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Keep Austin Weird: McSweeney’s McMullens and everything else

By Amy Armstrong

The McSweeney’s archive, which the Ransom Center acquired in 2013, is now open for research. This is the final installment in a four-part series of blog posts highlighting items from this dynamic and diverse collection.

 

It’s 2011. Venturing into children’s literature seems like a natural evolution for McSweeney’s. The line between McSweeney’s adult and children’s books may seem blurry to some readers. You know what I mean if you’ve ever given your child one of the “board books” in Lisa Brown’s “Baby Be Of Use” series and received a blank stare and little-to-no good response. A parent might be confused by the brightly illustrated, pictorial stories that instruct your wee little one on the method for making mommy and daddy a martini or changing the oil in the car.

 

Or you might relate if you’ve ever delighted in handing your fifth-grader one of the encyclopedias in the Dr. and Mr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey series. My favorite is Your Disgusting Head. Or the fuzzy (I don’t mean warm; I mean literally fuzzy) novelization of Dave Eggers’s and Spike Jonze’s screenplay, The Wild Things, based on Maurice Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are. These aren’t really for kids, but they’re a lot of fun no matter how young at heart you may be!

 

McSweeney’s marketed its children and young adult book imprint with the tagline “For Kids Who Love Weird Books.” The books definitely have the McSweeney’s design aesthetic. Many feature dust jackets that unfold into posters, and one even features heat-sensitive ink. Frequent McSweeney’s collaborator Jordon Crane’s board book Keep Our Secrets includes this tip: “For best results read this book with a hairdryer.” The McSweeney’s collection came complete with a hairdryer and is certainly the only collection at the Ransom Center with such a tool. The series features not only amazing illustrations but amazing stories. S. S. Taylor’s The Expeditioners and the Treasure of the Drowned Man’s Canyon is the first in a series and was a Nominee for the 2014–2015 Texas Bluebonnet Award.

 

Since being weird is no longer a stigma, I’m anxious for my own 1-year old, Simon, to be a weird kid. You see, being different is not only OK, it’s celebrated. Everything about McSweeney’s celebrates difference. From the namesake of the company, Mr. Timothy McSweeney himself, to the experimental design of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, to publishing books like Lemon (Lawrence Krauser), Real Man Adventures (T. Cooper), It Chooses You (Miranda July), and others that bring to print stories that comfort those who’ve always felt like they’ve never “fit in.” The publishing house also shines a light on the often ignored voices captured in the Voice of Witness oral history series that highlights human rights abuses in this country and around the world.

 

In fact, McSweeney’s wants to help inspire the upcoming generations’ crop of McSweeney’s writers.  Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s helped establish a non-profit tutoring and writing center, 826 Valencia in San Francisco. Under the umbrella organization 826 National, seven more centers have opened in Brooklyn, Chicago, Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, Seattle, Washington D.C., and Boston. Many writers and artists donate their work in support of 826 National with the proceeds of many McSweeney’s books going directly to further the work of the tutoring centers.

 

So, read, write, and be weird!

 

Related content:

Unpacking the McSweeney’s archive

When is a Comb not a Comb? McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue 16 (May 2005)

Oodles of Doodles: McSweeney’s first novel

Materials in McSweeney’s archive offer behind-the-scenes glimpse at “The Believer” magazine

Keep Austin Weird: McSweeney’s McMullens and everything else

Meet the Staff: Q&A with McSweeney’s archivist Amy Armstrong

 

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

Materials in McSweeney’s archive offer behind-the-scenes glimpse at “The Believer” magazine

By Amy Armstrong

The McSweeney’s archive, which the Ransom Center acquired in 2013, is now open for research. Founded in 1998 by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern is considered one of the most influential literary journals and publishing houses of its time. McSweeney’s publishes books, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer magazine, the food journal Lucky Peach and the DVD-journal Wholphin. This is the third in a four-part series highlighting items from this dynamic and diverse collection.

