Michael Heald is the publisher of the small Portland press Perfect Day Publishing and the author of its fourth release, Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension. The first three Perfect Day books made the Portland Mercury’s Best of 2011 list, and the anonymous memoir Love Is Not Constantly Wondering If You Are Making the Biggest Mistake of Your Life has been a top 25 bestseller at Powell’s since being reviewed by Slate in May. Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension, Heald’s collection of essays, comes out next week.
Of Heald’s essays, Jon Raymond says: “In these tales of fumbling young adulthood—written in quick, limber, lacerating prose—he peers deeply into the mess of ambition, privilege, envy, and horniness that defines our endless American adolescence, and comes out with something like wisdom.” They’re all personal essays, sometimes deeply personal (Perfect Day’s motto is “If it’s not personal, we’re not interested”), and in them we get to know Heald and his interior landscape pretty well—his brushes with celebrities and people he thinks might be celebrities; his perceived inadequacies, especially when he compares himself to celebrities; his angst over identity and writing and relationships; and in one long essay we follow his epic quest to lose his virginity during his first two years of college. As the back cover copy reads, “Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension is not nearly as depressing as any of this sounds.”
Join Heald in Portland on November 29 at 7:30 at Backspace, where he’ll read from Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension and several bands will cover their favorite Stephen Malkmus songs.
JP: The success of Perfect Day’s first three books says a lot about publishing these days—that micro-press books can really catch on and find an audience. What’s your elevator speech (or your Thanksgiving table speech) about publishing right now?
MH: I’ve always wanted Perfect Day to feel more like a record label than a traditional publishing house. It’s been much more common in the independent music world for labels to be run by musicians who also put their own music out. Calvin Johnson with K Records, Superchunk with Merge Records, Fugazi with Dischord … there are a lot of examples.
One of the reasons I feel so fortunate that the first three Perfect Day books have had commercial and critical success is that they’ve created a platform for my own work. I suspect that Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension will end up getting nearly as much attention (at least regionally) as it would if I were publishing it through a larger press. And because I’m in charge, I’ve been able to work with my favorite designer in the world (Aaron Robert Miller) on the cover and promo stuff, and because it’s just the two of us, there’s a consistent aesthetic, both design- and content-wise.
In Portland right now, there are at least a dozen other small presses making really compelling books, with a dozen different approaches. The big publishing houses are in crisis, and I don’t think there’s a blueprint any more for how to make books. That’s a very exciting thing.
MH: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again—I came to David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction pretty late. I’d tried and failed to read Infinite Jest and dismissed him as being overrated and badly in need of an editor. But this essay collection came into my life at the perfect time—I’d just started writing nonfiction myself, after a decade of writing fiction. The lesson I learned from DFW (and from everyone on this list) is that with nonfiction, it doesn’t really matter what your subject is—the subject is always yourself, your voice, your own point of view. And if you really put yourself on the page, like DFW does in the title essay, it’s just about the bravest thing you can do as a writer.
A Fan’s Notes—Frederick Exley’s obsessive memoir about alcoholism and football was decades ahead of its time. The sequence when Exley attends a N.Y. Giants game alongside a prim-and-proper family and tries to behave himself is so awful, and so funny.
Out of Sheer Rage—My favorite book by my favorite contemporary writer, Geoff Dyer. As much as he insists he is “not writing a sober academic study of D.H, Lawrence,” you end up learning quite a lot about Lawrence. And even more about Dyer. Despite all his whining, he makes writing look effortless. And fun.
Yeah. No. Totally.—Okay yes, I published this book. But in working with Lisa Wells on her essay collection, in encouraging her to write about whatever she wanted to, I began to learn how I wanted to write. Lisa was the first person to suggest that out of my own little scraps, I should make a book.
Orphans—It’s been almost a decade since I ran across the essay “Documents” in the New Yorker, but Charles D’Ambrosio’s clear-eyed examination of the poems and letters left behind by his damaged family still haunts me in ways that no other piece of writing ever has.
JP: So glad you mentioned Orphans. I think of Clear Cut Press (R.I.P.) as being a forerunner in the NW in publishing these small batches of locally grown, well-written, well-packaged books that could totally stand up to any big press book.
