When author Joe Meno talks about writing, he talks about music, and he talks about painting, and he talks about film, and he talks about theater and even YouTube, and it’s all relevant somehow. He sees it all as an ongoing conversation, “whether it be with other writers, or artists, or filmmakers..." and especially musicians. Having grown up playing in metal and punk bands in Chicago (he was born and raised on the city's southwest side), music has always been an integral part of his creative process. A literary conversation with Meno is bound to be peppered with detours into the pantheon of rock and roll history, with references to everyone from Belle and Sebastian to Minor Threat and the Dead Kennedys to Black Sabbath, T. Rex, Smith Westerns, Johnny Cash, and, of course, the Beatles.
Perhaps fittingly, he actually likes the D.I.Y. aspect of touring for a book, comparing it to the experience of a band finishing a record: “You record an album and go out on the road.” He says he doesn’t know how he would feel if he “wrote a book and never got to present it, or deliver it to the audience. The surefire way to get someone in San Francisco to be interested in my book is to go to San Francisco.” Nonetheless, as he gets older, he says that he really relishes being home with his family (his eyes smile when he talks about his wife’s freckles) and treating literature like a job that needs to be done five days per week.
He’s a husband, and a father, and a teacher—his Columbia College MFA students recognize him on the street and stop to have an enthusiastic conversation about a story they’re writing before they clock in at their own day jobs. If there’s one thing that sticks with you after meeting Joe Meno, it’s that enthusiasm. He truly cares about what he’s doing and wants to share that passion with others. I had an opportunity to sit down and talk shop with him recently. Here are some of the highlights of that conversation.
TQO: Music seems to play a big role in your writing. I saw that you dedicated your third novel, How the Hula Girl Sings (2005), to Johnny Cash. It made sense when I started reading, kind of like a general tone, right?
Joe Meno: I played a lot of music as a teenager. I was in all these awful punk and metal bands. So, to this day, as a writer, that has had a really profound effect on what I do. It's how I really started writing, really... being in bad bands and writing lyrics. I feel like every novel I've written is connected to music, some record or artist, in some way. I'm responding to lyrics and character, sound and tone. You know, I'll say something like, “I want to write a book that evokes a murder ballad by Johnny Cash.” So then it's, “Okay, how do you capture that in language? Or even in chapter length?” In my third book, Hairstyles of the Damned (2004), I wanted to make a book that resembled the structure of a mix tape: Here's this chapter. It's really fast! Here's this chapter. It's really slow. I thought, “I'll have a bunch of short chapters, the way you would have a bunch of songs on a mix tape. I was using that structural idea to explore the tone and the shape of the book. So, from one book to the next, I feel like I'm translating musical ideas in a way. I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, before music videos were this really popular thing. When I heard a song, I always saw a story for it; I still do. When music videos came out it always kind of threw me a little bit. I was like, “Well, that's not the story I have in my head.” I'd have such a personal narrative, you know? So, that's always something I go back to.
TQO: Yeah, I can see it in your other books as well. I'm about seventy pages into your last novel, The Great Perhaps (2009), and I've already noticed the Beatles popping up throughout.
Meno: Yeah, I mean that whole book is The White Album. I wanted to do a book that had four different voices, and they all sing on that album. And they cover pretty much all of 20th century music. There's “Rocky Raccoon.” There's country western. There's “Honey Pie,” which has this kind of jazzy sound.
There's “Helter Skelter,” which is like the beginnings of early metal. Then there's “Julia,” which is a super sweet ballad. So, there's all these different tones, and I was trying to capture something similar in that book for 20th century literature. So, character to character, there are really distinct voices.
TQO: A literary White Album?
Meno: Yeah. Also, that album came out in ‘69. There are songs like “Piggies” or “Revolution,” asking questions that demonstrate some sense of social consciousness, but they do it in a way that doesn't feel dogmatic. They're asking important questions, but in this popular form. So that's kind of what I was trying to do with the older sister, Amelia. Her soundtrack is definitely “Revolution.” There are also songs that are totally surreal or dreamy on The White Album. I was trying to capture those in the book as well. So you see these moments that are kind of surreal or absurd. So yeah, that was definitely my take on The White Album.
TQO: Speaking of music, the cover of your new novel, Office Girl (the cover depicts a heartbreakingly beautiful hipster girl, riding a bike in front of a sea of soft pink negative space), looks like it could be the cover of a Belle and Sebastian album. Any connection there?
