Poet-author R.L. Buss likes to keep people-readers and reporters alike-on their toes.
Asked for his current reading preferences, Buss claims to have little to no interest in most modern fiction. “I'm always interested in what McSweeney's is publishing,” he says. “But the best advice a high-school teacher ever gave me was: stick to the classics. Of course, I've always got some Bukowski around. Some Dorothy Parker.” He pauses. “What are you reading?”
Buss' writing-as exemplified in his latest work, a short-story collection titled Goodnight My Jellybye Baby-has the same effect on the reader: windows are constantly being squeaked open into the lives of ordinary but somehow multi-layered, sometimes mythical personalities, and then shut abruptly, with the questions suddenly in your court.
From 9 to 5 at Borders Books in Mission Valley, Buss is just your average employee. He shelves, sorts and helps customers find the latest Danielle Steel, the newest diet bestseller. Amongst the shelves of polished cookie-cutter book after book, Buss' latest-with its cardstock cover and plastic binding-seems a bit out of place, somewhat of a loner in the sea of slick, eye-catching publications. Which is apt, really, considering its subject matter.
“I don't think I would describe them as loners,” says a hesitant Buss of the stories' protagonists. “But there's definitely a lot of me in them; I put myself in every character I write. And I think it represents the way a lot of people feel in modern society, that isolation from each other, and not knowing how to be alone... especially in this country.”
The stories, which are divided into acts titled “Main Stage,” “Second Stage” and “Coming Attraction,” lead the reader through a circus of lost, tired or tormented personalities: the jazz saxophonist who's played his last song, the gypsy woman who has the newspaper boy stay for dinner to mourn her lost son, the clown who was rejected from clown school. Each is distinctly separate in time period and setting; the whimsical, lyrical and visual quality of Buss' language is constant. Vast, ambitious descriptions of colorscapes, soundtracks, intentional run-ons and exaggerations abound. Grammar Nazis, this is not your realm.
“I would like my writing to be like a Bob Dylan song. Every time you hear a Bob Dylan song, you hear new things, meanings can change,” says Buss, who has contributed to CityBeat in the past and whose prose and poetry (from earlier works Life Between Cigarettes and I Threw a Cookie at Eddie Vedder) have drawn comparisons to the likes of Kerouac and Bukowski-comparisons the author readily accepts, under the condition that no one thinks he is just ripping them off.
Certainly no one could accuse him of an unoriginal attitude toward production. Goodnight was published by Sun Wolf Press, a fiercely independent, do-it-yourself, San Diego outfit committed to authors like Buss, whose style and approach to distributing his literature has left him agent-less and somewhat outside of the business side of publishing.
“I've tried to get away from being so negative about the publishing industry,” says Buss, “and more positive about what I'm doing with my writing. People don't realize what you can do yourself, with a PC, a home binding machine, Kinko's.”
Buss has been known to use the term “organic literature”-meaning free of the slickly audience-geared pretentiousness inherent in so much of today's popular fiction-to describe the tone and content that comes from working this way. He writes knowing he has an audience but claims it's never his priority or inspiration for a piece.
For these stories, each started with a single, sometimes myth-based image in the author's head. “I started with that picture, and wrote that first line from it, and went from there. I limit myself later, if I decide I want to stop after 1,500 words, or I want it to be a particular historical genre.”
The tendency to think visually might be a result of the author's preferences for socializing: in terms of the literary scene in San Diego, the author maintains that he doesn't know much about it. “I've always been drawn more to artists and musicians than to writers,” says Buss. “Maybe that's where the Bukowski comparison comes in.”
For the year ahead, Buss is working on a novel and a travel narrative and has also been considering the degree to which his next works can be further illustrated. Goodnight is punctuated by small yet lively black-and-whites of mythical and tribal-style beasts and goblins, drawn and arranged by the author himself.
As for the volume after volume of polished books that surround him at his day job, Buss can't get away from the feeling that there is something falsely emotive in much of today's best-selling writing.
“It's like they're writing from other media, not from real life. Which goes back to the fact that, in general, it seems that not too many people today are tuned in to real life.... But then, what is real life?” the author muses, then cuts himself short with a laugh.
“You open up a whole box of monkeys when you start asking those questions.”
Goodnight My Jellybye Baby is available at Borders Books in Mission Valley. R.L. Buss says to go check it out, but don't look at the back cover for a description of the book, because there's nothing on it. For him, that's not the way to sell stuff.