IN CONVERSATION: Great American Novelist Noah Cicero
Noah Cicero is the author of The Human War, Bipolar Cowboy, and Go to Work and Do Your Job. Care for Your Children. Pay Your Bills. Obey the Law. Buy Products. He has been called “America’s finest literary pariah” by Dazed & Confused Magazine. As one of the early pioneers of online writing, he helped bring ‘alt-lit’ to the forefront of internet culture — and subsequently survived the blast that killed it.
I first came across Cicero on Facebook, while participating in the network’s ‘mass-friending’ culture. On any given day, a collective of creative artists (in this case, writers) will opt to friend request dozens of strangers in hopes of mingling and social climbing. During this time, I did not get to know Cicero. To me, he was just another guy in my feed with 80 likes on every post.
But then in late 2013, while listening to Brad Listi’s Other People Podcast, I noticed the guest on the latest episode happened to be a name that I recognized — Noah Cicero. I listened to the episode at 4:30 in the morning, after finishing a chapter in what would later become a trunk novel, and deemed that the man was a genius.
Earlier this year I worked with Cicero on two adverts for his poetry collection Bipolar Cowboy. The book was released by Lazy Fascist Press in February to glowing reviews. Recently it finished eighth in GoodReads’s Best Poetry Book of the Year competition.
This is my chat with Noah Cicero.
Jayme Karales for CLASH: I’m going to start things off with a softball question, what was the combination of events that led to you writing your first novel, The Human War?
Noah Cicero: I was engaged to be married. I’ve seriously never revealed that, so that’s an exclusive. I had been dating the same person off and on from the age 15 to 22, I loved her and couldn’t stop. (She is the Kendra character in the book.) Well, we broke up. I didn’t love her anymore, we no longer wanted the same things. But overall, ending a seven relationship is an upheaval. Several months after we broke the Iraq War started, I remember just feeling terrible about it. Bush didn’t seem to care about anything, he was unstoppable. It was all very emotional. I had written maybe five novels previous to The Human War, but none of them worked. But I felt The Human War worked, I went to Newpages.com and found “experimental” publishers and sent the book out via email. James Chapman from Fugue State Press liked the book and published it. James Chapman also discovered Ben Brooks, Shane Jones and Joshua Cohen who all went on to major presses, so I’m very proud James decided to publish the book.
Karales: The Human War was released in 2003 by Fugue State Press and your latest, Bipolar Cowboy, was printed earlier this year by Lazy Fascist Press. Has it been a conscious decision on your part to consistently go with indie publishers?
Cicero: This is a complex question, first I have heard a good amount of horror stories about major presses. Major presses operate very much like television does, if the sitcom doesn’t sell immediately, then boom it’s gone. If your novel doesn’t sell, it is thrown into the bargain bin by the end of six months. But with an indie press, they can let it grow, a year can pass and suddenly it gets some press, and boom the book is selling. That could never happen with a major press.
But I did have an agent for Go to Work and Do your Job. The agent sent it out to at least 15 publishers and it was rejected every time. They said they liked it, but it wasn’t marketable. Lazy Fascist took the book and published it. Here’s the thing, Lazy Fascist put the book out at the same time as another indie book (I don’t feel like specifically naming the person) the other person’s book was written by a person who went to two top 20 schools, it was about a wealthy white person going to Europe and having wealthy white people problems. The book did not concern class, privilege, or race. It had no characters of any other race besides white that were memorable, but it did have thoughtful ideas on feminism. Go To Work sold more copies than the Europe white people book, so factually I was a better bet to sell more copies than the other book. But for some reason, their book was picked up by the major press.
What people must understand is that writing is not like sports, you don’t “make it.” In sports performance can be quantified, how fast someone is, how many tackles, goals, points etc can all be quantified. A person from the lower classes can rise in sports as long as they perform at a high level that matches the quantities of the other high level athletes. In literature it is very different, it isn’t about facts or quantities, it is about sentiments. I don’t believe I have the correct sentiments to be published by a major press.
I actually liked the book the other person, their book is great and thought provoking, and if I was an editor I would have published it. I just want to point out statistics don’t matter in the publishing industry. If you write a novel and get it published by an indie press and it sells 5000, there is no guarantee someone is going to come knocking with money.
KARALES: Given the evolution of publishing and the internet, how has your experience with small presses gradually changed–if at all?
CICERO: My experience with indie presses has changed a lot, it went from Fugue State which did almost no press. Twice a person came to me and printed my books and disappeared. Like totally disappeared, I still have never been paid one dollar for the Blatt Books version of The Insurgent, and the guy refuses to take it off Amazon, like just refuses.
