Jim Munroe greets me with a gift: two zines created by a friend and colleague who has been staying with him recently. It’s fitting, in a way, that Munroe would begin our interview by promoting zine culture rather than putting himself front and centre. While at first he appears to be more excited and animated discussing do-it-yourself publishing projects, zine culture, and left-wing politics, it quickly becomes clear that these three topics, combined with a creative bent, led to the creation of Munroe’s most recent novel, Angry Young Spaceman. Munroe’s book follows Sam Breen, a scrapper-turned-instructor, on an intergalactic adventure as he teaches English to a group of Octavians, a race of octopus-like aliens, on their home planet, Octavia, in 2959. Munroe envisions Octavia—and the rest of the galaxy for that matter—as almost cartoonish. People hop from planet to planet in rocket ships and move around town in flying saucers, all of which seems in keeping with the snow-globe world on the book’s front cover.
But, as Munroe points out, he purposely created his vision of the future as it was imagined in 1959. “I did that because one of the things that I don’t like about science fiction is the expository nature of it, where people have to invest a lot of time reading pages and pages about how hyperspatial drives work,” Munroe says. “I don’t give a fuck about that. I don’t care about what a tank will look like in the future. A lot of things that mechanically really obsess a lot of science fiction writers don’t interest me in the least. Although, I’m totally happy if people want to call me a science fiction writer—and usually my stories have fantastic elements in them—but, to be honest, it’s pop cultural rather than science fictional.”
That said, one might ask why Munroe set a culture clash story about a twenty-something guy teaching English on another planet, rather than in Japan or Korea. Although he doesn’t play it up (in fact, he doesn’t even mention it on the book jacket), Munroe taught English in Korea and his experiences there formed the basis for Angry Young Spaceman. In his book, Munroe tackles some of the issues of colonization and feelings he experienced as a foreigner. His character, Sam, is often treated as a small-time celebrity; students point at him on the street, girls practically swoon in his presence. Munroe manages to elicit feelings of being a stranger in a strange land without ever being the tacky American tourist. “I didn’t set the book in Korea for two reasons. One was just the creative charge creating something new from an experience I had. Two is that while there is a first-person narrative—and I felt very comfortable talking about Sam’s feelings of disorientation and his first contact with another culture and the moral and mental gymnastics he had to deal with—I felt completely unconfident characterizing Korea. I was there for seven months and I feel that it would be quite depressing if I could understand a culture that was quite different from my own in seven months.”
While the book is certainly a comment on the globalization of North American culture and the insidious ways powerful economies smother other cultures and countries (and planets in the case of Angry Young Spaceman), Munroe manages to avoid being didactic. In fact, Sam often expresses his feeling of alienation and of being the “other” in a foreign land, and wrestles with his seemingly automatic stereotypical thoughts. “I like the idea of having political content and definite biases in my work. As long as there are people like Rush Limbaugh putting out books, then I can put out my books—there’s a balance,” Munroe says. “What makes me different from being a completely dogmatic, blatantly political writer, is that I refuse to make characters that are ideal humans. I want them to try. Often they’re idealistic, but they’re not going to be without cynicism. That’s one of the things that I like about working in the first person. I’m able to show the process. It’s not like someone was born with the right ideas or the ‘left’ ideas. It’s something you come to as an effect of your environment. It can be argued that it’s more effective propaganda if it’s believable, if the people are human in it. The book could work with a certain amount of people if it was loaded and biased….But they aren’t going to be very smart people. They’re not going to be thinking it through.”
Munroe often makes his political comments with a quick brush stroke. Sam bemoans the fact that his mother cheated on her girlfriend, without making any special mention of her being a lesbian. Sam also makes offhand remarks that there was a time on earth when trees existed. While the book seems like a cautionary tale, Munroe positions it in the abstract for his characters. “I didn’t want Sam to give a fuck, because we don’t give a fuck about things that happened three hundred years ago that were probably incredible, beautiful experiences to have as a human being. What walking in the forest is to us, Sam will never know and never miss it, but as a human species, we’ve lost something,” Munroe says. “I deliberately made the trip to the alien planet full of nothing but trees [in Angry Young Spaceman] an awful experience for [the characters]. A more earnest writer would do it more straight ahead; would show how humans eradicated the earth. I think in some ways it was more shocking to put it in as a minor detail.”
