I met Nicholas Johnson at a Seattle zine fair nearly a decade ago. He was peddling Shark Fear, Shark Awareness at the time, and through a mail correspondence I kept up through his zine projects that were engrossing accounts of his time as a sperm donor (Burning the Ancestral Chi) and an ESL teacher (Kongju-si: Letters from Korea). His fast and trashy vid making was a big inspiration to my own initial forays into making little movies, and he actually wrote a DIY article for this site.
Big Dead Place (Feral Press, 2005) is his latest and greatest project to date. Nicholas spent the last couple of years living in Antarctica, doing the joe-jobs that keep the research labs based there functioning: washing dishes and compacting garbage. I knew from the couple of e-mails that he’d sent that his stories about the place would be hilarious and fascinating: what I didn’t expect was how deftly he would weave together the historical tragedies of Sir Robert Scott’s bungled exploration with the bureacratic tragedies of bungled room assignments. Populated by lewd characters and outlandish scenarios, it nonetheless ignores the easy targets in favour of putting forth a journalistic work of depth and craft.
I shot him a couple of questions via e-mail.
You have a real fast and trashy approach to video, but also were able to put together a much more considered and polished short (“The Strange and Terrible Fate of Sir Robert Scott”). But you don’t seem to do fast and trashy writing, even in your zines. Why is that?
I’ll watch even the worst Hollywood schlock and often enjoy it. But reading books, zines, magazines, newspapers, and websites, I daily discover a new sea of shit that moves me to depression or fury. I’m a forgiving viewer, so I crank out silly movies. I’m a bastard reader, so I tend to write more deliberately.
How have your co-workers reacted to the book? Can you go back to Antarctica without fear of ending up sleeping with the penguins?
“Laz”, one of my co-workers, wrote: “I finally received your tome and must say it was good reading and was almost enjoyable. No doubt it would have proved fascinating to the unsuspecting public had I been featured more often.”
Others are also satisfied at having their otherwise obscure shenanigans broadcast publicly, but some portrayed within are disappointed that the book, as a whole, is not suitable for the family, due to seething sex, descriptions of heavy drug and alcohol use, and deranged metaphysical proposals.
So far I haven’t received any hate-mail, but I know a few who don’t appreciate having the majesty and mystery of Antarctica deflated because, after working down there for awhile, our identities get tied up in it. As one friend put it, we get treated “like rockstars”.
Just being there over the years, there’s a good chance at some point we’ll be in the papers, on a TV blurb, in a National Geographic documentary, or something we can show the friends and family. How many jobs offer that?
Portraying Antarctica in less-than-romantic terms interferes with this particular hidden pleasure, and is just not done by anyone standing to benefit from the heroism accomplished by simply keeping our traps shut and letting the scientists and journalists handle the frontier PR that keeps us all in business.
So I expect a few diehards will be mad at me for fucking with our heroic image, but most don’t give a rat’s ass about books anyway. In the end, a book is just a bunch of bullshit compared to whether you do your job or not.
Zine making vs. book making. Discuss.
When I sat down to write a book in my cold purple apartment in New Zealand, I had the idea that I would simply be writing a long zine. But I quickly realized that it was a whole new ball game. The sheer mass of information I wanted to convey required habits totally foreign to me. For example: I actually wrote and revised the dreaded “outline” on a weekly basis; I bought a calendar on which I listed the dates of emails and events as they actually occured, to plot the narrative somewhat chronologically and to navigate transitions (this alone took me about 20 hours of work); I organized my boxes of supporting documents so I could find them easier; and I began to read books via the index. I did a lot of research for my zines, but they never demanded these hateful practices. I imagined that in writing a book I would just need to find a reliable opium peddler and it would all go from there. Instead I found myself enslaved by the work of a file clerk in a weird country where you heat your flat by paying at the gas station.