanted to do battle with what drove him mad.

So, okay, we went in thinking magazine. Then as we progressed further we sort of took a deep breath and reconsidered coming out as an anthology. I really pushed for a magazine and it was probably a mistake. It's cheaper to print and ship in large numbers. The more you print or ship the cheaper it becomes per item. This becomes a huge factor. And, of course, it's cheaper to pay one set of writers and photographers and graphics people one time than to pay additional sets of writers and repay everyone else for an additional issue. Finally, we really never caught on and didn't get many ads. It soon became clear that without many ads it only made sense financially if we flogged an issue for as long as possible rather than constantly produce new product. The chain stores would keep it in stock for a fairly long time too. Anyway, yeah, we probably should've come out as an anthology.

My interest was always in the stories and excerpts, not in sales or promotion and I'd hoped that we could just have a lot of material and issues coming out. But that wasn't the case. Going as a magazine probably doomed us and I have no one to blame but myself.

Can you talk a little about your relationship with Cort? How you two worked together?

I knew Cort from grad-school where he'd more than earned a reputation as a talented crazy person. Murdaland was entirely Cort's idea. He came up with the name and basic concept. Then he brought me on-board and I probably tilted things a bit more towards my personal sensibility. I did the editing and dealt with actual content and and graphics and stuff for the debut issue. Cort continued to bring writers in with issue two, but he was writing a novel at that point so he was a lot less involved. A guy named Sean O'Kane joined us and was a huge help. The whole project owes Sean a great debt. He was super competent, super industrious and he handled a host of things.

Any predictions for the legacy of Murdaland?Hopes? Fears?

I don't really think there's going to be a legacy so there's probably not that much to predict.

That said, I hope that the people who enjoyed Murdaland read more by the writers we featured. If we introduced someone to the fiction of Scott Phillips or Henry Chang or Rolo Diez or Vicki Henrdicks or Mary Gaitskill or Jayne Anne Phillips or anyone else that's great. Truly, something to be proud of.

I don't know . . . maybe someone in the future will stumble on an issue and enjoy it. That'd be great. And if any writers or future publishers are at all encouraged that's for the best too.

Are you still selling issues?

We're not still selling issues as a press, but I know that some copies of both issues are still available from Copacetic Comics in Pittsburgh.

The site is still up and anyone who's interested can read a generous chunk of most of the pieces from both issues there. I still get e-mail from people at the web address and that's nice.

Are there any future plans for the Murdaland brand name?

Nah, that's over.

Any other literary projects from you then?

I got a little something I'm working on and Cort's written a fantastic novel called 'Short' that'll be coming out from St. Martin's in fall 2010. It's about commodity traders and it makes for quite the ride. You get the sort of inside look, behind-the-scenes stuff that, for better or worse, male readers seem to love. You get the ins and outs of a particular business and American finance in a larger sense, but, along with that, it's just very well written in a way that few, if any, of those books, ever are.

Okay, granted, I'm prejudiced, but, eh, what can I say? It's very strong. It's just got a mixture of black comedy, fine prose and truly in-depth looks at certain milieus that you just don't see in contemporary literature or more popular writing . . . ever. There are some sort of sleazy people in it and some, well, there are some just incredibly sleazy people. It's very funny. A lot of times people will say something is funny when it's sort of whimsical or aspires to humor, but isn't actually all that amusing. This, oh, is genuinely very funny. Charles Bukowski meets Honoré de Balzac. Makes having dealt with Cort's madness almost worthwhile.

Sorry. I'll shut up, but, yeah, you're going to want to check out 'Short'. It's a mind-blower.

Is your project a novel or another journal/anthology, an Ice Capade spectacular perhaps?

Jeez, taunt me further with that which can never be! What I wouldn't give to have the aesthetic vision, the entrepreneurial know-how or just "the people skills" to pull off even a modest Ice Escapade, much less a spectacular. Alas, to quote Dirty Harry "A man's got to know his limitations."

I don't want to seem coy, but, eh, I'm going to leave it a bit vague, if I can. Don't want to jinx anything.

Anything you'd like to get off your chest?

Does it have to be Murdaland related?


Well, my efforts to build a cult around Evan Wright's March 2007 Vanity Fair article 'Pat Dollard's War on Hollywood' have proven to be a dismal failure and I'm a bit pissed about that.

I've never met the guy and have no connection whatsoever with the piece, but I think it's phenomenal. Hence, yeah, my failed effort to form some sort of cult. I suspect it makes people somewhat nervous. They should relax. It's not a reflection on the men and women who are fighting in Iraq. It's a reflection on the country, the society that sent them to fight. Just amazing. An incredible grotesque story of ostensible good intentions, hubris and decadence. A dark delight. I can't believe it's not talked about more. I'd bet that years from now it'll be acknowledged as something of a classic even if people aren't comfortable shouting out from the rooftops about it now.


Unknown said...

Being the obsessive fanboy that I am, I have both issues of Murderland and when it existed it was truly a piece of art. I do think an anthology series would be justified and wanted among fans and new readers alike. Great interview and enlightening.

Anonymous said...

What a shame, that Murdaland couldn't continue. It was a great magazine.

- Kyle Minor

Kieran Shea said...

I sent that "cover" issue to a friend who writes or used to, and told him he needed to get back on the horse. Still hasn't but I keep pushing from time to time. The "wars" swept him away for a few years and he has epic material. Murderland just knocked me for loop. Made me pick up writers I'd never heard of before (like Hunsicker) Liked this mucho, Jed.

Don Lee said...

Like Keith Rawson, I get on a binge and just keep buying and reading till I wake up broke in a ditch somewhere. Great interview. MURDALAND put me into overdrive and have been reading every since (last three months non-stop). Hey, I linked you to my blog, hope you don't mind.

jedidiah ayres said...

Don't mind at all, Don. Thanks. Good lookin' blog over there