 

In 2002, Heidi Julavits, Vendela Vida, and Ed Park began planning a long-format magazine featuring essays, interviews, and reviews. With the assistance of Dave Eggers and the McSweeney’s staff, The Believer was launched in 2003. The same year, Andrew Leland, former intern at McSweeney’s, was offered the job of managing editor to create the second issue of The Believer magazine. Leland dropped out of Oberlin College to take the job, and he continued in the post for eight years and 75 issues. The Believer, easily identified by its iconic cover template designed by Eggers and illustrated with drawings by Charles Burns, has become a monthly art and culture magazine featuring content unimpeded by arbitrary word limits and highlighting schematic drawings, illustrations by Tony Millionaire, and regular columns by Nick Hornby, Greil Marcus, and Jack Pendarvis. The Believer is also home to the “Sedaratives” advice column founded by Amy Sedaris and featuring guest contributors from Janeane Garafolo to Weird Al Yankovich. The magazine also puts out three special issues a year dedicated to art, film, and music.

 

Two notebooks filed in box 98, folders 3 and 4 were kept by Believer editor Andrew Leland and are among the most revealing items in the archive. One has a clean, earnest design, with a simple soft-yellow cover. The other is a NASCAR spiral with the image of Tony Stewart emblazed on the front. The notebooks begin in the summer of 2003 and contain daily “to-do” lists, editorial checklists, and other jottings. On one particular day, the numbered list reads:

1) Phillips images

2) Format letters

3) Rest of articles à Tony

4) Call Boy George

 

Numbers one through four are all crossed out, giving a brief glimpse into the creative, interesting, and mundane aspects of being a Believer editor.

 

The Believer attracts remarkable writers and remarkable readers. David Foster Wallace’s subscription postcard for The Believer is evidence that they’re sometimes both. It’s humorous and prized—the tape still adhered to the card with flecks of wall paint suggests it was hanging on Leland’s wall.

 

Related content:

Unpacking the McSweeney’s archive

When is a Comb not a Comb? McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue 16 (May 2005)

Oodles of Doodles: McSweeney’s first novel

Keep Austin Weird: McSweeney’s McMullens and everything else

Meet the Staff: Q&A with archivist Amy Armstrong

 

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

Oodles of Doodles: McSweeney’s first novel

By Amy Armstrong

The McSweeney’s archive, which the Ransom Center acquired in 2013, is now open for research. Founded in 1998 by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern is considered one of the most influential literary journals and publishing houses of its time. McSweeney’s publishes books, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer magazine, the food journal Lucky Peach, and the DVD-journal Wholphin. This is the second in a four-part series of blog posts highlighting items from this dynamic and diverse collection.

 

It’s the year 2000. McSweeney’s and the rest of the world came through the threat of Y2K unscathed. It’s a new millennium, and new millennium readers want to experiment, take chances, and conquer new frontiers in reading. In 2000, McSweeney’s published its first novel: Lawrence Krauser’s Lemon, which tells the story of a corporate memo writer who begins an intimate friendship with a lemon after his girlfriend breaks up with him. Lemon perhaps set the tone for McSweeney’s books, as one reviewer called it “handsome, smartly written and deeply eccentric.”

 

A unique love story deserves a unique cover, but one unique cover would simply not do. How about 10,000 unique covers? This line of thinking inspired Dave Eggers’s and Lawrence Krauser’s “Oodles of Doodles” cover idea. The first 10,000 books were wrapped in a blank dust jacket containing only the title and author rubberstamped in various places on each cover—Krauser’s blank canvas. Over a period of about three months, for about three hours a day, Krauser drew unique doodles on 9,812 Lemon dust jackets, making each copy a unique, one-of-a-kind original. Krauser didn’t quite make it through the 10,000 print run, but illustrated an additional 1,000 covers for the Dutch translation, for a grand total of 10,812 unique books.

