Hairstyles of the Damned by Joe Meno. Punk Planet Books (an imprint of Akashic Books), 2004, 270 pages, $13.95
FROM THE COVER:
The riotous exploits of a Catholic school malcontent and a punk rock girl fond of brawling and brevity.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAID:
"Coming-of-age tale with a punk-rock edge.... This gabby, heartfelt, and utterly believable take on adolescence strikes a winning chord." -- Publishers Weekly
"Well-observed, often laugh-out-loud funny.... Prime nostalgia for 30-somethings." -- Chicago Tribune
"The sweetness and sting of adolescence." -- Entertainment Weekly
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Joe Meno, 32, has published five books of fiction: Tender As Hellfire, How the Hula Girl Sings, Hairstyles of the Damned, The Boy Detective Fails, and a short story collection, Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir: Stories. He is a tenured professor at Chicago's Columbia College and, intermittently, a playwright. Meno writes for Punk Planet magazine and has published his fiction in periodicals ranging from McSweeney's to Alaska Quarterly to Gulf Coast. In 2003, he won the Nelson Algren Award for short fiction.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
Joe Meno has a new novel out, The Boy Detective Fails. But what I want to talk to him about is his third book, published two years ago, Hairstyles of the Damned. Because it's behaving...oddly. In the five selling seasons since it first appeared, more and more copies of it are sold. It has managed to attract a readership that's actually growing. Now the folks who made the Academy Award nominee Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray, have acquired screen rights to Hairstyles and created a film script that is buzzing. Foreign publishers are buying book rights, too. And Hairstyles of the Damned is inching across that line from pop phenom to cult classic as its tenth printing approaches. Joe Meno, its creator, is reaping rewards, but success didn't come easy."I was amazed: you published your first novel at 24?"
Joe Meno laughs. "At the time, it didn't seem that amazing. I was so naïve, I thought everyone wrote a book at 22 and got it published."
He was an undergraduate at Columbia College, Chicago, and halfway through his first novel when he met Atlantic Monthly's fiction editor, Michael Curtis. Curtis led to Boston agent Charles Everitt, who placed the finished novel (Tender As Hellfire) with editor Dana Albarella at St. Martins Press in New York. When Ms. Albarella moved to a new imprint at HarperCollins, called Judith Regan Books, Joe Meno followed her and signed to publish a second book, How the Hula Girl Sings.
Meno came to writing through music. "Writers want to find the button on their keyboard that will make them better writers," he says. "Writers are head people. Intellectual. They want to think themselves into being better writers. It's just not possible. Musicians are in their bodies. To me, writing is exactly like being a musician. The keyboard is a keyboard. You sit in front of it and you practice and practice. You play that thing."
The music died at Judith Regan Books. "Joe, you dis her pretty severely in the 2004 acknowledgments of Hairstyles of the Damned." I quote: "'You suck it: Judith Regan. Badly. And all you other bad publishing corporations. Be ready, the end is nigh.'"
"I don't feel regret about it either," says Meno.
"It's kind of prescient, actually, given what's happened."
"In light of recent events," laughs Meno. Namely, Regan was dismissed by her employer Rupert Murdoch for her tirade after being stopped from publishing the ultimate celebrity kill-and-tell tome by O.J. Simpson, hypothesizing how he might've done it, if he did, which he didn't. "At what point," Meno exclaims, "do you think that's a worthy venture?"
"The Regan imprint," he explains, "was run totally at her whim. Any input from me was completely ignored -- the cover, the release date, touring. My fellow writers on the list were film star Bo Derek [the babe in 10 ] and 6'2" 300-pound pro-wrestler Mick Foley, who has action figures of him. Resources of time and money were limited. If it was between me and Bo Derek..." Joe sighs. "So many different ways, I lose."
Regan Books gave the pulpy, noirish How the Hula Girl Singsa look that had nothing to do with the novel, but one the firm thought would appeal to female consumers. "Books as magazines," says Joe Meno, "geared toward women who did their reading at the gym. And gossipy celebrity biographies, that was also Judith Regan's baby. Remember, she'd started at the National Enquirer ."
His requests, he says, for help even in setting up additional readings were dismissed. "The publicist said to me, 'You should only read once in each city.' Even Chicago? This is my hometown! This is where I'm from. So I started booking readings behind my publicist's back."
"I had grown up with punk music, and I was distrustful of the commodification of music. I was a lot more savvy about the music and film industries." Meno pauses. "I guess I was just naïve to think a book is different than a...gym shoe. I know we live in a capitalistic society, and you're selling your art. I have no problem with that. But the way you sell it should reflect what the book is about and the respect you have for literature. A cover that had nothing to do with the book -- this struck at the heart of my disappointment. I took it really personally."
I sit back; Meno is rolling: "In the '80s and '90s, all the corporate publishers were either bought by larger, international conglomerates or they made imprints out of one another." The diminution of the writer is what he thinks resulted. He's not alone.
Judith Regan bossed around and browbeat her staff. Meno's editor left without notice, unable to stand it any longer. Regan Books promptly dropped plans to issue a soft-cover edition of How the Hula Girl Sings.
Enter Dan Sinker, famously creative editor at Punk Planet in Chicago, and Johnny Temple, the much admired and respected publisher of Akashic Books, his small independent press in Brooklyn. Both are intimately involved with the music business: Sinker as editor of the preeminent punk rock magazine, Johnny Temple in his other career as half of the unusual bass-guitar duo in the rock band Girls Against Boys, and as bass player with New Wet Kojak. The two wanted to collaborate on a new imprint at Akashic and came up with Punk Planet Books. Joe Meno was to be its first author. With a modest printing of 4000 copies -- in paperback, to appeal to younger habits -- Hairstyles of the Damned debuted in 2004.
"That is one of the great titles," I volunteer. "Like Cowboys Are My Weakness: Stories, or The French Lieutenant's Woman. And the jacket rocks. The cover is perfect."
"Our big meeting for the cover was...Dan Sinker and I went skating at the Skate Park in Chicago. We were 30 and had to take a break every so often to breathe. He asked what I wanted. I said just the back of my friend Meghan Galbraith's head wearing headphones," and her short hair, a shocking pink. Pirate Signal International executed the idea perfectly, and the most arresting cover was born.
Joe Meno toured 36 cities. Joe Meno read. "I worked my butt off." Hairstyles was reviewed on radio, online, in print. Johnny Temple had appealed to Sessalee Hensley, Barnes and Noble's formidable fiction buyer in New York. She loved the book and its look and played her hunch, picking it for prominent display and promotion in their new-writers sections. The chain sold an amazing 16,000 copies. Two years later they've sold 36,000, and Akashic's sales are more than twice that. A wonderful success even publishing conglomerates would covet.
"Johnny was great," Meno remembers. "It's amazing to see, years later, how successful a book can be without a sales and marketing department. It was an amazing experience. It was like the '80s, when bands like Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat decided to have their own labels, because there was nothing out there anybody wanted to hear. Richard Nash at Soft Skull Press, Sinker at Punk Planet, Johnny Temple at Akashic...they all come from that world of punk music. Johnny and the Minor Threat guys knew each other in high school in D.C."
"These indie publishers," he says, "are putting out strange, edgy books unlike anything the megafirms are doing. They're trying to bring independence and independent judgment to book publishing."
"And Johnny Temple has issued [in paperback] the book you were so mad at Judith Regan about."
"Yes!" Joe Meno exclaims. " Hula Girl lives."