Chicago author Joe Meno started turning heads with the release of his first two novels in 1999 and 2001, though really began demanding attention with 2004's Chicago suburban-punk story Hairstyles Of The Damned and 2006's tale of a former child sleuth, The Boy Detective Fails. This year marks the release of his second collection of short stories, Demons In The Spring. In addition to Meno’s fun-but-dark sense of humor, Demons comes equipped with 20 drawings—one for each of the stories—from the likes of Archer Prewitt, Nick Butcher, and Jay Ryan. Meno spoke to The A.V. Club about his newest collection of work before appearing at a rock-themed reading at The Book Cellar tonight with fellow authors Chris Connelly, (behind his Revolting Cocks memoir) Stephanie Kuehnert (behind I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone), and Jolene Siana (reading from her Skinny Puppy-themed Go Ask Ogre: Letters From A Deathrock Cutter).
The A.V. Club: This is your second collection of short stories. Is there a running theme between them?
Joe Meno: They were written over the last seven years, so I hadn't sat down and tried to come up with a theme, but the thing that kept recurring were different types of catastrophes. They're either really intimate, like a couple that have a miscarriage, or they're really big like a black hole. In some ways, they are all a response to the past seven years of history: everything from Katrina to Iraq to the 2004 election. There's this recurring question of, "How do you deal with these catastrophes as an adult?" The 2004 re-election of Bush was this triumph of mediocrity. There's a story in this book about a guy who's an accountant, and he quits his job because everyone else at his job doesn't live up to his standards. He goes back to work for his family's failing marine park, and at one point his wife tells him that he needs to learn to live in a world that is not as good as he thinks it is. I didn't feel that way in the '90s!
AVC: Politics aside, why else did you decide to release another book of short stories?
JM: Cody Hudson, who's one of the artists in the book, he and I made a conscious choice to make a book with an antique feel. This was the same time when [Amazon.com's] Kindle came out, which is a digital format for books. Knowing that a book of short stories wasn't going to be a best-seller, we wanted to make a nice object. If you look at culture, be it music, film, or publishing, things are designed to be a hit: Dumbed down to appeal to the widest possible audience to the point where there's nothing special about it. Short stories are going the way of poetry and jazz. It's a very specialized art form. It's like playing in some instrumental indie-rock band. You're never going to be on the radio.
AVC: Hairstyles Of The Damned has a lot of musical references in it. Demons In The Spring has a lot of visual artwork. How does introducing other elements like that affect your writing, or does it?
JM: In my fiction, there's a lot that’s borrowed from music. It's never like I'm taking a lyric, but more the mood of a particular song. The Boy Detective Fails was like listening to "Eleanor Rigby" by The Beatles, this very melancholy-but-poppy song. Demons was more reactive to different artists that I worked with like Cody or Nick Butcher. It was nice to have a conversation with a different medium rather than rely on music again just because it's comfortable.
AVC: Why did you opt to donate proceeds to 826 Chi?
JM: I've been on their board for a few years, and I've done some writing workshops with them, and that tutoring center is there to help kids read. I felt really lucky that Hairstyles Of The Damned and The Boy Detective Fails were both best-sellers, and I thought that donating the money from Demons was a good way to respond to that. My favorite artists are the ones that are willing to experiment, even if it means a smaller audience.
I have a day job, so I can pay my rent and don't have to worry about basic, day-to-day economics. It would be a different story if I had to depend solely on my writing. I have a number of friends that try to live off their writing, and there's way more pressure for a hit or to write a certain type of book. You can't do a limited-edition short-story book with drawings unless you don't want to eat anything but ramen.
Joe Meno reads a selection from his upcoming 2009 book, The Great Perhaps: