Issue #4 Featured Interview: Idiots’Books

Posted by on Apr 28, 2014 in Uncategorized | 1 comment

Zac Zander: Robbi and Matthew of Idiots’Books are funny. I know this because I have read their hilarious books and because of an interview I did with them, which you will soon read. You’d think I was being paid to write these things, but I can assure you, I am not getting paid—that’s how funny I think they are! I don’t even need to get paid to write that they are funny! You know what else they are? Nice. Talented. Creative. Attractive. I’m sure their house smells good. I bet they say hi to their neighbors. You know? Just good people. But, seriously, they are so awesome for answering some questions for me and Spry, and I’m so thankful to Erin and Linsey for letting me interview them. So relax readers, enjoy the words you will soon see with your eyes.

 

of Idiots'Books

Robbi and Matthew of Idiots’Books

 

Zac: Tell our readers a little about Idiots’Books and how (or if) you differ from other presses.

 M: Well, we started Idiots’Books back in the fall of 2006. We had recently bailed out on our respectable adult lives, having quit our jobs, sold our house, gave up our health insurance, etc., because we were antsy to make art together. Specifically, we wanted to make illustrated books.

R: Don’t you think it’s a little pretentious to say that we wanted to make “art” together?

M: It’s true that I also wanted to have more time to make sandwiches with you, but that’s beside the point. And, yes, I think the books we make are “art”, even if it sounds kind of pretentious, because they’re pure expression without an agenda. We’re not making them for anyone but ourselves.

R: I wish I had known you were so interested in making sandwiches. This could have been a very different seven years.

M: First of all, pay attention, woman. Second of all, let me answer the man’s question. When we sold our house, we moved into the hayloft of an old barn. Robbi’s mom’s pottery studio was on the ground level. We knew we wanted to make books together, but we also worried that our newfound freedom might prove distracting. So we set up a subscription service, asking people to pay for a year’s worth of books in advance, which meant we had to make them.

R: Instead of sitting around eating ice cream like we are prone to do.

M: While Robbi eats ice cream, I eat sandwiches. Apparently, she has never noticed.

R: As for what Idiots’Books does, we publish odd, commercially nonviable picture books for adults. The through line is that everything we publish has Matthew’s words and my pictures.

M: Sometimes we make books. Sometimes we make letterpress broadsides. Sometimes we collaborate with musicians on album art. But everything we do is somehow tinged with social commentary. We like to point out and play with the universal failings that make us all human.

R: Which is to say, these books are all about us.

M: I’m hesitant to say how we’re different from other presses. I’d rather just say what we are, which is a small, subscription based, vanity press that we use as a way to publish whatever the hell we want to.

R: I’m less hesitant to say how we’re different—what people seem to find different about us is that we’re a husband and wife team that collaborates intensively together on making things other than children.

M: Although we do have three of those.

R: Only we don’t send them out by subscription.

M: Occasionally, I’m tempted.

 

 

Q: How did your press begin?

R: We had originally considered our book-making endeavor to be a stopgap between the year that Matthew failed to get into grad school—

M: There was really no need to mention that.

R: —and the next year, when we hoped that Matthew would get into grad school.

M: Seven years later, and we’re still waiting.

R: To be fair, he never applied a second time because we inadvertently started a press.

M: We had figured that after a year we’d run out of money and would have to return to the “real world”—but we didn’t, and so we decided to just keep going. We kept making our books. More people subscribed. We got some nice press. And we benefitted from not quite fitting in anywhere we went.

R: We don’t make comics, so we stood out at places MoCCA and SPX. We were the table where all the significant others and parents of the die-hard comic geeks found something they could get excited about.

M: And, because our books have illustrations, we stand out at places like AWP. There, we appeal to the people who love image and design.

R: We’ve been lucky enough to keep going, and because we keep showing up, we keep finding new people who like our stuff and our story—and who are interested in following along.

