SDk: You’ve had a very diverse creative career that includes music, filmmaking, and theatre production and directing. Besides fiction, you’ve written award-winning nonfiction works encompassing ethnography, sociology and anthropology, and you were a war correspondent in Bosnia and Rwanda 1993–95. Career-wise, are there any achievements or experiences, or even precise moments, that stand out for you?
Michael Hemmingson: The publication of my first novel, The Naughty Yard, in 1994 by Permeable Press. Any writer’s first book – novel, collection, essays, whatever – is a major career turning point. In my case, I felt I had not put myself to task for a first book at an ideal time for a young writer. I was 27 when The Naughty Yard came out, when I “should have” published a first book around 20–22. I came damn close quite a few times. When I was 20, a young assistant editor at Doubleday wanted to publish a manuscript called The Lizards of October; she saw it reaching the same market as Less Than Zero; after that book in 1985, New York was hot on publishing writers in the 18–25 age range and there were quite a few of those, most of them
mistakes. Six months, I waited for a final answer but she was unable to convince her bosses at Doubleday to take a chance on me; and curious enough, the senior editor she was working under wound up being my agent later on when he left Doubleday, or was fired, I am not sure what. I told him my career would have been different had he backed that novel and he replied, “It would have hurt your career, that manuscript was shit.” He was right, looking back. This was not the first time this happened with me in New York trade publishing – I had editors, mostly young and green, at St. Martin’s Press, Viking, Random House, all who wanted to take me on but they could never convince sales and marketing that I would make money, or at least break even. It was crushing, to wait six to eight months for an answer and then get the axe. I didn’t publish with a New York house until 2001, with my crime noir, Wild Turkey, and that one took nine months to convince sales and marketing and the main boss at Tor/Forge, and what helped was that an anthology I co-edited with Maxim Jakubowksi, The Mammoth Book of Short Erotic Novels, had sold 300,000 copies in the first year and that
impressed them. Today still, I – and many others – have difficulties talking a New York house into buying a book, so lately I have been working with small publishers, which is fine. I am doing some nonfiction titles with large publishers right now.
Anyway, after the heart-breaking Big No at Doubleday, I stopped writing for a few years as I was playing in a band, cutting an album; all I wrote was the occasional poem. I was more into being a rock guitarist, and those two years were fun, touring, playing little clubs and big music festivals; and, while I was not writing novels, I would never do it differently except for keeping at it after the break-up of my band. I worked with a talented singer-songwriter and my musical compositions meshed well with his words. So after the band thing, I was 24, I went back to writing, and then to journalism where I became a war correspondent… something so long ago it seems like a hologram now, like I have been implanted with someone else’s memories and experiences.
Back to The Naughty Yard: a fantastic arthouse filmmaker in London is turning it into a film, to be set in Paris and London. I am eager to see how it
Today still, I – and many others – have difficulties talking a New York house into buying a book, so lately I have been working with small publishers. I am doing some nonfiction titles with large
publishers right now.