Nobody wanted to edit either, like zero attempt at editing the books.
But now, Lazy Fascist edits, has an awesome cover artist and gets the books in small stores. There are so many tiny presses out there, and most of them are not going to help you, and most people don’t know that. The author is happy they are getting a book published, they call their parents and tell their friends, “I’m getting a book published.” But the reality is, the people putting your book out might not know what they are doing, and will never pay you. I seriously suggest to anyone getting a book published to get references, to contact the other writers on the press and ask them about what it is like working with the editors, and find out if the press has any connections to book stores.
Also write professional emails and don’t write emails from your phone to people higher on the pecking order, if someone blurbs your book send them a free copy, the indie lit world is too small to alienate people. And have patience, writing is like being a lawyer, you don’t become partner till your 40s, just do projects, put your heart into them, and the world will see that.
KARALES: Based on your social media presence, you seem like a politically minded individual. You’ve shared some interesting observations about the state of the country, its politicians… As someone who writes fiction, albeit fairly political fiction, do you ever worry that doing so may pigeonhole how your work is viewed or do you think that it informs it?
CICERO: I grew up in a really political family, my father’s side is super Democrat, my great uncle was mayor of a town for a decade, my mother’s side are super Republican, right now my aunt is the Chair or something of the Republican where I grew up in Ohio. I grew up with people talking politics all around me, I got straight As in Social Studies and I have a Political Science degree. Politics are just who I am.
I don’t worry about being associated with politics, The Insurgent, Best Behavior and Bipolar Cowboy have at least a couple of political moments, but I don’t think they are overwhelmed by politics. To me, we all have political moments in life. We are all dealing with government programs and how they affect us, it is obvious there are real problems with race and class, the LGBTQ community, and how we treat women in this country. If you look at your life, as in the people that fill your life, there are political things happening. Your grandma might be worried about medications, or how much her social security provides her. Your student loans are political. If you have are a woman or African-American, your life is condemned to politics. Your cousin might have gone to Afghanistan or Iraq and now has PTSD or have a body part amputated. Your life is full of politics, look around you. Imagine how Hispanics feel right now, imagine how afraid they must be, knowing that if a Republican becomes president, their lives are going to get really tough. Life has politics in it, Dostoevsky, Dickens, and Hemingway all had little political moments in their novels.
KARALES: Do you think your writing has changed the way that some people view life?
CICERO: This is my dharma, that is all.
KARALES: You have recently voiced discontent over the prospect of another baby boomer president. Do you think America would be better off in the hands of someone from Generation X, or a Millennial? If so, why?
CICERO: If Hillary gets eight years, that’s 24 years of Baby Boomers, Bush and Bill Clinton. Seriously, do we really need that? Hillary Clinton has no new ideas, and she doesn’t even care about not having any. Of course when Bill Clinton had big ideas, it was to make the War on Drugs even more intense, which has led to many African-Americans being imprisoned at obscene numbers (Google Omnibus Bill, incarceration went from 700,000 to 2 million), and NAFTA which has led to stagnant wages and 700,000 job losses, and let us not forget Glass-Steagall. But at least we know women’s rights will be protected. Bernie Sanders keeps talking about National Health Care, that is so 90s, it isn’t going to happen, and no one wants to see that fight for awhile. On Sanders’ website it says, “Reverse Climate Change.” Seriously, one of the major causes of global warming are cow farts. Is Bernie Sanders going to stop people from eating beef and cheese and drinking milk? The American government had a hell of a time getting Cliven Bundy to get his cows off Federal Land, how are they going to handle the whole beef industry? Bernie Sanders still says, “College” and not “vocational schools.” Mostly everyone I know got their higher education from vocational schools and community colleges. I’m tired of listening to Baby Boomers telling people to go to college, unless you get a bachelors for very specific things or you go to a top school it doesn’t help your life, go into any restaurant in Las Vegas and ask how many servers have college degrees. There is something not realistic about Bernie Sanders, and the Clintons aren’t amazing, maybe I’m just sad because I’ve grown to love Obama and I don’t want him to go. Yes we can.
I’m going to be hopeful now, I think what Bernie is doing is great, he is introducing the same ideas as Ralph Nader but Ralph Nader got no traction with national opinion. People are listening and Bernie is getting progressive ideas out there into the national consciousness, which is wonderful. Hillary Clinton has a lot of free passes, because Republicans are for NAFTA and the War on Drugs. And Clinton lied during the debate saying Health Insurance companies hate her, she gets tons of money from the health insurance companies, but Republicans won’t call her out on that because Republicans love health insurance companies.
