Sebastian Vice | Smorgasbord 2022
Sebastian Vice is the founder of Outcast Press, a small publishing house specializing in transgressive fiction and dirty/gritty realism. His short fiction and poetry has appeared in Punk Noir Magazine, Anxiety Press, Misery Tourism, Outcast Press, Close To The Bone, and Bristol Noir. His flash fiction piece One Last Good Day was nominated for Best Of The Net 2021. His debut poetry collection Homo Mortalis: Meditations on Memento Mori was published by Anxiety Press (April 2022), and he contributed a chapter to No Sellout Production’s book The Hell Bound Kids (May 2022). Sebastian grew up in Minnesota and currently resides in Indiana.
LGT: Hi Sebastian, thanks for agreeing to take part in the Literary Smorgasbord.
SV: Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure.
LGT: What were you like at school?
SV: I have problems with authority, so I got in trouble a lot. Beyond that, I mostly stayed to myself, or would tell the dirtiest jokes I could think of. I went to a Catholic school, so I enjoyed scandalizing the prudes there. It’s no secret I have contempt for religion. However, as shocking as it may sound, I went through a brief phase where I wanted to be a priest (I also went through a phase where I liked Ayn Rand—I’m proud of neither phases). I gave up priest dreams upon learning about the celibacy clause (and I’m not a paedophile, so I wouldn’t fit it anyway). But since the end of middle school, I burned off religion like genital warts.
LGT: What made you decide to set up Outcast Press?
SV: The true story, like life more generally, isn’t glamorous. I’ll give the accurate account, then be a bit more reflective. I’d mulled over starting a press for about a year before pulling the trigger. I thought: I’d be cool to run a press. But I have ADHD, so thoughts like I’d be cool happen about every 10 seconds. One day, I snapped. Cutting my literary teeth on short stories, I found magazine after magazine claiming to be edgy that wanting work that pushed boundaries. Great, I thought, so I’d go to the submission guidelines and see big X’s next to everything I write. This would happen again and again. It’s one thing to have a list of, say, 20 magazines and get rejected. I’m cool with that. It at least gives me a shot. But to not even have a chance at a no? It became a bit too much.
I’m not delusional. I’m not expecting my more transgressive tales to resonate with most people. It’s niche. It takes a special kind of person to go down the fucked-up rabbit holes with me, or any other transgressive writer. Fine. I’m cool with, say, The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy not accepting my work based on content. And I’m cool with most places trying to reach a maximum audience by not alienating their readership. However, that said, if you market yourself as wanting dark fiction that pushes boundaries? Well, in my opinion, the gloves come off. Needless to say, I saw a hole in the market. I thought: surely, I’m not the only transgressive fiction writer running into this issue (let it be known I’ve since discovered places that do enjoy my style of work, so shout out to them—you champions know who you are). However, I think it’s fair to say that while horror, crime fiction, fantasy, romance, and science fiction enjoy a wide range of magazines to submit to, you can’t say the same about transgressive fiction. There’s a few, but for every 1 transgressive fiction publisher, there’s probably 10,000 horror publishers (I’m just guessing—and I’m not shitting on horror either. I’m glad there are so many horror publications).
Short story made long, Outcast Press was started out of my own frustration. Thankfully, it’s blossomed. And we have such dedicated fans, and our authors are so awesome. Between the team, our fans, and our authors, I’m sometimes at a loss for words.
Now for a more reflective answer (skip this if you’re not into the publishing industry mumbo jumbo with speculative numbers that may or may not be accurate): there’s a host of writers underserved by mainstream publishing. And I’m not even blaming mainstream publishing, per se. If you get an agent, and you land a nice deal with, say, a $20,000 advance, the publisher is going to want to recoup that, and make money. Should be easy, right? You see a hardcover for $27, and unless you’re in the know, you might assume between the authors and publisher, they’ll make most of that, right? Wrong. They’ll sell the book to big chains and Amazon for 50-55% of the list price. So the $27 on each book now sells wholesale for around $13 that is then marked up by stores (ever wonder why Amazon can do such big discounts? This is because they’re buying the books at about 50-55% of the list price—they can slash it easily to that and either break even, or still make money). Now factor in printing costs, marketing costs, editorial costs, cover costs, etc. See where I’m going? If an author sells 1 hardcover marked at $27, he/she/they will make $2-3 (against royalties), with the publisher not making much more. Like so much in life, it's the middle people who win.
Why am I droning on about this? Suppose, for the sake of argument, the total cost from start to finish on a book (including an advance) is $50,000 (I wouldn’t doubt if this is grossly low, but this number still makes my point). And suppose the publisher is making $5 a book. If my math is correct, for the publisher to BREAK EVEN they need to sell 10,000 hardcover copies, and that’s just to break even.
With this in mind, if you’re a major publisher, you’re gambling on the book AT LEAST breaking even, hopefully making you money (From my limited understanding, it’s not uncommon for major publishers to lose money on many books and write it off). Hence, you want the largest possible audience. This means you’ll have to satisfy the sensibilities of many different groups of people relative to the advance, genre, etc.
