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Payseur & Schmidt: The Definitive Interview
An interview with Jeff VanderMeer
February 2006

Jacob McMurray
Jacob McMurray
What is Payseur & Schmidt and what have they done with Thomas Disch? These were two of the questions I had in the back of my head when I sat down with Jacob McMurray from P&S in his roomy but hidden Space Needle apartment in Seattle. For some reason, I had been told to meet Jacob's associate, "Sven," outside of a Starbucks (don't ask me which one -- I forget) in downtown Seattle. Sven was missing an ear and a few teeth, as well as an eye, but seemed sharp enough: he hustled me into a Lincoln town car and insisted on blindfolding me.

When the blindfold came off, I was half-way up the Space Needle, standing in Jacob McMurray's apartment. Smiling, he pulled aside the steel-girder-colored drapes and I was looking down on Seattle through an early morning drizzle. "This is crazy," I said. His smile widened and he said, "I specialize in crazy." This is something he said often during the interview. He also would rant for long minutes on the excruciating impossibility of publishing a book in the form of a sushi roll, and yet show me detailed blueprints for the creation of this very impossibility. Even though Sven had left, I was beginning to wonder if this had been a good idea.

But my doubts evaporated when we sat down on the red kidney-shaped seventies-inspired love seats and I began to ask the driven Jacob McMurray my questions. Jacob is a tall man with short legs and a short torso who likes bright clothing that looks dull. He is very terse and loquacious, wears a beard but is clean shaven, wears glasses with contacts ("for oracular simulation"), and in general conducted himself like a contradiction in mid-terms.

What is not open to debate is the impact that he and his associates, Therese Littleton and Brooks Peck, have had on the publishing scene in just a very short time. Their very first book has been lauded and condemned for the very same qualities: eccentricity and conformity, meticulous design work and a rock-and-roll cavalier disdain for specifics.

Few subjects were verboten, but Jacob would not answer questions about the connections between funding for P&S and a suspicious rash of coffee shop robberies in Seattle over the last year. Nor would he answer allegations that he and his associates once attended a rave with Madonna where they all assisted in dumping the famous singer in a huge pickling barrel. (In fact, I had to climb home after asking about this last subject, luckily at the end of my list of questions.)

Jacob McMurray
Therese Littleton, Jeff VanderMeer, Brooks Peck, Jacob McMurray

When asked a few days after the interview to provide biographical notes, the founders of P&S provided me with the following:
Jacob McMurray
Jacob McMurray is a Seattle-based arts curator, graphic designer, and misanthrope. He is co-owner of the screen-printing studio Patent Pending Press and several other businesses of quasi-legal status. These mostly non-profit ventures are funded by his curator position at both the Science Fiction Museum and the Experience Music Project. In his negative free time he delights in printing manifestoes on his 1906 Pearl Improved #11 letterpress and waiting for the revolution to come. As an intern in the design department at the Payseur & Schmidt Seattle Office, he is solely in charge of replacing toner cartridges and sharpening pencils.

Therese Littleton
With a master's degree in biology and a decade of experience studying the marine environment, Therese Littleton may seem an unlikely candidate for her current job as Program Manager at the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. But the skills she picked up as a federal employee -- passing the buck, hiding from responsibility, taking long lunches, and whining -- have proven surprisingly helpful. As a junior employee in the housekeeping department of the Payseur & Schmidt Seattle Office, she sweeps up around the print shop and keeps the executive washroom sparkling.

Brooks Peck
As former editor and co-founder of the online rag Science Fiction Weekly, Brooks Peck accumulated years of experience learning to despise entertainment journalism, and fled to the ivory tower of the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame where he now works in the curatorial department. He is also a short story author, performance artist and committed environmentalist. Because all the intern positions at Payseur & Schmidt are filled, Brooks' official position is sub-intern. His duties include disinfecting keyboards and sending letters of condolence.

You've apparently been editing at Payseur since 1912. How have you managed to preserve your youthful good looks?

