Permanent Autonomous Zone: A Conversation With Zine Writers Erick Lyle and Jeff Miller

What if our lives were filled with moments of liberation from the everyday? Is it possible to carve out spaces that challenge the dominant logic of the market, where we can pursue meaningful work and actualize our dreams? This most daunting task must begin with conversations between co-conspirators.

At the end of this past summer, I had the pleasure of sharing such a conversation with two writers who were on a tour together with their recently-published books. Erick Lyle and Jeff Miller both come out of the underground zine community and had just released anthologies of their past work, Lyle’s SCAM and Miller’s Ghost Pine. The morning after their reading at the Wooden Shoe anarchist bookstore in Philadelphia, I escaped my stifling wage job—still on the clock—to interview them in a park in West Philly.

Matt Dineen: Do you guys want to start by talking about the tour you’re on? You did an event here in Philly last night. You’re heading to Baltimore next. Can you talk about the idea behind the tour and also your books that have come out recently?

Jeff Miller: Originally, the tour was my idea. I’ve been doing a lot of promotional events for the book in Canada and I kind of wanted to break out a little bit. I also feel like there’s not enough cross-border, cross-pollination of zines. Erick came up to Canada in 2008 and we did a couple shows and that went really well. I just thought it would be nice to meet some people in the States, try to sell some books, tell some stories, and travel around a little bit.

Erick Lyle: Yeah, it’s neighborly to get together like this—fostering international camaraderie. Jeff’s anthology came out pretty much the same time as mine. We’ve been pen pals for almost 10 years, so the timing was pretty good. I probably wouldn’t have gone on this trip, honestly, but since Jeff was gonna do it—it just seemed like a good idea. Like, “Oh that would be fun to team up on this.” And the timing was great because I have the SCAM anthology out now as well.

I think what’s cool about this tour is that we’ve read with a lot of different folks, and it’s been all over the map. Like in New York we read with Cristy Road and Mike Taylor who have made zines for years, but also with this guy Colin who does a blog about how he’s gonna eat pizza in every pizzeria in New York City. Or with this woman Eleanor Whitney who writes about art and design, and also food. We are reading with China Martins tonight who has done a zine for years about being a mom.

So I think what pulls it all together, what it all has in common, is that it is the underground press; it is indie press. And we’re reading in indie stores, and that this is about supporting underground and independent alternatives. That it’s a vital thing to do, and that there is a community that exists outside of the mainstream that’s trying to continue this tradition of independent stores. So like last night, we read here in Philly at the Wooden Shoe which is a place that’s been carrying my zine for like 20 years. They’ve got a great new space. It’s better than ever, so it’s nice to see that. Just trying to be a part of that all the time is really important to me. We’re going to Red Emma’s in Baltimore which is a worker-owned place. So that’s pretty cool.

And it’s interesting because Jeff works at a bookstore in Canada. I have worked at a bookstore before, and I’ve seen the corporate tour where the author comes and there’s 2 people. And our shows have been pretty packed, I would say. There is a vitality in the independent scene. It is a real deal. So it’s cool to see that. We’ve put a lot of work into this over the years and work’s coming back to us too. We’re enriching it together.

JM: I feel like one of the best things about being independent is that you’re resourceful enough and economic enough to get around and there’s a community of people that will help you get around and come out and support. And yeah, it feels really good to know that more people came out last night at the Wooden Shoe than come out when we do an event at the kind of corporate bookstore where I work in Canada. There, some best-selling author will read and there’s like 3 people, 4 people. So, like Erick was saying, it is a real demonstration of independent community, and not necessarily just a zine community. I think we’re really blessed to have a lot of overlap with music communities and activist scenes. People love to come out and hear stories. Our lives are so under-represented by current media and current literature that when independent voices come along, people respond strongly and it’s really amazing.

MD: Well Jeff, you mentioned that you’ll be going back to Montreal to work at this bookstore. I was wondering if you could both talk about life after this tour in terms of how you’re supporting yourselves while continuing to create your art and everything?

