Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Interview with Author Ayun Halliday!

Today I am very pleased to introduce you to author, zinester, and all-around creative genius, Ayun Halliday. Ayun is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and the author of four self mocking memoirs: The Big Rumpus, Job Hopper, Dirty Sugar Cookies, and No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late. She is also the non-illustration half of the picture book Always Lots of Heinies at the Zoo, and the forthcoming graphic novel Peanut. The latest addition to her increasingly eclectic oeuvre is The Zinester’s Guide to NYC. She lives in Brooklyn with her children, India and Milo and their dad, the playwright Greg Kotis, of Broadway’s Urinetown fame (the only Broadway show I ever saw and I saw it twice!). I have been a subscriber to her zine for years now and I suggest you become one too!

Welcome Ayun! I’m so happy that you are launching your blog tour for your new book with Mira’s List! It’s been great to follow your career over these last few years. My first memory of you was actually in the mid or late 1980s, seeing you perform with your husband, Greg Kotis at Chicago’s Neofutarium in Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind: 30 Plays in 60 Minutes with the Neo-Futurists. I loved that show and was a regular. Since then, you have moved to New York, written several books for both children and adults and have a successful on-going zine called The East Village Inky. Can you tell us what motivated you to move from acting and improv work to writing? Does it have to do with you becoming a mom? Would you mind telling us a little about this trajectory?

You pretty much nailed it right there. If I’d been acting on Broadway, I’d have had greater motivation and resources to hire a babysitter. Low budget theater takes a lot of time and energy, and adding baby care logistics was way more than of a headache than I could handle. Too Much Light was an integral part of my identity, but there was no way Greg and I could’ve continued as we had been when there was an exclusively breastfed baby at home in a 340 square foot apartment that cost double what we’d been paying in Chicago. We had three cohorts at the time, and none of them were into resurrecting the show in September, when our summer break would’ve been over. So, I was never in a position of having to make the decision of whether or not the show would proceed without me.

Even so, shortly before India’s first birthday, I had myself a nice bit of existential meltdown. We had traveled to Glasgow for the wedding of fellow Neo-Futurist Karen Christopher, and, in order to claim our travels as a business expense, we signed up to participate in a performance workshop she was teaching at the Center for Contemporary Art. I was really excited to be back in a creative community, making art, making new friends... The plan was for me to have India on my lap, and then Greg would hold her when it was my turn to perform. Twenty four hours in, with her squawking, and throwing her bumblebee rattle to the ground at every opportunity, it became apparent that this was not a workable idea. It was, in fact, a poorly thought out imposition on the other participants. I dropped out. Greg continued.

The other participants were really nice, but never got to know me, and kept talking about what a good wife I was, so sweet, showing up at lunchtime with the baby...this diminished identity did a real number on me. I needed to find a creative project that could take shape within the parameters of taking care of a one-year-old, and reach an audience of strangers, as Too Much Light had. That’s what led to the creation of the East Village Inky. I started work on it immediately upon our return from Glasgow, and it’s still going twelve years later.

The switch to writing wasn’t really a switch, as much as a turning away from other activities that had shared the stage prior to my becoming a mother. It’s a common misconception that the Neo-Futurists do improv, but in fact almost all of the short plays in Too Much Light are scripted. Maybe not ‘carefully’ scripted. A lot of them get written on the bus on the way to rehearsal. Years of cranking out short plays on a weekly basis primed me for banging out a zine while the baby napped, whenever and wherever that blessed event occured.

I thought a lot of your career path the past few years had to do with struggling to be a mom AND an artist, something many of my readers deal with too. Anyway, one of my favorite books by you is Job Hopper. I hear a lot of whining sometimes from young people I know about how annoyed they are that they have to take some stupid job in order to support their art. Well...I guess I hear it from geezers like me too! I always just say, “Suck it up—you should read Ayun Halliday’s Job Hopper!” I too had a million jobs—I've done everything from cleaning toilets for evangelical right-wing Christian families to working at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo in an office, surrounded by potty mouth parrots. For fun, can you make a really fast list from the top of your head of some of the jobs you had to take in order to support your addiction to making art?

Sorry - there’s no top of my head left after mining that raw material for the book, even if a lot of jobs from that period are but glancingly mentioned in its pages (to be fair some of them only lasted a day). Instead, I will make a list of the jobs I wish I had had:
Pediatric echocardiogram technician
Museum educator
Massage therapist
First ammendment street vendor
Korean bathhouse attendant (ladies only)
Bike mechanic
Bookstore clerk
Comic book store clerk
If only etsy had existed back in the day, I would go back in time, do anything to get myself hired on there - what a cool place to work!

Ayun, I hate to tell you but I’d had two of your dream jobs! Museum educator and bookstore clerk. I think my dream job would be an ice dancer who could sing opera. Maybe in my next life.... So I always think of you as one of the best grassroots guerrilla marketers around when it comes to getting your work out there. Would you mind telling my readers a few things you do to spread the word about your books and artistic projects?

Wear myself down to a frazzle, you mean? Eschew housework? Spend so much time on the internet that I get tennis elbow? I try to stay mindful of the fact that anyone who is helping me publicize my books or zines is doing me a major favor. If someone mentions the book on a blog, I send a message to thank them. I treat college newspaper reporters with the same respect I would show a New Yorker editor...perhaps one of them will grow up to edit the New Yorker, and THEN their old pal, Ayun Halliday, will start showing up in its pages (hopefully paper will still exist).

