Word Machines: Henry Baum
July 7, 2010 in Blog
You may have heard of Mr. Baum, if you’re in the right channels. I try to keep my ear as close to the ground of as I can when it comes to independent authors, and his name was one of the first to surface many months ago. It did so in the guise of Backword Books — a collective of self-published authors who work together to nurture readership, build sales, and exhibit a high level of professionalism under a unified banner. I’m going to be honest: This was the first time I’d come across an actual group effort to shake off the self-publishing stigma. That such a group even exists continues to amaze me, as my previous peeks into the “scene” revealed a less organized, self-destructive environment. Much to my surprise, things are changing for the better, and I suspect this group has something to do with it. I sent them an email inquiring about how one might join, and it was Henry who responded. (I never did send that copy of ALT like I intended – I’m sorry, Henry. Rain check?)
Sometime later his name popped up again, this time associated with Self-Publishing Review. That’s when I learned he was behind both of these ventures. What can I say? The guy gets around. Henry has a few novels under his belt–THE GOLDEN CALF and NORTH OF SUNSET, alongside his latest, THE AMERICAN BOOK OF THE DEAD–and has shorter work that’s appeared in anthologies with Another Sky Press and 3 AM Magazine, among several others. He’s also a musician–a fact I learned when I visited his site and saw he wrote, recorded and performed a song for each chapter of his latest novel. (For the curious, I’ve listened to it, and yes, it’s quite good.) He’s an award-winner, too. Just recently his novel took home the award for best fiction at the DIY Book Festival, and the IPPY award for Visionary Fiction.
After seeing all the buzz about this book of his, I had to check it out. I read the premise and was immediately intrigued. How could I not be? Check out what the back cover says:
Eugene Myers is working on a novel about the end of the world. Meanwhile, he discovers his daughter doing porn online and his marriage is coming to an end. When he begins dreaming about people who turn out to be real, he wonders if his novel is real as well. Which isn’t good news: the radical and demented President Winchell is bent on bringing about worldwide destruction. Eugene Myers may just be the one to stop the apocalypse.
This history of the future covers every conspiracy imaginable: UFOs, secret societies, and World War III, as well as theories on life after death and human evolution by a writer whose last novel was called by Dogmatika, “A page-turner and an example of an effective piece of storytelling that should be envied.”
Henry Baum is the author of North of Sunset and The Golden Calf – novels which explore the underbelly of America’s other religion: Hollywood. Now he turns his sights on mainstream American religion in a novel that’s part satire and part memoir/part amusing and part warning. In the tradition of Philip K. Dick and Robert Anton Wilson, The American Book of the Dead explores the nature of reality and the human race’s potential to either disintegrate or evolve.
When I was a kid, I had a very morbid fascination with the apocalypse. It’s a fascination which I’ve come to realize is a side effect of my Southern Baptist upbringing. Growing up in the South, we took our weekly sermons with a healthy dose of fire and brimstone for good measure. Satan lurked around every corner and, according to my mother, one misplaced nuclear warhead dropped on Israel would doom us all, for surely that would bring about the end. I lived in fear of Jesus, for his return meant horrible things for 99% of mankind. In some ways, reading Henry’s novel reminded me of this childhood trauma. I know how this must sound, but bear with me here. It’s a good thing.
See, as I followed the plight of Eugene Meyers, I noticed Mr. Baum slowly peeling back the layers of an altogether different surface. Between Eugene’s narrative, and portions of the book which depict the actions of President Winchell (portions which are from Eugene’s own novel), there are hints of a deeper meaning. One of the ideas touched upon in the book is the notion that, for some semblance of utopia to exist, humanity must start over. It is this idea which brings a broad sweep of events into play, and I won’t spoil them for you here. Rather, I bring it up because of the idea itself–that we must end to begin.
When the novel begins, the world is not a good place. In fact, it’s a scary place–not because of untold horrors lurking in the shadows, but horrors running amok in plain sight. This is best exemplified in Meyer’s daughter, who he discovers is participating in online pornography. See, in the near future, porn is commonplace. It’s on nightly television, perpetuating nationwide apathy. As the tale moves along, it becomes apparent that things such as the dumbing-down of society have happened for a reason, and it all culminates in the perpetration of World War III.