EL: Well, I recently moved to New York City—I guess it’s been about a year—and, theoretically, it’s the most expensive city in the entire country. Although I moved from San Francisco and I feel that San Francisco is even more expensive in a certain way. So, it’s a hustle. But I don’t know, for me, it’s a lot of tried and true methods; like I steal all my groceries. New York is full of plentiful, dumpstered food. I was just talking about this with a friend at this cafe here. He was like, “Yeah man, last time I was in New York I dumpstered a bike and a bag of weed.” [ Laughs] People are so rich they’re like, “I got a bike at home. I’m just gonna throw this one away. I don’t feel like riding it today.” [Laughs]

So there’s plenty of excess, and that’s what we’ve been living off all these years. There’s plenty of copy scams to get the zines printed. We go on tour and sell the zines. So that’s a profit. But I don’t know. It’s the same old thing: scraping by, selling writing here and there. The stuff that’s in this new issue of SCAM was originally freelance journalism that was printed in a newspaper and I wanted to re-present it to the punk scene. It was in the San Francisco Bay Guardian so I knew people weren’t gonna know about it. The usual SCAM readers weren’t gonna see that so I wanted to get it out to the bigger punk scene.

But it’s the same old scam, basically. Making it happen in any way. I just live in such a way that my priority is time, more than money. And that’s always been what SCAM magazine is about to me: the idea that you’re taking your life back, to devote it to the things that you want to do. That’s its own kind of work but it feels meaningful to me. I basically just spend all my time writing and doing things as much as I can for the creative stuff I want to do. And I’m always broke because of it, but I feel pretty good about it.

Oh also, the government of Canada pays me to not write zines. [ Laughs]

JM: I don’t understand. [ Laughs] Yeah, as far as money goes, it’s always been a struggle. But I feel like when you start monetizing the things that you care about, that’s when everything goes wrong, basically. If I were to say, “I’m gonna put, like, 50 hours into this zine and after I scam the copies I better make 10 dollars an hour.” If that’s your goal then you’re kind of doomed from the start. It’s just not gonna work out for you. So, I don’t know. It’s like Erick was saying, just living cheap and trying to keep as much time free as possible. I have a bunch of friends who are writers in Montreal and some of them have tried to find jobs where they can make enough money so that in the summer they have time to write or whatever. But I’ve always felt like that’s sort of a bad idea. The key, really, is to find a way to live on nothing. It gives you endurance as a writer if you’re scraping by somehow.

But yeah, in the 13 years of doing Ghost Pine it hasn’t been too much of a struggle. When you decide you want to do something you just have to fuckin’ do it and make it happen, despite all the obstacles that get thrown in your path. And maybe now it’s a lot easier just because I know the ins and outs of it through trial and error. And I’m more confident in myself, knowing that I can do it, pull it off and get better. So my advice would be just to accept being poor, strive on, and make whatever you need to make.

MD: Well maybe we can look toward the future a little bit. Last night, Erick, you were talking about looking back at your past and the way you would’ve reacted to a certain situation 20 years ago versus 5 years ago, versus today. Could you both connect your, kind of, personal evolution and relate it to where you see yourself in, say, 5 years and continuing your work?

EL: Well yeah, one cool thing about this trip is that I have this zine that’s brand new writing from Miami which mostly represents work I did as a reporter covering some political subjects down there and trying to bring my voice to that. But I also have this anthology that’s got 15 year old writing from Miami. So, for me, that’s what I thought would be fun to present on this tour—kind of a snapshot of this person, of my trajectory. You know, here’s somebody who lived in abandoned buildings and ate out of the trash and then is able to take that knowledge and sensibility to a new location. So, I’m gonna continue to make zines and I’m working on another book, continue to write books. I would like to pursue more freelance work, but I haven’t really put my attention to it too much.

My basic goal with my writing is to continue to represent what I feel is left out of the current mainstream dialogue. So I’m gonna take that at any opportunity I have, whether it’s making another issue of SCAM or whether it’s my next book, or any sort of freelance assignment I can get. I’m just trying to continue on.

