On Comedy, Millenials and Canadian Bacon, a Conversation with Andrew Hilbert
Andrew Hilbert's publisher contacted me for a potential feature conversation a month ago or so to help promote his latest novel Invasion of the Weirdos. Hilbert is the type of guy I really like yet rarely think about because he's always busy doing his thing and I'm always busy doing mine and we're not necessarily looking in the same direction, so I gladly accepted.
In case you don't know who Andrew Hilbert is from Adam, stop whatever you're doing and go read his novellas Death Thing and Bangface and the Glory Hole. Invasion of the Weirdos is nothing like these, but they give you a great foretaste of what kind of extreme lunacy he's capable of. Andrew and I had one of the most earnest, vibrant conversation I've ever had on this site, so I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Ben: Andrew. Thanks for stopping by. I know who you are and why people should read your new novel Invasion of the Weirdos but let's hear it from you: who the hell are you and why should people read your new novel? Or any book you've written, really.
Andrew: I'm Andrew Hilbert. Bearded weirdo. SPAM advocate. Chakra finder. 50 pounds overweight. Probably more. I'm a bartender in Austin and I've been writing, exploring weird projects, and doodling my entire life. I think my writing is pretty funny. It's quick, it's absurd, and dark. But I don't like to get bogged down in trying to get anyone to see the point or the deeper meaning of what I'm writing. It's there but I think if people find it funny and entertaining, that's enough. If they see a little past the entertainment, that's a big plus. But I think it's very important for people to laugh. The world is absolutely absurd and we're not allowed to laugh at it. Everything is supposed to be very important and serious and it's too bad we all take ourselves that seriously. You can deliver very important ideas through humor. But first and foremost, the humor is what matters.
Hopefully my books deliver on that. They're all different but they all go to dark places with absurd premises. So, if you want a little break from overlong thinkpieces on Pepsi and Heineken commercials and how seriously every pop culture pimple is taken, read one of my books!
I know I said earlier that I'm a SPAM advocate but I've cut down on the intake these days. Now I just eat it on stage like a poser.
Ben: It's interesting because you CLEARLY highlight the humor in your work, but the books I've read from you all had a thesis. Death Thing was lampooning Reagan-era paranoia and the (very) little known Bangface and the Glory Hole took shots at homophobia. I mean, your work is fucking hilarious, but you're not a gag-chaser. So, since no one on this site likes to laugh, have fun or whatever, what is Invasion of the Weirdos about? What's the thesis?
Andrew: I'm not a gag chaser but I feel like you can have multiple levels of things going on so that it's still enjoyable even if the message is lost on the reader. I hate when artists bang their message over my head. I don't like preachiness.
But if you insist on the hatred of laughter, Invasion of the Weirdos is a book about artists and millennials (my generation) who may be taking themselves too seriously. We worship our ideas more than our output. We want people to see us as we want to be perceived rather than the lazy folks we really are. A main thread of the story is people trying to fit in with a group of anarchist artists. When Ephraim lets slip he likes McDonald's, he is immediately ostracized and not invited to steal lunch with them from Whole Foods.
There's also some commentary on consumerism and the monetization of rebellion and art and it questions how well anyone can really disentangle themselves from a society that worships Ronald McDonald.
I think Invasion of the Weirdos looks at people who see themselves as highly individualistic but are still clinging to their own groups and they rule over those they associate with with a Stalinist grip. All the while, everyone's being fucked with by interdimensional beings who couldn't care less about humanity's struggles against itself.
Ben: Interesting. Why do you hate millenials so much, man? Didn't you know the new, cool countercultural stance to have is to like millenials and dismiss the concept of generations? C'mon man! Be cool. On a more serious note, though: you live in Austin, I live in Montreal, both hipster capitals in North America. We're both millenials. Do you think there's a problem with the way we do things or are critics just hanging on to a way of life that is antiquated. I believe millenials get a bad rep because they're so different, yet the world is evolving around them. What do you think about that?
Andrew: I think every generation is just as shitty as the next. I hate millennials because there's just so much of us everywhere. It's all technology. If boomers had Twitter and Facebook and grew up partially in AOL chatrooms in the fifties, they'd have been just as annoying as we are. We just happened to be the generation that got to broadcast every moment of our lives to everyone and no one at the same time.
