When I moved down to Athens last fall, I had a plan in only the loosest sense of that word. Particularly in terms of how to fund this project, I had a two-pronged approach:
- Eh, Athens is cheap. I’ll live off my savings for a little while.
- Surely I can find some kind of part-time freelance work to keep me afloat.
The weird thing is: it looks like I was right on both counts. My relative frugality the past few years gave me a nice little nest egg I could live off while I had little to no income, and the income situation has changed for the better. I’ve been grading standardized tests the past few weeks, which ended yesterday (it was a temporary gig) but pays extremely well, and there should be another round available in a few weeks, which I plan to pursue. Beyond that, some freelance writing is bringing in a few bucks, I have a gig tutoring high school students in reading and writing, and I’m about to start a new job rewriting news articles for lower reading levels (namely elementary school students). I’ve got a few other irons in the fire as well.
Juggling all these jobs—most of which aren’t on a particularly set schedule—takes some nimbleness, but I would be grateful for the flexibility it affords me even if I weren’t counting on that flexibility for book stuff. I feel a sense of agency that I always anxiously lacked working desk jobs, and April will be the first month since I moved here that my income exceeds my expenses. At least in Athens, this is now a sustainable plan.
I don’t know how much longer I’ll be in Athens. It should be at least a couple months, but I’m probably not moving anywhere else until I can afford to. That will mean either a) finding full-time employment somewhere, b) my book becoming an instant bestseller and vaulting me to literary fame (lol), or c) building up a stable collection of freelance projects that would allow me to make ends meet in a pricier locale.
In the shorter term, though, it means my savings account will no longer be inversely proportional to the time I spend in Athens. It takes some pressure off. Perhaps you’re wondering, if you’re nearly seven years into this project while feeling pressured, how much longer is this going to take now? Good question! In absolute terms, I don’t know. I’m still relying on a few other folks to come through, and that’ll be on their terms. I do think that’s close. But I do know that the timeline is “whenever my manuscript is in a place I feel comfortable with,” as opposed to “whenever my savings evaporate completely.”
I’ve been a little busier lately. That means I’ve done a whole bunch of interviews, but it also means I haven’t had much time to transcribe.
I’ve got about fifteen hours of interviews to transcribe, and I’ll likely add to that total before I zero out. The good news is these interviews don’t take nearly as long to transcribe as older ones. The main reason for that is, simply, I’m not getting as much out of these interviews anymore. The people I’m talking to are a bit more peripheral to the story anyway, and I’ve done so much research to this point that it’s becoming redundant. I only need to actually transcribe a) what’s relevant to the story and b) what I don’t already have (unless of course they’re adding some details or other flourishes to a story I’ve already heard). I still have to listen to the whole thing, but I can speed up most of it until I get to the pieces I’ll be using. So whereas a 60-minute interview conducted a few years ago might have taken me two hours to transcribe (I probably slowed it down to play at 80% speed and then transcribed every single word), an interview of similar length that I conducted this past week might take me only 45 minutes or so to transcribe.
It’s boring to write about transcribing, but it’s even more boring to actually do it (which is why I’m procrastinating by writing about it). I still have a few interviews to conduct, but they’re mostly with the flakiest people I have left, so I don’t know exactly when those will happen. I’m just about at a point where I’m going to start pursuing a publisher, though, so that’ll be fun.
I took a quick research trip out to Portland this week to interview Lance Bangs and check out some of his Elephant 6 footage and photos. He lived in Athens throughout the ’90s and traveled on a few tours with Elephant 6 bands. Few people were even paying attention to that scene as it was happening, and Lance is one of even fewer who thought to document any of it. I had reached out to Lance just to get his thoughts and memories (which also proved quite helpful on their own), so getting the chance to pore through his archives was a pretty nice bonus.
I’m a cynical person by nature, but this visit to Portland was very uplifting in terms of my general outlook on humanity. From my over-the-top gracious AirBnB host to the cute, attentive waitress who called me “darling,” everyone was so god damned nice, and in a way that differs from the Southern niceness I’m finally starting to acclimate to in Georgia. Whereas Southern niceness seems to come mostly from manners and norms (and can by extension sometimes run a little passive-aggressive or outright duplicitous), the Portlandian variety seems to have a little bit more empathy and compassion baked into it.
