Jane Austen doesn’t live here anymore: An interview with Austin Nights author Michael Davidson

Kris Kristofferson may have said it wrong and Janis Joplin may have sung it wrong. Freedom isn’t just another word for nothin’ left to lose; freedom is confinement. At least that is the paradoxical contention in the book trailer for Austin Nights by one Herocious, the pen name of author Michael Davidson, an Austin native who formerly lived in Miami.

Austin Nights is a winding tale of a road trip journey interwoven with a story of love and common experience. The story unfolds through gritty, tangible characters that personify the deeply important task a writer has to find the story in the everyday. Powered by a rich kind of nonlinear anti-narrative, Davidson weaves and cajoles us into believing that reality can be fiction and fiction reality, but more importantly, to stop looking for the border that divides the two.

I sat down with Michael from across the continent to talk about what drives his writing forward, the advent of Tiny TOE Press (which he runs with his girlfriend Bridget, who is in the book as part subconscious narrator and part muse), Austin life, and why self publishing is changing the measure of creative success.

JENNIFER THOMPSON: Thanks for kind of being here in surreal time over the Internet. First, let’s address the pseudonym in the room. Why Herocious?

MICHAEL DAVIDSON: It’s a product of living in Barranquilla, Colombia for four years. My time there skewed my understanding of English. I moved back to the States for my junior year in high school. At the lunch table, I used the word “herocious” as an adjective. One person at the table spoke up, asked me to repeat what I said. I used the word “herocious” again.

Michael Davidson, aka Herocious

He told me it wasn’t a word.

I said, “It’s a word.”

I’d like to think “herocious” has become the part of me that intuits things in the same way certain people intuit things. It’s my Everyman. I don’t think of it as a pseudonym, or even an avatar. I think of it more as a reminder of the storyteller in me.

JT: The road trip is an iconic character of its own in books, movies, and songs. It misleads, it redirects, and it delivers. Austin Nights celebrates the love of the road trip, of freedom and spontaneity. What do you think about the interstate has worked so well for so many storytellers as both the journey and the destination?

MD: It’s interesting. Now I’m thinking about how many road trip stories there are in the U.S. So many. In European literature there doesn’t seem to be that many, or at least none immediately come to mind. I know I’m wrong, but I feel like the train traveler/pedestrian is more central in European literature, walking through city streets and between towns, taking the train, as opposed to driving across boundary lines, along thousands of miles of paved road. And in The Odyssey, the voyage involved the sea. All of these work well as a canvas for a story, a way of discovering. Although their poetry has different meter, they are each gateways into the soul of things.

JT: As a math tutor by day, your left and right brain are equally useful, unlike many of us creative types, whose right brain lays there like a fish out of water, slapping around the pavement. What effect does this dual, yet seemingly diametric, acumen have on your writing as a craft?

MD: Algebra is dear to me. I’m no genius when it comes to math, but there are mathematical concepts that blow my mind, or at least get it to expand and feel even more flummoxed and awe-struck about the Big Picture.

I’d say my respect for math has colored my writing with some kind of loose pattern and cadence. I’d say the idea of irrational numbers going on forever, never repeating as they write their own story, is very humbling. I’m spiritual when it comes to irrational numbers.

I believe every story I could ever write is already written word for word in their expanding string of numbers.

JT: Imagine you leave Austin for good and, at 85, you find yourself a window dweller in one of god’s waiting rooms somewhere in the Midwest. What image will meet the powers of your recollection, even though you can’t remember what you had for lunch?

MD: So many. I’ve seen many beautiful things. Things that give me goose bumps. Things I trust will tingle all my senses even when they’re dumb with senility. A picture of Miami Beach at 41st Street is the wallpaper on my tiny computer.

Not to dismiss the Midwest – I love Chicago, I don’t think there’s a better walking city in this country – but if I leave Austin for good and, for some blasted reason, end up back in the Midwest, solitary and in waiting and far away from Miami Beach, I’ll probably focus on what my heart and brain have been closest to.

JT: Do most people pick up on the pun: Austin Nights, Austinites?

MD: No. I’m glad you did. Austinites are what people who live in Austin, TX call themselves. Like Chicagoans, or Houstonians, or Miamians. It’s a subtle way to target your specific market. Or are you thinking of devout Jane Austen fans?

JT: “Devout” Jane Austen fans. Hmm. Are there any left?

MD: I see a lot of her books in the bookstore, sometimes a couple shelves stocked with her words, so yes, I think there are Austenites out there, somewhere, but maybe they’re a dying breed, maybe our collective taste is progressing.

JT: The Austin arts scene is vibrant and varied, which may surprise an outsider. What are the ties that bind those on the fringe in Austin?

MD: The city of Austin is little and very supportive of its local culture. The weekend Farmers’ Markets are a big deal. Austinites like locally grown food and locally brewed Kombucha. Austinites like local eateries, local coffee, and local efforts. They like riding their fixed-gear bikes and being hip to things. Within the city, which is about the area of a circle with a 5 mile radius, chain establishments are not treated well. All the shitty retailers you see everywhere in U.S. cities are banished to the outskirts of Austin. This city appreciates the whole DIY approach. Neat coffeehouses abound. Independent booksellers and indie record stores thrive. Storefronts are like art galleries. You ask what the ties are that bind those on the fringe, well, I think it’s individualism, simple as that.