Part of the problem is thinking about doing something, saying we're going to do something, or posting an opinion-laden thinkpiece from Medium feels the same way as actually going out and doing something. It's not only millennials but my circles are dominated by them because that's who I am. I'm a millennial and every time I wake up in the morning and I'm forced to look at my own rotting flesh in the mirror, I shudder and say hatefully, "you millennial, go eat a salad." Then I go to Taco Bell, feeling happy with my self-berating, and I tweet about how gross Taco Bell is.
I'm guilty of all the things I hate yet I own a selfie-stick that I got for purposes of making fun of selfie-sticks. There are layers and layers of irony to everything because we have chosen to expose ourselves so widely that almost anything can be taken back immediately. We can make a controversial opinion public and people have to wonder whether or not it's a troll or some really sophisticated joke that nobody gets. Or, worst of all, sincere. We're inundated with opinions and information to the point that nothing can really be taken at face value. Is that good? I don't know.
Critics of millennials are just the folks on the lawn yelling at everyone else to get off the lawn. Generation X was just as maligned for being slackers as we are and now they're taking government positions and becoming CEOs and writing about how awful millennials are. Millennials will have our time to shit on the next generation, whatever kind of fuck up they become. I look forward to being more crochety and irritable than I am now. It should be pretty fun. Maybe I'll write a Medium thinkpiece about how terrible the next generation is just to get ahead of the curve. Maybe sell some books.
Ben: hah, see? This interests me. The bottomless pit of existential despair behind the veneer of humor. THAT I believe is why your work is worth reading: you're reverse-engineering what is seemingly hopeless. Homophobia, for example. There's no way you can deconstruct it without embracing it like your character did in Bangface and the Glory Hole. Streotypes become satire to become human again. You give a shit, Andrew Hilbert. Tell me I'm wrong.
Andrew: I totally give a shit. I'm a hopelessly cynical optimist. But some days I'm an optimistic cynic. I think I play well in a pit of despair rather than in a McDonald's ball pit. But there's something to reach for at the bottom of a pit. I think that's what it's all about. But since you told me to: you're wrong, Ben and I think it's because you're Canadian. Tell me, what do you call Canadian bacon out there?
Do Canadian menus list food prices with tax included or do they do the very American thing of adding a plus tax line to every price? In Germany, I know they give out the full price and it probably makes them hate their government less than Americans hate our government. I'm just wondering how Canadians do it. You all seem happier than we do.
Ben: We call bacon, bacon here. I don't know if we have Canadian and American bacon or just Canadian bacon, but we don't discriminate bacon because we're happy to have it. I believe our menus don't include taxes either. They come at the end of the meal and at the bottom of the bill. Tell me, though: why the obsession with bacon? I mean, it's not just you. There is an inordinate amount of discussions centering around bacon, coffee, being lazy and misanthropic on social media. Why do you think people think it's cool to be a mediocre person in 2017?
And by that, I don't mean I'm any superior but at least I don't brag about it. It's like Coach Taylor said in Friday Night Light: you need to strive to be better than others, not necessarily be. The character is in the try.
Andrew: It's probably a cultural response to yoga and kombucha people.
I think you're right about the try thing. I've never seen Friday Night Lights but I think that's the right sentiment. There are a lot of folks who just shit on everything and claim they can do better but never get up to do it. They're either stifled by the need for perfection or they fear the same ridicule they give to other failures. They are less than mediocre. They are not even on the scale.
To be clear, I don't think bacon symbolizes mediocrity but I think it blew up a few years ago and now people ironically carry bacon chapstick. It's just a weird cultural meme that will soon pass when pork prices inflate and we have to start eating each other to fit in.
Ben: Now, let's turn the question on its head. I heard you talk about promoting books on social media on J. David Osborne's podcast and I'm curious to hear you about this culture in itself, which you are by default a part of. What do you think of authors sharing Amazon links and telling you they wrote 900 words today? Is any of that going to lead to a Harper Collins contract? Would you even want one?
Andrew: I don't know how people get Harper Collins contacts but I'm assuming getting good sales counts for something. I've been able to pay a few major bills with book sales. Advertising your stuff on Facebook gets you only so far but every little bit counts. I think the biggest thing is going out and performing. You have to put yourself out there for anyone to care. I sell more books at readings and shows than I do on any other medium. I'm not crazy enough to try and make a living out of going on the road but being able to pay for a nice dinner I wouldn't have had otherwise is good enough.
The great thing Facebook does is build community. I would have never picked up Benjamin, by Pedro Proença if I hadn't heard other writers talking about his meme game. I would have never heard of Danger Slater if I didn't have any of the Portland writer community in my feed. These are things that people neglect about Facebook. We all shit on it and there's so much posing going on that it's easy to dismiss its value. Hell, I heard about Gabino Iglesias on Facebook and he lives in Austin. I've expanded my tastes thanks to writer strangers on Facebook and other social media.