Why thank you very much, Mr. VanderMeer, for the compliment. Our editor, Alice Schmidt, however, is not well-versed in the email, unfortunately, so she has asked me (Jacob McMurray) to answer the questions for you.  I hope that's OK.  I've been interning at the new Seattle Office of P&S for the past 6 months, working with our art director, Ruby Joell Payseur, and my fellow interns Therese Littleton and Brooks Peck, to get the new office up and running. I'm afraid I didn't know a whole lot about the lengthy history of this fine publishing institution, but luckily, the home office in Cauheegan apparently thinks of our Seattle branch as its storage closet, and shipped probably 50 boxes of corporate archive material when our office opened last year.  So, I've been going through that material, and I feel like I'm able to fairly coherently answer your questions. 

Payseur & Schmidt Payseur & Schmidt has always been a family institution. Of course, in 1912, when Martina Faye Payseur and Hilde Frauke Schmidt began their venture together, there were no formal job titles, just lots of work to be done.  Martina and Hilde shared editing duties until 1920, when the increased workload (as well as the birth of Hilde's daughter Maude) necessitated the need for a full-time editor. From here, as far as I can piece together, the Payseur & Schmidt editorial helm was manned (or womanned) successively by no less than 37 different editors, most of whom are lost in our records.  Some editors of note: Salius Pempe (1934-1935) the Austrian wunderkind, began his short tenure when he was merely 12 years old, but with puberty, his stellar editing skills vastly diminished, and he was sent back to his homeland. Rachel Thorpe (1946-1962) was born blind and armless, and required all manuscripts (in triplicate) to be presented unabridged in Braille. Despite this difficulty, she maintained the longest editorship at P&S. Harry Stephen Keeler (1927-1931), the famed mystery writer, acted as editor in absentia at various times during the Great Depression. It was during his tenure as editor that P&S gained its most notoriety up to that time, with the release of F.R. Laramie's Red Moon Rising.  The Keeler-edited masterpiece was praised throughout the nation as a landmark in publishing. ("F.R. Laramie's Red Moon Rising is a prime example... of the perverse direction our great nation is taking... ever closer to the abyss... Publisher Payseur & Schmidt... should be investigated for treason or more serious crimes."  -- Saturday Evening Post review, June 27, 1931)

Alice Schmidt, great-granddaughter of Hilde, assumed the post of editor-in-chief in 1996, despite significant complaints by the Cauheegan Ministry of Decency.  What those complaints are aren't listed -- I can't imagine what they would be, since Ms. Schmidt has always been very kind to me.

Who do you think you are most trying to confuse?
I'm not sure how to answer this. I've had a hard week. A near psychotic break. Too much tea was consumed. You're my Oprah and I, as a result, am your Mr. Frey. You've got me, Mr VanderMeer. I'll give you a couple of options:

Option A:
Payseur & Schmidt is sincerely not trying to confuse anyone, but I can understand, with our lengthy and convoluted history, that confusion might be a natural result.

Option A:
It's all a lie. It's all made up. I was really only in jail for one hour and I have never used a Roomba in the manner attributed to me.

Option A:
Simply, confusion is merely a nice side effect. The main purpose of Payseur & Schmidt is to provide an avenue and outlet for all future creative endeavors by the shadowy figures controlling this entire venture. Any possible creative foray, in any genre or medium, could be part of the P&S empire -- publications, exhibits, visual art, recordings, oral histories, documentaries, etc. This is what I have heard whispered around the office. Internal inconsistencies only heighten the aura surrounding conspiracies, which in turn provides either entertainment or annoyance -- both desirable. Furthermore, confusion coupled with obvious absurdity provides a clear check against the tendency to take things too seriously. Finally, I would like to offer an excerpt from the mythical tome The Protocols of the Elders of Cauheegan, which may provide another facet to this answer:

How to Talk about Payseur and Schmidt to the Outside World

In an effort to maintain the reality and historicity of Payseur & Schmidt, we urge you, at the expense of very real lives, to maintain our illusion, or what you may think of as illusion. In actuality, it is most certainly not.

For we sincerely believe that by wishful thinking and force of will, we can continue to sustain the actual existence of Cauheegan, Wisconsin and its main industry, Payseur & Schmidt. Alice Schmidt and Ruby Joell Payseur count on us for this. Manny's Pub down on Johnston needs us to do this. Stray cats, maple trees, Willow Creek, polka bands, singing crickets, and the lazy autumn sun setting over the town square needs us. And cheese -- cheese, dammit. Cheese needs us. So you see, we can't let them down. The "real" world be damned.

We would sincerely appreciate it if you would have the same respect and concern that we have for Cauheegan, its residents and its industries, when speaking to members of the public or press.

Juxtapositions of Cauheegan or Payseur & Schmidt and phrases such as "Borgesian nonsense," "utter fabulation," or "low, base perfidy," are unacceptable. Please refrain from this type of conversation. We are risking the lives and limbs of hundreds of citizens in order to continue the great tradition that is Payseur & Schmidt with the influx of creativity from this plane. Thank you!

How did the demise of the zeppelin affect your publishing business in the early days?
By the early 1930s, Payseur & Schmidt was seeing quite a lot of financial success from a string of hit Japanese children's books, published by our Kyoto-based imprint Pinky Cheese Books. The Luffy and Zoro series by author Atsuko Murata (Luffy and Zoro Love Their Mommy!, Luffy and Zoro's Bedtime Razzle, Luffy and Zoro and the Happy Cannibals, etc.) really raked in millions of yen for the Cauheegan coffers. That particular international success spurred on discussions at the home office about other worldly expansions.  Soon after, offices in Lisbon, Cairo, Xiang-Tao, Madras, Mahi Maho, Ngembe, and Stuttgart were opened, mainly selling stock P&S titles translated (often poorly) into local dialect. Stuttgart became a nice hub for us for northern Europe, and regular shipments were scheduled direct from Cauheegan to Stuttgart via the Zeppelin Verstummt. As I'm writing this, I'm looking at this cool old photo of Cauheegan residents mugging it up in front of the camera with the Verstummt tied to the ibn Ali mosque tower in the background. Must've been quite a sight to see something as huge as that in the Wisconsin skies. In any case, the Northern Europe office pretty much collapsed with the rise of Hitler and the cessation of transatlantic dirigible flights by Goering -- and besides, P&S's communist leanings at the time didn't jibe too well with all that national socialism.


Who is your target audience?
We at Payseur & Schmidt have many and varied interests, and we hope that this is reflected in our publications. It seems that we have a quite a diverse audience, but I would say as a general guide, people who would like P&S releases are also discriminating appreciators of quality content, innovative design and artwork, strangeness, wit, absurdity, scholarship, and categories similar.

Given that a rash of upstarts like McSweeney's Press have begun to encroach on your territory, how do you keep your press unique and ahead of the curve, so to speak?
At Payseur & Schmidt, as far as I can tell, the message handed down from the higher-ups seems to be to take the long view on events in the publishing industry. Everything is cyclical in nature. Nothing is ever original. The underground and the mainstream are yin/yang poles of each other, ever revolving. There's always a new cool kid on the block and their always will be. What the nerd liked 5 years ago, the frat boy will like today. Talk in clichés, axioms, adages, and meaningless sentence fragments. This is what is given to us from the suits in that long, dark, smoky room on the seventh floor of the Cauheegan office.

But seriously, publishers like McSweeney's Press are great, because they revitalize the market in ways that the public has forgotten are important -- like production values. I'm not sure about that Eggers fellow, but the McSweeney's books and periodicals that I have seen are beautiful. I tend to buy quite a few of their releases -- just to check out the competition, you know -- and I find, funnily enough, that I end up not really reading them, but just enjoying them as the beautifully produced objects that they are. Of course, I remember back to the golden days when P&S was swimming in the mucho dinero and could afford such production values, but like I said before, we take the long view. It probably has something to do with the general attitude of people raised in Cauheegan (which was named after the Chippewa word for "perfection"). One of the regional history books that I recently read went on for some length about Cauheegan's founder, J. Tycho Jespersen.  He was an explorer and taxidermist whose utopian leanings molded the Weltanshauung of the town. He built the town on a circular plan to emphasize unity, equality, and continuity. All the old Masonic buildings in town have that ubiquitous Miter/Trowel doodad, but it's always surrounded by what seems to be a stylized Ouroboros type figure. Totally weird if you ask me.