I think Bill and Hillary Clinton disrupted the flow of possible candidates, and created a dynamic where no one could or wanted to even try, and that is a huge disservice to the American people.
KARALES: I want to talk to you about your views on who gets noticed in big publishing and just how much of that has to do with nepotism and familiarity. You’ve pointed out that a considerable number of these success stories come from upper class white males with Ivy League backgrounds who write about life in New York. You’ve recently said, “I think novels that take place in NYC are like oil paintings of wealthy families from back in the day. I think it is all about glamour, they aren’t real books, advertisements poised as characters, the novel itself is publicity, there is no novel, only publicity.” Can you expound upon this?
CICERO: I don’t think it is only white males, several upper class women have made it to the top via the same methods. Miranda July, who I think is great, (want to say I am not against wealthy people writing books, and I’m deeply grateful to everyone that has helped me in my career, I am merely pointing out oddness in the system.) Miranda July is basically an heiress to the Grossinger-Etess fortune, her family is worth millions. This is not only white male, if you’re a woman and don’t have a family fortune, what are you going to do? How is a woman with an English major from Kent State or Mesa State with working class parents supposed to compete with a person who has access to millions to fund movies, promotional tours, a publicist and hire professionals to build websites?
Recently I read Thomas Piketty’s Capital, amazing book, total game changer. His basic theory was that during the time of Reagan and Thatcher wealth started to grow unabated, without restraint. This has led to a top 10% which rules over the landscape, basically what this means is that if America has 320 million people, 10% of it is about 32 million people, which is enough to fill the private universities with professors and students. It is enough to fill all the major management jobs in NYC and LA, and actually fill Manhattan. The top 10% has enough people to fill all major positions in society, and even weirder to think about, the average serious fiction book only sells at most a few million copies and most sell less than 100,000, therefore they don’t have to sell books to anyone else, but there are many sectors of our economy that only cater to the top 10%, we all know that.
What I think happened is that the top 10% and the bottom 70% diverged from each other, like an economic apartheid, they aren’t remotely having the same life experience. (I decided on 70% because it is possible for someone inside the bottom 70% to get a degree of some sort and work their way up and intermix with the 70% to 90% group. But people from the bottom 70% never reach the top 10%, maybe their kids, but not them. I’ve never seen it personally.
Many people who will read this interview might doubt what I say, but I’m from an area of America where most people live in the bottom 70%, many people from my hometown live their entire lives, from birth to death never coming into contact with people who went to any top 50 Private colleges, I have only met some because I write and have met people in the literary world. But my parents, many of the people I grew up with, have not and will never meet anyone who went to Yale or NYU, let alone Swarthmore or Pomona.
In the 80s a new literature started, Bret Easton-Ellis is a perfect example, it is all about wealthy kids and people taking drugs and wearing designer clothes. Now people say there is a moral component to Easton-Ellis, but where? There is no class or racial conflict in his books, there is never a character that sees the horror of it. Put this in relation to the novels of the 19th and early 20th Century, Stendhal, Dickens, Jane Austen, Dostoevsky, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Jean Rhys, Sinclair Lewis, the list goes on and on. One of the purposes of the novel was to make the audience conscious of the interconnected relationships of society, but that isn’t happening anymore. Take for example, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, it is about an upper middle-class guy having a bad time, at no point is there racial or class conflict. Franzen’s books are all upper middle class cul de sac people having problems that normal people would never have, or even consider legit problems. The bottom 70% would pray to have a Franzen problem. Example, when the son in Freedom gets a million dollars for an arms deal? What was that? The last famous novel written in the traditional style that I know of, was Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, but even that book takes place in NYC. Let me repeat, I liked all of the aforementioned novels, I’m talking in a peaceful voice, not yelling.
