Newsstand junkies among you might recognize the byline “Aaron Lake Smith” from his pieces in Time or Newsweek Magazine, but the discerning zine-o-phile lives and dies by Smith’s more personal outlet, the fearsomely well-written Big Hands. In the pages of Big Hands, he blends the personal and the political in punchy, autobiographical vignettes that make for compulsive reading. You can find many issues of Big Hands in our collection, as well as his one-off Unemployment zine.
Search JAXCAT for Aaron Lake Smith’s zines.
What was your first exposure to zines?
The first zines I came into contact with were the Crimethinc publications that were littered like ticker tape around North Carolina in the late 90s and early 2000s. Evasion, Dropping Out, Inside Front–all of these publications had a massive distribution. They had this propaganda newspaper called Harbinger, and I remember reading somewhere that they printed a million copies. 1,000,000 copies. That’s what The New York Times prints today.
As for more literary, personal zines I was affected by a zine called Ride On that was basically a Cometbus rip-off written by a kid from the suburbs of Philly. Jim will probably be embarrassed that I mention it, but Ride On had a nakedness of spirit and a strong command of prose that you didn’t see in other zines. It was more like a Bruce Chatwin book and less like Evasion. It revealed the other possibilities for the pamphlet medium.
How long have you been writing Big Hands? What made you decide to create this zine?
I made the first issue in Fall of 2005. I had a part-time job and very little else going on, so I borrowed a friend’s college ID and would sneak into the university computer lab late at night to write. Kept writing, then did some editing, then gave out the zine. It got a good response and I feel like I had said something that hadn’t been said yet, so I kept making them.
What kind of work and time goes into an issue of Big Hands? When do you know that an issue is done – as far as being fully written?
It’s different for every issue. I’m always writing. But regrettably, my creative cycle involves spending several months languishing–reading books, watching movies, drinking and walking around–and then waking up one morning and with a good Protestant lashing saying, “That’s enough!” and getting to work. Once started, the zine practically writes itself. Then, rather than getting to work on the next issue, I celebrate or take a trip and then the fallowing and harvesting cycle starts itself all over again. There’s a lax supervisor inside me and a slavedriver inside me– When this slavedriver makes an appearance, I write seriously and don’t stop until he says its done.
How has your writing in Big Hands shaped or honed your writing style? In Big Hands you intermingle blunt honesty and self-deprecating humor very easily.
Every sentence matters. Each issue of Big Hands is like one of those old Swiss clocks–all the parts are delicately wrought and need to be positioned in the machine with the utmost of care. It’s like surgery, everything needs to be done carefully. The zine is a small thing made of small moving parts–kind of like Robert Walser’s microscripts. It’s not a novel–there’s no long flowing paragraphs or excessive character descriptions or chapter-long ramblings on the problems of the regional Russian Zemstvos like in Tolstoy.
Tell me about writing the Unemployment zine.
When I have a full-time job, I put my energy into having the fulltime job and living my life in the world. It’s difficult for me to have a disciplined yoga-like writing practice–you know, the ballerina gets up at six AM every morning and practices for two hours. Practice makes perfect! Small tiny steps forward. Doesn’t really work for me. The zines are made in one great push, usually when I have nothing else going on in my life. So when I had no job and no “real life” the natural thing to do was to make Unemployment.
You’ve written for everyone from Newsweek to Arthur on a broad swath of subject matter – how do you approach writing a piece for a bigger magazine/publication?
I approach writing essays, journalism and criticism the same way I approach writing a zine. The only difference is there’s an outside deadline, not the deadline I’m putting on myself. Writing for pay is the same–you psych yourself up, pace around the living room, drink a lot of coffee, and then sit down and make it happen. But you have to keep in mind that there’s a wider audience and that your language has to be more inclusive. You’re not writing for your little niche that understands all these cultural references.
What sort of feedback and reactions do you get from your audience and peers? How did people react to the Chumbawumba issue, for instance?
I get a lot of letters, snail-mail, but now also plenty of random e-mails. I get the feeling that my audience is kind of like Morrissey’s audience, but obviously much much smaller–lost and lonely misfits who don’t fit into any scene or category but feel dissatisfied with all their various options for living-in-the-world.
People really liked the Chumbawamba zine. I’m first and foremost a fan. I hope it served as an entry point for people who didn’t know the Chumbawamba anarchist backstory and only knew them from “Tubthumper”.
Do you see a point in the near future where you will shift the majority of your independently produced writings from print to the web?
Sure. But I’m not too keen on just tossing them up on a Tumblr blog.
The medium affects the way people read a piece of writing. So it’s preferable to have the writing framed nicely, the way you frame a painting, so that it gets read with care, and not just skimmed over quickly.
What zines are you enjoying right now?
I don’t read many zines, I read books. More and more zines today read like Deepak Chopra books–they should be classified in the Self-Help section. I like zines that smell like literature, criticism, and polemic. Brandt Schmidt’s zine Shiny Things On The Ground. I always pick up Cometbus whenever there’s a new issue.
What are some of the projects you have coming up soon? Where else will we be seeing your work soon?
I’m currently up house-sitting in rural Vermont working on a new writing project. It’s mutating–maybe it’s a zine, maybe it’s a book. Also look for more articles to come out soon.
Visit Aaron Lake Smith’s blog.
Search JAXCAT for Aaron Lake Smith’s zines.