How do you go from hawking your self-published novel outside a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert to turning inner-city kids, many of whom had zero interest in books, into published authors?
An adoptive son of New Orleans, Abram Himelstein is drawing on the innovative spirit he used to market his debut novel, Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing, to create a one-of-a-kind publishing program that gives a voice to urban teenagers—and puts the lives of entire blocks between covers.
For the Neighborhood Story Project, which he founded with urban anthropologist Rachel Breunlin, Himelstein recruited seven high school students from New Orleans's seventh ward to write books about their blocks. He and Breunlin trained the students to conduct interviews, take pictures, piece together the story and write the narrative. The first five books (one is a brother-sister collaboration) will be published under the project's own imprint June 23, with a sixth following at the end of the summer.
While these are far from the first books to focus on inner-city life, they are distinguished by the intimacy and immediacy of the writers' perspective. "People talk about 'oh, yeah, this neighborhood this, and that neighborhood that,' but that's just out of their heads. They don't live around here, and they don't know," says Sam Wylie, 19, one of the writers in the project. "So when I write this book, I can show you what it's about. I can interview a few people and let them tell you. Instead of going by what other people say, now you can see for sure."
By the same token, the books may appeal to hard-to-reach readers, including high school students and others who live in the neighborhood these young authors are portraying. Members of that community have been enlisted to act as a sort of combination writers' workshop and focus group. "They come in, and they read the books, and they're like, 'hey, this is working; this isn't.' That's part, I think, of our quality control," Himelstein says.
The books are slated for 1,000-copy first print runs and, it is hoped, national distribution. Closer to home, the project is already transforming a neighborhood's relationship to books. "Everyone's stopping the students and saying, 'Oh, when's your book coming out? Are you going to put me in it?' " Himelstein says. Wylie notes, "Where I come from, and where I live, people aren't usually writing books. Most don't usually read or talk about them. All that's about to change. It's nothing easy, but it's fulfilling."
Himelstein predicts word-of-mouth promotion, and the distribution of fliers throughout the community, will help sell out the first printings quickly. And that could be just the beginning. "Part of it is that it's my job to be the dreamer, but part of it is also based on years of publishing experience. I think that a couple of the books will sell between 5,000 and 10,000."
A Need to Tell the Whole Story
That speculation gains credibility in light of Himelstein's past success. In the late 1990s, he sold 40,000 copies of Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing largely by driving around and talking to people. It was a little more complicated than that, but Himelstein, with his relaxed and relentlessly self-effacing manner, makes it seem almost that simple. Now 33, he has moved on from the Washington, D.C., hardcore scene on which he based Tales and is now, after a few other stops along the way, a white Jewish postpunk in New Orleans's heavily African-American seventh ward. "But I'm from Mississippi," he says dryly, "and it's kind of like being from southern Illinois and making it up to Chicago—or getting to New York from Jersey."
Himelstein, who has been teaching high school English for the last eight years, has been living and teaching in the seventh ward for the last three. Every year he would stock his classrooms with a variety of carefully chosen books for leisure reading, but he found almost no takers. Backed by the University of New Orleans (where Breunlin is affiliated) and the Literacy Alliance of Greater New Orleans, Breunlin and Himelstein have adapted punk's DIY approach to get students on to books. But Himelstein says the inchoate need for an outlet and desire for authorship were already there.
Along with the everyday problems of a hard-pressed community, the students and faculty at John McDonogh Senior High, where Himelstein and Breunlin teach, had recently been through a major trauma: in April of 2003, gunmen wielding an AK-47 and a handgun fired more than 30 shots into the packed school gym, killing one student and wounding three others. The media treated the incident as a gangland retaliation story, which tainted the entire community. "The experience of being brought into the national spotlight for something negative was incredibly frustrating and part of the reason that we wanted to tell our stories, because there is so much more happening in our neighborhoods and at our school," says Himelstein.
In developing the program, Breunlin and Himelstein found a model in Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago (rebound by Sagebrush, 1999), a book written by two teens from Chicago's Ida B. Wells housing project, who culled the narrative from the series of radio documentaries they did with NPR producer Dave Isay. Breunlin accompanies the students on most of their interviews, and she and Himelstein do all of the transcribing work, partly for expedience and partly for consistency. "New Orleans has like 7,000 different dialects," notes Breunlin, 27, "and we all decided that we really want the way people speak to be preserved." Breunlin then works closely with each student to piece together the book and do follow-up.
