Aaron Mannion

Aaron Mannion editor of Geek Mook, talks to Nalini and Edward Haynes from Dark Matter about Geek Mook and Vignette Press, an indie publisher.

Geek Mook cover
Nalini:  Hello Aaron. Please share some of the background behind Geek Mook.

Aaron: Amy Espeseth became the new owner and publisher of Vignette Press in March or so of 2011. Vignette Press had come up with a number of fun, interesting publishing concepts over the years. It had produced a series of Mini Shots–small format, single story publications—and also the Mook. We were very excited about pushing forward with both of these series, and still hope to do so, but we decided to begin with the Mook.

Nalini: What is a Mook?

Aaron: A Mook is a combination of a book and a magazine. I think it’s a slightly more focused journal when compared with your normal literary journal. It’s more focused by theme and also a little bit more topical. That’s the aspect of the magazine that it takes; possibly also a little bit more fun. The previous Mooks have done fantastically. Death Mook has done really well, got a lot of publicity. Amy contributed to that and has been interviewed on ABC radio about her piece in that Mook. We loved the Mook concept and wanted to tie it in a little bit more with a specific community. Both death and sex are great concepts– we all have an interest in those topics—but our idea was to tweak the new Mooks a little more towards existing communities or interest groups. Julian and myself are both pretty geeky. Julian is probably a bit more hardcore than me, he’s a gamer as well.

We were trying to think of an interesting area to focus the Mook on. Something broad enough to be interesting to a viable audience, but focused enough to have a degree of intensity about it. We also like the idea of something with a community. We came up with the geek and instantly loved it and thought we’d have a lot of fun. I love the idea of mashing up the Math/CompSci side of geeks with literary culture. I love the historical knowledge of literary culture and its traditions. But it can get a little fusty in there, maybe even a little bit snobby as well. There’s an irreverence to geek culture that I thought might be a kind of antidote. At least it would be an interesting experiment to collide these two worlds. There’s also the fun side of the geek culture. Engaging with genre, Cosplay that kind of thing.

The Dungeon Mook came out of our original thinking about the Geek Mook. We wanted to build up some energy around the publication, get people engaged in the idea, to put Vignette Press on the geek community radar. We wanted to make a little bit of noise and gather a little bit of interest. I’d seen Dungeon Crawl at the Comedy Festival, I think before we came up with the Geek Mook idea but I wouldn’t swear to that. It didn’t come to me at the time, but when we were thinking about fundraising ideas it was a great fit.

Nalini: For Dark Matter readers overseas, can you tell them what Dungeon Crawl is?

Aaron: Dungeon Crawl is run by Ben McKenzie and Richard McKenzie, two improvisational comedians and very geeky guys. They’ve been running it for 2 or 3 years I think. It’s sort of a Dungeons and Dragons improvisational comedy mash-up. It’s very funny and a great show, but it felt like a community show as well. At any show there are these 20 hardcore who always turn up. It felt really nice and felt like the best moments of community theatre when you’ve got your friends on stage. We thought that could work well and engage both the geek audience and a more traditional indie press kind of audience. For the Geek Mook, we’re trying to produce something of interest to both the geek world and the indie press world. We approached Ben McKenzie and he said he was interested. So we drew up a wish list of guest stars that we wanted to appear in Dungeon Crawl as performers.

Ben and Richard hold it down very strongly. Richard does all the non-player characters. Ben holding down the dungeon master role and he was going to get a couple of old hands who’ve done it a few times to provide a bit more support. So we had a great time and went out and chose whoever we wanted to come along.

Edward: I must admit I did notice a connection between Scribe and Meg Mundell.

Aaron: We’ve known Meg for years as well, but we were lucky to get her. Her book is in a way pretty geeky. It’s kind of science fiction. Probably not traditional science fiction, it’s speculative fiction. We went out with a wish list of performers. In the end, we got pretty much everyone we wanted, which we’re amazed at. We were really pleased about everyone who came out, both the performers and the readers. I really love Tom Cho’s stuff and he’s such a perfect fit for Geek Mook. And Ronnie Scott is amazing. He edits The Lifted Brow. It’s a journal, bi-monthly I think, with a lot of comics and graphics. It’s the arty side of comics and very interesting.  We’re really pleased. We have a few gaps so if we have time we might semi-commission to fill in a few little holes. We haven’t got as much comics or graphics as we’d like.