Humans in Angry Young Spaceman are vegetarians, and Munroe admits that in an earlier version of the book people became vegetarians not for moral reasons, but because there wasn’t enough room on the planet to house animals, so they just stopped eating them. But Sam wrestles with his beliefs when he discovers that the Octavians eat “wallen,” a little shelled creature that Sam treats like a pet. Munroe likens this to an experience he had while in Korea when, as a special treat at a school picnic, dozen of baby octopuses were cooked alive in a pan. “When they were ready to eat, they would cut them apart with scissors, which was kind of horrific, and one of these teachers was saying ‘Why don’t you want to eat this? ’ and he was putting one in his mouth and the leg was still wriggling. I just said ‘No, I don’t eat those.’” Munroe almost laughs. “For me, the only context I had for someone putting something wriggling into their mouths was a giant eating a human that was still kicking. It’s great that stuff like that happens. I think they have no idea what they’re doing is fucking crazy, because fucking crazy is a cultural difference. Everybody thought that was a great treat. It wasn’t like they were hamming it up. They had no consciousness that I would find it disturbing. And there is equally stuff we would do that they would find odd. But that’s why the Octavians are octopi—it was kind of revenge.”
Despite Munroe’s ability to deal with political and moral issues deftly and lightly, there are moments when the reader does see dark sides of Sam—specifically in relation to his background as a “pug.” In the novel, pugs are a gang-like group that wanders the earth in search of physical violence. While most other countercultures are co-opted or, even worse, developed by companies and marketed to teenagers, pug has the distinction of being the one counterculture fabricated and marketed from the beginning—a fact lost on its members. Munroe never exploits Sam’s pug past. In fact, there are times in the book when one wishes there might be more made of it; where it would be interesting to see more of Sam’s involvement with the violent group. As it stands, while on Octavia, Sam is sent a video projection of one of his fights by an ex-girlfriend. The video forms an uncomfortable moment in the book when Sam’s Octavian girlfriend, Jinya, comes across it, and Sam’s violent past is exposed. “It helps to position him as someone who’s critical but completely brainwashed by his own society,” Munroe says. “Some people have read it as a commentary on the punk scene, but that’s not the case. I’m still very idealistic about punk and it’s still very alive, and somehow it’s managed to avoid being completely corrupted, despite the fact that it’s gone through the media twice. It seems completely indestructible. It’s so amazing to me that everything else gets commodified and completely castrated, but punk’s been through it twice now and for a lot of people it’s still very vibrant. I think one of the reasons it survives is because its basis is oppositional. It’s like ‘we’ll keep doing the opposite of what you want us to do,’ and there is always an appetite for that.”
If there are politics in the text of Angry Young Spaceman, there are also politics at work behind the product. After publishing his first novel, Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gasmask, with HarperCollins in 1999, Munroe became more and more alarmed at the growing trend of media consolidation. He wondered where independent cultural producers would fit in if people like Rupert Murdoch (whose News Corp. owns HarperCollins) gained control of more and more media outlets. Munroe decided to do something radical and self-publish his next work through his own publishing house, No Media Kings, despite successful sales figures for Flyboy. Not only did he want to break away from the stranglehold that Murdoch-types had on the big publishing houses, but, he says, he also wanted to see whether he could produce a work that was comparable. When Munroe first started talking about self-publishing a novel, reporters told him it would look as though he couldn’t find a publishing deal. But Munroe had the last laugh with Angry Young Spaceman when he proved himself not only able to produce a product equal in quality to Flyboy, but match its sales as well, all while exercising control over the entire project from start to finish. This may not have been a route many writers would want, or be able, to take—especially considering the nine thousand dollar budget required for the book to see light, and the scope of responsibility Munroe had to shoulder in terms of promotion, publicity and finance. But, in the end, Munroe took home about four dollars per book, compared to the two dollars per book he received from HarperCollins for Flyboy.