The result is a mosaic of the seventh ward. Ashley Nelson's The Combination centers on the Lafitte, the 66-year-old housing project where she lives, and on the combination of people (mostly women) and roles that define it. Brother and sister Sam and Arlet Wylie focus on how the struggles in their home mirror the struggles on their block; their book, Between Piety and Desire, is titled after their two cross streets. Waukesha Jackson's book (still untitled) delves into the idea of urban loneliness and centers on an interview with her mother, a recovering addict. All of the books feature a variety of voices, along with often beautiful photographs the authors have taken.
Doing interviews, taking photos, and writing and editing a book takes an enormous amount of time; the students receive a $1,000 advance that covers the first 1,000 copies sold; after that, they will receive royalties. Payment attempts to foster a sense of real authorship and acknowledges that it's a class privilege for teenagers to spend their afternoons on an activity that doesn't bring in any money.
There are precedents for paid writing programs. Since 1991, Chicago's Gallery 37 has hired professional teaching artists from the community, "and we hire youth in Chicago age 14 to 21 to come and work for us—it is a job; they do earn minimum wage and a paycheck—to create artworks," says Melissa Farrar, director of Gallery 37's jobs training program. Creative writing and performance poetry are part of the mix, along with visual and performing arts, and two anthologies have resulted: I Represent (Tia Chucha, 1996) and Describe the Moment (Third World Press, 2000). Himelstein was unaware of Gallery 37, but cites the Dave Eggers/McSweeney's project 826 Valencia, in San Francisco and Brooklyn, as an inspiration. The two sites offer tutoring and workshops with local artists on writing and publishing.
Tales of a Punk Rock Marketer
Himelstein and the students have set up distribution for the books, $15 each in paperback, at corner stores all over the neighborhood. Nationwide distribution, says Himelstein, "will happen in the same way that I put the distribution for Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing together"—i.e., by having the book in hand, and moving outward from a local market.
Himelstein was not always so knowledgeable about supply and demand. He and fellow Washington, D.C., punk Jamie Schweser went through "the usual cycle" of thinking themselves rejected geniuses before deciding to self-publish Tales in 1998. "Like all of the punk rock records that I was ever a part of making," says Himelstein, "I thought there'd be 400 in my closet, and maybe 100 that my friends would buy out of obligation or that I'd end up giving away to girls that I was courting."
A road trip with Schweser from New Orleans to Iowa City, Iowa, then to California yielded a quite different result. "We would stop in all these small towns and ask, 'Where are the kids with green hair?' And we would go to some little cafe and say, 'Hey, we're on book tour,' and we got to be kind of decent at talking about it." The first run was sold out by the time they reached L.A.
Other editions followed, each one a bit more sophisticated in design than the last, with Ingram eventually picking up the book. A mass publicity query yielded an NPR story on Himelstein's brush with the law: he had been arrested for selling Tales in the parking lot of a Colorado Red Hot Chili Peppers show, with the ACLU quickly stepping in. "We were number 37 on Amazon for a couple days," he says.
For his next book, Himelstein asked the people he encountered in New Orleans to write "what they think all day but never say out loud" on a T-shirt, which he then photographed them wearing. The 100 T-Shirt Project was published by New Mouth from the Dirty South, the company that Himelstein and Schweser eventually formed to sell Tales, and whose operations they turned over to G.K. Darby (who also runs New Orleans's Garrett Country press) in 2002. To have New Mouth publish the Neighborhood Story Project's books would be a conflict of interest, Himelstein says, so he formed the new imprint.
Among the lessons from his own past that he's passing along to his student authors is how to deal with the media, a skill he learned through making mistakes. The students took a workshop with Davy Rothbart, who started Foundmagazine and is a major contributor to the radio program This American Life, as well as local author Kalamu Ya Salaam (who helped put the program together), photographer Alan Chin, who appears in the New York Times, and others. The students also do mock interviews, where they practice staying on message. "That's come from the students very organically, but definitely also part of why we started the project in the first place: we were tired of seeing only our negative things on the news. They're pretty media savvy, in a good way."
Whether because of training or enthusiasm, the students speak eloquently about the project. "As we got deep into the book and I started passing out fliers about me writing a book—ev-ery-body started coming to my grandmother's house and saying, 'I want to be in the book,' " says Nelson. "Three weeks ago, a lady came to my grandmother's house early, like around seven o'clock, to catch me before I went to school to ask me, could she be in my book. Having people in front of my door asking me to be a part of my project... that's amazing."