Why Thomas Disch? Whatever did he do to you?
Thomas Disch actually has quite a lengthy history with Payseur & Schmidt. His first connection to us was via the publication of The Brave Little Toaster: A Critical Examination and Dialectical Dissection, by Franklin Schmidt-Harvey. Schmidt-Harvey's work was, for quite a time, considered among the best and most revealing deconstructions of Disch's most renowned "kid's" book, allowing as it does the auctorial voice to carry the weight of the analysis, rather than imposing external meaning of such concepts as "brave" and "toaster" onto the reader's presuppositions. He became involved personally with Payseur & Schmidt in the late 90s with a series of one-act plays penned and directed by himself and performed at the open air amphitheatre in Cauheegan's Greenhill district in the summer of 2000. When he came to us with his idea of a collaboration between himself and the SFnal "edu-core" band BloodHag, how could we say no? Listening to him read Mecca: A Vision of the Next Crusade with the ambient background by BloodHag side-project X's For Eyes is a feast for the ears. Just one of the extras you get with the purchase of our new Mecca|Mettle release. Mecca|Mettle

Personally, I think Disch is a fantastic man -- insanely intelligent, and sweet as anything.  I remember visiting him in NYC several years ago and he took me to his favorite Italian pastry shop in Chinatown and bought several sfogliatelles, which I had never had before, and were excellent.  Disch is one of a few writers that I truly hold in awe. He's a superb writer that is comfortable writing in any style or on any subject, and he has done so successfully. But the part that I like about him the most is that he's willing to write material that puts people out of their comfort zone, and moreover, he's does it gleefully and to anyone. No one is safe. He's sort of like the Frank Zappa of the publishing world. He does what he does, and does it well, and gleefully doesn't care who he pisses off.  And that seems to turn off a lot of people, but that's what I love about him. And he's definitely respected for it.

Jacob McMurray
Jacob McMurray

Did you become curator at the SF Museum in part because of your work for Payseur?
Actually, I've worked at the SF Museum since before it opened, developing exhibits for the museum. I've worked at SFM's sister institution, the Experience Music Project, for nearly a decade before that. My curatorial work is pretty much independent of my intern position at Payseur & Schmidt.  It really just was a good fit, since P&S's Seattle Office was just opening and they really needed people that knew the genre and had some sort of background in the arts and literature. It is a funny thing that McSweeney's opened their 826 Seattle store and have an "outer space" theme -- probably a coincidence, but again, it's good to have some competition.  In any case, I heard early on about the intern positions at P&S and applied, along with two of my colleague's here at SFM -- Therese Littleton and Brooks Peck.  I tend to do a lot of scanning of images, and photocopying, and answering emails, and fulfillment of orders.  Sometimes our art director, Ruby, lets me do a little pre-press work on Old Pearl, our letterpress that she still insists on using for many projects. Therese is usually on the 2nd floor poring over the thousands of submissions that we get every week.  She weeds out the chaff and sends the nuggets off to the main office, where Alice takes over. And Therese cleans the bathrooms. Brooks sends out all the condolence letters (each hand-written!) and disinfects the keyboards, mostly.  The Seattle Office is miniscule compared to Cauheegan.  It's frightening actually.

You clearly love books as artifacts. What are some of your favorite books from a design standpoint?
I do love books as artifacts (and artifice). For me, and I'm sure others at P&S would agree, a book is not merely its content. The content is important, certainly, but the presentation, at least for us, is of equal value. It's a hard thing to describe, and even justify. It reminds me of when I was really into indie and punk rock, and I had a record label. With the punk and indie ethos, it wasn't cool to be a format snob -- the whole idea was to get your music out to the people that had like interests -- the music spoke the language, and you used the easiest tools at hand to deliver the message. In the early punk days, when punk rock was a true underground movement and there was no money-making organization behind it, the easiest way to spread your music was the audio tape. Why spend money to press vinyl singles, when you could spread your music via cassette? Get the word out about new and cool bands by making your own magazines using the new ubiquitous Xerox machine. Screen print or Xerox your own posters for advertising your band. Since the important element was the music, spread the content and don't worry about anything else.

