The Book as Transformer: An Interview with Zach Plague
Zach Plague—the nom de plume of Zach Dodson, 28—is the author and designer of boring boring boring boring boring boring boring (hereafter referred to as “the project” or simply boring). There is the novel, e-book and audio CD, but most notably the book's signatures are available as stand-alone posters. These multiple forms remind one of Transformer robots that change into vehicles. The project is an ambitious multimedia exercise, but as its boring title suggests, the enterprise is undercut with self-deprecating humor. Promotional copy dares to quip, “We guarantee that if you are bored by one version of the book, you'll be equally bored by any of the above.” The indulgent expressive graphics (an aesthetic of punk and neo-Victorian) are justified by the novel's subject matter and cast of characters—a group of art-school students who are all 19 years old. Boring is a hybrid project by a hybrid author/designer that falls under another hybrid category, one that straddles DIY and more formal entrepreneurship. I spoke with Dodson about this project and running featherproof books, the small press in Chicago he co-founded in 2005.
Zach Plague/Dodson poses with his posters.
Barringer: Which came first, the writing or the design?
Dodson: It started small. The writing was first. I wrote it over four or five years. I spread hundreds of plot-point note cards across a hardwood floor. I merged characters, tore others in half. The pastiche technique shows through, and the fractured storytelling goes with the content.
Barringer: When did design enter the picture?
Dodson: When I started writing, I hadn't even heard of Photoshop. I grew up in El Paso, Texas, went to school at the University of Texas at Austin, and after I moved to Chicago in 2003, I went back for a degree in graphic design. By the time the book was written, I was enough of a designer that I couldn't leave well enough alone, and that's when the different formats came into play. Basically, a Chicago winter, a pink slip and a lot of coffee got the job done.
Barringer: There is a history of novels incorporating design elements, such as blank pages, typographic play, illustrations and photographs. Your project incorporates messy punk graphics, gothic-inspired ornamentation and scanned images of literal objects like invitations. Were you inspired by any past novels that incorporated design?
Dodson: The books that inspire me as a writer are different from the design books I admire. An early, great example would be Tristram Shandy (1759-67) by Laurence Sterne. A contemporary example is VAS: An Opera in Flatland (2004), written by Steve Tomasula and designed by Stephen Farrell, which does an amazing job of blending text and graphics. The design of my book is more about the shapes of letters, the weights of different fonts, how they can have different voices on the page. The book uses more than one hundred typefaces. It's about using type variation as a vehicle for expressing a new layer of meaning beneath the words. Some people will find it hard to read. It is harder to read. The goal is to have those patterns assimilate into the reader's experience and bring another dimension to the text. I'm not sure I completely pulled it off. It's an experiment, that's for sure.
Boring... as a perfect-bound book.
Barringer: With the advents of personal computers, accessible layout software and digital presses able to print anything from a PDF, the book form seems primed to make a leap into a new space of possibility. Your book attempts that leap. Were you thinking in these explicit terms?
Dodson: I wanted to try a new way of approaching a very old art form. Since this book is about teenage art students, I was okay with it being a mash-up and kind of a mess. I was interested in what happens when you screw up a formula that is so firmly in place. There was a lot of compromise to make the whole thing function well as a book and as posters, but it created some interesting surprises. Maybe with design software becoming more powerful and more intuitive, we'll see more crossover between authors and designers.
Barringer: The book comes in several formats, including a package of the untrimmed signatures, which when opened function like giant posters and when trimmed into book form operate like normal pages in a conventional book. How did you go from idea to execution?
Dodson: I had trouble finding someone who could understand what I was trying to do. Which could be my fault. I wanted to have a version of the book that was a nod to its original form. I designed at the poster level, careful to keep in mind what would happen to each page when it got folded down. But no one at our printer got it until finally I found a foreman on the floor who said, “Well, I've been in printing for 13 years, and I never saw no one try nothing like this before.” Thankfully, he hung in there, and we got through it.
Barringer: A sense of humor runs through your project. It must have been a great deal of work but also a labor of love. Far from being “boring,” the whole thing seems like you had way too much fun.
