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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
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
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
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
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
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
Barringer: All of this seems ideal for a gallery
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.
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