Meno: Oh yeah, I love Belle and Sebastian! But that's actually a take on a Jean-Luc Godard film, called Masculine Feminine, which was promoted at the time with these beautiful pink and white movie posters. The book is in some ways a response to the early films of Godard, as well as this great French writer I love, Raymond Queneau. He wrote Zazie in the Metro and another great book, Odile. They're books about young people, coming of age in the ‘30s, the beginning of surrealism. The question of art has this really dramatic weight in their lives. It's not conceptual for them. It's literally do or die... what they believe in art. Office Girl is set in 1999, when I was 25 and asking those same questions. The idea of art, and writing, and pop culture weren't just questions; they were these things I was really struggling to figure out. It really mattered to me and my peers whether we were going to be writers and artists, or just give up and take a straight job. The book is about these two young people, a guy and a girl, who meet at this job and decide to start their own art movement. It only lasts for three weeks. And that's the book.
TQO: Packaging seems to be an important to the books you publish; presentation, so to speak. Each book is really unique in that aspect.
Meno: Well yeah, that's really important to me. I've worked with Akashic and Norton and they've been really wonderful in letting me be involved in the design. I feel like there are a lot of writers whose work I still haven't read, but I know the book cover. Sometimes that book cover is the only thing you know of an author. If that's the only thing somebody knows of my work, if the title is the only writing someone's read of mine, I want to do everything I can to reflect the actual book and try to make people interested in it. In 2012 I feel like most literature is geared toward this very, very narrow audience. I'm not disinterested in that audience, but I also think that there are all these other people out there that are smart and interesting—people I grew with, people from different arcs—who deserve serious literature as well. So that idea of trying to invite people into your book is reflected in the design. I've had some bad experiences where people try to slap a cover on the book that doesn't reflect what the book is, but they think it's going to sell more copies this way. These were pivotal moments when I realized my idea of a book, which is almost religious. That's how important it can be to people. There are a couple of books that I could say have almost like saved my life. The marketing people don't look at books the same way. They could be marketing gym shoes.
TQO: Okay, so I promised myself I was going to ask you this... freckles and birds?
Meno: (laughs) Well I can see all those. There are actually three things that, for whatever reason, come up again and again in my writing, I think I have some idea why. There are birds, then factories, and then there are ghosts, in almost everything I've written. It's not conscious. Once I figured out I was doing it, I tried to go out of my way not to. I kept trying to outsmart myself, but something would always show up. When I just stopped trying to fight it, I realized there were different seminal events in my life that connected to those different things. When I was about seven years old I was out in the woods. My grandparents had this place in Indiana, right on a lake. I grew up in the city, so getting to be in the real woods was a huge thing. As a kid, it was formative. I'll never forget, I found this dead bird, and I suddenly realized that everything dies... like everything: animals, people, my parents, me… that image evokes or connects to that memory. It's like Carl Jung's theories on the logic of dreams; we try to struggle meaning out of something that's inherently difficult to rationalize. And they're also musical... birds... and fragile.
TQO: And the freckles?
Meno: No one's ever asked about that one before.
TQO: You don't have to, you know... answer.
Meno: No, it's my girl, you know? It's my wife. She was my girlfriend during my first couple books, and then we got married, and she has freckles, and I guess it's just like my platonic ideal of sexuality. From book to book I think there's always a fingerprint that an author has and, whether they try to wreck or change the shape and language, it's still there.
TQO: One more question. You're not “The Legos Guy,” are you? The other Joe Meno in Google search results?
Meno: No. (laughs)
TQO: You know who he is then?
Meno: Yes, but I've never met him or had any interaction. Actually, I really like the idea that there's some other guy out there doing his own thing and he’s really serious about it. I'm like, “Alright man, that's cool. There's worse things. It could be like a sewage company. Or he could be something weirder, like a sex offender. There are worse people to share you name with.
TQO: So, Joe Meno is not a sex offender?
Meno: No, not to my knowledge. (laughs) It's humbling actually, to share your name with somebody that's a serious Lego enthusiast. No matter how serious I take myself, at the end of the day, I have to remind myself that like I’m in a Google Battle with “The Legos Guy”... and no one's won yet.
TQO: I think you're edging him out.
Meno: We'll see, we'll see. I think he's a little older. So time is on my side. I think everyone should have a Google doppelganger.
For an excerpt of Joe Meno's upcoming novel Office Girl, click here.