Interviews with Andrez Bergen and Kristopher Young
Andrez Bergen does a lot of things. He’s been a journalist for nearly two decades. He writes music and runs a record label, as well as various websites. Now, he’s a published author. Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat is his debut novel, and it’s getting all sorts of good press.
TSMG is an odd sci-fi tale of corruption in a dystopian future, set in Melbourne, Australia. (Bergen is himself Australian, though he now lives in Japan) It features an immediately likeably protagonist, Floyd Maquina, who is a government endorsed ‘seeker.’ Floyd’s job is to hunt the deviant menace that threatens the future of the last inhabited city on the planet. This could almost be a special edition, vegemite-flavoured version of a certain Philip K Dick story.
But that ain’t even the half of it.
TSMG is also homage to the golden age of film noir. It’s a cigar puffing, whiskey sipping, piano playing, bar lout, and the book may very well stir up memories of a black and white nature. Andrez makes a million and one references to movies (The Third Man and The Maltese Falcon, in particular, are heavily drawn on) and the settings are stuffed to the margins with inspiration from this classic era of cinema.
This novel was released by Another Sky, an American press that is taking a bold and refreshing stance with its approach to marketing the books that it publishes. Kristopher Young (author of the novel Click) is the big man behind the scenes over there, and was the editor for TSMG. These guys are running a very interesting looking show; they offer electronic copies of their titles for free and sell hard copies on a sliding scale system that starts at cost price and allows buyers to donate an additional amount if they wish.
You can find TSMG at Another Sky’s website here.
Andrez and Kristopher were each kind enough to talk to me about the book and about Another Sky Press.
You can find part 2 of this interview here.
Part 1: The Goat
Andrez, first things first, welcome to Solarcide. To begin I’d like to ask about your background as a writer as your bio shows a rather eclectic nature to your projects. Man, there can hardly be enough hours in the day for you! Has fiction always been amongst your interests or has journalism been your primary writing gig before now?
Honestly? [laughs] There needs to be a global reboot in which the 24-hour clock is deconstructed then rejigged to make it a round 30, just so I can catch up on some extra beauty sleep. God knows I need it. I have my fingers in far too many pies; jack of all trades but ace of none, and all that jazz.
Writing fiction is definitely the thing that’s hung in there since I was a wee tacker. It was my first real love, and it afforded me escapism from a pretty hairy childhood and an über-abusive older brother – who actually seemed to dig some of my yarns.
Journalism was something I drifted into at uni. It opened more doors and occasionally earned some cash along the way, plus music writing correlated with my interest in actually making tunes myself from about 1996 on. And I’ve always loved movies, so writing about them has been a bonus.
All of which mean that I’ve been distracted from creative fiction over the past 16 years, but I always rediscover the beast – and a lot of journalism is creative fiction anyway.
So, Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat. The first thing I’d like to talk about is your style of narration. The prose is casual and at times it’s almost playful. It’s the movie references and the slang. It’s Floyd’s friendly attitude to the reader. (During one early scene he happily breaks the fourth wall and warns about an break in continuity) Any particular reason why you chose this approach?
First up, an admission: it was my editor Kristopher’s idea to knock down that fourth wall, and I love him for that – it works, somehow. I think a lot of the other quirks regarding narration, and the underlying playfulness, were things extremely important to me when writing the story. It’s dark and oppressive and it needs that touch; besides, I was brought up on British humour and I think there’s a lot of baggage from that in there. I loved the way Joseph Heller undercut the drama in Catch-22, and the manner in which Terry Gilliam and Tom Stoppard did it in Brazil. I think a cheeky bit of mirth is the great leveller, and I know that’s something I fortunately shared with Kristopher. Luckily he also reined me in when it got a bit obscure or out of hand.
Dare I suggest you pulled that rein from his hand on the odd occasion? There’s a certain sporting authority that feature in one scene that were certainly a little surreal. Bang on the money mind, hailing from one of the handful of nations that give a damn about cricket as well, I can believe that it might actually survive a near total apocalypse. Hmm, cricket and cockroaches, eh? There must have been some really crazy stuff in there at one point for the story to end up so quirky even after the editing?
