Make, Listen, Read

By Jane Greenway Carr
Johnny headshot copyTBQ’s Jane Carr talks with Akashic Books founder and Brooklyn Literary Council chair Johnny Temple about how he got started, books that excite him, and what publishing needs most these days.

TBQ: You just had the Brooklyn Book Festival in September and wrapped up another year as the co-chair. Other than sleep, what was the first thing you did after it was over?

JT: Good question. Actually, to tell you the truth, it wasn’t even sleep. This has happened to me two years in a row: Around 3 p.m. on the day of the festival, my body uncharacteristically just goes out on me, and I become sort of zombified. So next year I’m going to take extra precautions — eat better or something — because it was less of a “sleep” and more of a “coma.”

Part of what knocked me out was the enormous crowds — they literally made me dizzy. And it was a huge success. The professional accomplishment I’m most proud of is having played a key role in building the festival.

TBQ: Just to look back a little bit, where did you grow up and how did you end up here in Brooklyn?

JT: I grew up in Washington, DC. I was born and raised there. I went to college at Wesleyan in Connecticut, [and] after college, I went back to DC for a couple years. I had started playing a lot of music while I was in college, so I joined a few bands.

So I was in DC playing music and starting to do some social work — not even social work, that’s almost too broad — but it was work with delinquent youth in DC. Really, really messed up kids, coming from terrible situations. It was great work; I loved doing it. And then some friends and I moved to New York, basically for music, but we didn’t have any big dreams. We had actually already played in bands that had toured the United States and Europe, so it was a change of pace to come up here. I kept doing social work, got a master’s degree, and then the bands started to do well at the same time. After that, I started publishing.

TBQ: With respect to some of the work that you did with kids, did you want to do anything arts-related with them? Did you work with them on things relevant to literature or music?

JT: Definitely music. And this was long before I got into publishing. I never aspired to be a book publisher — I sort of stumbled into it, along with a couple friends, who started Akashic with me. But when I was working with those kids, definitely music. This was in the early 1990s, and these were the sorts of kids, from around twelve to fifteen, who were in the most amount of criminal trouble you can be in at that age. It was a residential group home — sort of a halfway house for kids — and so we used beats and rhymes to get them to communicate what was on their minds. Had I kept up a career in social work, music would certainly have been a big part of it.

For me, one of my motivations with the books is to try and get some of the juice that music has, and find ways to make books seem more exciting or more relevant.”

TBQ: Who was the first person who encouraged you to be — and what I want to say is a polymath — but I could say a musician or publisher, a writer, a cornerstone of the Brooklyn literary culture, take your pick. Where did that inspiration come from?

JT: I have to say my sister. I wanted to say my parents, because my parents gave me the space to do it — but they didn’t necessarily steer me in those directions. I think I was really influenced by my sister, who basically taught me how life works. As did my parents, but we were latchkey kids, so we spent a lot of time on our own, roaming unsupervised around the streets of Washington, DC, often in very precarious situations. My sister was really my guiding light.

TBQ: How you would describe what you have done or what you’re currently doing in relation to the overlap between artistic innovation and activist work?

JT: I used to do some writing for The Nation, and in 1999 I wrote an article for them about the nexus between punk activism and the political left, about the cross-pollination between culture and politics. But it was also a different world than it is now.

TBQ: How has your approach to that kind of cross-pollination shifted since then?

JT: I’m less involved on a political activist level. Perhaps I’m just as involved through other efforts like the Brooklyn Book Festival, which I devote hundreds of hours to. But I’m not so interested in the politics of the punk rock world in a way that I used to be. Although Akashic has published a lot of books [about] punk and politics.

TBQ: That seems to be in vogue right now. New York University’s Fales Library and Special Collections has just acquired CBGB’s archive. They’ve already got the Downtown Collection and the Riot Grrrl Collection.

JT: Wow. Really? They have the Riot Grrrl Collection?

TBQ: Yeah, Lisa Darms, who is the archivist there, went to college in Olympia, WA, so she started it a couple years ago. They’ve got Kathleen Hanna’s papers and a bunch of great stuff. [Darms] did a book that came out in June with Feminist Press: The Riot Grrrl Collection [with a foreword essay by Johanna Fateman]. How would you characterize your activist work today?

JT: I wouldn’t characterize Akashic as being activist in orientation, though we are very active. We try to be very community engaged. I have a vision of publishing that is more local, and that’s for me the motivation behind the Brooklyn Book Festival. The Festival has become international, with people coming from all over the world, but I also like the idea of trying to pull people to books by making books more attractive and approachable. Our tongue-in-cheek motto is: “Reverse Gentrification of the Literary World.” It’s not wholly serious, but the idea is to try to have a broad-minded view of who our audience is, and who our books can engage with — to view books as a more populist medium, the way that music or movies are.