If you’re trying to satisfy a diverse, or semi-diverse, group of people, you want to remove as much alienating material as possible (unless you’re a household name, then I’m sure you can get away anything—people complain about Stephen King’s books becoming too political, yet he consistently sells well).
However, if you live where I live, and have the disposition I have, and try to write as authentically as possible, you might be left out in the cold. With rare exceptions, would the average middle-aged housewife go to an airport and pick up a book about car crash fetishism (this is J.G. Ballard’s Crash)? Probably not (not that they’d stock it anyway—but you get my point).
My prose tends to be written like a Martin Scorsese film. Unless I’m writing cosmic horror, gritty realism is what I usually spit. The people I know litter their speech with cursing. This is a typical sentence I might hear on any given day:
This fuckin’ guy comes around lookin’ for a fuckin’ joint. I ain’t no motherfuckin’ weed store, bitch. Fuck outta my face with that shit.
This might be a hard sell line of dialogue for major places (hopefully not, but we’ll see). But this is how many people talk (myself included). And speaking only for myself, I make my best attempt at writing scenes and characters as authentically as possible. And a character who has a hard edge, who’s been kicked in the teeth over and over, and drug through piss and shit and heroin needles, often peppers their speech with cursing.
Good lord this is long winded. Suffice it to say: there are writers and stories with a hard edge. Often it represents a lived experience. Sadly, Americans (I’m sure other places too) want a nice, clean, and sanitized version of reality, and while big places flirt, sometimes, with such themes, many of us are left out in the cold. But, kudos to the major places who do take a chance on pieces that push boundaries.
This is why I view Outcast, and others like us, as important. We don’t water shit down. We want great stories that hit with a bang. We’re not for most people, but we don’t aim to be. There’s a great insight from the late Patrice O’Neill on comedy that also applies to writing. He said something to the effect of: not everyone should be laughing at a joke. About half of the people should be horrified. When it comes to outsider literature (transgressive fiction, dirty/gritty realism), I feel it’s much the same way. If you’re really striking at some uncomfortable truth or perspective, many, or even most, won’t like it (but hopefully enough people will at least appreciate your willingness to “go there.”)
I’ll end this long answer with this: imagine if The New Yorker never took a chance on Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. We consider it a classic short story now, a pinnacle of dystopian literature. I’m sure most of us have read it. But The New Yorker lost subscribers over it. And Jackson got a lot of hate mail for that story.
Playing it safe just leaves you rotting on the road of regret.
LGT: How would you define transgressive literature?
SV: It’s like pornography. You know it when you see it. Ok, I’ll try to offer a more considered semi-definition: [literary fiction] + [elements from genre fiction] + [dabbling in taboo]. This isn’t a great definition, but it’s the best I have. To be fair, most definitions of transgressive fiction aren’t all that helpful. Most drone on about characters who feel socially confined and break out of such moral or social norms in illicit or strange ways. Is The Handmaiden’s Tale a work of transgressive fiction? It seems to fit the definition, but not many people think of it as such (though I’m more than happy to claim this title under such a rubric—the novel is fantastic). Some people even lump Kafka into the mix, though I think he’s mostly claimed by the weird fiction folks.
Every transgressive fiction writer I’ve spoken to has the same story (myself included): I was writing dark and disturbing tales, but crime fiction people didn’t like it, horror people didn’t like it, science fiction people didn’t like it. What the hell am I writing? I have elements of horror and crime fiction, but also a nice character study (I hope!) indicative of literary fiction. It seemed like I either really sucked, or what I was doing was experimental (which could still suck), or maybe it didn’t suck, maybe it wasn’t too experimental, but was something else. But I couldn’t place my finger on it.
I’ve been reading transgressive fiction since high school, and loved it. It wasn’t predictable. If I pick up a bread-and-butter crime fiction novel, I know what to expect. Same with a lot of horror. I’m not saying having a formula is bad (I love both horror and crime fiction). But there are certain expectations the read has. In crime fiction? It’s often the crime will be solved by the end. What I think is special about transgressive fiction is lets the reader delve into the darkest recesses of a character’s mind, and not really knowing what’s going to happen. If you pick up a really good transgressive story, you will be surprised in genre convention breaking ways. You might think: oh, this is a crime story, and expect it to go left, but it takes a hard right off a cliff.
All this is to say, I too realized my stories didn’t fit neatly into a genre. I’m not afraid to admit it wasn’t until around 2018 I even heard the term “transgressive fiction.” Yet, I’d been reading transgressive fiction for over 20 years.
LGT: Tell me about one of your best writing moments.
SV: When I stopped trying to be something I wasn’t.
LGT: What are you working on now?
SV: Expanding a short story Driver (included in the Gone anthology from Red Dog Press, Nov 2022) into a literary/noir/gritty realism novel, compiling a short story collection, outlining another novel about cannibalism, revising another novel Heaven’s Tourist, and working on some weird fiction/cosmic horror short stories. ADHD has it’s benefits. I have lots of pokers in the fire. We’ll see what works out.