Frankly some of the journey was so surreal you could carve it up, pin a name on each piece, and call them deranged – I wanted to push perimetres and sometimes did that in completely self-indulgent, cryptic ways so I’m glad my eds picked me up on those bits. But you’re right, there’s still a wealth of cryptic chestnuts squirreled away in there that probably only I will ever notice, or my eds noticed and tactfully ignored – or shared the cheek. [laughs] And as for the cricket references, I’m glad someone else appreciates them, and how appropriate is it that the sport survives armageddon? That part of the novel actually tapped into another story I once wrote called The Cricketers, in which a similar post-apocalyptic society was completely restructured around a gladiatorial version of cricket. It wasn’t good enough for a stand-alone piece – it felt too much like Rollerball rammed into that old Rutger Hauer movie Salute of the Jugger.
The cockroaches are a direct influence of living in Tokyo – my first apartment here was infested with the buggers. Funnily enough I never saw a single one while I lived in Melbourne, but there’re plenty in Sydney and up north, and given that they’re the great survivors – and the weather in Melbourne appears to have become more humid in the timeline of the book – I figured they’d mass-migrate to the last city in the world.
Of course, lurking behind the movie analogies and the cute, goat-based artwork is altogether more sinister affair. This is a tale of oppression and bloodshed, and Floyd is a man who carries his fair share of troubles. Even at its darkest hour though, the story maintains its style, and it made me laugh during scenes that would normally be anything but funny. Was it difficult to strike this balance, to keep the smile on your reader’s faces as you lead them away from the brightly lit areas and into the seedy alleyways of the story?
Actually, there were times when the story wrote itself, particularly in its last pre-editing draft; I guess I’d had about 16 years to get it right and to dwell over it somewhere in the recesses of my head, though there were years on end when I swear I didn’t consciously give it a moment’s thought. The tale always was sinister, right from the very first short story it came out of – which was basically what is now the dream sequence in the novel.
Floyd’s life is fairly bleak and the culture around him is oppressive and alien, but the last thing I wanted was for him to be a morose downer of a character. What I love about two of my favourite noir films, Bogart in The Maltese Falcon and in The Big Sleep, is the way in which he keeps the wisecracks coming no matter how diabolical or dangerous the situation.
Plus I grew up on the wisecracking ‘60s Marvel superheroes gifted the gab by Stan Lee and Roy Thomas – these guys made witty asides even as they got the crap beaten out of them. But there were also the darker tones, from the Stan Lee/Jim Steranko Captain America stuff in 1969 through to Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil in the early ‘80s.
All this is a bit off the point of your question, I know, but it does give you some background guff. Equally important here was my editors’ input regarding the humour, and what worked – and what didn’t. We didn’t always agree, and you have to remember that I come from more of a British humour background whereas Another Sky Press is an American company, but Kristopher especially injected some bonus elements I loved.
There’re certain sections of the novel that make me smile and occasionally chuckle, even now after literally hundreds of times of reading them, and if other people find those points amusing – without them detracting from the story – well, then, that’s bloody brilliant.
I’ve a strong suspicion that Floyd’s love of film noir might stem from a passion of your own, would that be far from the truth? What about this genre captures your fascination?
Yep, you’ve hit the nail on the head. I love film noir too, especially the 1940s offerings by directors like John Huston, Carol Reed, Billy Wilder, Jules Dassin and Howard Hawks. It’s the combination of the cars, the telephones, the styles, the drinks, the cigarettes… the deft use of black-and-white film stock with that particular ‘noir’ lighting and a yarn that doesn’t flaunt your archetypal happy Hollywood ending.
The actors work it too – the ensemble casting in Huston’s The Maltese Falcon is to my mind one of the best ever assembled: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Lee Patrick and Elisha Cook Jr. The interplay between them, feeding off Dashiell Hammett’s novel, is just plain superb.
