Category Archives: books

The New York Stories: An Interview with Ben Tanzer and Laura Szumowski

Artifice loves it when our friends get up to interesting projects, and we especially love projects that include non-traditional book tours, fantastic illustrations, and a weird, dark sense of humor. This post concludes a month of virtual book tours for The New York Stories, which is a collection by Ben Tanzer, illustrated by Laura Szumowski. The New York Stories was recently published by the Chicago Center for Literature & Photography (CCLaP) as a hand-bound, special edition (vellum illustration pages, faux-suede covers, and external Coptic stitching, oh my!), available now for $50.

The type for The New York Stories is creatively laid out in a condensed square format, with the text running like a magazine: two justified columns set close together. Szumowski’s illustrations leading into the stories are apt, tone-setting introductions to Tanzer’s acerbic, dark texts. Kids watch Mermaids and get into trouble, while adults ignore their problems at Thirsty’s bar. The New York Stories hits you with a never-ending series of gut-dropping moments; when you think that something awful might have happened but you try and hope for the best, Tanzer shows that it’s probably better to expect the worst. It’s a dark world where parents can’t be trusted with their friends’ children, and the children can’t be trusted with each other.

We hope you check out a few more of the interesting book tour stops (e.g. you can hear Ben reading a story over at Curbside Splendor, or listen to Ben and Laura chatting with Another Chicago Magazine). Here at Artifice, though, we give you a conversation about book production, comics, illustration challenges, the paranormal, and inanimate objects with personality.


N.B. This interview is compiled from separate email correspondences, and was conducted between Chicago and London.

Artifice: Ben and Laura, can you describe the process of working with each other to develop the illustrations? How did you get in touch? How much contact did the two of you have before getting started?

Ben Tanzer: I would really like this answer to be so much cooler than it is. But, I sort of knew Laura personally from different readings and other events, had compulsively zipped around her website, though not in any stalkerish kind of way, really, and was a fan of her and her work and style. That said, it was CCLaPs idea to bring our work together and I think it was a terrific one. For me anyway. Laura may find herself increasingly dismayed by the whole thing and is merely keeping-up a happy face for our public appearances.

Laura Szumowski: I was originally approached by Jason Pettus, the publisher, about an illustration project he had in mind. He sent me one of Ben’s stories, The Babysitter, and I loved it.

Originally, Jason wanted me to do something along the lines of Jay Ryan, style wise, but when I talked with Ben, he mentioned Deer Hunter and First Blood as visual inspiration. My instincts from reading the stories agreed with Ben, so I did a few drawings to see what he thought. He said great, keep going– it was as simple as that. Not a whole lot of interaction, nothing too specific. He was comfortable with me taking artistic license, and I think was interested to see what I would draw from his writing.

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Things We Are Reading Right Now

Mason Johnson is playing Pokemon instead of reading. If he were reading, he would be reading I Love Science by Shanny Jean Maney. Or Chew vol. 5.

Julia Hendrickson is reading Color Plates by Adam Golaski (Rose Metal Press, 2010), a collection of short stories that recreate the narratives behind the Impressionist paintings of Édouard Manet, Mary Cassatt, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and Edgar Degas; and is about to crack open Marcel Proust’s Days of Reading, in a tiny beautiful edition from Penguin’s Great Ideas Series.

She’s also reading The Studio, which is part of Whitechapel’s Documents of Contemporary Art series. It’s an interesting compilation of essays on the subject of the artist’s studio, put together by Jens Hoffmann. Some of the texts are only loosely related to the theme, but it’s historically useful and a diverse read; an answer and a challenge to the recent Studio Reader.

James Tadd Adcox just finished I Love Science, and plans to say nice things about it in some public forum. It really is a fantastic book. He’s also reading Darcie Dennigan’s Madame X, Joshua Young’s To the Chapel of Light, and Emily Kendal Frey & Zachary Schomburg’s OK, Goodnight.

Kaisa Cummings is reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck right now. Summer is a good time for big literary commitments like that.

Russ Woods, who tends to dip in and out of books a lot, is currently reading Are You My Mother by Alison Bechdel, A Journey Around My Room by Xavier de Maistre, The Malady of the Century by Jon Leon, and Issue 3.1 of Gigantic Sequins.

Alex Allison is reading The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood, and received and spun through the excellent I Am A Very Productive Entrepreneur by Mathias Svalina. He intends to heavily steal from both books in the future.

Meghan Lamb is reading Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles. She would like to note that it makes her sad thinking about covert masturbation, flaccid penises, and sickness as a metaphor for all things (all subjects that she can never get enough of, it would appear).

Matt Rowan is reading Iceberg by Paul Kavanagh (“a really wonderful story with all the really excellent fantasy of a Roald Dahl novel but something much more sinister, as well”);

God Bless America: Stories by Steve Almond (“like reading George Saunders mixed with Jim Shepard. Does that make sense? Doesn’t matter. Almond’s got his finger on the pulse of what shapes and sizes we Americans come in. It’s nice to see a collection with a title that’s paradoxically satirical and sincere at the same time. “);

Why They Cried by Jim Hanas (“a surprisingly fun collection of stories, interesting reading it alongside Steve Almond – for both their similarities and the definite stylistic distinctions”);

Letters From Robots by Diana Salier  (“Diana does fractured prose poetry – if I’m not totally mislabeling her work – as well as anyone. Tons of lyricism. Turns of phrase that ring in your ear”);

and Revelation by Colin Winnette (“Colin has this amazing way with words. Truly admirable. Very enviable. That bastard’s done it again”).

EXITS ARE / interview with Mike Meginnis

In collaboration with Uncanny Valley, Artifice Books is releasing EXITS ARE, an ongoing collaborative e-book by Mike Meginnis “and many players” (player #1, up now, is Blake Butler, author of the novels Scorch Atlas and There Is No Year, as well the memoir Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia).

EXITS ARE is updated weekly.

Explain EXITS ARE. What’s the idea here?

Basically, I’m using text adventures as a model for collaborative writing as a mode of play. The way I explain it to the writers I play with is that the only rule is that we take turns — a rule I follow very strictly, even when I realize that I’d like to change or correct something. I tell them that I’ll default to impersonating a text adventure, like Zork, and they can default to interacting with me as a player would. That means that I mostly describe rooms and situations to them, and they mostly say what they want their character to do. They’re free to step out of their role, though, and I’m free to step out of mine. Sometimes they narrate, and sometimes I ask them questions or speak to them directly. When the game is done (usually it takes 2-4 hours) I save the transcript and come back to it weeks later. At this point I gently massage the text, correcting small errors and occasionally making more substantial alterations, in an attempt to make the resulting story a better experience for readers. Continue reading