This ethos totally influenced my tastes, and I still love the DIY ethos, which is a very vital part of starting a small press. But at the same time (if we transition to the print world), there is something about a book that has been designed with an eye to classic graphic design and perhaps uses techniques like embossing, or screen printing, or letterpress, or other techniques of the past. These techniques and others like classic bookbinding, or incorporation of ephemera, pop-ups, fold-outs, unusual paper stocks, etc., at least for me, have a direct tie-in to the craftsmanship of the past -- to a time that predated the computer, and predated the ability for anyone with a desktop publishing program to "design"  something that Adobe says looks good.

So really, perhaps my fascination with books as artifacts is really this eternal struggle between these two sides -- the DIY, punk rock, content is king side, and the tradition-steeped, lost-art of the past. But it really is the combination of these two ideas that is important. It's being able to take the lessons and techniques of the past and apply them to the opportunities and ease-of-use of the present, to create something greater than the two. Or whatever.

One last note: and this is truly personal taste and no offense to anyone, but SF/F/H books, since the late 60s, for the most part, suffer greatly from having poor production values and low-quality artwork. I'm sure this will piss off quite a few people, but I truly believe it. Prior to this period (and again, this is greatly generalizing), the artists were in general more talented, probably because illustration and design before the computer was a more valued skill set with fewer, but more highly-skilled people in the industry. I'd love to have a more lengthy discussion on this topic, because there are many facets to this, but it's veering into tangent-land a little too much.

Here's a few of the many books that I think have cool design, great cover art, or are cool as artifacts.  There's no particular order, and please, on the examples that are modern, I hope no one takes offense -- this really is just my opinion.
Mutant Mutant
by Henry Kuttner
1st UK edition, 1954, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

This book is a beautiful example of a simple, totally within-genre, but classy and design-y book cover.  2-color, offset on super cheap, grainy yellow paper.  This one makes me happy.
Titus Groan Titus Groan
by Mervyn Peake
1st UK edition, 1946, Eyre & Spottiswoode

Mervyn Peake was an amazing illustrator, and this 2-color cover is simple and amazing. And you can't beat a book that has a weird publisher like "Eyre & Spottiswoode."
Porno-Graphics: The Shame of our Art Museums Porno-Graphics: The Shame of our Art Museums
by Dan Greenburg
1969, Random House

This bizarre little book (I apologize for the poor picture) I found at a local used book store. I pulled it out probably because of my deep interest in prurience, but was delighted to see how amazing the book was. The book quite convincingly argues that our art museums show tons of filth, and suggests that paintings by varied artists such as Seurat, Manet, Botticelli, and others, be painted over to cover the naughty bits. This cool part of the book is that it shows each of the paintings in their original state with one to several transparent overlays that cover up each of the naughty bits on the paintings.  Totally hilarious. And an amazing artifact.
McSweeney's Quarterly, #7 McSweeney's Quarterly, #7, 2001
McSweeney's as I said before, consistently puts out superbly designed publications, and it's hard for me not to want to list a zillion of their titles.  This issue of their quarterly has 9 individual perfect bound or saddle stitched publications that are housed in a fake casebound covers (which are letterpressed).  The whole thing is kept together by a gigantic rubber band.  This is what made me fall in love with McSweeney's.
The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines
by John Crowley
2005, Subterranean Press

This is a great little new number -- a short novella/novelette from Crowley with a totally amazing Victorian-style decorated cloth cover. People should do this more.  This is simply a foiled cover (foiled twice in two colors) that's been stamped with a great design. People foil/stamp the spines of hardcover books all the time -- why not do this on the cover and forget the dustjacket?  It's not that much more expensive.  I love this book.  I don't, however, love the internal design, because I think the body text is too large, but that's only because they needed to get a certain page length for the casebinding and had to bump up the point size to get it.
The Haploids The Haploids
by Jerry Sohl
1952, Rinehart & Company, Inc.