Nalini: Do you realise that there’s a monthly comic makers meet on this afternoon?

Aaron: Is there?

Edward: That’s where we’re going to next. They’re local artists. They just get together and they show their work and support each other. You’re more than welcome to come with us.

Aaron: That’d be great. I suppose we’re at the difficult point of keeping it focused enough but being able to take the great pieces that maybe are a little bit sideways. It’s a little bit of a balancing act to work out. I would have loved something on music, chip music. Based on old computer chips. I think Commodore 64 chips are really popular but I think there are a range of them. We might ask the community for ideas on ways of putting Easter eggs into the text. We have a few ideas on that, but I’m sure other people have more ideas.

Nalini: When is Geek Mook coming out?

Aaron: We’re hoping to publish mid to late November, but it might be December. We wouldn’t want to go past the first 7 to 10 days in December. It will be printed. Hopefully it will be online as well. We haven’t figured out what to do with that, there are a few people I’ve wanted to talk to just to see the options. It’s a tricky one at the moment. There are a lot of platforms out there. It is constrained by cost. It is difficult to work out how to do it. Ideally I’d like to bundle it so hard copies come with digital copies. I do think for up to 5 years that will be the best experience people will have as readers. I love my kindle but not many people have them. There are some in the audience that do, but you can’t assume people will have it. I’ve never really wanted to read anything more than a 400 word article on my iPhone. I don’t have an iPad. Maybe that would change with an iPad. But on my phone I’m really constrained as to length.

Edward: There’s not much visual real estate on the phone.

Aaron: No. And I find the concentration is a little bit different. So I think there’s a transition before we’re fully digital, especially for that literary fiction audience and small press audience. I mean the geek audience will probably push that percentage up quite a bit. But while we’re trying to build a specific community around this, we’re also trying to drag in that whole Vignette Press audience. We don’t want to alienate them.  Small Press Underground Networking Community, SPUNC, converts file formats with a little bit of tweaking. They operate out of The Wheeler Centre.

Edward: Have you heard of calibre? It’s a free conversion program.

Aaron: SPUNC will do it for you for a very reasonable fee.

Nalini: Is this going to be available overseas?

Aaron: It should be, yes. All of those issues need to be figured out. We’ve got some strong leads on how we’re going to distribute. For overseas hardcopy readers they’ll probably be buying it from our website and we’ll ship. It depends.

Nalini: Are there any plans to have it translated into different languages?

Aaron: There aren’t at the moment. If there was enough interest we would love to translate it into different languages. Preferably Klingon first then move forward after that.

Edward: Ka’plah!

Aaron: Yes, that would be the best way to start.

Nalini: Speaking of Klingon, will any of you be going to the Klingon conference that’s on before Renovation in a few weeks?

Aaron: We won’t. Unfortunately we’re not even conversational in Klingon. Julian does a very good impression of them, although I’m not even sure if he knows what he’s saying. He sounds convincing. He’s equally proficient at Elvish. I don’t think he’s ever actually learned them. He’s from New Zealand, I think they’re born with it, the Elvish and those kinds of things, yeah.

Edward: He sounds like a character.

Aaron: Julian’s great. We’ve got contributors for Geek Mook from around the world as well, although it’s predominantly Australian. We did contact a few people we thought did some great stuff and encourage them to put some stuff in.

Nalini: When do submissions close?

Aaron: They’re closed.

Nalini: When you put the call out for submissions, where do you put the call out?

Aaron: The call went out on our website to all the writing programs in Australia. It went out to Facebook and twitter, probably our major other call. We specifically tweeted at, probably in gross violation of all twitter etiquette, 60 people whose work we really loved. We would have loved to get something from XKCD the comic guy, but we didn’t. If he wanted to send in late and read your piece, he’s more than welcome. Any time. We’ll find something to put it in.

We’ve had a great response. People are really busy. We’ve tried to manage that by encouraging both smaller and longer pieces. Both of which can be kind of a little bit tricky to get in for people. So that was our submission call out process.

Edward: How often do the Mooks come out?