David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest shows this new economic apartheid perfectly, in Infinite Jest, D.F.W. puts the rehab and the private tennis academy on the same street, in most books and indie movies a kid from the private tennis academy and the rehab would have met and “learned something about life.” But D.F.W. never has the wealthy kids from the tennis academy and the lower class people from the rehab meet, he shows that they are completely separated in society. There is no communication between the bottom 70% and the top 10%, they don’t date, they don’t marry, and they don’t even speak the same version of English. If you read a book by Scott McClanahan, Sam Pink, Elizabeth Ellen, xTx or Andrea Kneeland, you notice instantly that when a person from the bottom 70% is given the freedom to write how they want, you see quickly that how sentences and stories are constructed, what is given priority, what philosophical problems they are having are very very different than a novel from the top 10%. What you see in bottom 70% works of fiction are personal stories, mainly because they don’t have the money to travel, or the money to hire research assistants, they have to write about their personal world. Another main feature is fatalism, bottom 70% writing are often claustrophobic and hopeless. This feature I believe would definitely confuse an editor in NYC, an NYC editor probably doesn’t feel a strong sense of fatalism, they have achieved their dreams to at least a certain extent. People from the bottom 70% don’t have dreams, they have things they have to deal with.
Concerning NYC and white people go to Europe novels, I call it the Foer paradigm. Foer’s first novel is about a kid who goes to Europe and has funny experiences, then his second novel takes place in NYC. Foer never questions class or race, he never questions anything, it is just one cute scene after another. This has become the new thing for presses, Ben Lerner repeated this with Leaving the Atocha Station then 10:04. Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl takes place in England, but at least doesn’t have too many cute scenes. Rebecca Dinerstein’s Sunlit Night takes place in Norway. But the only way for these books to be written is if the author has the wealth to travel to Europe and hang out for a year.
A young African-American man I work with told me he goes into stores and looks at new fiction books and doesn’t relate to any of them, and it just made me sad. The truth is, there is almost no literature written by the bottom 70%, and if most African-Americans and Hispanics live inside the 70%, then no wonder they aren’t getting published. But it isn’t as simple as saying, “Well, the publishers want people who went to Yale or Brown.” No, it is more complex than that, I don’t think the top 10% even understands what we are saying and talking about, I think they pick up stories by us and scratch their heads saying, “Why are they writing like this? I don’t understand any of their concerns,” and to go further they might say, “Why would anyone want to read about a hairdresser? Being a hairdresser is horrible.” The top 10% very much views the jobs and lifestyles of the bottom 70% as horrible and even terrifying, as a place they would never want to be, of course they would view literature from the bottom 70% that gives those people voice and heart as confusing. It is okay to read Of Mice and Men, because the world of that novel is dead, Steinbeck is dead, the Dust Bowl is gone, and we have labor laws now, it is all dead and safe. Living writers writing about living people in the bottom 70% are not safe, they are dangerous and confronting.
To write a novel or book of poetry is to be given a voice, writing is about voice and heart, a book is letting one person talk for a very long time. If someone from the bottom 70% (any race) goes into a Barnes and Nobles right now, they will find nothing about them, there is no positive affirmation given to people in the bottom 70% to have a voice, to think their own thoughts, no one cares about what we have to express. What the bottom 70% gets from the top 10%, “You have nothing to say.”
KARALES: Which of your novels would you say you’re most proud of? How autobiographical is it?
CICERO: I’m most proud of Go to Work, the book is really funny. I laughed the whole time while writing it. I am proud of it because I was able to get so many characters in the book, and the lead character Monica is an African-American woman, I believe i wrote her in a very nuanced way, where she still remained African-American, but at the same time had the goofy human qualities our species in general has.
Go to Work is super autobiographical, I did work in corrections for a few months, and a lot of those conversations took place, but not in that order or in those situations. For the second part I used The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. If you read the first book of The Gulag Archipelago and then read the second part of Go to Work, it will be obvious.
KARALES: Is there anything you’ve written that, in hindsight, you wish you could rework or scrub out of history?
CICERO: When Lazy Fascist reprinted my books, I actually made a lot of things disappear. Most of the bad things are gone. There are parts of the Collective Works 1 that were written in my mid-twenties that verge on insane.
I had a “magic negro” character in The Human War, I was 23, please forgive me.
KARALES: Are you currently working on anything that may be published in the near future?
CICERO: I just finished writing a nonfiction book called Being and Buddhism, I’ve researched the book for about eight years, I read I think 13 feet of philosophy, Buddhism and history to write the book. My friend is line editing right now, telling me if things don’t make sense, and when she is done I need to add a few more pages I’ve thought of recently. But I have no publisher, it is nonfiction, so I have to find a publisher that publishes nonfiction. The idea of going back into the world of submissions scares me, because getting rejected annoys me, as it does everyone.
KARALES: To close things out, what is the single most valuable piece of advice—in relation to writing and/or life—that someone has given you?
CICERO: An older man I knew named Stanley Mullins, who died two years ago. He told me the most important thing in the world is go to sleep feeling loved every night. And the only way to do that is by making sure everyone around you knows you love them too.