Hey everyone what’s up it’s ya boy Zac, here with another interview. I’m here with BLAKE MIDDLETON aka RAKE FINGERBOMB aka DRAKE THE RAPPER. He wrote this cool-ass book about drugs and camping and college and Zach Braff (holllllla) called College Novel and this right here is the introduction to a fine-ass conversation we had about it.
Gonna be completely upfront about how I came to know about Blake and his writing. Back when I started submitting my own writing to places, and I got a piece or two of that sweet publication pie, I was hooked. On the hunt. I needed more lit mags to dump my hot, stanky fiction onto. So I did what you do and looked through all the other sick authors published by the places I liked to check out their publication credits. I figured, hey, if we’re both in X-R-A-Y, maybe they’re a good lead for somewhere else I’d like. Blake was one of these cool cats and I remember standing in my kitchen waiting for some lentils and potatoes to boil for a sweet curried stew and I was reading his poem about the 2016 election on my phone. I remember it sat in my skull for weeks and said hey you don’t have to be a cynical dumbshit every day of your cynical dumbshit life, just look at this beautiful piece of honest and relatable art over and over again.
Fast-forward to our good friend Benjamin DeVos announcing that Blake (aka Rake aka Drake) here was putting out his debut novel with Apocalypse Party and I hit that BUY button faster than a depressed millennial looking to fill a void in his life with the material manifestation of some transient piece of relatable content staring at a too-hip-for-you book about drugs and camping and Zach Braff on Amazon dot com. I remember my tweet about it, and I remember it fondly.
Then I read it the damn thing. It’s a real ripper, a dialogue-centric tragicomedy about millennial ennui, cockroaches in your car, going to Walmart three times in a single day, and looking for some of that sweet nectar we call love. It’s got gags, it’s got heart, it’s got dilapidated relationships and a weird mom talking about Match dot com. If you haven’t read it yet, well, what the fuck is wrong with you? It’s relatable and comfortable for any of us (all of us?) looking for that clean, vibrant, LSD-ingesting alt-lit composition we’ve missed after these years of hearing only bad shit about the purveyors of that let’s-be-honest,-it’s-very-influential scene. It’s hard to extricate yourself from that term when talking about College Novel, so I’m not going to bother, other than to try and say that this isn’t alt-lit in the same way that [critically-acclaimed music album] isn’t [other critically-acclaimed music album from ten years prior]. Look, you fill in the blanks. I’m just trying to make a point. And you can read the actual interview below to get Blake (aka Rake aka Drake)’s thoughts on this as well.
But listen: you read some parts of College Novel and it just feels nice. Cozy and warm. Brings you back to that spring day you spent reading Eeeee Eee Eeeee on the quadrangle and trying to start your own web comic. But you read some other parts and it pushes and pushes and says something you didn’t expect to hear in your little cozy, warm place. And that’s good literature, babbyy. I’m writing this irreverently, but I’m serious when I say it’s a good book. It’s hard to describe. I’m not a book reviewer. But you have to trust me on this one. Blake captured the core essence of a very real set of people and places that you’re not going to find elsewhere, and he did so with witty panache and catchy steez (that’s hip slang for ‘style).
Blake’s also a cool-ass guy. I was able to read a little bit of his next book and it also kicks ass. He’s got stuff online that you can read. He’s got this nice new book with the cool cover and sleek font. And now. Now. Now? He’s got an interview with ya boy, right here on the Apocalypse Party blog. Dunk.
Zac Smith: So, for a book called College Novel, there’s very little college involved. What was your college experience like? Like the protagonist, Jordan, did you study writing?
Blake Middleton: I studied English with a minor in creative writing. It was a good experience. At the end of my freshmen year I had to declare a major, and by process of elimination I chose English. I didn’t know what else to pick. I wasn’t that interested in literature, but I wasn’t interested in anything else either. I took an intro to creative writing course with an awesome professor, Marcus Pactor, and I knew I had found something. He took writing very seriously. Up until then, all the English teachers I had just seemed like they wanted to be your friend. I took his workshop class six times. He was probably sick of me by the time I graduated. I couldn’t pay attention in other classes. I only cared about the workshops. My senior year I got tired of college and couldn’t wait to graduate. That’s when I wrote the first draft of College Novel. I did the bare minimum to pass my classes and spent the rest of my time acting like a dumbass or working on the novel.
Do you feel like, as an institution, the modern American college is achieving what it purports to achieve?
The institution wants you to graduate as quickly as possible and get a job after graduation as quickly as possible so those slimy rat bastards can get that sweet, sweet performance-based state funding. They pretend to purport critical thinking and intellectual curiosity or whatever, but that’s bullshit. Total bullshit, man. Let me tell you a secret: the institution, at large, doesn’t give a fuck about shit. Just kidding. I’m being subversive. I wouldn’t know. I don’t even know what they purport. I don’t live in that world anymore; I’m just a boy that works in a Japanese restaurant. I live in a world of dirty dishes and alcoholic millennials. That’s my institution.