There’s an awful lot I liked about the city. I walked about four miles through the commercial corridor in Southeast Portland, and of the literally hundreds of stores and restaurants I passed, I don’t think I saw more than a handful of chains of any kind (a Jiffy Lube, a couple banks, an American Apparel and a 7-11 were all I noticed). It gave the city a much richer texture. That plus the cleanliness, an abundance of trees and green spaces, and the aforementioned neighborliness made me feel a little like I was on Sesame Street. The area I stayed in felt particularly neighborly, replete with barbecues and folks stopping to chat as they walked their dogs. Stuff like city-wide composting programs compounded that sense of community
Most generous of all was Lance. He was a great interview, open and thoughtful, and he was incredibly kind to share his archives with me, but he also crammed about a month’s worth of hospitality into the 48 hours I spent there, from showing me around downtown to taking me on a hike up Mt. Tabor with his family. I really can’t say enough good things about the guy. In addition to what it all means for the book, it’s been valuable to me on a very personal level. I haven’t been at my emotional best lately, but I return to Athens feeling a little rejuvenated. Part of that is Portland itself, but regardless of where I had spent that time, I’d come away from it feeling better because of the staggering generosity Lance provided.
I printed the fourth draft of my book today, which is the second version I’ve printed. I don’t really have a clear demarcation between drafts, but any time I’ve made a major structural change or have shifted to a different phase of composition, I’ve jumped to the next draft. Any reader would be able to see the major differences from one draft to the next (that is, if I let anyone read them yet).
This one is more than a hundred pages longer than my first draft, coming in at a sturdy 461. I’m in the home stretch of the research phase but still have a few placeholders in there, and I definitely expect it to clear 500 at some point and maybe even hit 600. But no one is going to be publishing a 600-page book, so I’ll need to pare it down significantly at some point.
Aside from the few big fish I have lined up to talk to (in most cases, talk to again), I’m hitting diminishing returns on my interviews. This is a good thing. There’s no chance I publish this book and don’t find someone after the fact that I should have interviewed, but I’m being as diligent as I can be with regards to interview subjects. The fact that they’ve been rapidly decreasing in their utility means there’s not much more ground to cover (in terms of content if not in terms of people). The more often I can answer “Has anyone told you about…” with “Yes, actually, but please continue,” the closer I am to feeling like I’ve gotten all of the content I need. I don’t know what I don’t know, but I’m confident there’s not much left for me to learn.
I’m fixing to read through this hard copy a few times. The first run is just for copy editing, mostly. Fixing clunky sentences and weak style, and maybe moving some things around. The second run is to come up with sort of a task list. That is, figure out all of the pieces I need to either heavily rewrite or actually write in the first place. From there, I can prioritize each passage (mostly based on whether I need additional research to do so, and how much) and then actually do that work. It should give me a very clear road map for how to actually finish this tome. I don’t know that I can come up with even a rough timeline yet given a few outstanding interviews (which will definitely happen, but it’s impossible for me to say when just yet), but it will at least give me an idea of how much work is left to be done. I suspect it’s not much. Once I have everything I want in that manuscript, I can go about pruning it down to a manageable length, reorganizing to whatever extent I think it’s necessary, and polishing it into something I can start shopping around to publishers.
I’m in the home stretch of the research phase now. I’ve finished my follow-up interviews with most of the folks I needed to follow up with, and the few I have left are within reach. There’s a lot of folks I still want to talk to, but if I don’t get the chance, it’s not going to ruin the book. At this point, I’m anticipating about a month more of interviews, as long as everyone cooperates (and by “cooperates” I mostly just mean “returns my emails and doesn’t totally flake out on me”). This week in particular should allow me to check a few more big fish off the list.
From there, I just have to finish writing this thing, and the good news there is that it’s mostly already written. I know what I still need, and I feel confident I’ll be getting most of it in the near future. It’s just a matter of working it into the draft (437 pages now, and counting) and then trimming the fat.
I’m not really sure what happens after that, but from some extremely preliminary conversations I’ve had, I’m confident it’s within my abilities (even if I don’t yet know whether I’ll be based in Athens, Philadelphia, New York or somewhere else through that process). For the most part, my plan has been to come up with as complete a draft as I can before pursuing a publisher, and that’s still generally what I’m doing. It’s become apparent, however, that one component is going to have to wait.
The majority of the book is about the history of the Elephant 6, from the early days in Ruston, Louisiana, up through now, composed mostly from interviews with the musicians who were directly involved with the collective, but also with contributions from friends and observers who were close to the scene and commentators and critics who can help contextualize the movement more broadly.
From the start, though, I’ve also wanted to include an interpolation somewhere discussing the Elephant 6’s influence on contemporary music. If you’ve heard me talk about this project over the years, you’ve probably heard me mention that a big part of my impetus for taking it on in the first place came from my time as a music reporter in college, interviewing band after band of varying genre and style who cited an Elephant 6 band or the collective as a whole as an influence on their work. The Brian Eno quote about the Velvet Underground only selling 30,000 copies but everyone who bought one starting a band has worked as a solid parallel. Basically, it’s clear to me that the influence of the Elephant 6 has only grown since its inception, and this is a subject that will grow more important over time. So I wanted to make sure there was a fairly comprehensive record of that.
