Mike may be one of my bosses at Literati Bookstore, but whenever our shifts overlap, our chats behind the register invariably turn into drawn-out conversations. Instead of helping customers (sorry, customers!), we talk about books, writing, and our creative lives, as well as non-pretentious things like the ferret Mike's sister used to own. It was an honor and a pleasure to get to take our conversation one step further in the interview below. Read on to learn about the distinction between an editor and a writer, the grueling routine of a competitive swimmer, and what makes a book the perfect product.
I’ve always been in awe of all the different roles you occupy, and how little you talk about them. I feel like many people know about one or two of the roles you play, but few people are privy to all of them: writer, photographer, filmmaker, social media guru, community pillar, top indie bookstore owner (and I’m sure so many more). I feel like Notes from a Public Typewriter is a project that makes many of the roles you fill visible. What’s it like to showcase so many different sides of yourself and your life in this book?
Thank you for that description. I don’t feel like all those things!
Since I was a film student at Northwestern University, I’ve been obsessed with simple and accessible storytelling. I enjoy learning new ways to tell old-fashioned, familiar stories, whether that’s via cell phone photography or scotch-taping anonymous typewriter notes. This book required many hats, but the main objective with its execution was simplicity. A reader opens the book, and is introduced to the bookstore. Then, the typewriter. Then, a hello from its editor. Then, a few notes…. It was a thrill to identify different elements needed for the book, whether it was using a photograph taken with my dad’s 1970’s Nikon or having fun with lessons I learned in film school, like midpoints and story arcs.
You make a point to emphasize that you and Oliver [Uberti] are the editors, not the writers, of this book. Yet you’ve written original essays for the book, interspersed between the anonymous typewriter notes. What is the distinction for you between an editor and a writer?
Over a hundred people, anonymous or not, contributed to this book, so it’d be a narcissistic endeavor to say I wrote it. I contributed a few essays that I thought could provide a setting and place, to humanize and help frame these notes’ anonymous nature. A writer creates, whereas an editor provides framework and structure. It was a pleasure and joy to help build—with many other helpers—the framework for our anonymous writers to create.
I feel like though we’ve had a lot of chats about my writing, we rarely touch upon yours. But I’ve known since I started working at Literati that you’re a writer, and especially well known for your sports writing on swimming (I was warned my first week that swim fans might come in asking for you). How did you start writing? What does writing do for you?
I love simplicity. A book, for example, is a perfect product. It does one thing perfectly.
Writing is like that. You can write anywhere, any time. A CVS holds all the things you need: A notepad, a pen. Marilynne Robinson, one of my favorite writers, began Gilead on one of those hotel notepads. That has always stuck with me. And from that hotel notepad or napkin, you can change lives. I believe in that kind of magic—the power of the written word.
After college, I traveled and wandered, and I always brought a notepad and pen with me. I loved that feeling that nothing else was needed… that all you needed was a little ink and elbow grease.
How has owning a bookstore helped (or interfered) with your attitude toward your own writing? Or your attitude toward reading?
In film school, I was turned off by experimental film and projects that were too smart or trying too hard. It’s seemed more difficult to me to tell a story that will resonate with a wide audience. So, I appreciate it when a story hits home with a lot of people. I love books that are a delight to read and that I can recommend to others.
By seeing the array of books that come through our bookstore’s doors, it’s like speed dating. I thought I’d expand my tastes—become a more well-rounded reader. To an extent, that has happened. But now, I also gravitate towards books I know I will love: Simple, clear, some humor, some darkness, lots of heart. While I've expanded my tastes, I’ve also realized what stories I truly want to read.
What’s an example of a story that was made for you, and what’s an example of a story that made you more well-rounded?
Three books that I could read every day of my life are Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann, A Constellation of Vital Phenomenaby Anthony Marra, and Lila by Marilynne Robinson.
Three writers who have expanded my reading tastes and made me more well-rounded (and who I have greatly enjoyed reading) are Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, and Alice Munro.
Do you ever think you’ll create a book in which you are the writer?
When I was a competitive swimmer, I loved the long, seemingly unending season. I loved the process. The cold morning swims before school; the autumn dry land conditioning; the New Years Day workouts. I loved Christmas morning workouts in the middle of the swim season and feeling like I was building towards something, like I was going somewhere. Each swim season had an arc—a beginning, middle, and end. And during that season, a swimmer would train the distance of an ocean's crossing for the final 60-seconds to come down to a fingernail. That "fingernail concept" excited me, thrilled me, and kept me engaged with the process.
Going through the making of Notes was a similar process. It was a long journey, and when I began putting paper into the typewriter, I didn't necessarily know where it would go. But I kept working through it, and one thing turned into another thing, and eventually, months and years later, it's publication day.
Though of course there were stresses and anxieties along the way, I loved that slow creation process. I think there's something inside of me that's addicted to that process—whether it's helping build a bookstore, a body that can swim from one end of the pool to another, or a book. So to answer your simple question with a very long-winded answer, I would love to publish a novel and experience that creation process again. I greatly admire anyone who has a years-long vision for a project and sees it through.