 

The Ransom Center currently holds three copies of Lemon: one blank copy and two with unique doodle covers.

 

Since publishing Lemon, McSweeney’s book publishing division has grown into McSweeney’s Books, which publishes nonfiction biographies, memoirs, and criticism; a long list of humor books including the “Baby, Be of Use” series by Lisa Brown and the popular Haggis-on-Whey encyclopedias; art books with portfolios by Marcel Dzama, Dave Eggers, and Art Spiegelman; and Beck’s Song Reader, a music album that exists only as richly illustrated individual pieces of sheet music.

 

McSweeney’s other book imprints include McSweeney’s Rectangulars; Believer Books, collecting writing from the magazine’s contributors; McSweeney’s McMullens, which publishes books for young children and young adults; Voice of Witness, a nonprofit series of oral histories documenting contemporary social injustices around the world; Collins Library, reprints of forgotten classics edited by Paul Collins; McSweeney’s Poetry Series; and McSweeney’s Insatiables, a food and cooking imprint.

 

Related content:

Unpacking the McSweeney’s archive

When is a Comb not a Comb? McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue 16 (May 2005)

Materials in McSweeney’s archive offer behind-the-scenes glimpse at “The Believer” magazine

Keep Austin Weird: McSweeney’s McMullens and everything else

Meet the Staff: Q&A with archivist Amy Armstrong

 

Please click on the thumbnails below to view larger images.

When is a Comb not a Comb? McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue 16 (May 2005)

By Amy Armstrong

The McSweeney’s archive, which the Ransom Center acquired in 2013, is now open for research. Founded in 1998 by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern is considered one of the most influential literary journals and publishing houses of its time. McSweeney’s publishes books, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer magazine, the food journal Lucky Peach and the DVD-journal Wholphin. This is the first in a series of blog posts highlighting items from this dynamic and diverse collection.

 

It’s 1997. Dave Eggers is working at Esquire magazine. From his Brooklyn apartment at 394A Ninth Street, Eggers sends an email (a pretty new technology, by the way) to all his friends and writers he knows soliciting their unpublished work for a new literary quarterly. Eggers explains the publication will be called McSweeney’s, named after a man claiming to be a relative who wrote “long, tortured, and often incomprehensible letters” to the Eggers family. The email, which was forwarded extensively to other friends and writers, notes: “There will be an emphasis on experimentation. If you have a story that’s good, but conventional, you’d be better off sending it somewhere legitimate. This thing will be more about trying new and almost certainly misguided ideas.” Rejected works, unfinished stories, and cartoons without pictures had found their home.

 

Expecting to be around for only a few years, McSweeney’s is still going strong 15 years later and still publishes the flagship McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, the monthly magazine The Believer, and an ever-expanding catalog of books published under various imprints.

 

Each issue of the Quarterly Concern is completely redesigned, but the McSweeney’s house style is immediately recognizable, often influenced by vintage typography and a distinct design aesthetic that honors the craft of bookmaking. Always willing to experiment, McSweeney’s has published issues with two spines, a magnetized binding, and a cigar box housing. They’ve also published an issue that resembles a bundle of mail, an issue printed as a complete daily newspaper, and an issue that gave readers a look inside the head of one sweaty man. Many issues focus on a theme, and selected issues have paid tribute to Donald Barthelme; acquainted readers with the art of comics and modern forms of extinct literary genres; introduced international voices by featuring contemporary writing from Icelandic, South Sudanese, and Australian Aboriginal writers; and provided thoughtful non-fiction essays.

