Late 2012, someone pointed me to a submissions call for a project named Mothership:Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond. The first thing that caught my eye was the art that accompanied the call for submissions, the second thing, was the mission-vision statement behind the project. Much later, I came to know the man behind the project. Author, artist and rebel, Bill Campbell shares the vision behind what we now know as Rosarium and his approach to publishing.
During the book launch for Mothership in Amsterdam, I remember you saying that we didn’t need to sit at anybody’s table because we had our own table. Would you like to elaborate a little more on that?
First, I really have to thank you for helping to arrange that signing. I loved it. It was definitely a highlight of my life. I hope we’ll get to do something like that together again.
Now, what I’ve been saying along those lines is that when you ask for a place at the table, all you get are table scraps. What you need to do is build your own table.
What I mean by that is that we (and I’m talking about the African-American experience here) have been here before. America has a long, proud tradition of becoming enamored with, co-opting, and then abandoning African-American culture (from the barbershop quartet to jazz and rock and roll to the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, Blaxploitation, disco, you name it). At their heights, these artists thought they finally had a place at the table, only to ultimately be told, “There’s no interest in black culture,” and being kicked out and left cold and hungry.
The one exception has been hip-hop (so far), where there has been black ownership, co-ownership, distribution deals, etc. While by no means perfect, it is the one movement where artists have had more control over their own destinies to help make hip-hop the global phenomenon it is today.
They built their own tables. As I said, this model is by no means perfect, but it’s something that we artists of color should learn from. That way, when the time comes that the larger culture says there’s no market for what we’re doing, we have a better chance at sustaining our art.
On your website, it says that Rosarium Publishing was established in 2013. Would you like to share some of the story behind Rosarium Publishing. What made you decide to put up this publishing company?
Basically, since 2004 I’d been self-publishing because there were no publishers interested in what I was doing. Even my really successful agent couldn’t find anybody who was interested in what I was doing. Meanwhile, with the first book, Sunshine Patriots, every blue moon I’d hear from a literature professor here and there about how much they liked the book. One grad student even wrote part of his dissertation on the book. Then Koontown Killing Kaper ended up being taught in a handful of colleges and universities, too.
So, there I was in 2012, with hardly anybody knowing I even existed, selling books out of the trunk of my car, and having to drive to some college to lecture about my work. I kept thinking how ridiculous it was that I was considered by some to be good enough for academia but not good enough for a publisher. I also started thinking that I couldn’t be the only writer this was happening to. Around that time I met Brett Cottrell, who was self-published despite writing a mighty fine novel (which we’ll be publishign as The End of the World Is Rye). So, I was fairly convinced that I was onto something. Then, when I came up with the idea of Mothership, I knew that I was going to be the one who published it. Hence, Rosarium was born.
You put out the anthology Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond in 2013. What made you decide to do this project and what was it like putting together this anthology? What was the most important thing for you about it?
You’ll have to blame social media for that. I started realizing that there were just a lot of writers of SFF popping up, getting published, and winning accolades. When I started writing the stuff back in the early ’90s, I felt like a kid on a desert island. There were Delany and Butler (both of whom inspired me to start writing the stuff), and I didn’t know about Charles Saunders and Steve Barnes. So, yeah, it felt mighty lonely out there. But because of social media, I got to see all these names of people I’d never heard of, and people from all over the globe (like yourself) and saw that they could really write. I just thought that this is a really exciting and dynamic time in the field and that somebody ought to document it. It wasn’t before long that I realized that that person was going to be me. When I asked Edward Austin Hall and John Jennings to be a part of it, their enthusiasm was so great, that I knew I was onto something.
As I said, I think I accidentally stumbled upon the zeitgeist. So, it was really exciting and really nerve-wracking to do something like this. I’d owned my own music trade before, but I’d never done anything like this. But because of the zeitgeist (evidenced by We See Different Frontiers, Long Hidden, and Steampunk World), the reception and enthusiasm was far greater than either Ed or I could’ve possibly imagined. It was one helluva ride!
The most important thing? Well, as I said, it was to help document this exciting moment in SFF. There are a lot of talented writers of color out there, doing good work. Also, as far as representation goes, I really believe that people should be able to tell their own stories and also to add a bit of color to the monochrome future that Hollywood’s SF often paints. I think we were fairly successful on both counts.