Talking to critics and writers and folks like that has helped me demonstrate this, but to really solidify that point, I need to talk to prominent musicians who have been influenced by the collective. The challenge there is that the only way I’ve been able to reach these musicians is through a publicist, and a publicist’s job is to manage her clients’ time in a way that’s most beneficial to their careers. So in most cases, a publicist will only permit you to speak with an artist if a) that artist is in a promotional cycle at the time (i.e. if they have an album coming out or a tour coming up) and b) you’re writing for an outlet that will reach the people they want to hear about it (which means the bigger the artist, the bigger the name you need to have attached to your writing).
Every musician is a little different in this regard, but generally speaking, few publicists are interested in their clients spending time on an interview for a project that won’t be out for who knows how long and may never even come out at all. So with very few exceptions, most of the interview requests I’ve sent to publicists have been met with a “Who is your publisher?” reply. When I reply that I haven’t pursued a publisher yet for this project, they either ask that I connect again when I’ve found one or they don’t reply at all.
I haven’t had this issue with any other cohort of interview subjects, and probably because I haven’t really had to go through publicists otherwise. I imagine that in at least some cases, if I could talk to the artist directly, they’d be more than happy to make some time for an interview.
This is an annoying snag, if only because it deviates from my original plan, but it’s by no means a death knell. Though I don’t know much about what happens after I find a publisher, I expect there’ll be at least one round of edits anyway, so there’s some rewriting built into that plan. So I should still have plenty of time to reach out to the musicians I want, tell them who my publisher is, and interview at least a bunch of them. It should also be relatively simple to work that content into what I already have. It’s just going to have to wait.
In the meantime, I’m focused on getting everything else into place. I’m almost there.
It’s been slow, book-wise. I haven’t conducted any interviews in about a week. I’ve got at least three scheduled for the next five days, but I’ve already worked through transcribing all of the interviews I’ve done recently and working that content into my draft. I’ve been trying to work on other components in the meantime, but most of what I still need to write is so dependent on additional research that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to get started with it until I’ve gathered more material.
Of course, not all of that research will come from interviews. In most cases, I’m sort of stuck waiting around until I can pin down certain people for an interview. In others, though, it’s on me to reach out to publications about digging through their archives (there are quite a few pieces that I know exist but haven’t made it online yet), and sometimes I just need to do some old school [search engine]ing to add some context to this or that passage.
The other thing I can probably start doing now is cutting stuff out. As of now, my manuscript is 435 pages long. When I flesh out some of the placeholders I have in there and drop in quotes from the interviews I’m still planning to conduct, I expect that to balloon by another 80-100 pages, at least. If I want someone to publish this thing—and I do—it’s going to have to be pared down significantly. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a music book that was longer than 320 pages or so. Realistically, I may end up having to cut half of what’s in this current draft (a draft which, beastly though it is, has already been shaved a few times). The hardest part of writing anything is often knowing what to cut, and I’m going to need to cut a lot.
At any rate, I need to maintain some momentum. Not every day can be a marathon, fugue-like 14-hour writing session, but if I can do a little bit of work each day, it won’t get stale. And as much as I like living in Athens, I don’t think I want to be here forever.
Update: In the half day since I posted this, I’ve added three more interviews to my schedule over the next week, with a few more that could fall into place in the same span. Feast or famine.
In other news, I had something published in Flagpole this week, the first time I’ve had my name in print in a few years. It’s a 110-word calendar pick, but it’s something.
I’m starting to get busy. I’ve conducted five interviews in the past five days, and though I don’t have any scheduled for today, I’m looking at a similar pace for the coming few weeks, at least. I’ve also started a part-time job and have been ramping up my hours there, and I’m taking on some new freelance gigs as well.
It’s a little tricky to juggle—neither my interview subjects nor my new boss like scheduling things too far in advance, and both are prone to last-minute calendar adjustments—but it’s been manageable so far. It’s also had a few positives:
- Momentum. I feel like I’m making progress, which makes me feel good, and feeling good makes it easier to continue that progress.
- Efficiency. This is kind of similar to momentum, but when I look at my day and see only small blocks of free time, it’s easier for me to put those blocks of time to productive use. The structure keeps me on task. When I have a totally open day and only abstract tasks to work on, it’s harder to get organized or even begin.
- Diet. Being more thoughtful with my time means eating at home more often and planning out a lot of those meals ahead of time. This is good news for my wallet and bad news for the plaque lining my arteries. Summer bodies are made in winter.
I’m still looking at a month or two more for interviews, though I’m editing my draft as I go. I should still be on track to have my final draft ready sometime in the early summer.