Official Jonathan Messinger Website

Official Featherproof Books Website

A Review of Messinger's Hiding Out (2007)
By Nick Ostdick, Jan 13, 2008

If you don’t know Jonathan Messinger, here’s the skinny.

An indie-lit juggernaut, Messinger is the host of the much lauded Dollar Store Reading Series in Chicago, a series revolving around trinkets he finds at his local dollar store whereby he asks writers to compose short pieces based on those items—the series has sold out for the last three years; he used to edit THISISGRAND, an online publication of creative non-fiction about Chicago’s public transit; he is the co-editor of Featherproof Books, a small press of fiction; and now he’s an author, with his first book, Hiding Out (Featherproof Books, 2007), a collection of short fiction, released in October.

Much like his resume, the book is well-rounded, pleasantly varied in scope and voice. Messinger (pictured right), in a most self-effacing way, displays his keen eye for storytelling through discontented twentysomething professionals all the way down to coming-of-age preteens. In stories like “True Hero,” (which is one of the strongest stories in the collection) a lonely man dons a robot costume in attempts to win back his girlfriend. In the title story, Eamon Patterson, buried in middle-management, corporate drudgery, receives mysterious emails from himself that employ his confidence in wooing a female co-worker.

And it’s not all existentialism or discontentment though, and Messinger, while at times a little ambiguous when it comes the meaning of these finely crafted stories, does not shy away from tackling weightier issues. In “Big Doug Rides Torch,” Messinger takes on gender roles through the purchasing of motor scooters and affairs with women next door. “The Birds Below,” while a slightly worn and formulaic coming-of-age piece, is at the same time the most heart-wrenching, again dabbling in masculinity issues when a little brother makes a move on his big brother’s girlfriend.

And as if the stories weren’t enough, even the book itself is odd and quirky and pleasantly surprising. Illustrations by Chicago artist Rob Funderburk are placed before each story, perhaps foreshadowing each piece — all of these images fall back on the issue of hiding, which seems to be an issue the book is trying to tackle. There are also stories hidden throughout the book, for instance a 50 worder about a car crash on the second page next to the copyright information.

So far, Hiding Out, which, as you can imagine is a little unorthodox in appearance and substance, has not remained hidden from readers. Messinger toured the country in October, performing at readings to promote the book, which has just gone into a second printing. Recently, Jonathan Messinger took some time out of his busy schedule (he’s the books editor for the weekly culture publication Time Out Chicago) to answer some questions about the book and indie-publishing in general.

An Interview with Jonathan Messinger

Nick Ostdick: Who is Jonathan Messinger the writer? What’s he all about - i.e., other literary projects you have, previously published work (in lit journals or otherwise), what makes you tick as a writer, that kind of stuff.

Jonathan Messinger: Christ, start off with an easy one, huh? As a writer I’m always looking for challenges, whether they be challenges of form, style or content. So to that end, I’m constantly messing around with various projects. There are just a billion ways of getting at truth, empathy and the other big goals of writing, so I get pretty restless trotting one path. It’s called immaturity, maybe. As for what other stuff I’m working on, I have a few stories coming out in a few places, the most immediate being the next issue of Other Voices and Awake! an anthology from Soft Skull.

NO: Hiding Out is your first book. Why a collection of short stories? Why not a novel? What was the process like of writing the book/compiling the stories for it?

JM: I just love short stories and the collections they come in, plain and simple. I love the novel and certainly understand its allure over the story collection, getting lost in another world and riding along with a character for 200+ pages is an unparalleled experience. But I like the way short story collections are able to sort of strafe their themes, attack them from all angles, attack different themes or concepts. I like their diversity. So that’s what I tried to do with Hiding Out. I had about 30 stories on hand that I combed through, tried to imagine them in a book together, what they would say when they were part of the same piece, how they changed, etc. It was an exciting process. I’ve had a couple false starts with novels, and actually wrote one through to the end, but wasn't satisfied with it. I’d worked on it over the course of a year or so, and by the time I was at the end, I disliked the beginning, etc. Sometimes these things don’t work out. I got another one I’m working on now. Fingers crossed.