I don't want to police any other author's behaviors but posting word counts seems to be masturbating and then asking for accolades from the people who didn't ask to see it but saw it anyways. If it works for you, it works. I don't do it because I don't see the point. Just write the fucking book and post about when I can read it.
If I got a big 5 contract, I'd love it. I'm not sure they are in the market for what I write but if they were, I'd be crazy to turn it down. I do sometimes daydream about having a book adapted into a flick and that's probably more likely (albeit remotely) than a big 5.
I like what I'm writing and I think my best is ahead of me so I'm going to keep doing it. If nothing comes of it then oh well. Some people spend their whole lives making rubber band balls to pass the time at their desk. I pass the time writing at my desk. If it's as profitable or as meaningful as putting rubber bands on top of other rubber bands, that's okay with me.
Occasionally I'll annoy people about buying my books on Facebook. We all do it no matter how disengaged we try to be about it. It's a fact of the game. Sometimes I make stupid videos to distract from the fact that I'm just yelling at everyone to buy my book. I'll link you an example here.
Ben: You're being interesting again: so, Facebook creates a community. Is it good or bad? What kind of experience did you have with your fellow writers. Because for all you know, I might not exist. I might just be an internet person.
Andrew: Whether you exist as Benoit or Francine or Thaddeus X-9, you're communicating and reviewing books honestly. You're the good part of the community. I haven't met you but we're corresponding. I read your reviews, you've read my books. On the internet, that's all there is.
Now, there is a toxic part of the community. There's vague pissing contests, pile-ons, and insults but even worse than that is someone masquerading as a publisher or writer but just using the community to become influential. I've had direct experience with this.
Looking back, I should've known better but I was a less experienced writer and someone wanted to publish my book. The most grievous sin he committed was claiming he would pay all his writers. That never happened. The only money I made on my first book was from direct sales at shows and live events. I'm a workhorse though so I made enough to be pretty happy and pay for some car work. The sales numbers I saw from Amazon, though, I knew I was owed more. I wasn't the only writer screwed by this. The publisher literally disappeared in the dead of night and re-emerged much later. Other things have come to the surface since then that I won't comment on because they are all allegations yet to be proven.
I think that strain of narcissism can run pretty rampant and writers have their own arrogance to blame for it, too. My arrogance led me to believe a newcomer with big ideas could be onto something. It was small scale but it seemed like the whole community was rooting for him. That has certainly changed.
I wrote Bangface pretty quickly after that and decided to self-publish after that because I knew what I was capable of in sales and I was a little stung by the whole experience. Luckily, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing picked up Invasion of the Weirdos. PMMP has published some of my favorite stuff and becoming a part of that library has been a damn dream.
I went off on a tangent, sorry. What do you see as the toxic side of the community? You have an interesting place in the community as a reviewer. Do you like seeing every fart of an idea by authors get expressed as status updates? Do you get any ass kissers (besides me, of course) because you're a reviewer?
Ben: Reviewers have a strange place in the "community." Sure, you form few and far between friendships but you're an expendable commodity for the majority of people, you know? You get your ass kissed until you write the review and then, people disappear. I had authors contacting me EVERY DAY and forming what I thought we meaningful online friendships until the day I reviewed their book. Then, they disappeared into the wilderness and/or became completely different people.
That and authors treating reviewers like convention fanboys are my two biggest complaints and there are reviewers out there acting like raging fanboys 24/7, which is problematic. I would lie if I told you I felt like a part of any community, man. I can count of the fingers of my hand the number of people in publishing I would call friends. I like you, but I wouldn't really call you a friend yet, you know?
Since you bring it up, let's talk about Double Life Press not to name it. Shit, I host an in-depth conversation with the guy on this site so let's not tiptoe around the subject. I hear you say on the JDO Show that he actually approached you for material, so it makes sense that you'd just throw something his way. Especially that Death Thing is a rather short book. But you know, this was literally a guy walking off the street and claiming : "Hey, I have a press. I'm going to make you rich." Why do you think people bought into that?
Andrew: I hear you about being "expendable." It's hard to have friends at all after a certain point in life but it's damn goofy for someone to fluff you until you review their shit and then disappear like you're a robot without feelings.