I’ve seen that 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon over 100 times. Really. The Third Man I’ve probably seen about three dozen times, and The Big Sleep a clean ten. The Japanese have a word, otaku, which basically combines nerd with obsessive. I think that’s easily me with noir.
Ok, man, you played fantasy football before, right? Well, either way, now it’s time for fantasy character casting and TSMG: the movie just got the go ahead. The director is planning to shoot in faithful film noir style, and he want to know who you think should play Floyd and Laurel. Any actors/actresses working today you’d like to see get the gig?
I actually got asked this same question last week, and I’ve gotta admit it’s something that’s occasionally bounced about in my grey matter, especially since I’m so into the celluloid version of anything – so why not my own novel? They’ll make an action adventure romp out of a breakfast cereal these days, so maybe TSMG could be the follow-up movie?
And I did talk about it a bit with Kristopher about a year ago, when we got all whimsical and imagined our dream casting if the bugger ever did get licensed. That was in between heavy editing, so I think we can be forgiven. Anyway, rambling and disclaimers aside, I think Floyd is the difficult one. I don’t quite know who I’d be 100% happy with, since in my mind he was just a bit of me, but also someone a little out of focus, probably because I was writing from inside his headspace and you don’t really tend to look at yourself all that often. He’s definitely not me per se, but I think you get the gist. It has to be someone who pulls off the disparate influences of Bogie, Orson Welles, Charles Bukowski, William Shatner in the early ‘60s, Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye, James Caan circa Rollerball, a young Harrison Ford, and traces of Nick Charles from The Thin Man in his classier moments. Tough call. Maybe Clive Owen, Gary Oldman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (in a few years’ time) could punch it out between themselves? Or better yet have a drinking contest to see who wins? An Aussie actor would be nice – I think Simon Baker from The Mentalist might be able to pull it off. I dig the depth of pain he sometimes shows in his eyes and the sense of humour he flips on and off, plus he’s about the right age for it.
The others are easier. If we’re looking at people working today, Marion Cotillard could do Laurel well so far as I’m concerned, Ian McKellan or Tom Courtenay might discover Deaps, and my friend suggested Michelle Williams as Dorothy. She could pull it off, perhaps.
Strictly speaking I’d prefer Australians in these roles, but I haven’t lived in the country for a decade so I’m a bit out of touch with who’s who in the acting scene there now, aside from the success stories in Hollywood. I think I’d like to see veteran Aussie actor Jack Thompson as Colman (I’m an old fan of Jack’s), but I think he may be a bit old now at 70. I think Cate Blanchett would be great as Floyd’s mum. I know she’s too young, but remember Iva’s had a wealth of cosmetic surgery and it’d be a fun role for her to sink her teeth into.
You know what? I’m just going off on my own merry tangent here – I doubt any director or producer would care what I have to say anyway, and god forbid we actually get it optioned.
Another element that features heavily in TSMG is that of the altered perspective. Between the drink and drugs, the dreams, and the hallucinatory ‘tests’ that are inflicted on Floyd by his employers, the reader might come away from this feeling like they’ve been on a trip of their own. Was this something you always intended to be a factor or was it a case of a rolling stone that gathered momentum as it went along?
In the original short story that was not the intention, but then again I was a lot younger and, let’s face it, more innocent. Over the intervening years my understanding of story-telling has developed thanks to a wider intake of influences from the print media and cinema, plus things like virtual reality cropped up in the early ‘90s and I was a bit silly at a few warehouse rave parties just after that. I’ve also always liked my alcohol a bit too much, so the drunken stupour is something I’m familiar with.
Somewhere along the line all these things criss-crossed and I realized I liked the notion that it was difficult to tell where reality started and the nightmare finished, let alone the government testing. Life can be like that at times, and the lack of clarity can make certain situations either scarier or easier to deal with – which is why Floyd does what he does.
Next I’d like to ask you about Another Sky. How did you come to work with Kristopher? What do you think of the model these guys are working with, is that something that drew you to them?
I ended up going with Another Sky mostly because of that philosophy and a superb ‘punk’ ethic I love and appreciate since I was once a try-hard post-punk with an orange mohawk – a long story for another interview that’ll probably never happen, fingers crossed.
