“Sometimes People Suffer For No Reason”: John Reed by Ben Mirov

John Reed

Tales of Woe by John Reed is a shamelessly unpleasant collection of non-fictional accounts of people caught in horrible, gut-wrenching situations. Approximating the look a graphic novel or pulp trade paperback, Tales of Woe contains illustrations of real-life horror stories from eleven different artists, which enhance the horrific, hilarious, unbelievable stories. One of the book’s most redeeming aspects (if you can call it that) is that it is completely void of didacticism, hope, and redemption. Instead, Tales of Woe offers a parade of captivating, affronting stories that challenge and delight — er, disturb — the reader.

Ben Mirov I was wondering what drove you to make this book? What about this particular idea attracted you?

John Reed To culture, to governments, to publishers, literature is propaganda. To writers, literature is protest. That’s the ongoing struggle; the writer loses, almost always. I recently got an email from a woman I barely know, who critiqued the book with this quotation:

“Human life is truly a short affair. It is better to live doing things that you like. It is foolish to live in this dream of a world seeing unpleasantness and only doing things that you do not like.” – Yamamoto Tsunetomo

The assumption is that I was miserable writing the book, that I didn’t want to do it—and it was a painful project at times. The critique is a common one, not only of woe but of all kinds of art and journalism, but very odd really—to assume that you’re better living secluded from the truth, to assume that that’s even possible. These stories are upsetting because I didn’t stick a happy ending on them, because I didn’t pretend that these people, these suffering people, did something to deserve their pain. The story of sin, suffering, redemption is the story that our culture tells over and over again. We like to call it a universal story—but we’ve found in exportation that other cultures don’t see sin, suffering, redemption as something integral to their universe. We like to build that structure into our newspaper reports, our historical investigations, our lives—but there’s no truth in the structure. Sometimes terrible things happen for no reason. Expecting something good to come of your own suffering is a sure way to misery. And looking for reasons that other people deserve to suffer—it’s inhuman.

Another friend of mine, Ellen Pearlman, a journalist, also sent me an email with a quotation. The first Noble Truth of the four Noble Truths of Buddhism: “Life is suffering.”

BM How did you go about culling materials for Tales of Woe? What were your sources? Were you looking for particular themes or just the most horrible stories you could find?

JR I had this idea that we could run the gamut. Represent one of each type of miserable story. I quickly saw that I wouldn’t be able to do that. Not only were the stories that we found much worse than we expected—meaning that the stories would be twice as long and we’d have to limit ourselves to 25 (we’d planned 50)—the variety of tales was seemingly endless. I did my best to indicate the spectrum, put pins all over the globe, and have a group of stories that held together.

Sources? Mostly local newspapers, and after that, the internet, emails and the phone.

BM Did you fictionalize the pieces to any extent?

JR No.

BM I’m curious to know how you see this book as a continuation of your previous work. Can you see a pattern in terms of your, for lack of a better term, aesthetic aims? In my mind, Tales of Woe, much like your previous work, is outsider, irreverent, and subversive towards traditional categories of literature. Or is this assessment way off base?

JR Someone recently explained to me how all my books were the same, and I was like, Holy Cow, you’re right! Now, of course, I can’t remember what they said. I would be satisfied if I contributed something to the “death of literature.” I suppose I feel the same way about history. To echo Henry Ford: History is bunk. New books—new books like the piles of new books I have right here next to me—are extraordinary, and powerful, and relevant. It crushes me to see some mediocre canonical tome in the hands of a high school student. Their eyes are drifting, you know they think reading has nothing to do with them, because that book has nothing to do with them, and as soon as they get out of school, they’ll never pick up something like that again. And who can blame them? A conservative culture pushes a backlist, a canon, a list of greats—because that’s the most efficient way to mute the voice of contemporary artists.

BM Can you talk about the way the book was printed and why you chose the look of the book (Tales of Woe includes illustrations from a large number of artists, is printed in white font on high gloss black paper and feels more like a graphic novel than a traditional collection of stories).

JR We thought we could do it—that was much of the incentive. The design software (not actually that easy to lay out a white-on-black book), the printing process, the ability to transfer large files over the Internet: the book seemed plausible. Turned out it was much closer to implausible than we guessed, but we had Walter Einenkel, the designer, to perform the miracles.

I was always thinking that Tales of Woe could look more like an archetypal book, which I’d equate with the Illuminated Manuscript. Art and text belong together—went together well into the 19th century—until the limits of mass production made the inclusion of art time-intensive and materially expensive. More and more books have an integrated art component; it’s an inevitable evolution.

The black pages: I struggled quite a bit with that. The art popped, and in the end, it felt like the most respectful way to present the stories.

BM Where did you find so many artists willing to participate in the project? Were they friends? How did you go about involving them in the project?

JR I knew one of the artists slightly. I’d met him casually once and kept in touch with him by email. Patrick McQuade. He’d already done some major projects, and the work was hard to forget. All the other artists, we found in a fairly exhaustive search. Delia Gable was the one recommendation; Elisabeth Alba brought her to my attention. I believe I told Elisabeth what I felt like I still needed to find, and Delia was spot on. We wanted all the art to share a sort of high-art, contemporary pulp feel, but we also wanted variation—like the old pulp journals—to accentuate the stories, as opposed to the illustrative style.

BM Do you have a favorite story in the book? If so, why does that particular story appeal to you more than the others?

JR The most upsetting story, to me, is “Momma’s Little Angel,” because I have young children. But “Father Knows Death” is also pretty awful. What I like about the stories as a whole—and I say this feeling a bit like an alien handed me this object and told me to hustle it—is that I appreciate my own life more. I have a hard time taking my own petty nonsense seriously. Terrible things happen to people for no reason. I get to go home and hang out with my kids.

BM You’ve been producing books at a frequent rate. Is there anything new in the works you’d like to tell us about?

JR Is that frequent? Thanks! Though I wonder if it’s true. Well, I’m fiddling with a bunch of things. A boxer musical: a few drafts away. A web comic with Michele Witchipoo, one of the artists from Tales of Woe, called Shitty Mickey. That’s at shittymickey.com. Season two coming soon!

Tales of Woe is available now from MTV Press.

Ben Mirov is the author of I IS TO VORTICISM (New Michigan Press, 2010) and GHOST MACHINE (Caketrain, 2010) and has a blog.

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