So like in this SCAM anthology, I’m talking about squatting in Miami and then the zine that just came out is writing about a group of squatters that are operating now in Miami. I have experience living in abandoned buildings so I was like, “Yeah, I want to go talk to these folks and get their story out.” Just trying to have a continuity, for sure. The next thing I have is a book that’s coming out on Soft Skull [Press] next year that’s about San Francisco lost art and utopian movements. That’s gonna be in the Spring of next year. And there’s an art show related to that that I’m doing in San Francisco. So in the Spring I’m gonna be back in SF doing a lot of stuff, just trying to bring some cool radical history to light and present a new alternative for the future.

JM: I think, it’s like Erick was saying, one of the cool things about doing a zine for a long time is that you get these snapshots of, kind of, your consciousness at various ages. And the distance between one story and the other, it’s really interesting to sort of chart your evolution in thinking and aesthetics, and all that. Definitely when you put so much of your life into your zine, and so much hard work, you kind of come out the other end 13 years later, 19 years later, with a definite confidence and an acceptance of the fact that you can work in different media. Like when I was a kid, I would never consider writing an article for a newspaper, or even a book seemed kind of a betrayal of the ethic of the zine community which was so vital. I would always be at the library looking for books. Like, “Where’s the book about 15 year old disaffected kids in suburban Canada who are into post-hardcore and who go to shows downtown?” And it was like, “Oh…”

EL: You gotta write it yourself!

JM: Yeah. You gotta write it yourself! So yeah, I’m currently working on a novel that’s sort of autobiographical, but also takes liberties with certain elements of my life. It’s nice to have the freedom to sort of move things around and not be so slavishly trying to create reality on page, you know, to have some poetic license. But when I was putting the [ Ghost Pine anthology] book together I was like, “Okay, this is it man. This is it. The whole zine is over now. Whatever! I’m gonna move on.” And then being on tour, I did all these events in Canada through the network of radical communities there, and now I’m reconnecting with old friends and new people in underground art scenes and activist scenes here, I’ve totally got all this energy to make a new zine.

I definitely want to keep a foot in the zine world and then another foot trying to figure out something outside of it especially now that mainstream publishing is falling apart, falling to pieces. Generally, I’m always gonna do a zine and now I’m gonna start doing other stuff too. One isn’t more important than the other. They both feed off the same energy and sort of buttress each other. If I get this novel published, someone that gets into that maybe will get into zines; or maybe they won’t. And that’s fine.

EL: Yeah. Like for instance, I did this story that was in the paper and then I published it as a zine. If you publish twice, you’re reaching entirely different audiences that both might be really large. And for me, the point is not to change what I’m doing to get to a different audience, but to do what I’m doing stubbornly enough in all these different areas to bring people into what I’m trying to do. Like, “Hey, check this out.” I think you can build that up in the way that you’re talking about, for sure.

JM: Well, in a way, for you, it definitely seems like there is some overlap between the readers of the SF Bay Guardian and SCAM, but there are large segments of both the punk and newspaper-reading communities that don’t cross over. So, to do it in both is a real service to the kind of journalistic message you’re trying to get across.

EL: But also books and zines as well, because there’s a lot of folks that don’t take a zine seriously and then there’s a lot of punk kids that kind of can’t afford a book. They’re like, “15 bucks?! Shit man.” So far my books have been available in places that they can be stolen from—like you can go steal it from Borders, so I don’t feel too bad about it. Obviously, I don’t want you to do that at Wooden Shoe. You know, I think that 15 bucks is a cheap price for a book, based on the realities of the publishing business. But I also understand that 2 bucks is more where you’re at when you’re a punk rocker sometimes. And I feel that too. So I think that’s important.

MD: Wrapping things up, I’m wondering if either of you have advice for other cultural producers  that are feeling the weight of capitalism and are going back and forth about the work they want to do and focusing more on just surviving? For example, people who would like to be doing zines fulltime but are finding themselves in a fulltime job that takes away their time and ability to be dedicated to their art. What is your advice for people who are dealing with that right now?