TBQ: That’s thrilling to hear, because that’s a lot of what TBQ is about as well, in terms of investigating how digital publishing and the upsurge of great digital publications over the last few years can be built upon with that kind of broad-minded “little d” democracy.

JT: Yeah, I think that’s one of the things about the Internet and digital world: Some of its promise is that it gives so many more people voices. It doesn’t mean that their voices can be heard, but the first step to being heard is to have your voice somewhere that is accessible to many people. I think that in publishing there’s never been such a diverse array of voices as there are today. And yet from people in publishing — Manhattan-based publishing, big companies — you hear a lot of nostalgia, talk about how great things used to be. But it was just the straight white men that would get published. Is that what the nostalgia is for? I know that some great books were written then, but there are great books being written now, too.

TBQ: Between Akashic and the Brooklyn Literary Council [which organizes the Brooklyn Book Festival], you have been able to build community collaborations, and to partner with other groups. What current work do you think merits more attention?

JT: One of my favorite entities with whom I’ve collaborated a lot is the New York Writer’s Coalition. They provide a truly stunning number of programs every year, free writing programs — their work is just awesome. Here at Akashic, we’re just sending emails; it’s just running a business, really, the nuts and bolts. Whereas the New York Writer’s Coalition is there on the ground. It’s just amazing how many services they offer to the public. Instead of complaining that no one reads anymore, they’re actually doing the heavy lifting.

TBQ: You also teach classes at Wesleyan and other places. What do you say to your students when you teach? What do you think students are looking to understand about the publishing business? Or should be reading, or should be paying attention to most?

JT: Most of the teaching I do is about the publishing business itself. I’m not a college professor. I’m really interested in encouraging people, especially certain types of people, to enter the business, because I think the business needs new people and new ideas. The publishing business is distressingly white. It’s a very progressive business, by and large, and on important levels probably a higher percentage of people in the publishing business voted for President Barack Obama than in most other industries — yet ironically, its percentage of non-white people is probably among the very lowest of almost any American industry. So I think there needs to be more effort made.

And this isn’t just because of some set of liberal values — I’m talking also about the health of the publishing business. The publishing business has to stay alive, and it has to stay relevant, and it’s going to help if it looks and sounds and feels more like American society. So that’s one of my agendas: pulling people into the business whom I think the business needs.

books1TBQ: What are some of the works that you’re most proud of Akashic for publishing?

JT: It’s so hard to say, but I will pick a few — not arbitrarily, but this is just a sampling. One of the best stories ever published in the Noir series was Tim McLoughlin’s “When All This Was Bay Ridge.” Part of Tim’s motivation behind editing Brooklyn Noir was to get this story published. It’s just such a phenomenal story and has now been published elsewhere as well. Tim, born and raised in Brooklyn, has never been away from Brooklyn for more than six weeks at a time in his more than fifty years — he’s one of Brooklyn’s true literary greats.

Chris Abani’s novella [Becoming Abigail] — it is worth running this publishing company alone, just to have published that book. [And] Wingshooters by Nina Revoyr. We’ve published several books with both of these authors. Nina Revoyr is just one of the best fiction writers living today.

TBQ: Now you have at least one new imprint, The Kaylie Jones books. Is that something that you’re going to keep doing, having imprints?

JT: We’re planning right now to be doing about two books on that imprint a year, in traditional form. And then Kaylie Jones’ books are going to have an e-book line. We’re really, really, really excited to be working with Kaylie. She is one of our heroes.

TBQ: You talked before about how initially you had imagined yourself pursuing music, and you had never really intended to become a publisher. How has publishing changed your thinking about the centrality of the arts to everyday life, and how has your identity as an entrepreneur inflected your approach to those things?

JT: That’s a good question; I’m just not sure how to answer it. [Long pause.] Not a lot of people necessarily read books, or go out and buy fiction novels. I mean a lot of people do, sure, but there are many, many people in society who don’t. So it’s a slightly obscure form to be working in, unlike music, which is there for everybody. For me, one of my motivations with the books is to try and get some of the juice that music has, and find ways to make books seem more exciting or more relevant.