LGT: What does literary success look like to you?
SV: Several people said my short story A Fire Inside, which is in the In Filth It Shall Be Found anthology resonated with them. If I can connect with even one person? That’s success. If I can make one outsider feel a little less alone? That’s success. Hell, if I can make someone feel better about themselves by thinking: goddamn, this Sebastian Vice guy must be really fucked up to pen such stories, at least my mental state isn’t that bad! That’s success.
I remember being in a real bad fuckin’ way after another psychiatrist kicked me out of his office. Yes, another. It’s happened many times (and no, not for any kind of violence on my end—I guess they just don’t like me or some shit). Anyway, Craig Clevenger’s book The Contortionist’s Handbook made me feel less alone as the protagonist gets one over on a psychiatric evaluator. The gift of Craig’s novel helped me feel vindicated that someone fucked over a discipline which fucked me over. I relished in those chapters. His book came to me at the right time. Craig is humble, and one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. He’s also one of the best writers. This is success.
However, that said, it sure would be nice to reach a point where I could etch out a living just writing and running a press (yeah, ok, I know the odds—but a man can shoot for the stars right?) But hey, at the end of the day, if I can touch someone’s heart? That’s success. Just imagine how amazing that is. You can connect with a total stranger just through a book or poem or short story. Isn’t that amazing? Right now, someone could be making friends with Max in A Fire Inside, and maybe, just maybe, that person choses not to end their life. If this isn’t success, then I don’t know what is.
LGT: What advice would you give your younger self?
SV: None. He’d be too thick headed, and I’d end up smacking him upside the head for being such a stupid asshole. He wouldn’t listen, of course. He thought he knew it all. He thought he had the world figured out. I’d have to let him get his dreams shattered and heart broken.
Instead of giving my younger self advice, I can do something better. I can do what Tom Spanbauer does, and go into the coal mines. What does this mean? As I understand it, I can find pieces of my broken self down there, and through toil, and blood, and tears, find that young broken boy. I can exhaust a painful part through fiction, and hopefully resolve it. Time will tell. Then I can tell that broken boy it’s ok. You don’t have to shiver down here anymore. There’s light up there. Not everyone can, to quote Chuck P, “moonlight in the coal mines,” but I do.
LGT: If there was one person (contemporary or historical) you could spend a day with, who would you choose and why? How would you spend the day?
SV: Easy, Gabor Mate. The man is a genius and one of the wisest people I’ve ever read or heard talk. If he was receptive, I’d spend the day working through my trauma. Folks, check out his work. He blends solid western medicine with eastern spiritual practices. If you’re like me, you have little patience for superstition or magical thinking. The gift of Mate is all of his spiritual teachings are backed up by hundreds, if not thousands, of peer-reviewed scientific articles. His brilliance is that he’s not only intellectually gifted, but has the wisdom of a Buddha. His brilliance is synthesizing both.
LGT: Now for the name game. Name three authors who inspire you:
SV: Agustina Bazterrica (Tender Is The Flesh), Craig Clevenger (The Contortionist’s Handbook) Amy Hempel.
LGT: Three books that stunned you when you first read them (hallelujah moments):
SV: Tender Is The Flesh (Agustina Bazterrica), Conspiracy Against The Human Race (Thomas Ligotti), Too Many Things Came To Nothing (Cody Sexton).
LGT: Three favourite books not included above:
SV: Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy), Choke (Chuck P), Worm At The Core (Sheldon Solomon, et al.).
LGT: Three favourite films:
SV: These change on a daily basis depending on arbitrary factors. Here’s what my current list is as of this moment: Drive (based on the excellent novel of the same name by James Sallis), Reservoir Dogs, Black Mirror (I know it’s a show—but I’m including it).
LGT: Three recurring songs on your playlist:
SV: I don’t do playlists, as I don’t passively listen to music (which I think is what playlists are for, right? Maybe I’m wrong. When I listen to music, I actively listen). I’ll just list three songs I like a lot AT THIS MOMENT: No Love (Eminem, featuring Lil Wayne), Pneuma (Tool), X Gonna Give It To Ya (DMX).
LGT: Any final words of wisdom?
SV: Find out who and what you are, and embrace it. Oh, and we’re all full of shit (myself included). And laugh for Christ sake. People are too serious. Crack jokes at inappropriate times. And realize all this shit is an illusion, and transitory. Enjoy it while you can, since everything decays. I guess: figure out what really matters, then zone in on that.
And this from the great Kurt Vonnegut:
Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies-"God damn it, you've got to be kind.
LGT: Thanks Sebastian.
SV: No, thank you for letting me run my mouth via keyboard.
LG Thomson is the author of seven novels, including Boyle’s Law, a noir thriller set in the Highlands. Her writing has appeared in a wide range of anthologies and literary publications including Wyldblood Magazine, Epoch Press, and Art North. Her latest book, Modernist Dreams Brutalist Nightmares, is a narrative memoir about being part of the first generation to grow up in Scotland’s most ambitious New Town. It will be published by Outcast Press in October 2022. Find out more here.