Aaron: Well, there’s been a big gap. It’s been 2 years or so since the Death Mook came out. We would hope to keep the Mooks coming out on a yearly basis if not a bit more. The Geek Mook will probably be a one off. If it was wildly successful, and not necessarily successful in terms of sales, but if we were really pleased with what we got and came out with a product, we’d probably do it again. We’d double up and go at it again, swallow the losses and go again because these one off things, you finally get your audience and then they’re gone. Possibly not us editing but maybe finding someone whose stuff we love and handing it to them. It wouldn’t necessarily be me and Julian again. It’s a lot of work.

Nalini: I don’t run fiction articles because I don’t want to have to read piles and piles of submissions.

Aaron: There’s a lot of reading.

Nalini: Yes but I’m struggling to unlearn years of academic training. Like David Freer, I have to learn to write differently.

Aaron: What was your academic background?

Nalini: I have a Master of Social Science. I’d really like to study literature but I don’t know about changing faculties. I’ve always talked about getting a PhD.

Aaron: Well I’m a current PhD student. Almost finished. So almost finished that I’m out of my scholarship, I’ve burned through that. But Julian, well that’s how we all met. At Melbourne Uni Creative Writing. But ours is a little different in that it’s 50/50 creative writing so 50% is something else, nearly always lit studies. Occasionally people do history or something else, there’s a critical component and creative component.

Nalini: Can I say you look very healthy for someone who’s getting to the end of his PhD? You don’t look exhausted and stressed.

Aaron: I don’t feel it. At the moment I’m just working full time. I’m getting almost nothing done on the PhD. Working 9 to 5 is pretty hard on everyone, but when you’ve been a PhD student for 3 or 4 years it kicks in quite hard.

Nalini: So what are you doing a PhD in? I know Meg Mundell is doing hers on a sense of place.

Aaron: Mine is on breakdowns in intimacy.

Nalini: In this day and age I think that would be fascinating because there’s a whole range of stuff in literature.

Aaron: The critical side of it is focused on Charlotte Bronte’s Villette.

Nalini: I don’t think I’ve read that one, but I’ve read some Bronte sisters. Never again.

Aaron: No? No, well, I love Emily, Wuthering Heights. I don’t like Jane Ayer. Considering I’m a Charlotte Bronte scholar, that’s sacrilege. You can’t say that. It’s shit.

Nalini: I’ve read Wuthering Heights and what’s that one with Lucy Snow in it?

Aaron: That’s Villette! That’s like Awesome! That’s the one I’m working on.

Nalini: It goes to show there’s something out there for everyone.

Aaron: It’s immensely depressing and crushing and relentless. But it’s the intensity that is quite unusual for that period to have something that is so confronting and yet open ended. There are lots of moments in most 19th century literature where that sort of nihilism is opened up and people are faced with moments of radical scepticism of what this is all about. Usually they’re all contained within a narrative that’s going to hold it all together and reassure you by the end, or at least formally do that. Not at all. Villette is not having any of that.

Nalini: How does that match up with being a geek?

Aaron: You can probably find every PhD student, at least compared to the general populace they’re pretty geeky.

Nalini: Yeah, I suppose I’m drawing a line between the science fiction/fantasy geek and other kinds of geek, but you’re not doing that.

Aaron: No. I think Julian’s attraction to the geek project was probably much more through that angle. I love that angle but for me that angle, whatever it is, the biochemistry of it, the way geeky people are a little bit different. Possibly a little bit broken. That kind of interests me more. It’s a little taste of autism or whatever it is, that slight dissociation with the social stuff, that sort of awkwardness. There’s a potential understanding that comes from a lack of facility, where people think through things more. Auden has a beautiful quote about the only people who ever learn what the mechanism of the trap is, the trap being life, are the people caught in it. If you haven’t got your leg stuck in it, why do you care? All the beautiful people, no matter how intelligent in a certain sense, they never really think. Why would you bother? You’re having a great time, bounding across the meadows, jumping tall walls, being wonderful and happy and enjoying your life and body. You don’t care how it works. Why would you ask how it works? That would be a stupid thing to do. It’s only those that are trapped in the machine that are like, ‘I need to figure out where these bolts go, because it’s going to kill me.’

Nalini: I suppose that’s an interesting way of looking at it. I look at it that although it’s relative, everyone has their pain. Everyone experiences the loss of a loved one, people experience various different kinds of pain at some time. Some feel it more than others, and some have a lot more things happen to them. I think everybody has this sense of experience. I guess that I just thought people deal with it differently. I mean, you’ve got the football fans who identify with the tribe in a sense for self protection. Lots of them wear the colours and some of them wear the grease paint. Every grand final you see some family on TV that’s really extreme, and they even name the kids after the players. How do you see that this is different from the geek experience?