I am increasingly mindful to extend that courtesy to the people who turn up for my readings as well. My latest project, the Zinester’s Guide to NYC is an interesting case, because I want to do bookstore events, so the bookstores will stand behind the book, but how does one do a reading for a guidebook? For its release at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, I basically threw a bunch of stuff at the wall, and prayed something would stick. I played Pomp and Circumstance while reciting the names of all the zine publishers who had contributed listings and illustrations so those who were present could receive their complimentary contributor copies, diploma style. Then each of them recited their favorite listing, which was kind of a hot mess because none of them had seen the finished book before. Thank god we have an index. We had a mini zine fair. My favorite part was the peformance of eight original songs inspired by the guidebook, courtesy of various members of the Bushwick Book Club.

It seemed like everyone who showed up had a really good time...at least they got something more than a garden variety reading. That three ring circus approach helps as far as getting advance publicity too. Our next event on November 30 at St. Mark’s Bookshop features an opportunity for audience members to bring their own zines in for consignment, and grill the contributors about all things zine related. The one at Bluestockings on December 5 is a vegetarian potluck. Anything to rise above the herd...

With the holidays looming, I’ve decided to take it to the streets. Literally. It’s kind of scary...nothing like a crush of disiterested shoppers gliding past a table set up with your blood, sweat and tears to make you feel like a loser. Of course, having all the major publishers reject your second children’s book can make you feel like a loser too. That experience has reawakened a bit of my Little Red “Fuck you! I’ll do it myself!” Hen sensibility. India was a cigarette girl for Halloween one year. I’m going to co-opt the tray that once held boxes of candy cigarettes, load it full of ZG2NYCs and try my luck with the tourists waiting in line at the Empire State Building and the half price ticket booth in Times Square. It’s scary, but it’s not like I’m trying to sell them something they don’t want and/or need!

And today, on a whim, I droplifted a couple of copies in the travel section of the Barnes and Noble across the street from Lincoln Center. Why not, you know?

Wow, you are the anti-thesis of some slacker writers who expect everything to be handed to them. I really admire your enthusiasm and innovative approach to marketing your books. Do you have any great advice to first time authors? Feel free to use that much-adored phrase we all know and love from EVI. Personally, I do believe it sums it all up!

Dare to be Heinie? All right. Maybe one of your readers can tell me what it means. A travel blogger in Australia just asked me that question, so with your permission, I’m going to cut and paste what I told her... that tennis elbow’s starting to act up a bit:
“The best advice I can give is to cite something the late monologuist Spalding Grey told Tricycle Magazine, that he started performing the autobiographical monologues that garnered a lot of recognition for him because he “got sick of waiting for the big infernal machine to make up its mind” about him. I’ve never had much of a gift for going after success in a traditional, mainstream way. Starting my zine, The East Village Inky, is what led to my first book contract and it sustains me creatively during periods when things feel like they’re starting to run off the rails. Writing is only part of being a writer. You’ve also got to get it out there, particularly if no one else seems interested in doing it for you.”
I totally agree, Ayun. I simply don’t understand how someone can spend hours, weeks, months and years working so passionately on a project and then when it comes time to spend the energy to find an agent, send out queries, write something for a blog, put oneself out there, they refuse or complain. In this publishing climate, they will simply perish, in my opinion.

So any great advice to mommy writers and artists, i.e. ways in which you keep your sanity and find a balance between the demands of motherhood and the demands of your creative life?

Anyone who would diminish your experience of motherhood can get stuffed. I hate that term ‘momoir’—you can hear the sneer with which it was coined! Don’t get caught in flame wars in the comments sections of the parenting blogs either—it’s a highly contagious toxin that will devour your precious writing time. For those whose children are still in infancy or toddlerhood, take heart in the fact that they do grow out of it. (By the same token, savor and document this period, because they do grow out of it.)

For me, having children turned out to be a real bite in the ass. Back when my creative time was limited to the always unpedictable hour or two India and then Milo conked out for a nap, I had only myself to blame if I blew it. It was a completely balls- to-the-wall, carpe diem type situation. Now that they’re both in school, I’m not nearly as disciplined. Maybe I should have another baby...

One of the things I LOVE about the East Village Inky (and, as you know, I have been a subscriber for years) is all the advice you give about amazing and authentic places to see in NYC, not to mention great places to eat and things to do for free. Which brings me to your new book: The Zinester's Guide to New York City. Please tell our readers a little bit about your book so that they will be so excited, they will run out and get it right after they finish this interview.

And here I thought I was doing that with my description of the Housing Works event!
The Zinester’s Guide to NYC is a low budget, highly participatory, anecdotal, illustrated guidebook that costs less than a movie ticket here in its city of origin. Quite possibly the last wholly analog creature of its species. There’s a cheese store listed in the Art Supplies category. And Stephen Colbert said it’s the guidebook he’d use if he could still still walk the streets of New York among his People.

Thanks for joining us today Ayun and I wish you the absolute best luck with your new book and all your future endeavors! Dare to be Heinie!

Check out Ayun’s website for her books and projects and don’t forget to order her latest book for the holidays!

Welcome to Mira's List

This blog provides information on upcoming grants, fellowships and residencies for artists, writers, composers, and media artists. It is for serious professionals only, from emerging to mid-career to established. I also publish information for graduate students from time to time. However, I do not publish information on exhibition or publishing opportunities, nor do I advertise artist retreats and workshops that charge money. At least that is my current policy. For more info on where to exhibit or publish, please see my links section which I try to periodically update. I sift through hundreds of search engines and websites to find opportunities for YOU dear artist. In return, I ask you to pass the information along to those who need it. Also, since this is a free blog, I don't always have the time to weed carefully through everything. If you find a grant or website or residency that is not up-to-date, is dodgy in some way, or is no longer in existence, please let me know! Also, if you stay somewhere at one of the residencies I suggest and have a good experience, I want that feedback too. Please check my FAQs at the top right side bar if you have questions before starting your search. Best wishes and happy hunting!