J David Osborne is the editor in Chief of Broken River Books, a publisher of unique stories that are well told and weird. Very weird. ‘Like a really comfortable chair covered in a DMT fractal pattern fabric,’ Osborne says on the BRB website. I get the feeling that J David Osborne has a brain that fires off thoughts like sparks from a firework. I asked him some questions about Trump, books and writing.
Can you give a brief history of yourself and Broken River Books?
I grew up in Oklahoma. I started writing about 14 years ago. When I turned 18 I met Jeremy Robert Johnson (author of Skullcrack City) who at the time ran a small press called Swallowdown. He put out my first two books. Then Swallowdown closed indefinitely, and I had conversations with friends about how to fill that void. Broken River came out of that.
We publish strange fiction that plays with tropes in subversive ways. It’s been a quiet year for BRB, mostly because when I started it I had no idea how to run a small press. I’ve learned a ton and have essentially been cleaning up messes for the past year. Luckily, we’re gonna be back and stronger than ever in 2017.
So, Trump? Wow. What’s the outlook now for those in their own liberal bubbles? Have you had a chance to relate this back to your own creative endeavours yet – writing/publishing etc.?
Trump surprised a lot of people, myself included. I lived in a shamefully insulated bubble throughout the entire campaign, and I was under the impression that Clinton would win right up to the bitter end. It was a good shock to the system, I think. Seems pretty bad from where I’m sitting, but right now passions are high. Rightfully so, of course. But at the end of the day there’s always that good old-fashioned cynicism that nothing ever really changes anyway, so maybe he’ll be just as ineffective as every other president in history. Or not. Who knows?
The most important thing is that people get off of social media and begin engaging with the larger world. The protests are great, and I think people protesting are doing something important. But once that runs out of steam, where do we go from there? The work becomes very unsexy. It’s calling representatives, it’s showing up to town hall meetings, it’s paying attention to wonky minutiae.
My writing isn’t very political, I don’t think, so I guess there isn’t much in the way of politics creeping in.
What’s an average day for you? How do you balance writing against being editor in chief of Broken River?
The average day for me is: wake up, take my wife to her job, come home, walk the dog, and then…a big question mark. Recently, a lot of my energy has been taken up trying to diversify my income streams, which means a lot of resume-sending, a lot of looking into freelance jobs, etc. The trick to the whole thing (and I encourage everyone to learn how to make their own books) is that writing and editing and constructing books doesn’t really take that long.
We get hung up on writing and editing because as soon as you start doing it, the image you’ve built up for yourself in your head comes crashing down. Take this interview for example. When I read the questions, I thought to myself, “oh, I have a lot of interesting things to say on this topic.” Then I start typing my answers, and I immediately think “oh fuck I sound like a damn idiot.” So the trick is to just keep doing it, and to keep feeling like a dummy. If you sit down at a computer and just type, you’re gonna end up with about 5,000 words in a sitting. This isn’t crazy talk: if you can type 120 wpm, then 5,000 words in an hour isn’t that insane. Then you take that crap that you wrote and you tinker with it until it looks like a novel, and then you’re done. Same with editing. You might go into it thinking that you’re going to sculpt every fucked-up line into something killer. Then you realize that a lot of it is actually pretty good as it is. “Shit,” you think. “What am I even doing here? This is fine the way it is.” But as you go along, you find little things here and there, or maybe the entire thing needs to be restructured. The cliché that you just have to start is 100% accurate, though. You can’t get into a flow state until you feel that pain. It’s like exercising.
It’s always kind of funny when people think I’m hyper busy. I guess I am, but I don’t feel that way. I’ve gotten better at not looking at social media, but for awhile there I wasted massive amounts of time reading dogshit on the internet. There’s a lot of time in the day if you make peace with who you really are and you make peace with pushing your creative boundaries and falling on your face 49% of the time. Anything more than that then, yeah, you’ve gotta slow your roll.
With the rise of Kindle Direct Publishing and others, what are your feelings on just how easy it has become for somebody to be a ‘writer,’. How can quality be teased out of the quantity? Does it matter?
I’m glad that you included the “does it matter” part on that question, because no, it doesn’t. Everyone on this planet should be writing and reading novels. They should even publish them if they want. We no longer live in a scarcity economy. That’s just the way it is. There’s no way to stop it. But, look, quality is quality. It’s subjective and everyone thinks it means something different. The most popular books in the country right now, I couldn’t give a shit about. And that’s okay. We all talk about quality like we even know what it is.
What I’m interested in is completely breaking down the way publishing works. Big publishing, by and large, is still a rich person’s hobby. There are lots of big guys doing great work out there, but mostly it’s a bullshit racket. So who cares? Everybody should have the opportunity to have their voices heard.
There’s a caveat there, though: we should also mercilessly criticize shit when we see it. The way I see it right now is that we have the whole thing backwards: we want people to stop publishing so much, but we also don’t want to call shit shit because we’re afraid we’ll lose a job opportunity or hurt someone’s feelings. It should be the opposite: people should publish more, and we should get vicious when we see something we don’t like. Then we’re not being snobby gatekeepers, and we’re also not being fake spineless pushovers. It’s the writer’s life, inverted!
