Talking Paper Interview Series: Jim Ruland

Jim Ruland is a San Diego-based author and founder of the Vermin On The Mount [VOTM] reading series, which originated at the now-closed Mountain Bar in Los Angeles’s Chinatown section in 2004. Ruland previously told Nomadic Press that he started VOTM as a way to bring together, "novelists, bloggers, punk rockers, essayists, journalists, poets, people with a brown bag and something to say." VOTM’s irreverent approach has two homes at the moment—Book Show at 5503 North Figueroa in Highland Park, and 3rdspace at 4610 Park Boulevard in San Diego’s University Heights. Ruland has also organized offsite VOTM readings, including a February event at San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art featuring authors Lisa Brackman, Sean Carswell, Steph Cha, Heather Fowler, and Ben Loory; and a May 2015 European series of readings in Germany, England and the Czech Republic, teaming with VLAK magazine at the Prague Microfestival of Poetry (running from May 17–20, 2015) for a kick-off prose night event featuring Louis ArmandMorgan Childs, Sophia Disgrace, Phil ShoenfeltThor Garcia, and Ken Nash. Ruland previously harnessed his writing skills as an in-house copywriter for a San Diego-area Indian casino—using that five-year experience in the gaming industry as fodder for his recent debut novel, Forest of Fortune. He read an excerpt from that work at a Brooklyn reading hosted by author Jami Attenberg last autumn, which I covered for Nomadic Press. I recently followed up with Ruland to discuss his thoughts on author readings and what Vermin On The Mount’s West Coast sensibility has brought to the format.   

On VOTM Working with VLAK Magazine

Louis Armand

Louis Armand

It really is driven by my longstanding friendship with a guy named Louis Armand. He is an Australian writer who lives and teaches in Prague at Charles University. I met Louis 20 years ago at a James Joyce conference of all things. We met at the conference, and then we went on this adventure in Morocco and have just stayed in touch over the years. He was principally a poet and a James Joyce scholar. But then a few years ago, he started writing these really amazing novels that were published by equus press in England. I guess that kind of brought us back, because I started reading his work more closely, and I had him out for Vermin On The Mount a couple of times in San Diego. So we talked about future collaborations, and this year he invited me to the Prague Microfestival, which he helps organize. It is primarily an international poetry festival, but they kick off with a prose night every year. So he invited me to come out for that, and since I was going to be out there making the trip, he organized some other readings to help celebrate the launch of the fifth issue of VLAK. When you’re an Australian who lives in Prague, you don’t have many readers from the United States.

On the Value of Author Readings

Any reading comes from the author’s own desire of what the intrinsic value of the performance is. You always want to push something you want more readers for. Another way we do that is to go in front of an audience of people who haven’t read it, and give them a taste of it. In this day and age, whether that successfully sells books or moves the needle, so to speak, I think for the kind of work that I do in these projects to publish books through indie presses, the motivation has to come from a different place. For me, that’s about sharing this experience with people that I want to be around, to learn from, to be inspired by. So being able to collaborate with Louis and some of the other writers that he’s put together—some of who I met, some of who are completely new to me—and being able to do that in a place that I would not be able to get to on my own, is the reason for doing it.

On His Live Reading Roots

I went to college in southwest Virginia. Then I decided I needed to go back to California, and that that was the place for me. I went to work at a coffee shop in North Hollywood, and a coworker and I started up an open mic on the slowest night of the week. The person who owned the coffee shop let us do it. It was called Skinny Leonard’s Free Verse, which is kind of where my love of reading series that are also bad puns comes from. It was your typical open mic. Anybody could do whatever they wanted. This was in 1992, so we were definitely in the whole spoken word kind of phase, when half the people who came in were emulating Henry Rollins, or something like that. There was a lot of sing-songy quasi-poetry spoken word going on. But we were right next door to a recording studio, and every once in a while we would get famous musicians who would come in, and they would see what we are doing, and kind of be part of the audience for a few minutes. They’d hang out for a while and then go on. But one guy, Angelo Moore from Fishbone, really latched on to it, and he started to perform at our little open mic. That kind of taught me what a performer does and what a performance is all about. It really comes down to just one idea, which is you own the words. You own it. They’re your words. You own them. It’s your performance. It’s not something that exists in a book, and you just happen to read from it. It’s really about coming from within you. He would do things like time his entrance, so that he would start his performance outside the coffee shop as he was walking in. He’d keep a careful eye to make sure that he wasn’t interrupting anybody, so that he was stepping up into an empty space. He just kind of got us all to think about this performance differently.