For example, we have this imprint called Infamous Books, which is curated by the rapper Prodigy [Albert Johnson] from the group Mobb Deep. [Prodigy released the novella H.N.I.C. under the Infamous imprint in July.] We also have it in paperback form as well — it’s priced pretty low, for us. That is the first book, and we have some more on the way by some bestselling African American authors. I don’t think of the imprint as exclusively African American, but one of the exciting things is to always try to reach new people.

TBQ: Turning to your music, you have some more tour dates later in the fall and winter and you’ve got a new EP out. Are you planning to play with other bands as well?

JT: It’s really great to have music in my life. [My band] Girls Against Boys was really busy in the ‘90s; that was what my job was. And I’m really proud of the records we made and all the stuff that we did. The last record we put out was about ten years ago. Since then, we’ve played sporadically — almost always in Europe, where we’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to play great shows.

Just this past year, for a variety of reasons, we suddenly became a bit more active and have recorded some songs. So basically I’ve been more active with music in the past six months than I had been for the past five years. I feel very lucky — I love my band and I love my band mates. And, if I do say so myself, when we went to Poland, we really rocked the house.

TBQ: Whose house will you be rocking next?

JT: We have some more shows in Europe coming up in December. We played these giant shows for thousands of people — these festivals — and I feel like we were playing better than we had in many years. There was a certain sort of energy and then we got to do some shows with this guy, David Yow, the singer with the legendary band The Jesus Lizard. That was a total treat for us. He’s electrifying and was a lot of fun to play with.

TBQ: How do you feel about your new EP, The Ghost List?

JT: I feel very good about it. We didn’t know if people still reviewed records, but we’ve been getting good reviews.

TBQ: You spoke a little bit about some of the international work you’ve done — it seems like you are very interested in giving a voice to international writers, which will be a major focus of TBQ’s second issue. Who are some international writers you’re passionate about reading and think we should know more about? And what are some of the most important aspects of marketing books in translation?

JT: Edwidge Danticat had edited Haiti Noir [published in 2010] for us, and she’s just edited Haiti Noir 2, the classics, for us. The original books, Brooklyn Noir or Haiti Noir, are all original stories. When we do a sequel volume, like Haiti Noir 2, it’s the classics, so it’s all reprints. Through doing this book with Edwidge, I got to read a lot of the classic Haitian canon of fiction writers. I had actually read Jacques Roumain before. Some of these authors wrote in French, and some in English. Roumain wrote a book called Masters of the Dew, which is one of the classic Haitian texts from the 1920s. It’s a highly political and inspired novel. This woman, Ida Faubert, is another deceased but very classic Haitian writer. This book took a long time to build. All of us here are totally proud of it — it’s coming out in January.

In terms of contemporary writers — Dany Laferrière; he’s a young writer who lives in Canada and is Haitian born. His writing, I wouldn’t at all call it experimental, but it’s contemporary. And he’s a very, very important Haitian writer I’ve been turned on to through working with Edwidge on these books.

TBQ: What are some other forthcoming books for winter or spring that you want to get our readers excited about?

JT: First, The Jesus Lizard Book comes out in March and is just incredible. No one has seen this yet. It’s another book that has taken a couple of years to build. Then in April we’re publishing a novel called Mr. Loverman by a woman based in England, Bernardine Evaristo [Editors’ note: published by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin in the UK in August]. It’s a really, really gorgeously written and hilarious novel set in England about two elderly Caribbean gay men who are basically trying to convince each other to come out of the closet. And the writing itself is just exquisite. The same month, we’re publishing a memoir by one of our favorite writers, Elizabeth Nunez, with whom we’ve done a bunch of books. It’s called Not For Everyday Use, and it’s about her life growing up and the lives of her parents. It’s really fascinating, and also beautifully written.

TBQ: Other than works published by Akashic, who is your favorite author or what is your favorite book that no one has ever heard of?

JT: That no one has ever heard of? The Obscene Bird of Night by José Donoso. And it’s not fair to Mr. Donoso to say that no one has ever heard of him because he’s a prestigious [Chilean] author. But probably you’ve never heard of him.

TBQ: No.

JT: And I’ll bet a lot of your readers haven’t, either. I mean, a lot of other people have, but it shouldn’t be an obscure-sounding book, The Obscene Bird of Night.

TBQ: Who is your favorite author that everyone has heard of?

JT: Toni Morrison. She’s just my favorite author, period.

JGC headshot 2_webJane Greenway Carr is a writer and editor born and raised in Memphis and currently based in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Publishers Weekly and other magazines and academic journals. She is a graduate of Princeton University, with an MFA from Columbia University and a PhD from New York University, where she is a lecturer in English. She is editor of The Brooklyn Quarterly.

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