Despite the splash he has made with Angry Young Spaceman, Munroe’s route is not without historical precedence: Percy Shelley self-published his poems; Anaïs Nin paid for Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and printed Winter of Artifice on her own printing press. Still, self-publishing is only now beginning to be respected as more than a vanity project. For Munroe, self-publishing is the cornerstone of his writing background, and zine culture his inspiration to self-publish rather than move to a small press.
Along with the publication of Angry Young Spaceman, Munroe created the web site nomediakings.org. In addition to offering free downloads of his book, the site features several articles by Munroe on how to self-publish, and an archive of his previously published pieces of fiction and non-fiction. In another radical move, Munroe encourages others to steal his No Media Kings logo for use on their own publications, effectively creating a global publishing house with no home office, and no one publisher.
This sort of information sharing seems anathema in the current climate of keeping secrets in order to protect business, but for Munroe that openness is an integral part of the zine culture he is a part of. And rather than seeing himself as someone who has moved out of the zine community and on to “legitimate” writing, he clearly feels he is still a part of the community and involved with it. He notes that after publishing his first book he didn’t feel a strong connection to the literary community in Canada and, in fact, didn’t make a lot of friends within it. Nonetheless, Munroe recognizes how influential the small-press world has recently been in changing the profile of Canadian literature. Large publishing houses such as HarperCollins or McClelland & Stewart may have the finances to publish thousands of copies of a book, but small presses such as Insomniac, Coach House, and Anansi are taking risks on more innovative writers and alternative projects. Munroe learned this first-hand while preparing to publish Angry Young Spaceman. “On a basic level, the people at Arsenal Pulp, Raincoast, ECW, Rushhour, and, of course, Insomniac all gave me printers’ addresses, they all gave me basic information about how to do it, how to get an ISBN number. This is information that I could have dug up on my own, but it would have taken a hell of a lot longer,” Munroe says, appreciatively. “They also knew that me self-publishing would also be good for them.”
When reading Munroe’s books, or even browsing his web site, it is obvious all of his work is infused with a political perspective (Munroe was once managing editor of Adbusters magazine). Realizing this, one can’t help but wonder why he commits himself to writing rather than being more politically active. “For me it’s the mix that I feel is effective. There’s a skill set aspect—I’m better at writing than I am at talking or at any of the other things that politicians have to do,” he says with a laugh. “I have lots of friends who are in OCAP [the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty], which would probably be more the route that I would go, like a professional activist—someone who was a more direct action kind of person. I know there’s a lot of people involved in direct action stuff who think what I do is pointless or that I’m profiting on a political climate. And there has to be a political climate for a writer to work in.”
It’s clear that Munroe sees no separation in his identity as a writer/political activist—it all combines to make him who he is. Being able to use all aspects of his identity in Angry Young Spaceman clearly marked new and welcome territory for him. “I’m trying to integrate my political feeling with my creative side. And, for the first time in my life, when I was publishing this book I felt that all pistons were firing. I was getting to be creative, I was getting my political point across, I was getting to do a big project that was, in all its aspects, what I wanted. I wanted people to know about the book, but I didn’t want to use the same kind of tactics that advertising uses. When I was with HarperCollins, the creative side of me was getting involved, but in other ways I felt limited. There are tons of writers who love to be at a café and write and send their manuscript off and to hell with what happens after that—they get the money and they’re happy. The identity is of prime importance for them; being legitimate.”
Despite his obvious commitments to his own brand of politics and to his work—commitments obvious in his conversation, his writing, and his publishing style—Munroe says he is no different from anyone else. “As much as I like to believe that I’m radical and extreme, and as much as that fed me through my high-school days, I look at myself and say ‘Good Lord, I am so normal.’” he laughs. “I’m 99.9 per cent of the people out there. I am so mainstream.” Fortunately, unlike the lead character of his novel, Munroe has learned to co-opt the mainstream with his own unique counterculture, and not been overcome by fabrication.