On the Origins of VOTM

Back then, it was a fairly snot-nosed bratty kind of motivation, in that a lot of my writing at the time was online, and the only readings I was involved with were punk-rock writers. So we would do these different readings here and there, and we had a lot of fun with it. We did some interesting things. But it also felt like we were talking to the same audience of people, and it felt insular, because it was—it was a scene. So I was one of these people who would complain about it in bars, about how its all these little pockets of people doing different things. This is very true of other big cities, but there are all these entities that are bringing amazing writers to LA publishing companies or universities spend a lot of money bringing people in, but they don’t share. They do a poor job of letting the rest of the community know about it. They advertise it on campus and nowhere else. They advertise it to their mailing list and nowhere else. Maybe they’ll get a mention in a weekly. But more often than not, they wouldn’t do anything to publicize it. To start a website or a blog that was going to be this announcement of letting everybody know— that’s not why I’m interested in the arts. But I wanted to do a series that would pull from different scenes and do different things. So if you’re a poet, there’s plenty of places to go read. But there were fewer places if you’re a fiction writer. And if you were an essayist, a journalist, or even a blogger, forget it. I like journalists. Journalists never get invited to literary events. They have some most amazing stories, because they’ve witnessed all these things about the human experience that fiction writers and poets usually have to imagine. So I would get journalists, and people who would rant online—punk rockers who just had something to say. It was definitely a West Coast kind of thing. It was not five male novelists with elbow patches on their jackets. It was a very different kind of vibe from the very beginning. I also kind of stayed away from the things that I knew were already out there. I know that there are places for screenwriters to gather. There are tons of places for stand-up comics to do their thing. Same with poets. I like poetry. I read poetry. But I don’t have a lot of poets in the series, because there’s plenty of places where they can do their thing. Now, 11 years later, there are a ton of reading series in LA, and I don’t think those things are as true as they once were there. If you’re a writer, no matter what you do, there are places where you can go and perform.

On VOTM Venues

The most challenging aspect about having a reading series for any length of time is the venue, because venues in LA are always changing. It’s a pretty complicated history, but it started in Chinatown. Even after I moved away from LA and was living in San Diego, I kept it going in Chinatown longer than I had when I was in LA. So it was at the Mountain Bar, and the Mountain Bar shut down. I believe the reason was that one night, a patron had jumped off the roof, and that was the end of the Mountain Bar. It was not during one of our events. So for a while, we collaborated with 826LA in Echo Park. We had our readings there, which was really good. They are an excellent nonprofit. But when you’re there, you felt like you were in a classroom, which is what it is. While it’s a very cool classroom, it’s still a classroom and not really the vibe I was looking for with Vermin On The Mount. So there, we collaborated with Book Show, which was a very meticulously curated used bookstore in Frogtown. Then, Book Show moved from Frogtown to Highland Park in Northeast Los Angeles. So we’re still at Book Show. We’re just in a different venue. It’s in a place called 3rdspace. Now we had one-off events in San Diego at all of these different arts organizations, before we finally hit on 3rdspace, which is like a co-working space where people are writing, painting, or coding. They’re having different events with things like that.

In San Diego, in some ways it’s easier to get a crowd, because you don’t have as many people coming through. Most writers and performers skip San Diego. But it’s still a town. Yes, it’s a beach town, and it’s a town that likes to take it easy. We’re ambivalent about shoes and pants, and we walk around in flip-flops and shorts. That’s what I’m wearing right now. But right in the city, we have four universities. There are really good libraries here, and there’s a lot of writers just like in any other major city. We also have another half-dozen community colleges. So when you do get performers, and people find out about them, they’ll come.

On Working as a Casino Copywriter

I was working for an advertising agency in LA. That’s primarily the work that I do for my day job. I’m a copywriter. I had fallen in love with a woman who’s now my wife. We had been doing a long-distance romance for a couple of years between Los Angeles and San Diego, split cities, where I would come down to her on Amtrak or where she would come up, and we’d spend every weekend together. But I was looking for a way to move down to San Diego, and on Craigslist, I saw an ad for an in-house copywriter at an Indian casino. I thought, “Well, how strange is that?” But it kind of made sense for the type of copywriting that I do. I do a lot of customer relationship management (CRM) and loyalty programs, which is how the casinos make their money—by building these programs that bring repeat visits. At one point, my dad was a part owner of a racehorse, and I like betting on sports and things. The whole culture of gambling appealed to me. It was something I already knew a little bit about, and working in that environment appealed to me. But little did I know what lay in store for me.

They gave me access to every aspect of the casino, except for security and where they kept all the money—standard surveillance operations, which are always kept separate from everything else by law as part of gaming commission practices. But I was the only copywriter, and I worked on something different every day. I never knew what it was going to be. It could be a placemat one day, or an e-mail, a newsletter. Maybe I would go interview someone who won a bunch of money or go talk to somebody who worked in bingo for 20 years or work on a documentary on the tribal side about their practice of mashing acorns for food, which they’ve been doing for centuries. I never knew what was going to happen. So even though I worked on a computer and I had a desk, I was still always going to meetings, and random places throughout the casino. I’d get glimpses of what was happening on the floor, in poker, food and beverage, or the entertainment side of things—it was always changing.