You know, I have no idea why people believed his schtick. Unfortunately, I feel like my book gave his schtick more credibility because it was well reviewed and he was able to promise more writers big things. I feel like he had at least 10 writers slated to have books out after the initial 3 who were Viharo, D'Stair, and me.
The appeal was having someone else value my work and believe in it enough to put it out, pay for a great cover, and advertise it. I didn't look too far into his background because he was tagging authors left and right in status updates seeming like he knew everybody for years and everyone seemed to love him. I had been printing little chapbooks out and selling them at performances before that so it definitely pumped up my ego to have someone approach me based on my short stories that were getting published on FFO.
Looking back, I'd probably be just as silly as I was if things went similarly but some good things come out of a disaster. I became more widely known beyond Austin thanks to Death Thing and somebody actually sent me fan art of the main character in that book. I became better friends with a lot of folks through the book so I really can't complain. I don't like languishing in the past yet. I'm sure there'll be a day when the past is all there is for me to think about and I'll be yelling at hooligans to stay off my patch of dirt but that day is not here yet.
Ben: The past seems to have worked for you on this case, though. You're like the final girl from a slasher movie. You've lived to tell the tale and you still have your dignity because you powered through the bullshit like a goddamn champ, Hilbert. You should be proud of yourself. I believe you're doing this for the right reasons, man. Do you think you're writing fiction for the right reasons? And could you articulate what these reasons are? Because few people do. Lots of writers out there, few of them are writing because they love to do it.
Andrew: The final girl gets the kill, haha. I don't know that there are any right reasons to write but I'm having a hell of a time doing it and that seems like reason enough. I enjoy building these characters and making little points about whatever it is I'm currently obsessed with. And I'm glad that it reaches the people who enjoy it. I've had a few people express their hatred for a few things I've written to me but that just means they hated it enough to finish it and articulate how much I annoyed them. But, hey, the final girl gets the kill and they'll never get that time back.
I think it's good to have a goal in narrative but writing fiction is an art form that requires a compelling delivery. Anyone can create a message and scold the universe for being wrong — just look at Facebook. But being compelling and letting the message blend into the delivery without becoming a Sunday school nun is how you keep a reader.
Ben: Here's a question I'm asking every interviewee from now on: do you think criticism is important? If so, why? It can apply to anything: books, movies, television, music. Why is it important to you as a reader or why isn't it? There's no wrong answer here, I'm just curious about how you think about it.
Andrew: Criticism is very important. For the reader, it helps unlock layers of meaning you may have struggled with or failed to see. It helps build an outer-world analysis of whatever happened in the world of the book. Even negative feedback does that. I've discovered as an author that people build more context for what it was you wrote. It gives it new life and it ensures that your work takes up more space than just the physical space on a bookshelf. Critics also tell you where you fucked up and, if you disagree, it's no big deal. Move on. Weirdly, criticism also tells you where to go next. Sometimes your work gets compared to things you've never seen or read. Go read them. Go see them.
I don't think criticism is just saying, "this fucking sucked." That's literally criticism but the kind of stuff you do tells readers why you thought it sucked. That creates a discussion around the work.
Ben: Thanks for doing this, man. It was genuinely fun. Can you tell us anything about what you're working on? Also, if you have people or projects to plug, go to town!
Andrew: Thank you so much for having me. This was fun. My brain is full of Mexican beer and street tacos right now. I'm with my wife in Mexico and having a blast. My latest book is Invasion of the Weirdos published by PMMP. The cover art was realized beautifully by Luke Spooner. It's a comedy about futility and I had a blast writing it.
Through my ultra small, unprofessional press, weekly weird monthly, I just released Weird Meat Buffet. It's a collection of art, short stories, and poetry. It's gross and weird and available on Amazon.
I'm working on a road trip novel about some recent retirees who are going on a honeymoon they couldn't afford when they get carjacked and kidnapped by a deprogrammed cult member.
Robert Dean's The Red Seven is a fantastic western revenge tale. I loved Gabino Iglesias' Zero Saints and I'm always looking forward to whatever he has to say on Electric Literature and LitReactor. Everything I've read by Jessica McHugh and Adam Cesare is phenomenal. Look out for Owen Egerton's next book, Hollow. I ran into him while he was working on it at different points and the amount of excitement coupled with uncertainty tells me that this is going to be a masterpiece. His last book, Everyone Says That At The End Of The World, was excellent. Catfish McDaris continues to be my favorite poet today. Just look him up on Amazon, close your eyes, and buy something.
Thank you so much for having me.