For a new press, you’ve gotten busy and visible very quickly. What’s the experience been like so far? Have you encountered any major obstacles? How have you dealt with them?
Hectic! Ha! I wear a lot of hats (well, physically, only my Fishbone and Homestead Grays hats): father, husband, government worker, author, publisher. But I can’t complain. It doesn’t look like how I envisioned it when I decided I wanted be a writer when I was nine, but I’m living the dream. There’s really no money in it, but I actually really enjoy every facet of my life. Not a lot of people get to say that, and, for most of my life, neither did I. How can I complain?
How do I deal with major obstacles? Well, I’m a working-class black kid from Pittsburgh (with an immigrant father to boot). It ain’t supposed to be easy. I just keep my head down and power through. Plus, I’ve got very supportive friends, an incredibly supportive family, and a lot of people cheering us on from the sidelines. Also, now that Rosarium is 18 strong, I have a lot of shoulders I can lean on and a lot of people willing to help and give me advice. I really couldn’t do it without all those people in my corner. Rosarium is very much a collective. Those obstacles become a lot easier to deal with when there are a bunch of people willing to help each other over them.
Tell us about the new and upcoming projects from Rosarium Publishing. What should we look out for?
Well, as you noted, we have been very busy. So, we’ve got projects lined up all the way until November of 2015 already. We also signed with a new distributor, so some of the things we had scheduled for the rest of this year are being held off until April. So, come spring, things are going to get very exciting.
Recently, we released a beautiful art book, Pitch Black Rainbow: The Art of John Jennings. John is the artist who gave us the Mothership cover. We also released the 40th anniversary edition of the classic crime novel, The Jones Men, by Vern Smith.
On the comics end of Rosarium, things are simply exploding. We have DayBlack by Keef Cross. It’s about a vampire tattoo artist. Keef is an incredible artist who’s transferred his tattoo style onto the page. It’s less of a traditional comic book and more like an art book with words.
Then, in the next few months, we’re dropping a bunch of new titles digitally (at first). There’s the hauntingly dystopian Corporatica by William Bryant and Pedro Elefante. The kids’ comic, Malice in Ovenland, by Micheline Hess, about the encounters a little girl has with the grimy ghouls in her mother’s oven. Kid Code by Damian Duffy, Stacey Robinson, and John Jennings. That’s a hip-hop Dr. Who story that’s simply freaky. Jennifer Cruté‘s very adult and very funny coming-of-age comic, Jennifer’s Journal. And Tim Fielder is working on his dieselfunk comic, Matty’s Rocket, which will just knock your eye sockets out.
Then in the spring we’ll have Brett Cottrell’s The End of the World Is Rye, which is about an angel who comes to Earth and might just cause the Apocalypse all over the perfect sandwich. John Jennings will be dropping his hoodoo noir, Blue Hand Mojo. Of course, as you know, we have two new anthologies that we’re very excited about, The SEA Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia, edited by Joyce Chng and Jaymee Goh, and Stories for Chip: A Literary Tribute to Samuel R. Delany, edited by Nisi Shawl and me. And your fellow Mothershipper, Tade Thompson, turned in this fantastic, African crime novel, Making Wolf. It’s a wild ride that will be coming out in the fall of 2015.
So, yeah. Very busy and very exciting. Rosarium is a very good reason to get up in the morning. We’ve been fortunate enough to assemble a very talented crew of artists, and we’re really hoping to make our mark within the next year.
I think that for us, it’s not just the writing but also that we are engaged in creating spaces where our work can breathe. What’s it been like for you as a writer producing work that deliberately questions existing narratives?
Well, you know, my writing is all over the place. I’ve hardly stuck to one genre. In my role as a satirist, though, I think it’s almost my duty to make everybody uncomfortable. There are orthodoxies on all sides of the political spectrum (hell, I’m guilty of them myself) that could use a bit of shaking up. And, when you do something like that, there are people who are going to praise you for it, people who will willfully ignore you, and people who will despise you for it. But I think the importance of satire is that it shakes things up and it does help open up those spaces you were talking about for further dialogue. It just depends on whether or not the writer is personally willing to be unpopular to do write like that and if readers are willing to have their own beliefs questioned and are willing to question them themselves.