 

Issue 16 was the first edition designed by former editor Eli Horowitz and can be considered the first to really experiment with book form and function. Horowitz wanted “something that could sit on a shelf, pretend to be a normal book, but then unfurl into something else entirely.” The jacket unfolds three times, resembling a pair of pants when completely unfolded, and contains four pockets. One pocket holds the novella Mr. Nobody at All by Ann Beattie, another holds a book of short stories, the third holds Robert Coover’s story “Heart Suit” presented as a deck of 15 playing cards, and the final holds an object: a comb. Horowitz noted that they wanted the fourth pocket to hold an item, but it had to be something long and thin. McSweeney’s considered a ruler and magnifying glass but didn’t want readers to ascribe a meaning to the item or think they were supposed to use it in a certain way. Horowitz decided on a comb. McSweeney’s printer in Singapore subcontracted with a comb maker, and they considered various samples, which can be found in box 17, folder 5 of the archive.

 

The bulk of the McSweeney’s archive comprises mock-ups, dummies, art, and proofs used to produce McSweeney’s publications, but every publication isn’t fully documented. The materials related to issue 16 provide a good look at the publishing process. The archive contains Beattie’s and Adam Levin’s manuscripts with edits by Horowitz, partial proofs with copy-edits, color swatches, the comb samples, and an early homemade design mockup.

 

Related content:

Unpacking the McSweeney’s archive

Oodles of Doodles: McSweeney’s first novel

Materials in McSweeney’s archive offer behind-the-scenes glimpse at “The Believer” magazine

Keep Austin Weird: McSweeney’s McMullens and everything else

Meet the Staff: Q&A with archivist Amy Armstrong

 

Please click on the thumbnails below to view larger images.

Six Degrees of Separation: “True Detective” and the Ransom Center

By Amy Armstrong

I am already missing Rust Cohle, Marty Hart, and sinister references to the “Yellow King.” If you are not sure what I am talking about, it’s the first season of the HBO crime series True Detective. A ritualistic murder investigation set against a backdrop of oil refineries in the swamps of the Louisiana bayou, True Detective is full of philosophical musings and obscure literary references including spiral symbols, black stars, yellow kings, and a fictional place named Carcosa. What does any of this have to do with the Ransom Center?

As I watched Rust and Marty enter into a wicked, sunken maze of brick tunnels, I thought “I bet the Ransom Center has a link to this show.” With the Center’s many collections in literature, film, photography, art, performing arts, and rare books, I am quite sure it is possible to connect almost any news story or popular culture reference to one of the Ransom Center’s collections in fewer than six degrees. Can I link Matthew McConaughey to the Ransom Center?

 

Start

1. Journalist and short-story writer Ambrose Bierce wrote the horror story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” in 1886. The story explores death, light, and darkness and is about a man who awakens from a sickness-induced sleep to find himself lost in an unfamiliar wilderness. Sound familiar?

The Ransom Center has three photos of Ambrose Bierce in the Literary File Collection (box: PH:LF:Small Alphabet).

 

2. Writer Robert W. Chambers borrows the name of Ambrose’s ancient city, Carcosa, and builds it into a mysterious and cursed city in his collection of short stories The King in Yellow. The stories in the book are linked by a fictional play of the same name, which induces despair and insanity in those who read it or see it performed. Considered “weird fiction” under the subgenre of speculative fiction, Chamber’s The King in Yellow has inspired many writers, including H. P. Lovecraft.

The Ransom Center owns an 1895 edition of The King in Yellow. It is just one of the 35,000 volumes in the L.W. Currey science fiction and fantasy collection (call number: PS 1284 K563 1895a).

Despite being out of copyright and freely available on the internet, the book has created literary buzz and climbed into a best-selling spot on Amazon. According to the Wall Street Journal, after episode five of True Detective, sales increased 71percent, elevating The King in Yellow into spot No. 7 on Amazon.com.

The Ransom Center also has some letters by Chambers and the handwritten draft of his short story “The Maker of Moons,” which was the title story of his 1896 short story collection (collection: Robert W. Chambers in Little Alphabet and Uncataloged Little Alphabet).

 

3. The HBO series True Detective is full of direct quotes and visual references to Chamber’s The King in Yellow.

 

4. Matthew McConaughey stars as detective Rust Cohle in True Detective.

Alright, alright, alright. Your turn!

