When I was 12, Bad Religion had a song on the radio called “21st Century Digital Boy,” which I fell in love with immediately. I heard a DJ refer to them as “punk,” so I took that word and ran with it. There was a compilation called Punk-O-Rama and I’d find a band that I liked on it, look at the label they were on and buy everything I could find on that record label. Generally it wasn’t much, but the hunt made living in a boring New Jersey town tolerable.
A few years later I was in a park in New Jersey and saw a girl with pink hair and a pet rat reading a book called The Fuck Up. I wasn’t much of a reader having only read in school and having only liked Lord of the Flies and 1984. Reading The Fuck Up, I had a similar a moment similar to hearing that Bad Religion song. Soon I’d read a slew of authors put out the book’s publisher, Akashic. From there I had Joe Meno, Dennis Cooper, Jerry Stahl, and eventually the authors that influenced them, Harry Crews, Bukowski, Burroughs, and by the end of high school I was reading Saul Bellow and DH Lawrence. All of this is to say, discovering books can be an experience in itself, one different than but inextricable from reading a particular book.
Two Dollar Radio, another indie publisher I love, puts out six books a year, that though varied have a cohesive sensibility. There’s that same sense of discovery and collection when you read through their titles–something an Amazon or Pandora algorithm can never quite duplicate. A few weeks ago co-founders Brian and Eric Obenauf and Eliza Wood announced the launch of a Two Dollar Radio film division.
We decided to catch up with Eric Obenauf in order to get some insight into how 2DR came to be, what the future holds and what we can expect their sensibility to look like translated to the big screen.
Tell me about The film division. What kind of movies will you be putting out? What are your first projects?
Film and publishing are very different. We had no experience in publishing before we started, and I believe it served us well, actually, as we had to be creative and hungry and find new ways to subvert traditional publishing models, which is what I attribute to our success.
The films we produce will be in the vein of our publishing program. We’re the same brand. If you dig our books, you’ll dig our movies.
One of the first films will be I’m Not Patrick, which I wrote and will direct. It’ll be the guinea pig for us to get our feet wet. It’s about a 17-year-old whose twin brother suddenly commits suicide, and is smothered by the school, his family and therapist. Black comedy. Then we’ll do a film called The Removals, from a script by Nicholas Rombes, who is a mind-blowing talent. That’ll be directed by Grace Krilanovich, who wrote The Orange Eats Creeps, which we published to acclaim in 2010. The Removals considers the road that technology is leading us down, how it threatens originality and individuality. It’s a creepy thriller in the vein of Upstream Color or David Lynch. And then we’ll be working on The Greenbrier Ghost, which is co-written by, and will be co-directed by Scott McClanahan and Chris Oxley. That film is inspired by the true story of the only time that the testimony of a ghost has helped to convict a murderer.
Exciting times for us. We have some hot shit in store for you.
Tell me the origin story of 2DR. Tell me about the process of finding books.
I had studied dramatic writing at NYU, interned at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and written a few scripts for children’s TV. The more I found out about that world, the less I wanted any part of it. After college, we were living in San Diego, and I was reading a lot of work from small presses–like Dalkey Archive, Akashic’s Urban Surreal Series (which I loved), Soft Skull–and on a roadtrip to Big Sur we stopped at the Henry Miller Memorial Library, where I bought a book called The Business of Books by publishing veteran, Andre Schiffrin. That lit the fire and made me want to do something. My wife, Eliza, who I run the press with, she had a different reaction after reading that book–she realized we’d never make any money.
I was bartending at the time, and there was this wasted old-timer that I was trying to dodge, and he knew it, and he said, “Don’t mind me, I make more noise than a two-dollar radio.” So that was where the name came from.
I also picked up an old copy of Punk Planet with the theme “The Revenge of Print,’ which had an article by Johnny Temple about indie publishing that included his email address. He had mentioned that Akashic receives more quality submissions than they could ever publish, so I wrote him an email and asked if he had any suggestions. We got some early quality work this way–Life on the Ledge by Ivor Hanson, The Drop Edge of Yonder by Rudolph Wurlitzer, and 1940 by Jay Neugeboren.
Why only six books a year?
Our culture is already overly-saturated with books. The last thing I want to do is publish more books just because we can afford to. That’s why the corporate presses are a real detriment to the value of our literary culture. There’s a lot of fat, a lot of filler because they need to keep the constant first three-month sales spike going.
If we published more, the quality would go down–we wouldn’t be able to focus as much of our attention on editing, production, or publicity. Also, the type of work that we’re attracted to isn’t for everyone, and we don’t want to drown our readers or review editors.
I think why writers enjoy working with us is because of the care, concern, and passion we bring to their work. I’m the one who accepts the manuscript, I edit, Eliza copyedits, I do the cover design, Eliza does the interior layout, and I handle the sales presentation and publicity. So we’re working closely together with the writer from acceptance through publication. At a larger press, you’d have an editor acquire your book, then someone else go to bat for you through publicity and sales, and their tastes might not align, or that publicist might have a bigger book by a bigger name that they have to ensure reviews for ahead of you. What would you rather be: one of fifty, or one of six?
Characterize the 2DR, sensibility, what binds the books you’ve put out? What are you guys all about? Can you give me a metaphor? If you were a band or record label who you be?
We’re attracted to nervy, bold storytellers with strong visions. They have to possess complete authority over their world, and their language. And I aim not to ever do the same thing twice.
Our business model is definitely in the mold of indie record labels. We’ve always been very aware of Two Dollar Radio as a brand sensibility, and have attempted to construct it in a way where if you appreciate one of our books, you’ll probably dig all of them. I like Drag City as an example. They are mostly a record label, but then they’ll publish a book here and there, and even do film. There is no fence keeping them in; they’re producing anything they consider righteous or rad, regardless of the medium.
You’ve published early books by a handful of writers now who’ve gone on to really make a name for themselves, to what do you attribute this? Scott McClanahan is a good example, how’d you come across him? Did you sense he was about to really take off?
Scott McClanahan was poised to take off when we published Crapalachia. He’s a real hustler, having trampled across the country doing very emotive, powerful readings that earned him a reputation. Scott has been sending us stuff for years. I remember receiving a manuscript from him a couple years ago with a handwritten cover letter that acknowledged that he understood we were closed for submissions, but that we needed to improve relations between Ohio and West Virginia.
When I was plotting our new biannual non-fiction journal, Frequencies, he was one of the writers that I solicited work from. He sent me what would become the first chapter of Crapalachia. I asked if he had anything slightly longer, and he sent me the first half of Crapalachia and told me I could have whatever I wanted. I read that in one sitting and was incredibly moved and asked to see the rest.
I recently heard from a mutual friend that Scott had said he was just going to show up on our doorstep with Crapalachia once he finished writing it. I don’t know whether that’s true or not–he may have been joking or said it off-the-cuff–but I like this idea. Like Crapalachia was the book of his that we were always meant to publish.
Do you feel like you have a sense of trends or movements within the fiction writing world? How would you characterize where literature is out right now?
I think society in general is moving in a very positive direction, which is shown through Occupy Wall Street and the shop local movement. We’re in the midst of asserting a new national value, and that is the value of the individual over the corporations. Which is why we have some startling new voices, like Matt Bell or Blake Butler or Sheila Heti, who are especially resonating. Literary culture in the U.S. is finally progressing from the bland era of Eugenides and Franzen into something surprising and potent and exceptional. It’s a great time, this moment right now.