IN 2011, a thin, anonymously written book showed up in Portland's bookstores. Love Is Not Constantly Wondering If You Are Making the Biggest Mistake of Your Life was designed to look like a Choose Your Own Adventure story (the cover boasts a spaceship and ant-warriors), but inside was a brutally affecting memoir about the author's intense, long-term relationship with Anne, an alcoholic.
In stores at the same time was an addictive series of zines, A Field Guide to the Aliens of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Attributed to Joshua Chapman, a troubled seventh-grader, each issue moves forward a year in his life while examining the corresponding season of The Next Generation. Joshua has a lot of feelings about Star Trek, but he also has feelings about popular kids, his possibly crazy mom, and, as he grows older, cutting and Nine Inch Nails.
Both Love and A Field Guide were written by a 33-year-old Portlander who wishes to remain (mostly) anonymous. His first name's Zachary, and I spoke to him over email about Portland's small-press community, The Golden Girls, and telling remarkably affecting stories using remarkably nerdy formats.
MERCURY: Why do you want to remain anonymous?
ZACHARY: There are two primary reasons: the first is to protect the identity of Anne. She loves the book, but her portrayal in it is not very flattering, and I would not want people to be able to track her down through me and egg her house. The second is because there are a lot of things in my books, Love in particular, that I would rather my family members not know about. Beyond those two, it's also just a matter of habit. Some of my early art experiments required anonymity, and I've never heard a compelling reason why knowing my name might heighten one's appreciation for something I've created.
Along those same lines, when I found the first issue of Field Guide a while back, I got a huge kick out of trying to figure out if it was actually written by a kid. Do you feel like people knowing they weren't will diminish or enhance their enjoyment of the zines?
Yeah, especially with the first issue. But to bring some math into the situation....
Assume that the amount people enjoy the first issue when they don't know if it is real is X, and the amount they enjoy it if they do know if it is real is X-Y. The amount of people who are currently buying it without knowing it is real is represented by a. Now, because of the exposure from this article, some people go out and buy it even though they know it was definitely written by me, and that amount of people is represented by b. But maybe new stores carry it as a result of the article, meaning there are more opportunities for people to stumble across it (represented by c). Maybe some of those b people share it with friends without telling them if it is real (represented by d). It is my belief that
Xa < (X-Y)b+Xc+Xd
Which means a net gain in enjoyment! So I am okay with it.
Sure! I have no idea if that is a legitimate equation. Moving on. How'd you come up with the idea for formatting Love as a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and why? Did the Choose Your Own Adventure people ever contact you after the book came out?
A few years ago, a friend asked me to submit some fiction pieces for a McGriddle fanzine he was making. I wrote a Harry Potter-esque McGriddle erotic slashfic story, as well as a McGriddle Choose Your Own Adventure-style story. People seemed to enjoy them, and afterwards I played around with the idea of doing a larger-scale Choose Your Own Adventure-style zine. At the same time, I had this story about my ex that I wanted to tell, and eventually I realized they were a perfect fit (much like pancakes, bacon, eggs, and cheese compressed into one breakfast sandwich). Part of it was by necessity: I hate writing scenes that go on for more than a few paragraphs, [and] this is not a liability in the Choose Your Own Adventure format. And part of it was thematic: dating Anne, I never felt like anything I did had a bearing on her alcoholism, so I decided to convey that feeling of helplessness by making the choices in the book have no impact on what was occurring in the story.
And no, they haven't contacted me. Yet. Thank god. When they do I don't imagine them being very pleased.
In Portland's small press community—which takes itself pretty seriously—how does your nerd sensibility fit in?
Pooooooooooooorrrrrrllllllyyyyyyy. At least among some creators. I find that readers are much more receptive to the idea of zines combining Star Trek and child neglect.
You tell involving stories, but not in formats, or styles, or with references, that're all that common in small publishing. Has that been a help or a hindrance?