JT: Wal-Mart calls. They tell you that they want to stock Austin Nights across Texas, which could result in massive exposure and big bucks. The catch is, you have to do book signings across the state while wearing a Wal-Mart uniform and sitting beside the “greeter” at the entrance to the store? Do you do it?

MD: Selling books at the entrance to a Texas Wal-Mart is about the same as selling books on the street, and I’m preparing to sell books on the street. I have a blue cardboard box that wine bottles came in. My girlfriend painted it blue. Every week I will make more iterations of Austin Nights on my kitchen table, and I will put them in this box and sell it around Austin. There will be no Jane Austen in this box. I’d gratefully put on a Wal-Mart uniform and do the same thing, sitting beside the greeter.

JT: That’s great. After all, it is about getting it out there. References to other books pepper Austin Nights. For example, The Quiet American, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. If you were only allowed one book when leaving for jail to serve a life sentence for murder with no chance of parole, what book would you take with you? Why?

MD: For murder? That’s different than the whole stranded-on-an-island scenario. If I were sentenced with no chance of parole for murder and allowed one book, I definitely wouldn’t take a book I’ve read. I’d probably want to stop thinking about the stuff I’ve read, since clearly it steered me wrong. I’d want to try something new. I’d want to take a book with me that would force me to become a much better person. Something simple and good, something right. I’d probably take something by the 14th Dalai Lama. He seems happy and innocent.

JT: Commendable, but you may need something light to offset your predicament. What about Snooki’s autobiography? The 13th Dali Lama gave it two metaphysical thumbs up.

MD: You mean from Jersey Shore? I’ve never watched it. A friend came over from Houston once. He was here for ACL, and he did an imitation of what the guys on Jersey Shore do every time they go to a club. He said they all huddle together in a circle and slowly rise up and start bouncing up and down hard to the beat. Trust me, it was funnier when he told it.

JT: That is funny. I got a great visual there accompanied by the imaginary scent of orange skin and hair gel. What, if any, influence does music have on your writing process?

MD: Sometimes I write with music on. But music usually muddles my thoughts too much. I get anxious after a little while. I feel cracked out with everything going on around me. I think I feel a little prone to sensory overload. I am not one of those people who can read AND listen to music. Music without lyrics is as far as I’ll go when I’m writing, and that’s only when I want to rejuvenate ebbing energy. Otherwise, I like quiet places. No voices. Just the sound of the keyboard, which, when it’s going, is really the sweetest kind of music.

JT: Yes, music can be distracting to say the least. That said, some songs inspire. In Austin Nights, Michael says that a good movie makes him want to get up and do something creative. What was the last movie you saw that made you feel that way?

MD: Some songs do inspire. I can count on Sigur Rós for this. It’s Kind of a Funny Story made me feel like I could create, but I watched the whole thing, so by the end it was enough to have watched it.

JT: Self publishing used to be considered a last resort. This attitude has changed dramatically of late, likely catapulted by the evolution of the e-reader. Do you think necessity was the mother of invention in this case, or the other way around?

MD: E-readers seem to be revolutionary. They seem to be changing the landscape of books. I haven’t given them much thought. Anything that makes it easier for writers to reach an audience without having to go through the usual channels seems like a move in the right direction to me. Sure, there’s going to be a lot of shit out there, stuff rife with typos and in need of some cuts, but even without the advent of e-readers this was still the case. I also think there’s something to be said about suddenly having the option to read stories that have not been shaped by so-called professional editors. Perfection, or over-editing, sterilizes.

JT: Publishing in the traditional sense sets a pretty limiting marker of success for most writers. You have your own publishing endeavor in Tiny TOE Press. Tell me a bit about that.

MD: It’s more of a guerrilla operation, or it has the potential to be. Tiny TOE Press handcrafts books to keep overhead as low as possible and to season each of our paperbacks with love. Perfect iterations of your book are as sterilizing as having your story over-edited. Tiny TOE Press doesn’t have as much practicality as the more traditional presses, but our books make up for that with their quirks.

JT: The world ended last Saturday. How has your life changed?

MD: I can officially say I’m not the kind of person who euthanizes perfectly healthy pets.

JT: I always thought Youth in Asia would be a great name for a rock band. Have you ever had a rock star fantasy?

MD: I have trouble wearing sunglasses and keeping a straight face. I like that other people are rock stars. They can fill those shoes.

Austin Nights is available for purchase from Tiny TOE Press.

Jennifer Thompson likes to think she hasn’t sold out to The Man. When not writing computer manuals and other business spin-doctory, she writes for fun and has had a modicum of creative success in Adbusters, SMUT magazine, and several other information superhighway poetry, fiction, and humour publications. She is currently enjoying reviewing submissions and other fun endeavors at Black Heart.