When Joe Meno’s affecting coming-of-age tale Hairstyles Of The Damned came out in September 2004, Meno figured the book’s obscure pop-cultural references and strong punk-rock themes would limit its appeal to a small number of readers. Fifteen months later, Hairstyles has more than 50,000 copies in print (a massive number for its indie publisher, Punk Planet Books). It’s been translated into German, Italian, Russian, and Turkish, won widespread critical acclaim, and been optioned for a film by Focus Features. No one is more surprised than Meno, whose two previous books (Tender As Hellfire and How The Hula Girl Sings) drew little attention, thanks in part to their publishers’ indifference. Hairstyles changed all that—Punk Planet recently re-released Hula Girl—and Meno hopes to sustain the buzz with his new collection of short stories, Bluebirds Used To Croon In The Choir, and an upcoming (fall 2006) novel called The Boy Detective Fails. He recently sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about Bluebirds, his prosperous year, and his many teenage fans.
The A.V. Club: You’ve said that most publishers view short-story collections as publishing poison, but Bluebirds seems like the opposite—a sort of Joe Meno mix-tape highlighting your different styles of writing.
Joe Meno: Yeah, definitely. As I was putting them together, I wanted some of the stories to be real surreal, I wanted some of them to be more realistic, I wanted some of them to be more upbeat, where there’s hope at the end. And then there’s a lot of the stories that are really dark, where it ends real badly for the character. [Laughs.] Or a lot of them end, like, kind of good and then kind of not so sure… A lot of those stories are just really based on an idea that these surprising things happen to these characters, like the guy’s hat blows off and he starts floating [“Hold On To Your Hat”], or these kids get kidnapped [“Happiness Will Be Yours”], and that’s real important. So there’s also that element that kind of binds all these different stories together, like a compilation… Even though these stories are very different, they’re very connected to the idea of love. They’re all stories about characters who are dealing with the conflicts of being in love. I think that’s something that I return to a lot.
AVC: After Hairstyles, were you concerned about being pigeonholed as a writer?
JM: Oh yeah. I mean, that was a huge… Well, I was lucky that this was my third book. I think it would have been a lot more precarious if it was my first one, because that happens all the time, where someone has a really huge first book, and then somebody wants—the publisher, even just the readers—that same thing over and over again. I had written two books, a bunch of plays, short stories, a bunch of other things before that book really took off, and so it was really important to me that the next book be really different. I mean, there’s some things that are comparable. The short stories are connected to music in different ways, but it’s not as gritty or even realistic in the way that book is.
AVC: Did you nix anything from Bluebirds for being too much like Hairstyles?
JM: No, with that collection, I’d been writing those short stories over the last couple of years. It’s not like I did Hairstyles and sat down and thought, “Oh, I need to write short stories.” Some of those were published in magazines over the last five years. There were some short stories that ended up being part of the book Hairstyles because that’s how I wrote it. I took short stories, I took a play that I wrote about those kids, and a short film I wrote, and I used all those different components to make the book. So there were some really good short stories that ended up being part of Hairstyles that I kind of nixed.
AVC: What do you think the biggest change has been in your writing since Tender As Hellfire?
JM: My first book is really comparable to what I do now, where it’s pretty surreal and strange at moments, but that being my first book—I wrote that when I was 22; it came out when I was 24—and it was just really overwritten. I just didn’t trust myself as a writer to say something once. [I had] to say it, like, three times, and because that book came out on a corporate press, there wasn’t really any editing that went into it. Unlike working with Dan [Sinker, owner of Punk Planet Books], who’s like, “Hey, why did you use the word ‘maybe’ twice in this sentence?” I’m like, “I don’t know, dude!” And he’s totally justified in asking me that. When I really could have used it was when I was like 22 and still figuring myself out as a writer. I didn’t get it. Although the story and the characters, I’m really proud of. I just know the writing isn’t as good as what I’m doing now just because I’m more confident.
AVC: You’ve had a pretty crazy year since Hairstyles was published. What sticks out in your mind from it?
JM: The number-one thing has been, I get these great e-mails, or even just letters and stuff, from these kids that are like 13 or 14. I got this letter from this girl. She’s like, “Hi, my name’s Vegan. That’s not my real name; that’s what I ask people to call me.” It was on fucking graph paper! [Laughs.] And there’s stickers on it. I have it hanging up in my office.
AVC: She’s in that weird transition from nerd to punk.
JM: That’s okay. She’s ahead of the game if she already has a fake name. That’s all you could ask for. It’s nice to have the book made into a movie and translations, and the money has been really nice and stuff, but… all this other stuff is just the icing on the cake.