Henry goes to great lengths to depict a future that is not just possible, but probable, building it up on a stage that’s meant to fall. The beauty of it is, by the time I got to the end, I wanted it to fall. I wanted the apocalypse to happen. Not because of President Winchell’s twisted dogma, but because of the implications of what might happen thereafter: That humanity, when facing the abyss, will awaken to a greater consciousness and progress, rather than destroy itself. The book gets a little weird toward the end, but given the context, it sort of makes sense in its own strange way. It’s a quirky pay-off to a very tense climb to the book’s climax.
If I had to sum up the book, and the experience of reading it, I would say Henry Baum made me want the apocalypse to happen, and quickly. However, I did not want the book to end. Which is a good thing, because I hear Henry’s hard at work on the sequel. I can’t wait.
I’ve rambled on enough. I’m going to turn this thing over to Henry and my insidious questions:
TK: Right. Since your bio seems so enigmatic, I’m going to cut right to the heart of the matter: Would you tell us a bit about yourself?
HB: Main thing to know about me, I think, is I grew up in Hollywood. Both my parents worked in the industry. I went to high school with Jack Nicholson’s kid, Cher’s kid, etc. I wasn’t a Less than Zero kid, my own upbringing was relatively modest. But the experience formed me. I was alienated as hell in high school, and at home. I felt like I was living a step apart from the reality most people experience. Hollywood’s in the business of manufacturing reality, and the world of celebrity itself is in some other ether.
I grew up in a non-religious home, but then realized fairly recently that I grew up very much in a religious home – it worshiped at the altar of Hollywood. And so that has gone very much into my first two novels – The Golden Calf is about a celebrity stalker, a guy venting all his anger at celebrity. North of Sunset is about a celebrity serial killer, a guy venting that he’s above the laws of average people. And now The American Book of the Dead, which is in part about a deranged President and fundamentalist religion. It’s not about Hollywood directly and it also…is.
TK: Let’s talk about the writing thing. Why do you do it?
HB: I want to change how people think. I have grand megalomaniacal plans – most of which won’t play out. But there’s a reason that I write about megalomaniacal people. And I’m not really interested in writing about the small moments between people. Our world is collapsing at a fairly alarming rate – the oil spill is both a metaphor and direct evidence. I don’t think there’s time to pontificate about another relationship story. Big stuff is coming down, and I want to do some small part to get people to pay attention.
TK: How about self-publishing? What got you started there?
HB: My first novel was released by Soft Skull Press. The novel I wrote after that took three years and was a pretty draining experience. I had an agent for that book and nothing happened – actually, had an agent for the Soft Skull Press novel, but I sent the book in to SSP myself, first proof that things get done when I do it myself. Wrote another novel, had another agent. Nothing happened. Finally discovered Lulu – and when I got the first copy of the novel (North of Sunset) it felt like getting published for real. There it was with words printed on pages. And I thought, why the hell did I take so long? Meanwhile my first novel came out in the U.K. and France with high-profile places – proof to me how rigidly difficult the American publishing scene can be.
With the latest novel, I didn’t even submit it to my agent and just totally became a self-publishing zealot. As you mention, the book’s a little weird. It’s not straight end of the world novel, and its take on fundamentalist Christianity would offend the Left Behind set. I didn’t have a lot of faith that traditional publishers would know what to do with it. So I self-released – better this time, with Lightning Source. I also believe deeply in self-publishing as an outlet, even if I’ve designed a much harder road for myself.
TK: How did the Backword Books collective come about?
HB: I’m not a person who is against traditional publishing. It’s great when done correctly. So while there’s a gatekeeper vibe to Backword Books in that it only has a select group of writers, there’s no problem with that if the books are selected because they’re good, not because they can make a lot of money. And the hardest thing about self-publishing is having to go it alone. So the idea behind Backword is strength in numbers – taking some of the “self” out of self-publishing. Which isn’t a slap in the face to self-publishing. It’s harder to sell a self-published book. It just is. Any help you can get is good.
TK: Have any advice for writers out there considering the life of an independent author and/or publisher?
HB: It depends on how much patience you have. Me – I ran out of patience. And I know I’m a decent writer and people will like what I write despite what an editor might say. So I’ve dropped out. BUT – if you’re 22 years old, or something, and you want to break in, keep on submitting to agents if it doesn’t make your skin crawl. Until it’s possible to get traditional bookstore distribution and/or everybody’s got an e-reader, self-publishing shouldn’t necessarily be a first resort.
TK: Shift gears for a moment. Where did your fascination with the end of the world find its start?
HB: As I write about in the novel, I was living in downtown New York on 9-11. My girlfriend happened to be arriving in Penn Station that morning after a month apart from each other. Confession: we were heroin addicts for a year prior to that and she left in order for us to both clean out and stop enabling each other. She was due to arrive at 9 am on September 11th. To say I was a little extra vulnerable that day is an understatement. I saw the plane wavering over the city and thought to myself – shit, that’s going to crash. BOOM. I had to leave for Penn Station, not knowing if that was going to be bombed as well.
We fled to North Carolina and in October found out she was pregnant. So I was now a nervous expectant father, wondering what kind of world my child was coming into. Meanwhile, I was having plane crash dreams, World War III dreams. I think it was a form of post-traumatic stress. The funny thing is that after I wrote my serial killer novel, I thought, OK, I need to write something a little less extreme. Instead, I wrote something where everyone dies.
TK: Tell us about your musical pursuits. Did the idea for the soundtrack come up before or after you finished your novel? And do you always write music alongside your stories?
HB: I’ve been a musician for longer than I’ve been a writer, and I’ve spent a lot of time playing drums or bass in people’s bands (example: http://myspace.com/montagband ). All the while I was writing songs of my own, but never really pursued starting a band with my own songs. Also a lot of my songs remained unfinished – especially lyrically. I may write fiction but for some reason I hate writing lyrics. I’ve done some recording over the years, pretty haphazardly. Finally I’m outfitted with a way to record on the computer, a keyboard so I can mimic any instrument, and an electronic drumset. My idea was that giving the songs a purpose around the plot of the novel would help me finish them. Some of these songs are 15 years old. Now I’m finally concentrating on songwriting with the same energy I’ve devoted to fiction.
TK: Toward the end of American Book, I saw a lot of correlations to Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious. Was this intentional, or did I simply read too much into it?
HB: Oh yeah. I was immersed in esoteric thinking leading up to writing the book, and it’s not something I’ve shed. At the risk of alienating myself from people who might think I’m a kook, I also read a lot about UFO’s, which also plays a part in the book. Jung wrote about the subject too. My attitude towards UFO’s is similar to my attitude towards self-publishing – My God, the implications are amazing and immense. Stop mocking it. And so, I really do believe a lot of the stuff in the book – the evolution of human consciousness, being able to control reality with our minds, willfully entering dreams. It could take a million years, but evolution isn’t static, and a mind evolution is plausible. I think it’s important to think about we’re capable of in a world that shows we’re capable of so much destruction. The book’s about those opposing forces – destruction and evolution. I hope we don’t need one without the other, but I’m not so sure.
TK: Can you give us some insight into what’s in store for Eugene Meyers in the sequel?
HB: Not entirely sure yet, but the book’s going to be set in the present tense as well. A writer releases a book, gets involved in some of the conspiracies he writes about. I’m going to be posting this online, so people won’t be sure what’s real and what’s fiction, which is one of the threads in Part I.
TK: It’s self-promotion time. Why should people read your work?
HB: Because I think I’ve got something unique and interesting to say. None of my writing holds to any one genre, and when I do write in a genre I try to be inventive. I think too that these ideas are important – the possibility of evolving past what the world is today. We’ve got a lot of weapons of mass distraction during a time when we’re heading towards ecological crisis, financial crisis, Sarah Palin’s popularity. I really think this is what people should be waking up thinking about. These are hugely important ideas compared to the latest episode of whatever TV show. It’s like the epigraph of Bright Lights, Big City from A Sun Also Rises:
“How did you go bankrupt?
Gradually, then suddenly”
Suddenly is approaching. These days that doesn’t make a person a doomsayer, but rational.
Bonus Question: Do you really think Portishead is suicide music for supermodels?
HB: I do.
If you would like to read more of Henry’s work, be sure and check out his other novels, THE GOLDEN CALF, and NORTH OF SUNSET. Many thanks to Mr. Baum for taking the time to respond to my questions. You can also follow Henry on Twitter, and be sure to check out his website, where he posts all sorts of apocalyptic happenings.
Stay tuned for next month’s feature.
P.S. Have a recommendation? Think I should feature a writer you absolutely adore? Say so!