Dodson: I wanted to maintain a healthy sense of messing around. Good creative energy comes out of that. We're creatives, really, and not marketers, so when it comes to promotion we tend to get weird. Co-publisher Jonathan Messinger gets shy and is like, “aw, shucks.” I tend to get really self-deprecating and insult whatever it is I'm trying to promote, which is probably not the best marketing idea, and only sometimes funny.
The complete set with book, audio CD and posters.
Barringer: How did featherproof books start?
Dodson: Featherproof was started in 2005 by Jonathan Messinger and myself over a falafel lunch break from our day jobs. I was a designer at TimeOut Chicago, and Jonathan is still the books editor there. We were talking about all the fantastic live readings that were happening in the city of Chicago and bemoaning the lack of publishing outlets at the time. We decided to start our own little press. I brought design and Jonathan brought important things like spelling and grammar, so it ended up being a good match. I think I started the company just so I could design a logo and all the collateral the way I wanted to. Design was been built into our publishing house since day one. We started with these mini-books you can download, print and fold yourself. I've enjoyed getting to know so many different aspects of the publishing business and working with such great writers, but at heart, I'll always be a designer. I have to say, it continues to be the aspect of the whole project that is the most fun for me.
Barringer: What are the ups and downs of doing it your way, from concept to publication?
Dodson: Being involved in production and distribution is paramount to the project. Even in terms of PR, I'm very particular about how the work is presented. I didn't want a synopsis on the back that gave away the ending of the book. In fact, I didn't want one at all. And that's a privileged position, as a writer and designer, to be able to call those kinds of shots. The minus side is that doing all this stuff was much more work than I had anticipated. I've found myself experiencing a little burnout. Maybe if we get bigger I'll delegate more tasks, but for now, it's DIY all the way.
Barringer: Who did the e-book formatting? And why give it away free?
Dodson: I did, and it's a PDF. It's slightly different from the printed version. I'm happy to have people read it in whatever form, online included. As far as free goes, with Google Books around the corner, publishers may not have a choice before too long. If people like it, they'll buy a copy. The physical book might become more of a collector's item, like vinyl is for many music lovers. I'm interested in making books special objects, and the design of this one calls attention to its bookishness, sometimes in an irreverent way, such as in the third section, which is meant to look like an old hardcover photocopied on the page. Some people are going to want to hold that in their hands.
Sample spread from the book.
Barringer: Did you also design the website?
Dodson: I did. Sort of. It's actually a Flash widget that the book got plugged into. I'm excited about what the online version can mean for the book, although I personally don't have the patience to read an entire book on a screen. It's like that moment at a bookstore when you pick a book up off the shelf to flip through it. Having that experience online makes it available to many more people.
Barringer: How was the audio version produced?
Dodson: The audio version is a very clipped, fast-paced version of the book with music and sound effects. I changed the substance to fit the format. The entire audio book is album length, and each individual track runs average song length. My friend Dark Yellow recorded the album and did all the music with help from many others. Writing can be such a solitary activity. Getting people together to record the CD was fun.
Barringer: Did you go to art school? Who are these characters? Are they based on people you know?
Dodson: I didn't go to art school. The book is fiction. What I tried to take from real life were the more ephemeral things, my moods and thoughts. No one character is me. The female protagonist gets more of my personality than the male protagonist does. My friends got mixed in, but there's no one-to-one corollary.
Barringer: All of this seems ideal for a gallery show.
The poster set.
Dodson: Here in Chicago I did a gallery show of the posters from the book. I did a limited edition of silk-screened posters that had design elements beyond what was in the book. Country Club Chicago, a great gallery space with strong design ties, was kind enough to lend walls to the idea. It was fun and a great way to present this book.
Barringer: What's your plan now for juggling your working life and your next creative project?
Dodson: I wish I knew! The great thing about running a publishing house is that we can put out any kind of books we want. We've put out novels and a couple design books. The design books bring my interests around full circle. Degrees of Separation is a tear-out postcard book with postcards created by New Orleans designers in response to Hurricane Katrina. Our next book is a green design book for kids that we're printing in a squeaky green way, which is turning out to be a real challenge. I'm working on a giant literary magazine that will be printed on one sheet of paper. I haven't put pen to paper on the next novel. I need a break. Even boring writing can be hard work.