NO: For my money, simplistically, most of the stories in the book are coming-of-age stories, but a coming-of-age at many different stages of life, not just in the formative, teen years. Were you writing under some giant idea you were trying to get across, or taking each story on its own with its own, unique message?

JM: Yeah, that’s an interesting take on it, “coming of age.” I guess that’s true. I definitely wasn’t writing with one idea in mind, because those stories are taken from about four years of writing, so a lot of that was me trying to work out things I’ve been thinking about for the past half-decade: relationships, death, growing up, screwing up.

NO: I think my favorite story in the book is “True Hero.” How did this story come about? What was the genesis of this piece? What was the inspiration for it?

JM: The inspiration actually came from a party my friends used to throw called “The Dome of Doom.” Everyone had to dress as a “character” they made up, and then there was this elaborate dance contest, where you battled another partygoer in the Dome of Doom, and your dance moves had to reflect your character. It was ludicrous, but fun. That was the literal inspiration. But in the writing of a lot of these stories, I weathered the withering of a nine-year relationship, so that’s obviously playing in there, too.

NO: You have illustrations by Rob Funderburk before each story that kind of give a general feel for each piece. Why have illustrations and how do you think it helps the book advance meaning? Each Featherproof book, to me, is eye-candy. Do you feel there is a direct line between visual artists and writers?

JM: I think they’re an interesting gateway into each story. I’m not sure if they advance the book’s meaning at all, but they do add another layer. Rob’s drawings are so simple and evocative, that they seem to be this whole other thing. But I’m a big believer in a book being an art object, not just a container for words. So with this book, the cover photo (from Nathan Keay’s “Fitting In” series), the illustrations, hiding a few stories in there, all of them were meant to echo or add something that was in the text.

NO: Do you have a favorite story in the collection? Which one? Why?

JM: “Bicycle Kick” is probably my favorite. I think it hits on almost all of the themes in the book, and the narrator of that story cracks me up. That’s the one story in there where I feel like a character just took the story from me and told it his way. I had little to do with it.

NO: Let’s talk a little bit about Featherproof Books. When/why/how did you start the press? And I really love the idea of mini-books (single short stories that can be downloaded for free from Featherproof’s website and assembled like books with stapes and a little folding) - they seem made for bus/train commutes. How did those come about?

JM: We started in March 2005, with our first book coming out in December 2005. Our seed money came from the sale of Zach Dodson’s [co-editor of Featherproof] car. This is how it goes for small presses, sometimes. As to the why: We simply saw a need for it in Chicago. There’s this enormous, diverse, wonderful writing crowd here, but almost no book publishers. Now, that doesn’t mean we're only publishing Chicago writers, we like to think our radar is larger than that, but I do think a vibrant writing scene should have a vibrant publishing scene, as well. And yeah, the mini-books are exactly that, little packages of goodness for you to print off at work and stick in your back pocket and read on the train ride home. We wanted to do something different than was already out there, and would be a sort of online/print hybrid. Also, the minis allow us to work with loads of writers outside of our books.

NO: Until recently you hosted a reading series called The Dollar Store? Give us the skinny on that? How integral (if at all) was running that series to you writing the stories that comprise Hiding Out?

JM: The Dollar Store ran for three years. I like to think it’s still around, just taking a vacation. We’ll probably come back and do another in the spring, and start doing them again sporadically. Every month for three years just became a little much. About half the stories in the book started out as Dollar Store stories. The great thing about doing a monthly show was having these monthly deadlines; it made me more prodigious than I probably would have been. It was an interesting process, taking stories written to be read to an audience and making sure they work on the page, fixing things where I knew I was maybe mugging a little bit, or depending upon a performance to get something across.

So far, Messinger’s book has garnered rave reviews from such writers as Stuart Dybek, Elizabeth Crane, and John McNally, and such publications as Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and The Boston Globe. To do any of the following - order Hiding Out, read an except, or download and read their free mini-books - visit www.featherproof.com.

decomP Staff Reviewer Nick Ostdick divides his time between Milwaukee and Chicago. He is the Editor of RAGAD, a literary broadside and online magazine of fiction. His work has appeared widely in such places as Slow Trains, Pindeldyboz, Word Riot, THE2NDHAND, and Letter X. Visit him at his blog.