Did you ever feel like getting a job related to your college degree was ever, like, an option with an English major? Did you aspire to be a teacher or work in publishing or something like that? I ask because I remember feeling, in both college and grad school, that a “career” was this invented idea that business majors somehow got into, and that expecting anyone, at any age, to figure out what a “job” means as it pertains to a college degree would be insane.
I never wanted to be a teacher or work in publishing. I want to write novels. And I think working in publishing or teaching would ruin writing for me. Also, I don’t care about financial stability. I care about traveling and reading and writing and getting drunk, having fun in unfamiliar cities. I mean, financial stability would be great, sure. But I’m willing to risk never having that, and if nothing ever comes from this writing thing, that’s okay, I’ll be a poor and bitter old man, but I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I hadn’t done the thing I had always wanted to do. I know how this all sounds. But I know what kind of person I am and I’m not afraid to admit that anymore. I know what kind of life I have to live if I want to be happy, if I don’t want to have regrets. I’m putting everything I have into writing. There’s no Plan B. And damn, it feels good.
Currently, I’m working my ass off at the restaurant I work at to save up money to go to New York this summer to do some readings. I mean, who knows? Maybe I’ll burn out in like five years. I guess it’s easy to talk like this when you’re young.
And yeah, I agree, I think forcing kids to decide what career path to take when they’re eighteen is insane. I had no idea who I was or what I wanted when I was eighteen. I was just lucky enough to understand that I was an idiot that didn’t know shit. So I gave myself the time I needed to figure it out. And I’m still figuring shit out. It still feels like I have no idea what I’m doing. I mean, I’m twenty-five, of course I don’t. I have a lot more to learn about literature and life.
College Novel has a lot of alt-lit elements -- this detached kind of voice, lots of drug use -- and there’s even a joke about the protagonist reading “alternative literature”. Would you classify College Novel as an alt-lit book, or is it more of a love letter, or something else?
It’s just a novel. The alt-lit joke was just a joke. The term alt-lit is funny to me. It reminds me of alternative rock or something. I haven’t thought about alt-lit in a really long time. College Novel is the most alternative work of literature the United States of America has ever seen. I’m starting a new movement. It’s the alternative to alternative literature. It’s called alternation alternative literature. And yes, it’s stupid as fuck and doesn’t exist. And yes, I have had a lot of coffee today. Adderall always made me feel very serious; caffeine has the opposite effect. Until it starts wearing off.
Not trying to trash writers that were associated with alt-lit though. Except the ones that were pedophiles. The term was dumb, but there were a lot of really great writers that got grouped into it. I don’t know if I would have found out about some of my favorite writers if alt-lit wasn’t a thing. I discovered Sam Pink, Noah Cicero, and Scott McClanahan all at the same time. Reading those dudes changed everything I thought about how you could write and made me think that I might want to be a writer. It’s been six years or so since I got into contemporary literature, and I still go back to those guys. I’ve read everything by them, and I still reread their stuff all the time. Everyone should read The Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan, The Garbage Times/White Ibis by Sam Pink and Give it to the Grand Canyon by Noah Cicero, which isn’t out yet but will be soon.
Do you remember how you got turned on to these guys?
My memory isn’t great, but I think I found out about Sam Pink through one of Blake Butler’s ‘all the books I read this year’ lists on Vice. I think Person was the first book of his I read. And since it was published through Lazy Fascist, I looked through the rest of their books, and bought Noah’s and Scott’s collected works. And then I think I read an interview with Scott where he mentions Tao Lin. It was within a couple weeks where I found out about this whole world of independent publishing. It was very exciting. I mean, looking back, it changed my life. It was refreshing to read books about the world that I live in, to read books that were engaged with the world and the very real people that live here.
I feel like there’s this great, frustrating divide wherein hip kids really easily get into super niche, modern indie music but end up just reading Hemingway and Beat Generation stuff and maybe Vonnegut, stuff from a fifty to a hundred years ago, you know?
I know what you’re saying. A lot of my friends get very excited about new music and film. They look forward to new Yorgos Lanthimos and Paul Thomas Anderson films and shit. We can talk about music all day. But when it comes to contemporary literature or even literature in general: nothing. A lot of my smart friends don’t read. And it is frustrating, I guess. I mean, people can care about whatever they want to care about, but it would nice if more people read books. Literature is rarely part of the conversation. It isn’t as culturally valued as music or film, I feel like. I don’t know. But that’s not to say that writers shouldn’t value it. I think that because it seems like most people don’t give a shit about what we’re doing, it makes some writers think that writing isn’t valuable or that it’s less valuable. Or just like, it’s all a big joke or something. I feel like we’re constantly questioning ourselves. But whatever you’re doing, outside of a shitty day job or whatever, you’re doing it because you see value and meaning in the work. This is what we chose to do with our freedom. So let’s do it. Fuck it.