When I look to the UK and Europe for edgy, weird-centric, smaller publishers like Broken River, Lazy Fascist and Kingshot Press, I don’t really find many analogues. This could be my ignorance of course, but do you think those kind of publishers are predominantly an American phenomenon?
Man, I really wish I had a good answer for you, but I am shamefully ignorant when it comes to a bunch of different presses. I know what I do, and what my friends are doing, but outside of that, I tend to pay attention to books, not presses. This is a blind spot I have that I really, really need to fix, and I’m sure I will once my life is a bit more stable. At the moment, however, I spend way too much time trying to keep my head above water to pay that much attention.
I know that This is Horror is a British press that’s doing some interesting work. And I know that a sizeable (probably about 15%) chunk of Broken River’s readership is based in the UK. So I’d be willing to bet that they’re out there. My dumbass just doesn’t know it yet.
What were the books that made you want to be a writer?
American Tabloid was probably the number one book that made me want to write. I loved how quickly the information was communicated. Also Fight Club, which I read when I was 12, that one really fucked me up. After that, there are a ton of books that make me feel like everything’s going to be okay, that I can take some risks and fail a bit and have everything turn out: Love Hotel by Jane Unrue, 300,000,000 by Blake Butler, The Sellout by Paul Beatty. Those books kind of blew my shit up. There were parts that I loved, and things that I hated, but they were so very much themselves that I found them crazy inspired. Dennis Cooper’s work did that, too. I’m obsessed with the idea of the novel as an extension of the writer, and being these kind of true things even though they’re not, like an opposite to real life, how everything now is fake even though I guess it’s true.
It seems you’ve been bringing more focus to your podcast , The JDO Show, in the last couple of months. How has this developed?
The podcast happened because over the course of this past year, I’ve been moving further and further away from social media. I used to have a pretty strong presence there. Then, over time, I decided to stop arguing. After that, I decided to stop trying to make a point of any kind (because really, how silly have we become, getting on our soapboxes, trying to make a point as if typing things into Facebook is doing anything other than reinforcing our tribal relations with our friends and strengthening our hatred of our enemies and giving Facebook some good fucking ad data?). I quit for a long time. Just vanished. The downside of this is that we’ve all become so fucking entrenched in this platform that people thought I was dead. That Broken River was gone for good. That I’d had some kind of nervous breakdown (which I didn’t, I’ve had all my nervous breakdowns very publicly, thank you very much). So I thought to myself, “well, shit. I have to get away from this, it’s sucking the life out of me, but I can’t have folks thinking I’m dead.” Thus the podcast was born. A couple times a week, I remind you that I’m alive.
I wanted the podcast to function as a bar conversation between myself and other authors, publishers, artists, musicians, and criminals. I’ve met many of all of these types over the past decade doing this thing, so I figured I’d have a guest list for a couple years, at least. There are already great podcasts where the hosts interview the guests about craft and routine and things like that. I wanted the listener to get a vibe for what these folks are like if you’re just kicking it.
I also had to come to the brutal self-realization that I don’t come off well in written interviews, or blog posts. I don’t know what it is, but it frustrates me, because I never feel like I get my point across. And of course, with social media, all you ever see are the people who think you suck. You’ll never talk to someone, ever, then five years after you friend them they’ll show up to tell you that you’re horrible, then they’ll block you. The podcast lets me be me, maybe get a little (or a lot) controversial, and I don’t have to spend time debating the shit on Facebook. It is what it is. I ams what I ams.
It became very popular pretty quickly (it’s only a month old). There’s been about 5,000 downloads in the past 40 days or so. It’s a side-hustle like all of my hustles. But who knows! If it starts making a little money, I’ll be able to keep up the crazy pace I maintained in the first month. There’s a Patreon for it at www.patreon.com/jdavidosborne. And I’ll also totally run ads. Holler at me.
2016 seems to have been a particularly weird/grim year for various reasons. How has it been for you and what’s in the pipeline for 2017?
You know, all the jokes you see online about 2016 being “the worst year ever” were pretty accurately reflected in my personal life. I’ve experienced the deaths of two people who were close to me, and a third is on the way out. Creatively I hit tons of ruts. The press only released one book. Fucking Donald Trump is president! Prince, Bowie, Cohen, on and on and on. So yeah, personally, for me, it’s been a dark year. But I’m not big into crying about it, because who cares? You either do things or you don’t. Life’s tough.
2017 should be a return to form. I’ve got about 12 books I’ve got on deck for Broken River. After I release those twelve, I plan to move away from novels, focusing specifically on short novellas. That’s reflected in my own work. I’ve got 4 novellas coming out at the end of this year, and I hope to release a new novella every couple of months. More podcasts. More freelance work. An overnight gig as a concierge in a residential building downtown.
It doesn’t matter how fucking depressing 2016 was, or might still be. Life goes on.