From Competitive Running to Stephen Malkmus: An Interview with Michael Heald

The first time I’d heard anything about Perfect Day Publishing was due to a write-up of Lisa Wells’s essay collection Yeah. No. Totally. in the Portland Mercury. Intrigued, I ordered a copy of the book, which turned out to be one of my favorite books of 2011. Sometime after that, I made contact with Michael Heald, the man behind Perfect Day; we’ve remained in contact ever since. As it turns out, Heald is a fine writer in his own right, and his collection Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension — the title essay of which appeared as a Sunday Story last year — is a terrific collection of nonfiction, touching on everything from competitive running to regionally-successful indie rock bands to Heald’s college-era romantic travails. Our discussion, conducted via email, follows.

When did running move from something in your personal sphere to something you decided to write about?
The running stuff was really kind of an accident. At the Olympic Trials last summer, I was looking for a project to keep me occupied while spending a lot of time in close quarters with my family. When I reached out to Ian Dobson I had no idea that would end up landing on one of the biggest stories of The Trials. The initial impulse to contact him came from a desire to investigate my high school experience — running was the thing I’d cared most about in high school, and I’d spent most of the book writing about college and my twenties. But once the drama unfolded at Hayward Field I realized I had a responsibility to Ian and his wife Julia to really tell their story properly, and not just write about myself like usual. And so it ended up being the closest thing to journalism in the book. I wasn’t shocked when “It Should Be Mathematical” got the attention of the distance running community after being published on Propeller, but I never expected that it would lead to a feature for Runner’s World (I just finished writing a meditation on the legacy of Steve Prefontaine). I think the lesson here is that some of these activities you feel like you’ve “outgrown” can end up being your best material.

Of the essays in the book, “This Is Part of Something Bigger Called Small” ended up being the longest piece by far. Was there a question of how to make this fit, structurally, into the book overall?
This was THE question when it came to figuring out the overall structure of the book. Initially, as the title suggests, I thought I was writing a book called Small. But the deeper I got into it, the more uncomfortable I grew at the thought that this version of myself — immature and insecure — was going to take up an entire book. I mean I’m still very immature and insecure, but when I was in college that stuff was much, much worse. And so I saw an opportunity to shorten this at one point 150 page thing to novella length (a memoirella, if you will) and then surround it with all these shorter things that, at least in my opinion, show that I’m not the biggest jackass ever. The idea was that with those shorter pieces I would tell the story of what happens to that jackass from college as he suffers through his twenties. I leaned heavily on the editing talents of Lisa Wells when structuring the book, but disagreed with her about where to put the Small essay. She felt like it should go last, but I wanted to sneak it in early, and kind of trick people into speeding through the first four pieces, and then starting in on it without realizing it’s 80 pages long.

Music plays a big role in nearly all of the essays, especially the title piece and the essay on MGMT. Would you say that that’s a characteristic of all of your work?
I’ve been working on Book Notes for the blog Largehearted Boy for the past few days, and it’s made me keenly aware of just how much music is in my book. I suspect it’s the result of being a failed musician–I was a music major in college–and also having leaned very heavily on pop music throughout many friendships and relationships to communicate feelings I was incapable of articulating. And so these intense periods of my life have ended up being soundtracked by whatever song or album I was in love with at that moment, and songs like “Malediction” or “Time to Pretend” have ended up accumulating all this meaning.

What’s next for Perfect Day?
We’re a book-by-book press, and at this point we don’t have a title for 2013. But it was only in March of last year that I decided to commit to finishing my own book, so who knows what will happen this year. My friend Jack Lewis is working on a graphic memoir about touring with his brother Jeff Lewis, but on our website that project isn’t slated for release until “2016 or so.” I plan on sticking with personal nonfiction, but I’ve also been thinking about looking into reissuing out-of-print books. I guess the best answer is that I know a Perfect Day book when I see one, and usually Perfect Day books don’t look like books to anyone else, including their authors. I’m a very hands-on editor, and the projects I get most excited by are the ones where I can really help shape the material.