But yeah, I don’t know why hip kids don’t read contemporary literature. I wish they would start, though. Writers would a lot better off. We could quit our day jobs and write all the time. Like if we had a Rough Trade or A-24 equivalent, but for independent publishing, that would be awesome. That seems impossible though. I realized that was insane as soon as I typed it. The closest thing we have to that right now is Tyrant books, maybe Two Dollar Radio. So kids, if you think Mac Demarco is cool, just wait until you read The Human War by Noah Cicero.
Maybe we can hack Mac Demarco’s mailing list to promote Noah’s next book? I’ll look into it. See who I’ve got on the inside. Changing topics back to you and your sick book, what’s your writing/editing process look like? How did College Novel take shape?
I used to get off work around 10 p.m., take an Adderall, and stay up until 5 or 6 a.m. writing. That’s how I wrote the first draft of College Novel. It fucking sucked but I loved it. I wrote every day for a year. At the end of the year I had a word doc with 300,000 words in it. I don’t really remember the editing process. I look at the book, as a physical thing, and have no idea how I wrote it. The book is only 30,000 words so there was obviously a lot of trimming. And then just making the parts that I didn’t cut better.
My writing/editing process is a lot different now. A lot less detrimental/insane. I stopped taking Adderall. It took a long time to readjust. I spent too much time feeling like I wouldn’t be able to write anything again. I’m about halfway finished with another novel now. To start this one, I would jog to a coffee shop, get a shot or two of espresso and sit outside and write on my phone, then jog some more and write during or after the jog, too. I have to work a lot harder to hype myself up and get in the right headspace or whatever. My computer is fucked up and I can’t afford to fix it right now, so I write and edit on my phone, or borrow girlfriend’s computer, which is also fucked up but works okay sometimes. I like writing on my phone though. Shout out to the Google Docs app. And also, fuck you Google, you drone building D. O. D. cucks. I’m being subversive again.
Calling Google a bunch of cucks is pretty subversive, agreed. Would you ever work for Google, like if they opened a high-tech Japanese restaurant and/or subversive indie lit publishing house?
They would probably have some AI robot arm thing rolling sushi and making cocktails.
On editing College Novel, do you feel like this final result is what you were looking to accomplish from the start? Or was it excavated from a larger exploration?
As far as the things that I cut from the first draft, I knew, for the most part, what kind of book I wanted to write when I set out to write it. What I didn’t know was how to write a novel. So to compensate for that I gave myself a lot of room for error. I thought that if I had a long draft to work with then I could just cut a lot of the shit and the finished product would be better.
I was really taken by the setting of College Novel, in terms of time and place -- a college campus in northern Florida during the 2016 Republican Primaries. But the prose is very restrained and direct, and there’s this emphasis on general apathy, personal relationships, looking for meaning in the day-to-day. It makes me really curious what some of the themes or topics cut from the original 300k word draft were, and what went into this process.
Thank you for saying the prose is restrained and direct. I want my writing style to pass by more or less unnoticed. I like when writers use words not as objects but as designations for objects, when they use them to be precise, when they use words like tools.
I’m glad you brought up that the book is written about America in 2016. For me, writing is an act of disclosing and rediscovering. I write to recover what I’ve been through, to give it back as it was originally seen, to reveal certain aspects of people and the world to others, to hold up a mirror to society and force it to look at itself, in hopes that it might feel embarrassed, or something, and want to change. Sartre said that people are revealers. It’s our presence in the world that multiplies relationships. We write so that we can feel that we are essential in relation to the world. So I write about the world that I’m living in relation to. The book takes place within a certain historical context because every person that has ever lived has been stuck in a historical situation. They don’t get to choose it, but they have to own up to it, because they choose to be alive. This is my historical situation. And since I’m writing mainly for other young Americans, not only is it my historical situation, this is our historical situation. In writing about myself, I’m writing about others, to a certain degree. Because you’re here with me. We’re all here together. This is our time, whether we like it or not. And yeah, it’s shitty. The future doesn’t look good for us. And I don’t want to ignore that in my writing. I like writing that is engaged with the world. I also like writing that’s anthropological. I like reading books about a certain time period that were written by a person that lived through that time period. Because it can help you understand how people talked, acted, and coped with their particular historical situation.
Blake Middleton is the author of College Novel (Apocalypse Party). He lives in Florida. Follow him on Twitter: @blaketheidiot and Instagram: @middleton.blake.
Zac Smith lives in Boston, MA, where he likes to walk his dogs. His stories have appeared in Hobart, Maudlin House, X-R-A-Y Lit, Philosophical Idiot, Soft Cartel, and other very sweet online journals. He’s done a buncha interviews at Vol.1 Brooklyn, too. His twitter is @ZacTheLinguist