 

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

 

Denis Johnson papers open for research

By Amy Armstrong

A selection of discs from Denis Johnson's collection. Johnson’s handwritten note states, 'these discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni. Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center.
A selection of discs from Denis Johnson's collection. Johnson’s handwritten note states, 'these discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni. Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center.

Since July 2011, Harry Ransom Center archivist Amy Armstrong has been processing and cataloging the Denis Johnson papers, which are now available for research. Armstrong shares her insight about processing the Johnson materials.

“Guess what collection I just started processing?” I asked my husband in a voice that implied he would be jealous. “Denis Johnson!” Johnson is the author of Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke. I have his books in my house and he is one of my husband’s favorite writers. So from the beginning, I felt lucky. But then again, I always do. As an archivist at the Harry Ransom Center, every day I have the honor and privilege of interacting with fascinating material.

Though primarily composed of writing notes and drafts, Johnson’s papers have a definite intimacy. He created extensive notes and drafts for most of his works, and, at times, he wrote on whatever was at hand, including the back of checks, envelopes, receipts, a set of paper coasters, a paper plate, and a paper towel. One can’t help but picture Johnson sitting at a table somewhere, moved by something he heard or saw, which sparked a thought he just had to get down immediately on whatever he could grab. This may not be what happened at all, but seeing this note written on a paper plate allowed me to connect with Johnson in his everyday life and envision how he lives and works.

Though there is not a lot of professional correspondence in the papers, there are some early personal letters Johnson wrote as a teenager to his parents. These candid letters reveal a young man who already seems to possess the writer’s eye and a gift for observing, assessing, and describing the human condition. In a letter written when he was 17, Johnson, who is working away from home for his uncle in South Carolina, reports on members of his extended family:

Uncle C. S. told me tonight to take engineering in college, and he would give me a job…I told him I wanted to become a writer. He was shocked and completely unable to understand why anyone would want to devote himself to such a worthless occupation. I think if I were one of his own children, he would have beaten me.

Self-assured Johnson goes on to say, “It doesn’t really bother me what C. S. thinks, though, because our values are at such opposite extremes.” Later in the letter, he provides a snapshot of his aunt.

She is so wrapped up in taking care of her home and family that she has little time for anything else. Today in the news there was a story about a Buddhist monk burning himself. She commented that he was not very devout because it says in the Bible that suicide is wrong. I tried to explain to her that Buddhist monks aren’t interested in being good Christians. I don’t think she understood what I was trying to say.

Letters written from college about expected subjects (please send some money, my grades are improving) report Johnson’s struggles in his unmistakable voice and demonstrate his ability to turn a humorous light on some of life’s more trying moments. Johnson updates his parents about his writing in almost all the letters. Here’s an excerpt from one letter:

The stories are coming as fast and furiously as stories can come. Unfortunately my ability to criticize is fast outstripping my ability to write, and I am disappointed in everything. But a good writer is able to quickly fix the blame on a typewriter, the lighting, the weather, the president, and so on.

He also recounts stories of his daily life such as this excerpt about his infant son:

He still does his morning chores, which he picked out for himself and which consist of turning over the wastepaper baskets, emptying the ashtrays (onto the floor), and de-shelving all magazines. He seems to look upon himself as something of a hunter also. Only yesterday he captured my cigarette papers and drowned and mangled them, leaving me smokeless for today.

Though few in number, these early letters reveal a story about Johnson’s early writing and the talented author he was to become.

The Denis Johnson papers are now open for research and consist of professional and personal papers that document Johnson’s diverse writing career and showcase a broad range of creative output that includes poetry, short stories, novels, essays, journalism articles, screenplays, and scripts.

To celebrate the opening of the papers, the Ransom Center will be giving away ten signed copies of Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. Visit the Ransom Center’s Facebook page to see some of the Johnson materials—from a paper plate to coasters—and select your favorite for the chance to win.