Where do you see Perfect Day fitting in to the current state of literary Portland?
The literary talent in this town is just spectacular. But what might set it apart from a larger city is how supportive and interconnected the literary scene is here. Cheryl Strayed, Matthew Dickman, Vanessa Veselka, and Pauls Toutonghi all live within walking distance of my apartment. Jon Raymond and Emily Chenoweth just moved into the neighborhood. Kevin Sampsell is everywhere. Despite their various degrees of “fame,” these guys regularly are in the audience at reading series and are totally willing to perform for free. Ultimately they’re setting an example for the rest of us about how to be approachable and connected to the city. Interestingly, I think that the poetry scene might be the dominant one at the moment. The guys behind the Bad Blood poetry series are consistently pulling in 150 people to their readings, and some of the younger poets involved in that scene are starting to put out their first books. I’m super excited to read James Gendron’s debut, which will be out on Octopus Books in about a month. I’m afraid I’m not really answering your question. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t feel alone in being an ambitious writer and publisher in Portland. And what’s really cool is that the support is there, regardless of genre. For example, I’m going to a salon this week where I’ll probably be the only prose writer. If there’s any pressure in the Portland literary scene, it’s not related to aesthetics. The pressure, if it’s there, is to be a decent person.

What led to your decision to release Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension on Perfect Day? How did the process of editing your own work go?
It happened so quickly I almost didn’t realize I was making a decision. A year ago, I’d just put out Martha Grover’s book, and she and I were booking a west coast tour, and suddenly there were a bunch of opportunities for me to read my own work. In the six weeks leading up to the tour, I wrote the Eli Manning piece, the MGMT piece, the panic attack piece, and “The Guy From Sacramento.” The small essay was maybe half-done, and suddenly I realized I might have a book. One day in March I sat down and found myself making an announcement on Facebook that my book would be out by the end of year. I don’t think I told anyone in advance. Lisa Wells had been insisting for a while that I should be next, but it didn’t really register until that day that I was ready. The goal with Perfect Day was always to make the press respectable enough that I’d be honored to put my own stuff into the mix. I’m so grateful to Lisa, Martha, and Zach for writing great books and building the platform for my own work.

As for the editing, I feel very lucky to have been in control of the final product. So many writers complain about their book covers, whereas I got to work with Aaron Robert Miller, my favorite designer on the planet. So many writers complain about editors being “conservative,” or “not understanding the work,” and instead my book was edited by a committee of ten very talented writers and readers. I fought with them, listened to them, was often saved by them, but ultimately I had the final say. Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension is exactly what I want it to be. I did the interior layout myself, and so I was able to rewrite the final paragraph the day the book went to the printer. Something about that paragraph had been bugging me and just in time I figured out how to fix it. How many writers get to do that?

Is there any difference, for you, in writing about a nationally-known artist like Stephen Malkmus versus someone like Radiation City, who may not be as well-known outside of the Northwest?
Well the big difference between writing about Malkmus and Cameron Spies from Radiation City is that I actually know Cam. And in terms of the trajectory of his career, and life in general, Cam and I are peers. Whereas Malkmus … Malkmus occupies a unique place in the indie rock world. He’s a legend. I really have no interest in meeting Stephen Malkmus. Those encounters are guaranteed to be disappointing. But it just seemed appropriate to end the book with an actual encounter with a musician. Someone I saw eye-to-eye with. Up to that point I’d spent nearly 200 pages looking up to these various songwriters and athletes, and here’s this kid who I vaguely remember from high school as just kind of a goofy jock writing songs as an adult that absolutely floored me. And so that essay came out of a very simple idea: let’s go back to high school, drink some beers, watch football practice, and talk about how we got here. I will admit to a certain excitement in writing about a band that is still very regional, because if Radiation City blows up — and they should — I get to say I told you so.

Photo: Jaclyn Campanaro

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