In the casino business, there is no such thing as an ad that’s going to make someone who doesn’t gamble want to gamble. It doesn’t exist. There’s not going to be an offer so tempting that it’s going to make me say, "You know what? I want to go by that casino and try this game." People are either risk averse or not. That’s a simplification. There are various degrees of that. There are other things like, "Come in and get a free buffet." That might get somebody who doesn’t gamble through the door. Maybe they will put a few dollars in a machine, but they’ll never come back, and it’s probably not going to be enough to offset the cost of the buffet and the advertising. So the casino business really is about getting repeat visits. It’s interesting because there are over 561 tribes that have casinos. When you think of that on a state-to-state basis, here in San Diego there are a dozen casinos, and in Riverside County there’s a dozen. So that’s a lot of options for people in Southern California to go to, or in Los Angeles County, Santa Barbara County. You’re in competition with these other casinos, so you’re trying to get people to make an extra visit to yours, rather than the competition’s.

The testimonial has always been a tried-and-true form of advertising. It takes two forms: The first is a testimonial from someone famous who says, "Hey, you know me from this TV show, but now I am selling these shoes," or "Now I’m representing this life insurance"—things like that. A lot of it has to do with the demographic. It was funny, in the San Diego market, Kenny Rogers was the spokesman for a casino here for a number of years, basically just trading off of his reputation of that one song, "The Gambler." So knowing when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em, when to walk away, when to run, which I kind of appropriate and sneak into my novel. But what I see more than anything are testimonials from average people who win big money—you know, people in sweatshirts and maybe ball caps, and if they’d known that they were going to have their picture taken, they would’ve maybe taken a shower that day or that week. You see a lot of that in the casino business—normal everyday people winning a big jackpot.

Jim Ruland's recent book, Forest of Fortune

Jim Ruland's recent book, Forest of Fortune

On Author Reading Advice

A theme that’s running through all of this is that knowing how to sell to somebody, what to read to somebody, or what to perform really has to do with the audience.

A theme that’s running through all of this is that knowing how to sell to somebody, what to read to somebody, or what to perform really has to do with the audience. This was something that was a surprise to me when I was first starting out [in advertising]. I mean, you really can’t write anything in the ad world until you know what your audience is. It’s kind of similar when you’re reading from your own work. Am I going to be in a library where I can count on people being able to hear everything I say and pay attention? Or is it going to be a noisy bar where I probably can’t, and where there’s going to be distractions? Where maybe not everybody is there to see your reading, so they’re not going to be as respectful as people who really came for the reading. So there are all these different things that you have to compete with. My advice is if you’re going to read in a bar setting or someplace with distractions, something that is raucous, irreverent, humorous, or involves sex is a good way to get the attention of people who maybe were not prepared to hear you read from a work of literary fiction that day. Those are things that have a very broad mass appeal, plus they can be fun to read. If you’re reading in a bookstore, it’s never a bad idea to read from the very beginning of the book, because people can then buy the book and continue reading. I think maybe the biggest mistake I see is people reading too long. Writers, especially prose writers, have a sense that they need to read the whole thing, that they need to tell a complete story. That’s just absolutely not the case. I mean, I can think of an ad on TV. It’s 30 seconds, and it has a message that it gets across. Or, you can tell a joke in anywhere from five seconds to a minute-and-a-half. Again, it has a beginning,  middle, and an end. So I think that writers need to kind of divorce themselves from the idea that, "Well, you need to do this entire thing, so that the reader gets it." In fact, while you can win an audience over, you can just as easily lose the audience. If I’m at a group reading and there’s five or six people there, and one person decides "No, I’m going to read for 20 minutes," basically what they’re saying is, "My story is more important than everybody else here, so I want you to listen." That’s a big turn off. A lot of writers will also feel like, "Well, my collection does a lot of different things," or "My novel does a lot of different things, so I’m going to read two sections." I mean, that’s great if you’re a featured reading. But if you’re not, if you’re part of a group reading, it’s always a big mistake. Because, one, you’re going to go over your time limit, and two, people are going to choose. They’re going to make a comparison. They’re going to contrast the two pieces. They’re going to say, "How about that one?" Like I said, you can win me over with the first piece, and then lose me with the second. You want to keep it short and leave the audience wanting more.

Interview by Christian Niedan
Nomadic Press
Niedan is a New York City-based writer and television producer. He is the creator and manager of a film website called Camera In The Sun, which looks at how people think of the places and cultures they see on screen.