 

 

Q: Can you explain the process of developing your books?

R: Well, usually Mathew starts by writing a ton of crap and then one really good thing.

M: Unfortunately, the crap seems to come first. Robbi considers herself the arbiter of quality.

R: I don’t consider myself the arbiter of quality. I am the arbiter of quality. Ok…fine… That’s not true. Matthew also has a pretty good idea what works and what doesn’t.

M: But somehow, I don’t believe it until Robbi tells me so. Although I’m the writer and Robbi is the illustrator, she’s my editor and I’m her art director.

R: So we actually each have our hands in both parts of the process.

M: After we agree on a manuscript to develop, Robbi marks up the draft, and while I’m revising, she starts making sketches.

R: But first we talk about what I’m going to sketch. And having Matthew to bounce ideas off of is incredibly helpful at this stage.

M: We’re interested in image/word pairings that are interdependent and non-redundant. The written narrative and the visual narrative work together, but each has its own role in revealing the ideas and moving the story along.

R: Which means that often Matthew’s revisions consist of removing text that’s no longer necessary because we’re going to have the illustration carry that idea or plot point.

M: The ultimate example of this is the time when Robbi pared down a 1,500-word story into just six words.

R: I’m an awesome editor.

M: It was crushing at first, but what she came up with was this amazing, illustration-driven version of the story I’d written that was all the more powerful for its silence.

R: It’s called The Contented, in case anyone gives a damn.

M: And this sometimes works in reverse, too. I’m there to tell Robbi when her illustrations aren’t working.

R: Deep down, I usually know but am too lazy to try and fix it.

M: One of the most important things we do for one another is keep each other honest.

R: We both have really high standards, but we work harder to satisfy each other than we do to satisfy ourselves.

M: Except when it comes to making sandwiches.

R: Or kids.

M: Touché.

 

 

Q: I love that you have a line of children’s books in addition to Idiots’Books. What made you decide to create Bobbledy Books?

R: I hate to say it, but it’s probably money.

M: She’s right, I think. Idiots’Books doesn’t lose money, but it’s never made enough to pay the bills. When I said we made “art” earlier, it’s because we really don’t think about the market. We just make the books we want to make, and it’s a bonus if someone wants to buy them.

R: But at a book show a few years ago, a guy came up to us and told us he’d buy eight subscriptions on the spot if we had a subscription service for children’s books.

M: At first, we thought it was crazy to start a second press. Actually, only I thought it was crazy. Robbi was game. Because Robbi is crazy.

R: Damn straight, motherfucker.

M: She’s usually better behaved than this. She doesn’t get out a lot.

R: We thought about it for a year or so, and decided that we wanted to do more than just send out children’s books. We wanted to create a club that encourages creativity of various kinds and gets kids involved in actually making stuff.

M: And so we send kids stuff in the mail. All kinds of stuff. In addition to three picture books by Robbi and me, Bobbledy club members get a book that we start and they get to finish.

R: After they finish making their books, they send them in to us and we pick one to publish and send out to all the kids in the club.

M: They also get an album of original children’s music.

R: And a card on their birthday.

M: And a funny-looking, five-headed crayon.

R: Damn straight, motherfucker.

M: I promise that our children’s books are less profane than the woman who illustrates them.

R: We started Bobbledy Books and went to the book fair again, but unfortunately that guy wasn’t there. We’re still waiting to sell those eight subscriptions. Show your face, man! We did this all for you.
 

Q: What advice do you have for beginning writers?

M: First, I’d like to hear what advice Robbi has for beginning writers.

R: I guess I would say that you have to keep writing to get better—and that you will get better if you keep writing. You’re in the lucky position of having chosen something that you can’t help but get better at the longer you do it. If you were a professional basketball player, you’d peak pretty early on and would spend the rest of your life getting worse. But as long as you keep writing, you’re getting better. It’s such a gift.