MH: Like you, I was a huge fan of Clear Cut Press (and will freely admit to borrowing some of their layout ideas for Yeah. No. Totally.). I also really admire what Matthew Stadler is doing these days at Publication Studio. I should mention that I think Clear Cut was part of a long tradition of small press publishing. The vitality of small presses is really kind of cyclical. During conservative eras in publishing, they become more vital and higher profile (think of all the tiny publishing houses in Paris in the ’20s and ’50s that took huge legal and artistic risks and ended up publishing authors that are now on every college syllabus). I’d like to think we might be entering a similar kind of era, and not just in Portland. This stuff is happening all over the country. I wish I was a little more knowledgeable about small press publishing in the Pacific Northwest before the past decade, but I do think Clear Cut and Future Tense Books have been very important in establishing a home-grown tradition here.
JP: Your essays remind me a lot of Lena Dunham’s work. Do you know it, and what do you think of the comparison?
MH: I haven’t seen “Girls” yet, but from what I’ve heard, I’ll probably love it when I do. It sounds like Dunham is navigating that gray area between indulgence and universality. There are two kinds of people in the world: those who want to know what other people are thinking, and those who don’t.
JP: Dunham is definitely the former (See her New Yorker essay about trying to figure out why she was blocked by her ex’s mother on Facebook!). There’s something particularly Gen-X-sounding about all this. Would you say that’s true and what do you think it says about our generation?
MH: I don’t know if it’s generational, but I do think that the amount of time my peers and I spend on Facebook or Gchat or just waiting for that text contributes to this hunger to know what’s actually going on in each others’ heads.
JP: In the same vein, one of my favorite essays in your collection is a short one where you and your girlfriend think you might be vacationing with the author Jonathan Ames and spend most of your time watching him and speculating about him. I won’t give away the ending, but what I want to know is, while that was happening, were you thinking, “I’m going to write about this”? Do you usually think about writing about something while it’s happening?
MH: “Tourniquet” predates the rest of these essays by a number of years. It originally took the form of a letter to Jonathan Ames, in which I addressed him as “you” (i.e. “we watched you chatting up a different middle-aged woman every night”). I sent it to him in 2006, worrying that it was a pretty creepy thing for me to have written, but he ended up writing back. With his approval I started tinkering with it to make it into a proper essay. It took me six years to get it right.
As far as whether or not I was thinking about writing it while April and I were on vacation, I definitely wasn’t. I wrote the letter maybe a year and a half after the trip to Mexico—April and I had just broken up, and I guess I was trying to understand where things had gone wrong. That said, some of these essays did come out of the experience of knowing I was going to end up writing about something that was happening right in front of me.
JP: That’s true with “It Should Be Mathematical,” the track piece about Ian Dobson and Julia Lucas and the 2012 Olympic Trials. It’s got these David Foster Wallace-type layers–part journalism about meeting these track heroes and experiencing their disappointments with them, part personal about your own running experience and your relationship with your brother and with Ian.
MH: I had just finished writing “This Is Not About Sex” and was starting to feel a little burned-out about investigating my past, and my problems. I knew the book needed something more, but I felt like I’d used up all my best material. At the same time, I knew from past experience that spending two weeks at the Olympic Trials with my family could get kind of claustrophobic, so it occurred to me that if I had a project to work on I’d probably get along with my parents and brother more easily.
I wrote to Ian Dobson on Facebook and introduced myself, explaining that I had no real expectations of what the piece would be, except that hopefully it wouldn’t be typical sportswriting. He wrote back almost immediately and said he’d be up for a series of interviews but that I should know that his season wasn’t going so well, which, it occurred to him, might actually make for a more interesting story. He was right. At the beginning, I didn’t intend to write about Ian’s wife, Julia Lucas, except tangentially, but as her story unfolded in front of all those track fans I realized I didn’t really have any choice. I’d written almost half of the piece by the time of her race. I think one of the most powerful things about that essay is that there’s no foreshadowing. It’s happening right in front of the reader, too.
To his enduring credit, Dan DeWeese, the editor at Propeller Quarterly and Propeller Books, questioned whether or not the storyline with my brother really belonged in the piece. In the first draft, it was way more vague. There were some structural problems. I realized while trying to defend my work that the stuff with my brother was really the heart of the whole thing, and so my job was to convince Dan, through my writing, that it belonged. The best editors know how—and why—to make you work hard.
JP: I think you hit on the danger of publishing your own work, how to stand back from it and judge it in a neutral way—or to get the right people around you to help out.
MH: Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension was edited by ten people, including the three writers I’ve already published on Perfect Day. Ultimately I had the final say about what to include, but you’d better believe I paid attention when Lisa Wells or Martha Grover or the author of Love Is Not Constantly … told me, “This has to go.” Those guys are nearly as invested in my book as I am. Working with them has been so fulfilling.