JM: I would say, generally, to anyone who wants to do something to just…

EL: Go for it.

JM: Yeah, just go for it. It’s a cliché for sure, but…It happens to me and I think it happens to everyone, when you want to write about something and you’re like, “I just gotta read these 5 other books about it, and I’ll finally be ready to start.” But just being like, “I know enough. I don’t need to read another book. I can just start today and just write some stuff.” Just starting is huge. You just gotta start. And then momentum builds from that.

And I don’t know, make some sacrifices. You don’t need cable, you know. [ Laughs] It’s tough, especially people with kids, but I don’t know. It’s been done. You just gotta toughen up and just go for it. And no one’s gonna care forever and then at some point people will start caring if you put enough work into it. Just keep your expectations low and keep your work ethic bangin’. Just keep hustling and victories will come.

EL: Yeah, I don’t know what to say to that, honestly. I mean, there’s not a lot of support out there. But we’re lucky, in this case, because I feel like we’re tapping into this independent community which gives me a lot of hope. There’s people out there who have been paying attention for years and that’s rad. But the soul-crushing loneliness that being a dedicated writer can bring to you? It’s rough man. It can be a hard road for people who really dive into it. But any classic novel that’s been on the shelf for 200 years, the dude who wrote it lived in worse conditions than you probably. You know what I mean? People were working all day in some fucked up situation and then going home and working all night. If you got it in you and you want to get it out, you have to find a way to do it—by any means.

JM: And it will become its own reward. I found that starting out my ambitions were huge, it was gonna be the hugest zine or whatever. Over the years all the work just became a joy in itself. You kind of come out the other end and you’re like, “Even if no one ever sees this, this is still one of the number one joys of my life, to be producing this writing.” And to be constantly challenging yourself everyday to get better and better—that becomes the mission, in this weird way. Then once you’re in that zone, all the external stuff like publication and going on tour with your pen pals all sort of falls into place. Once you develop the real love of putting one word in a place and then taking it out of that place and putting another word in, and then putting another word in, and then taking that out—it’s this incredible, weird bondage to the word, to language. But in this other way it makes you super free.

EL: Like nothing else matters.

JM: Yeah, nothing else matters. The more you put into it, the freer you become in this weird way. The more you’re a slave the more you’re free. I don’t know.

EL: My advice would be, if you start thinking about publishing then you’re just gonna quit. [Laughs] Because you’re surrounded by the evidence that bookstores are closing, no one buys books. In fact, the book itself might just become a computer, all that shit. If you’re just thinking about that, you’re just gonna jump off the bridge. If you want to write, you gotta write.

For me, I think, “Well, what do I want the world to look like? What are my ideas? What am I trying to make happen?” And writing is a utopian space where I can represent those ideas. I have also been an activist and done as much as I could to physically make these free spaces happen in the world. And that’s different from writing, but writing is also a place where you’re keeping alive that idea, potentially in a dormant, almost virus-like way. It could outlast you. You just have to be thinking like that: “This is adding up to something that I believe in.” If you don’t believe in it, you can’t do it. So you’re writing for the future, for some imagined audience that might not even exist.

JM: It’s a permanent autonomous zone.

EL: [ Dramatically] Yes, Matt, it’s what we call a PAZ, or a permanent autonomous zone. [Laughs]

I like that. Thank you.

JM: Thanks Matt.

EL: Thanks Matt.

Matt Dineen lives and conspires in Philadelphia where he is part of the Wooden Shoe collective. He is also a publicist for radical activists and artists with Aid & Abet booking. You can write to him at: mattdineen@aidandabet.org and see things that he’s written and collected at: http://passionsandsurvival.blogspot.com

For more information about Erick Lyle and SCAM check out: http://onthelowerfrequencies.com and http://microcosmpublishing.com/catalog/zines/3124/

For more information about Jeff Miller and Ghost Pine check out: http://ghostpine.wordpress.com/