There have definitely been some very supportive people out there. My publisher Michael Heald, Chloe Eudaly from Reading Frenzy, Jason Levian from Floating World Comics, and Kevin Sampsell from Powell's have all been particularly wonderful (not to mention [Mercury Arts Editor] Alison Hallett for giving me my first review), and without their help and their willingness to take risks in promoting my books I wouldn't have the opportunity to be doing this interview. But overall, I do feel there is a bit of resistance to my style and topics in the zine world; there are people who have said they are not interested in working with me because I don't publish zines about genderqueer vegan political prisoners in Guatemala who run anarchist co-op repair shops for fixed geared bicycles. Which is fine! One of the reasons people turn to zine writing is because they are of groups (or writing on topics) that tend to be marginalized by the mainstream publishing industry, and it is awesome that they have managed to carve out a world for themselves. I am not going to say "Boo hoo, why don't they wuv me? I am a cisgendered straight white male, isn't there a place that I belong?"
The first issue of Field Guide is handwritten in clumsy cursive. Did you hand-write it, and how the hell do you remember how to write in cursive? (I have thoroughly forgotten that shit. I'm also curious if you had to track down a dot matrix printer, etc., for the subsequent issues.)
Yes, I handwrote it. Yes, it was awful. I could remember most of the letters, although I did have to look up a few of the capitals (Q and G, for instance). I hadn't written in cursive in probably almost 20 years. Which was perfect for what I wanted, because it allowed me to better replicate the crappy handwriting of a seventh grader. It actually became a problem as I got towards the end and became more practiced—I noticed my handwriting improving and I had to start making mistakes on purpose.
I did not track down a dot matrix printer, just a dot matrix font. And the font used in the third through fifth issues was the one my school district used for all school correspondence during that time period. Producing authentic-looking zines and books is incredibly important to me. With Love I spent weeks researching how Choose Your Own Adventure books were constructed: the fonts, the amount of space between lines, the kerning, how the choices are laid out within the books.
Which came first: The idea to do a story about a sad kid/teenager, or the idea to do a field guide to Star Trek's aliens?
Star Trek came first. Three years ago I co-wrote a book called Miami, You've Got Style. The book is pictures of every outfit worn during the first season of The Golden Girls, along with commentary on the outfits (which more often than not ended up being about videogames or The Lord of the Rings). After finishing Love I was looking for a project that was more along the lines of Miami, something more lighthearted and humorous, and I started considering Star Trek, another show that I love.
One day while biking home from work I was thinking about the Kurt Vonnegut novel Cat's Cradle. There was a character in it who was a professional indexer who could glean all sorts of hidden information about authors from the way they indexed their books. Which got me thinking about subtext, which got me thinking about kids and how often when they write, regardless of the topic, it will just end up being what they are thinking about at the time. Give them an assignment on the Civil War and if that kid likes dinosaurs enough, they will find a way to talk about the reasons why Abraham Lincoln was like a diplodocus (they are both very tall). So I decided to write it from the perspective of a kid, and from there everything fell into place.
Did you rewatch the entirety of The Next Generation in order to put these zines together?
No, only the ones with aliens (this was following having rewatched about two-thirds of the series six months prior to writing the first issue).
Why will the final zine combine the last two seasons of The Next Generation?
Every issue of the zine moves things forward one season of the show, and one year in the life of the author. Once I started on the second issue I knew I wanted it to end with the author's final year of high school. And since I began it in seventh grade, it required a double issue somewhere along the line, and the final two seasons are the ones with the least amount of new aliens.
Considering the anonymous nature of the projects that're going to be showcased at the release party, what can attendees expect?
I will be doing all of my reading while wearing a burlap sack over my head, à la the Elephant Man. (This is not true). Ummm.... there will be rocking tunes because some bands are playing? That seems like something book release parties don't have. I dunno, I haven't attended a lot of those.
What's next in terms of future writing projects? What're your goals in writing and publishing?
No real goals. I don't consider myself to be an author, in the pretentious sitting-in-front-of-a-fireplace-hammering-away-at-a-battered-typewriter-with-a-bottle-of-bourbon-at-my-side-while-wearing-elaborate-feathered-hats-and-attending-poetry-readings-and-having-opinions-on-Proust sort of way. It's a hobby. It's me dicking around. It's a cheap form of therapy. Maybe I will write a comic book? I have been thinking about that a lot lately. But the idea of trying to make a living at writing is utterly terrifying to me.