M: I’d add that writers get better at writing even when they’re not writing. I took a writing hiatus after college. But when I started tapping out stories again five or so years later, they were better, because I’d lived for five more years and had that many more experiences, observations, and adjectives in my brain. That said, creating a disciplined writing practice has paid dividends for me. Writing a certain number of words each day, and at the same time each day, even if there’s nothing to say. And, of course, it’s essential to share your work and get feedback from someone whose opinions you value.

R: Sorry, everyone. I’m not available.

M: Maybe my most important advice is to not obsess about publication. Write your story. Finish your story. Send it out, if you think it’s good. But don’t just sit around waiting for someone to publish it. Keep writing more stories, books, essays, etc. Be relentless about it. Be prolific. You never know what’s going to hit. It might be the story you wrote when you might have been waiting to hear back from the editors of this or that journal. That has certainly been the case for us.

R: Good lord, enough advice already.

M: Thank you for saying that without swearing.

R: I am capable of occasional restraint.

 

Q: My favorite book is The Baby is Disappointing. It was the first book of yours I read, and I remember thinking how ridiculous and perfect it was, then I was hooked. What has been your favorite book you’ve made so far?

R: I really find this an impossible question to answer, and I’m not trying to be one of those people who says that I can’t choose among my children because I love them all so much.

M: Because she doesn’t.

R: It’s actually that because we produce at such a rapid pace…

M: We publish ten books a year.

R: …that I actually pretty much forget each book as soon as we’re done working on it. Because we’ve already moved onto the next one. We have to. So occasionally, usually while we’re sitting around at book shows, I go back and read through our old books and am surprised and delighted that we even made them. There’s really only one that I don’t like.

M: I don’t like it either. It’s the only one where Robbi drew the pictures before I wrote the story. It was an experiment.

R: And it failed. Except now we know not to try and do that again.

M: I am happy with most of our books, but I definitely have my favorites. I have a soft spot for one of our earliest books, Understanding Traffic, which is a mock academic treatise on traffic theory, a book I knew I had to write after my first traumatic experience driving in New York City. I’m from Kansas, where we drive politely. I also love Homer Was an Epic Poet, which is my personal take on literature and history told through the episodic musings of a bewildered narrator. And then there’s the Makers Tile Game, which came out of a commission to create chapter illustrations for Cory Doctorow’s novel Makers. The folks at Tor asked us to imagine the 81 illustrations so that they fit together into one big illustration. We took it a step further, and created the illustrations so that each one is an interchangeable tile. There’s one “right” way to put them all together in a 9×9 square so that they form one big picture that makes sense. But they can be recombined in more permutations than there are atoms in the universe.

R: This was confirmed by a group of theoretical physicists after lengthy debate on a math blog.

M: Overall, we’ve published 52 books together over the past eight years. And each one is its own creature. We reinvent ourselves in terms of style, format, and approach pretty much every time we do a new book.

R: I guess we should mention Ten Thousand Stories, which was an experimental mix-and-match book that we did really early on. It’s a book that we liked but sort of forgot about until people started asking us to do mix and match books, and six years after we had published it ourselves, Chronicle Books bought it and published it for trade.

M: Weirdly enough, a few years before that, LB Kids had asked us to do a mix and match book in the Super Hero Squad series, which is like little kid versions of the Marvel superheroes.

R: For example, even though they fight crime, they’re not allowed to hurt anyone. Wolverine is only allowed to use his adamantium claws to cut birthday cake.

M: And Hulk can only use his super strength to flatten cans so that they can be more easily recycled.

R: It was exciting to be published by an actual publisher, but it was the first time that we didn’t get to do exactly what we wanted to.

M: But now, a few years after that experience, we’ve just signed a deal to do another book with LB Kids. And this one is our story, with our characters. It’s actually an adaptation of one of our Idiots’Books, the sequel to The Baby is Disappointing. It’s called Babies Ruin Everything, and it’s about the older sibling’s outrage at the arrival and subsequent bad behavior of the new baby.