I tend to buy a lot of books I'll never read because of the covers.  I really like a lot of these old SF covers -- the books probably really good, but I really bought it because of the cover. Limited color, use of the paper's natural color as an additional color (white).  Nice.
The People of Paper The People of Paper
by Salvador Plascencia
2005, McSweeney's

I bought this book because of the cover, but it's also an excellent surrealistic-tinged book that veers quite a bit into SF/F territory. The cover has a great illustration, and is foiled with two colors of foils and then stamped with two different spot colors -- it's really a nice object. The interior design is really amazing.  The whole book is told by a zillion different narrators, and the design caters to this, which has multiple columns on each page for each narrator.  There are also instances where large black circles obscure text, or where text is actually cut out of the book (with large holes in the pages) -- all of which is part of the story.  A great example of how design is fully integrated and in tune with the content of the book.  Designer Eli Horowitz, who does a lot of the McSweeney's books, is an excellent designer.  He seems to favor ultra-bright white paper, which I generally don't like, but he makes it work quite well.
The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases
by Jeff VanderMeer and Mark Roberts, eds.
2003, Nightshade Books

Here's my total ass-kissing entry. But I love the way this book is conceived and designed. This had to take a ton of time to design -- the interior designs in B/W are amazing and totally evoke a Victorian/Sweeney Todd/Medical sort of feel that goes perfectly with the content.  John Coulthart did an amazing job designing this.  The editors are towering intellects.
City of Saints and Madmen City of Saints and Madmen
by Jeff VanderMeer
Prime, 2001

Ass-kissing entry #2. There have been so many versions of this book that it's hard to keep track of them, but confusion is good. This book is a great example of what you can do with POD. Jeff, your article in Why Should I Cut Your Throat? about how you put this together is a great primer on the possibilities of printing. With offset printing getting cheaper and cheaper, I'm not sure how long POD will even be worth doing, but for the time City of Saints came out, it was certainly one of the cheapest ways to print books that looked professional. In any case, the design is great.  Multiple typefaces for different stories, great design, a coded story in an envelope in the back, a story that begins on the dustjacket, purposely crappily reproduced photos to take maximum advantage of the lack of resolution in the POD process.  A great artifact.
The San Veneficio Canon The San Veneficio Canon
by Michael Cisco
Prime, 2004

Prime is a great example of a publisher who overall produces books with great cover art. Usually a little dark for my taste, but very skillful. I liked this cover especially (and I really liked the first half of the book itself.)  The text is a little pixilated and the typeface a little too computery-fancy for my taste, but I still really liked it. 
Report to the Men's Club and Other Stories Report to the Men's Club
by Carol Emshwiller
Small Beer 2002

Small Beer is a good example of a publisher that seems to regularly use cover artists that are from outside the SF/F genre.  Which I think is only a good thing. New influences and styles are key to fighting stagnation. The cover art for this Emshwiller book is totally awesome, and the content is superb.  The type on the cover I do not like, and I think detracts from the cover as a piece of art. But type is hard, the hardest thing about design to do well, I would argue.
Anyway, I could go on and on, but there's a good sampling. 

What projects do you have forthcoming?
We have a busy year at Payseur & Schmidt.  We're trying to firm up our release schedule and hopefully will have that soon, but here's a rough idea.  Later in 2006, we will have a quasi-memoir by Nicola Griffith complete with a CD of music that she recorded with her early 80s punk band Janes Plane, a scholarly work by John Clute on modern horror motifs, and something totally weird and fun by Paul Di Filippo.  We're also doing sporadic chapbooks, which will feature letterpressed covers, ephemera, and other fun stuff, with the likes of Matt Hughes, John Shirley, Therese Littleton, Brooks Peck, and others.  We have some strange stuff that isn't genre-related, like a Japanese children's book, homages to The Kinks, a history of the guillotine, and various art/music/text projects. Schedules will probably slip on things, but we're dedicated. We're putting together a mailing list for those that want to keep in the know -- let us know!  Email and ask to be added to our list.  Please us small words and simple sentences for the sake of our webmaster Bongo, who is still on some pretty heavy pain medication.

Copyright © 2006 Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, The New York Review of SF, Nova Express, and many others. Prime published his non-fiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat?.

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