I was thinking of the way in which you approached stereotypes in Koontown Killing Kaper. Would you like to talk some more about the inspiration behind that and the process of writing that novel as well as the response the novel has received?
It all started with My Booty Novel. After the psychedelic trip that is Sunshine Patriots, I wanted to write something a bit lighter. MBN is basically “fluff for nerds” about black nerds in love. But I was told by someone in publishing that my book wasn’t “ghetto enough.”
Now, my father is from Kingston, Jamaica, and my mother is from a small mining town in western Pennsylvania. When they got married, they moved to the suburbs of Pittsburgh. So, my not being “ghetto enough” is simply an accident of birth (just like most of the things people are labeled as are). So, why should I be punished as a writer because I didn’t grow up the way they thought black people should’ve grown up or talk about the subjects these publishers thought I, as a black writer, should be talking about? White writers aren’t punished for not being “Appalachian enough.”
Then I just started thinking about how American popular culture often treats African-Americans, how they constantly portray black folks as somehow less than, how they constantly portray us as criminal and dangerous and as “thugs.” Then, when you look at the statistics, you see that these portrayals only hold true for a minority within our minority. Yet, you would think that most African-Americans live this kind of lifestyle.
I started thinking of American popular culture’s treatment of African-Americans as nothing but propaganda. That this modern-day thug portrait isn’t much different than the antebellum portrayals of the “happy darky” in the old minstrel shows. So, basically, you can look at Koontown Killing Kaper as a modern-day minstrel show. Like, if black folks truly lived the way we are portrayed as living, KKK is what our lives should look like.
The reaction to Koontown has definitely been a wild ride. No publisher wanted it. I basically lost my agent over it. Very few press outlets wanted to cover it. There were events that wouldn’t let me appear with the book. There were events where I was disinvited. There was even one event where I was black-balled during the event. For two days I sat there at the con and nobody would talk to me. There are still people who (without having read it, of course) refuse to acknowledge the book’s existence.
On the other hand, it’s still my most popular book. The fan reactions have just been wonderful. And, even with all the blind eyes that have turned from the book, Koontown has somehow found its way into academia, and there are a handful of professors who have taught the book. So, it’s been wild, selling books basically out of the trunk of your car, getting turned away from conventions, and then going off to some college and lecturing on that very same book. It’s actually been quite fun, really.
Who do you consider to be the most important influences on the work that you do?
Wow, that’s a really hard one. I guess that would be sort of like, Who’s your favorite child, right? I guess, when I was writing Koontown, it would’ve been Ishmael Reed, Darius James, and Voltaire. I really wanted that no-holds-barred approach as opposed to the more genteel, Hollywood approach to satire.
But, in general, the writers who really inspired me would probably be Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Samuel R. Delany, William S. Burroughs, Octavia Butler, Jorge Luis Borges, Kurt Vonnegut, and Leslie Marmon Silko. I think what inspired me most about them is just how unique they are, what singular voices they possess. So, I never really wanted to write like them because I felt like even if you went back in time to when you were five with the express goal of growing up to write like them, you would still fail. That’s what I wanted when I started writing—to somehow be so unique that people would think, “That’s a Bill Campbell novel.” I doubt if I’ll ever get there, but, if you’re gonna dream, dream big, right?
I can’t imagine you just not having more projects than publishing. Are you working on a new novel? What’s in the wings for Bill Campbell, the author?
Well, as you know, I am wearing a lot of hats right now: publisher, editor, government employee, father, husband, etc. So, I haven’t been writing for a very long time. Actually, I wrote my first original bit of fiction for the first time in almost four years recently. It’s Baaaad Muthas: A Spaceploitation Extravaganza. It’s a comic book send-up of all the different ’70s exploitation movies about an all-female group of space pirates/James Brown revival band. Micheline Hess will be working on it for me. Hopefully, we’ll have something out by the fall of ’15.
Other than that, it is all about Rosarium. We have a very talented corps of writers and artists, and I am doing everything I can to make this a successful venture. Oh yeah, and the Samuel R. Delany tribute I co-edited with Nisi Shawl, Stories for Chip. Hopefully, I’ll be able to write another novel in the foreseeable future, but right now, my hands are more than full.