When a job opportunity brought Kirk Farber and his wife here from Milwaukee in 2007, they weren't thinking of Colorado Springs as a literary mecca that would suddenly open the doors to a prestigious publishing contract. So a couple months after arriving, when literary agent Sandra Bond spoke at one of the monthly Pikes Peak Writers workshops, Farber almost didn't bother to attend.
Which would have been a mistake: Bond ended up landing the musician-turned-author a contract with HarperCollins, the 200-year-old publisher that's been home to authors ranging from Mark Twain to Maurice Sendak.
Last month, Harper Perennial published Farber's debut novel, Postcards From a Dead Girl, which was then chosen by independent booksellers to be among the 20 books included on the March 2010 Indie Next List.
"I've been reading that list for the past 10 years to figure out what I'm going to read next," says Farber, "and dreaming, like, 'Wouldn't it be great to be on there some day?'"
Farber's debut novel chronicles the gradual unraveling of Sid, an increasingly neurotic telemarketer trying to figure out why he's still getting postcards from his former girlfriend, who may or may not be dead.
Engagingly written and darkly humorous, Postcards follows Sid as he stumbles through a series of surreal plot developments involving a survivalist postman, a suspicious 10-year-old and Sid's mother, who definitely is dead.
Farber has recently been taking time off from his day job — he works at Penrose Library's Interlibrary Loan office — for a national book tour that includes Oconomowoc, the tiny Wisconsin town (pop. 12,382) where he grew up.
In the following interview, Farber talks about his literary breakthrough, how the novel's premise evolved while touring with his former band, and the future of the publishing industry in an age of electronic uncertainty.
Indy: You were a musician before you became a novelist. Which of those careers would you say is more lucrative?
KF: More lucrative? [Laughs.] Probably the writing, although it's not tremendously lucrative at this point. We played a lot of shows for very little money when I was playing music. But yeah, neither one is like a millionaire lifestyle, unless you sell a million records or a million books.
Indy: Does one age better than the other?
KF: I like writing now at this point in my life, just because it gets kind of tough packing up your gear at 4 in the morning. When you reach the age of 30, it's like, "OK, I'm ready to go to bed now." I play the drums, so I'd have all this heavy gear to move, and now I can just have a pad of paper and a pencil and pretty much write anywhere.
Indy: It seems that, like the record industry, the publishing industry these days has suffered a fair amount, what with people not reading and not wanting to pay for things. Do you think the whole iPad-Kindle thing will help or hurt or both?
KF: I'm actually curious to find out what the report is on the Kindle thing, because now that I've got a book out, I'm always checking Amazon ranks and different ranking systems everywhere. And it seems like my book is ranking higher on the Kindle end than it is on the regular end. So I'm curious who's out there buying it.
It seems like a lot of people are buying books on the Kindle. But you know how people were downloading music for free, and I'm waiting to see how that's going to happen with the books, if people are going to be getting books for free. I've read a few articles that sounded kind of scary, but I don't know how it's impacted the industry yet.
Indy: There's a writer named Joolz Denby who's won awards and written great novels, and whose new novel just got turned down by publishers who said it was beautifully written but doesn't fit into any genre. Were you ever tempted to do something that was more genre-driven rather than something that's more literary fiction?
KF: I had never really been drawn to writing genre fiction before, so I just kind of wrote what I like to read primarily, and that's just what came out of me. But ever since I've moved here, I've had a couple of ideas that are more genre fiction and told my agent about them, and she's actually interested in them. But I haven't had a chance to get to work on them yet because we'd been editing Postcards From a Dead Girl and are now working on promoting it.
So I might end up writing something a little bit more in the thriller vein, or something with more of a science fiction end to it. I think it would be fun to try something like that.
Indy: The main character in your book is obsessed with car washes. Do you share that obsession?
KF: I have never done laps like Sid has done. You know, I've never bought 10 tickets and done laps around a car wash. But I actually have been through the touchless car wash and thought, "Wow, this is very peaceful in here." Because it is very quiet and you can't do anything else but just sit in the car. So, you know, I thought that was kind of fun. But I've never done the multiple trips, not yet anyway.
Indy: There are some absurdist and possibly inexplicable elements in the story. I don't want to give anything away, but I'm wondering if there were earlier versions where things were maybe a little less elliptical?
KF: Um, no, it's always been like that. There were actually a couple of things that were a little stranger that my editor took out. One of those things is that his dog Zero would talk. He was a talking dog and they would have conversations, and I just kind of never explained it. And he thought that might be a little too strange. So we took a few surreal elements out to make it less odd. But it pretty much is the way I wrote it.
Indy: Where did some of the other ideas come from, like the survivalist postman?
KF: Well, I was just playing off the cliché that a lot of people have, you know, of people going postal. I've actually met one or two people who work for the post office that are kind of into the survivalist thing, and I just thought that was odd.
But the actual idea for the book with the postcards and everything came from a song. We went to see a band called the Bees down in Nashville when I was still playing in the band from Milwaukee. They have this song called, "Letters From the Dead," and it's about a guy who finds postcards in his room from a past relationship and he's just kind of ruminating about them in the song. It was a melancholy pop tune.
And so I was listening to this song and I kept thinking, "What if someone's sending you those postcards and you're not sure if they're alive or not —how would that play out?" And that's how the first few scenes and that whole idea came to me, because of music, essentially.
Indy: Let's say you hadn't hooked up with this agent. Would you have published it on your own?
KF: I don't think I would have. I probably would have written something else. I just decided that I wanted to try to go through a publishing house instead of doing it on my own. And that might have been because I was in an independent band and we had to do a lot of our own promotion, and it's just a tremendous amount of work. So I just always wanted the help of a publishing house to kind of back me up, just because it's so tough to get it out there. There's so many books out there.
Indy: You continue to be involved with the Pikes Peak Writers, and you're speaking at their upcoming conference. How important has that group been for you, and in what ways?
KF: Well, the Pikes Peak Writers has been great in a lot of ways. Right when we moved into town, I was worried because I had a network of writing friends in Milwaukee. I was really concerned that I wouldn't meet as many people, which is kind of funny now, because once I started up with Pikes Peak Writers, I met dozens of people who were writing, and a lot of agented authors, and a lot of published authors. And one of their first events that I went to was meeting a couple of agents and hearing them talk about what they expect in a client and everything. And I introduced myself to Sandra Bond, and that's who my agent is now.
So it was kind of interesting that I wrote the book while I was still living in Wisconsin, but as soon as we moved out here, within a couple of months I got an agent, and she found an editor, and things took off on the publishing end really quickly once we moved here. So in a lot of ways, it's weird. It almost feels like we moved to Colorado just for the book.