Aaron: There is definitely that core of experience that is shared by both poles and then all the slight variations. Maybe being a geek is an outsider experience. To go to a football match and not be a sociologist. There’s a cognitive loss in not being able to experience immediately, that’s a definite loss. There’s a certain amount of loss to never being able to see it as an outsider. Everyone sees both sides to a certain extent, but some people are more likely on the outside, more extremely on the outside than other people. At least on a certain definition of geek they are more likely to be on the outside more often.

Nalini: So you’re saying that the extreme football fan wearing the colours and the greasepaint and naming their kids after the players, would you say they’re on the inside?

Aaron: That depends on how extreme they are. If they go too far they could easily come around the other side again. Maybe if you really push that, there’s a more happy medium. Definitely PhD students, there’s often a sort of over-determination on a certain system of understanding. And that can lead to beautiful understandings by pushing the system a little bit too far. In some senses you could find that is what academia does. When you reduce something to a certain interpretation, there is always a huge loss. But that also increases our understanding if you can then bring it back. I think there is a tendency towards that sort of over-determination in most geeks. They’ll see something a little bit too strongly through the eyes of sci fi, which I suppose is a wonderful thing but is not necessarily always healthy.

Nalini: So you’re talking about extremism.

Aaron: Maybe a less generalised system of reference, a more particularised system of reference. Yeah. Maybe that’s common across most types of geeks, not even necessarily going math nerds versus fantasy although there’s quite a bit of cross over there as well. A lot of what attracted me to the project was the psychology of geeks. Partly because I think that’s where the most interesting overlap with literary fiction comes. There is a lot of geekery in literary fiction but less representative than you’d imagine with those kind of stereotypical geeks. There is a wonderful New York story a little while ago, based on Dungeons and Dragons, it was sort of overflowing into their life in a slightly disruptive way. That was a great story. It was something that made me think this would work, if we could get this kind of stuff. Ronnie Scott’s reading at the Dungeon Crawl, his piece about growing up as a huge X Men fan in Katherine in the Northern Territory.

Nalini: And then he went to Malaysia and came back, he’d lost touch with his friend.

Aaron: Yeah. That was interesting. I think Julian is possibly more interested in the possibilities of genre and its intersection with literary fiction.  I want to try to bring in the technical worlds of geek and the psychology. This is what I have focused on, leaving Julian to focus on the other side. I’m pretty pleased with how it’s turned out. We haven’t read it all yet. I’ve had little sneak reads of bits. I haven’t sat down and gone through it yet. There’s lots of good beginnings and epic bios. It will be interesting to see. My only worry now is if the collection balances well. I haven’t kept track of what kind of pieces they are. We’d kind of like this to be like a good issue of Granta when it’s on a topic.  We’ve got some great people who’ve volunteered to help. A friend of ours has volunteered to copy edit. Julian and I will probably do the initial edits. Julian, Amy and I are reasonably competent, but it’s always a worry if you see it or does your eye glide over it?

Nalini: I find I can’t proof read my own work. Trudi Canavan was telling me that she’ll have beta readers and they’ll each pick up 10% of the typos. A different 10% each, but on that basis you need at least 10 readers to proof read.

Aaron: Have you ever looked at Project Gutenberg? They’ll have OCR text then they’ll have distributed proof readers and you could correct it, and they’ll have a master editor. That was an interesting model to work on, with outsourcing. I’m not sure how much you could outsource for a first pass. I reckon you could save a lot of work by sending it to an internet outsourcing company, they’d probably pick up 60 to 70% of the errors and save you a lot of time.

Nalini: With my zine, I’ll get feedback about errors. When I’ve given Edward the time he has asked for with proofreading, I’ve never had any criticisms of his proofreading. However, he doesn’t proofread my cover letter when I send it out. I made an error in my cover letter and I had a letter within – orrrrr, so quick!

Aaron: That’s the problem with publishing online, rather than when they have to go from their book to their computer. If they’re reading online you’ve got no wall of defence, it’s like a wall of apathy. That wall of apathy is very useful with criticism.

Nalini: Thank you for talking to Dark Matter. Please keep us posted about Geek Mook.

Benjamin Solah covered the launch of Geek Mook