R: Apparently there is a market niche for people looking for books to give people who are having a second child.

M: Who knew?

R: Not us. We never give gifts.

 

Q: What made you decide to make visual texts?

R: I made Matthew decide. He wouldn’t be making visual texts if I didn’t happen to be an illustrator. And I wouldn’t be making visual texts if he didn’t happen to be a writer.

M: It’s true. We kind of stumbled into it. We were together for several years before we discovered that we were interested in working together in this way.

R: But as it turns out, our work fits together really well.

M: My stories are problematic in that they are more focused on voice and idea and are kind of thin on character development and plot. This is where Robbi is extremely useful.

R: I knew that Matthew wrote these weird stories, and so I started illustrating them as a way to put together a portfolio for grad school. An illustrator needs something to illustrate, and so it was kind of handy to have a writer there providing words. But it turned out to be so fun that we kept collaborating.

M: We got to do a few books together before Robbi went to grad school and we got jobs. And it was that itch to make more of them that compelled us to take the big risk and quit our jobs, etc.

 

Q: So, tell me everything about the TEDx. How did it come about? What did you two present? How much free food was there? Did you get a gift bag?

M: We were referred by an art history professor at Washington College—where we’ve taught collaborative book-making together. Of course, we jumped at the opportunity, even though it meant having come up with an idea worth sharing.

R: We have lots of ideas. I’m just not sure how many are worth sharing.

M: Ultimately, we decided to talk about what we know best, which is collaboration. We tried to break it down and look objectively at how collaboration works, and to provide a kind of outline for others who are interested in tapping into the power of the collaborative space.

R: Collaboration is something we’ve been thinking about for the last few years, because we recently served as human guinea pigs for nonfiction writer Joshua Wolf Shenk, who is writing a book on the power of creative pairs.

R: Josh’s book is mostly about super-famous pairs, but as part of his research, he wanted to take a close look at least one pair that he could study in a deliberate way. So over the course of 18 months, Josh had us do a bunch of scientific and quasi-scientific tests to see how we related to one another.

M: He had a researcher at the University of Texas analyze 12 years of our written correspondence.

R: Apparently, that man nearly died of boredom.

M: Josh brought a Feng Shui expert to our barn to study how we work together in the context of our barn. And she was confounded by the oddness of our space.

R: Josh even had us psychoanalyzed at Austen Riggs.

M: And he had us do bunch of other stuff, too. At the end of it all, he concluded that we are eerily compatible in ways that can actually be measured by science.

R: His study of our collaboration culminated in a four-part series on Slate.com.

M: But we’re also in his book, Powers of Two, which is coming out in August, in which we will play a supporting role to such creative pairs as Lennon and McCartney, Jobs and Wozniak, and the Curies.

R: In the same way that Drowning Man #2 played a supporting role to Leo and Kate in the Titanic.

M: Anyway, back to the TED talk.

R: The organizer nearly had a heart attack when we told her that our 18 minutes would include 142 slides.

M: We have a highly orchestrated, highly illustrated dog and pony show that we’ve done in a bunch of schools, festivals, and conferences.

R: And it went well.

M: We did not forget our lines. People laughed at all the right places and only a few of the wrong ones.

R: Alas, we did not get a gift bag.

M: But lunch included perhaps the biggest pizza we have ever seen.

R: And there were lots and lots of sandwiches.

M: I was in heaven.

R: He’s pretty easy to please.

M: Lucky for you.

R: Damn straight, motherfucker.

 

Learn more about Robbi and Matthew at www.robbiandmatthew.com.

 

Zac Zander lives in Connecticut with his dog, Kaki, who is named after the musician not the pants. He holds an MFA from Fairfield University and is working on a collection of essays.

1 Comment

  1. Zac — what a great interview. Robbie and Matt sound great. Can’t wait to get me some of their books. Be well…”B”

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