Anyway, the fact that they sell the paperback at cost price in order to keep it as cheap as possible for readers – who in turn can set the final price in the purchase by choosing what they’d actually like to contribute (if anything) to the creative team behind the book – appealed to me on so many levels.
I really, really dig this system, and I’m glad I chose Another Sky for other reasons as well – they’ve turned out be incredibly supportive, great mates, and were the perfect people to embark with in the editing process.
What’s next for you, man? Any other writing related adventures that you have planned?
Ye gods, I think my family want me to take a break from it all – first the elongated editing process for the novel, and now the promotional calisthenics. I think my daughter believes the computer is joined to my hip. So this year I want to spend more time with her – she’s only five – and I really need to knuckle down and study Japanese, as well as some paying gigs as a freelance journalist.
But I’m launching the novel in Melbourne in August – the first time I’ve been back home in two years, and that’s the stomping ground where the action in TSMG takes place, so that’ll be an interesting rite.
I’m also mulling over another novel. Shhh, don’t tell my family.
The trip back to Melbourne sounds like it should be good fun, a visit home for you and a chance to promote the book in its own habitat! Any special promo plans for that one? What do the people back home think of your vision for the future of the city, you had any feedback?
Yeah, I’m really looking forward to it; I haven’t been home for almost two years and I’m missing my family and friends and a good round of Melbourne-made fish and chips, which is basically shark and chips. Luckily Vegemite I can find here in Tokyo, albeit in short supply. It’ll be winter – August is the coldest month – but at least I escape the Tokyo humidity, and it’ll be a welcome relief to be in a country that isn’t actually shaking most days!
I really can’t wait. We’ve also lined up the Australian book launch for the novel on 10th August, at a gallery called For Walls in the heart of the CBD, and you’re right – it’ll be a little surreal launching the novel in the place where the action on page takes place, but then again we did the Tokyo launch 2 weeks after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami over here, and during the meltdown at the nuclear powerplant at Fukushima, 230km from Tokyo… a post-apocalyptic novel in an environment feeling remarkably post-apocalyptic.
So far we’ve got great feedback from a lot of people down there, especially people seated on the fringe of the underground scene. Ollie Olsen, one of the pioneers of electronic music in Melbourne since the 1970s, and someone I’ve pretty much hero-worshipped for years, told me he loved it.
Getting the mainstream Melbourne (and Australian) media to notice it, however, has been another kettle of fish completely. But that’s normal, right?
Many thanks for your time Andrez, congratulation on your success with TSMG, and all the best for the future. You’re welcome back here anytime!
Nah, thanks straight back at’cha – it’s nice to get inspiring questions, and these were fantastic. Plus you rock for all the support you’re giving us… and for just plain digging TSMG. Ta, mate!
Entrenched in Tokyo for the past 10 years, expat Aussie Andrez Bergen says that he quite likes to steal furtive glances in a pseudo-metaphysical rear-vision mirror, greedily brushing up on the ‘found art’ chapter of the Dadaists’ handbook—along the way hacking together electronic/techno tunes as Little Nobody, Funk Gadget, DJ Fodder, Nana Mouskouri’s Spactacles, Conversational Dentures, Atomic Autocrac, and a member of the LN Elektronisch Ensemble.
He’s been remixed by people like James Ruskin, Shin Nishimura, Si Begg, DJ Wada, Dave Angel, Bas Mooy, AUX 88 and Patrick Pulsinger, and recently released his fourth album ‘Hard Foiled’.
Originally from Melbourne, Bergen has also worked as a journalist over the past 17 years, for newspapers such as The Age in Australia and the Yomiuri Shimbun in Japan, and he’s written for magazines as diverse as Mixmag, Geek Monthly, Impact and Anime Insider.
In 2005 Andrez married artist Yoko Umehara, and in November that year they had the world’s cutest daughter, Cocoa.
You can find Andrez online here.
Click here for part 2 (An interview with Kristopher Young)