“Something is going on and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?”
Something is very definitely going on and its name is August Highland. A phenomenon. Or should I say a vast collection of phenomena. Because “prolific” does not even begin to describe August Highland. He has more than 80 personae – each of which has an authentic, full-blown style of his or her own. He has published more than 100,000 pages of hyper-text on various web sites of his own creation and design. He has invented five new genres of literary fiction. He is currently working on extrapolating his literary theories into crossover forms in other disciplines, incorporating music, fine art, graphic design and architecture into the forging of entirely unknown territory for which there is as yet no critical lexicon; words fail us in attempting to describe what August is up to. Perhaps he will invent these for us as well. I wouldn’t put it past him. Oh yes, and in between all of this fearless innovation he has the time to organize world’s largest literary quarterly on the web, the Muse Apprentice Guild, with more than 2 million hits per year.
I’d always thought of myself as quite a busy guy until I connected with the extraordinary Mr. Highland. We did this interview by e-mail over a period of four weeks. It took so long because I needed time to think. August had the replies in almost before I had sent the questions to him. His speed is superluminal! (Look that one up).
AK: What struck me after a few days of browsing through your many sites was the extraordinary energy that you must have. Were you a precocious child? Difficult to get along with (for your less intelligent contemporaries)? Did you have an imaginary friend? Lots of them?
AH: I was not a precocious child at all. I did not display any extraordinary talents or qualities that set me apart from other children. The only trait I had that was uncommon (though not uncommon to other writers and artists) was that I always felt like an outsider. I felt this as early as two-and-a-half years old. I thought I was an adult who was smaller than all the adults around me. During the first week of kindergarten I was walking by myself on the grass during recess and discovered a hole in the chain-link fence. So I climbed out through the hole and walked the three blocks home. When my mother asked me what I was doing home and how did I get home I told her that school was let out early and that I walked. Then I went to the kitchen and ate an orange.
This typifies my experience growing up. I did not want to be around other children. I had no friends my age and didn't feel a need for any. The happiest moment I had in school was in first grade when I was tall enough to reach the top shelf of the bookcase where the teacher (Ms. Canary) kept all the books that she read to the class. I took the one that was my favorite and brought it to my desk to read. I remember Ms. Canary caressing the back of my head when she found me reading her book at my desk. I fell in love with her at that moment. She was the first woman I loved besides my mother.
I was very difficult to get along with. I have two younger sisters. I repeatedly tried to kill my middle sister by kicking her playpen over. And I tortured my youngest sister. I beat them up all the time. Then my dad beat me up. To this day my sisters and I do not talk. My dad has stopped hitting me though.
I was also a thief. I stole from grocery stores and department stores. Usually the things I stole were gifts I wanted to give my mother. I loved my mother very much. She was everything to me. So I stole things that I could give her. She gave me so much and I wanted to give back in return. She always took me back to the store from where I had stolen the gift and made me return it to the manager and ask him to forgive me. I was never caught stealing. They didn't have video surveillance in those days. But all the store owners knew my face. And they were always nice to me even though I was a petty criminal.
I never had an imaginary friend. Instead I had imaginary father figures. My father worked 14-hour days. He left for work at 4am and returned at 6pm just in time for dinner and immediately fell asleep on the couch after dinner. Snoring in his underwear.
I found my surrogate father figures in books. Beginning in the second grade, I read every biography of great men that I could find. Men like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln. Also legendary figures like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. I idealized historical heroes and tried to model my life on their lives. For example, I would turn off all the lights in my bedroom and read using a candle. I was trying to emulate Abraham Lincoln. My parents took the candle away when they found out I was playing with matches. The next day I stole a flashlight from the hardware store.
Even though my father was absent he gave my mother complete freedom to do whatever she wanted. She bought me every book I ever asked for and took me to museums and took me with her to her ballet lessons and her painting lessons. She took me everywhere with her. She even took me to her girlfriends' houses and I would sit there and listen. Being around women so much only served to distance me from my peers even more, especially from boys.
AK: As I delved further and deeper into the labyrinthine complexity of your site two names kept on springing to mind: Joyce and Ballard. Care to respond?
AH: I can answer this question in a very telling manner. When I was 19-years-old and spending everyday indoors doing nothing else except reading from morning to night my parents became very concerned about me. I had already been in psychotherapy with eight or nine different therapists because of depression, anxiety and nightmares.
Summer arrived and my parents devised a plan. They decided to send me to Club Med in Tahiti. My mother convinced me to go by tantalizing me with images of half-naked native girls in grass skirts. So I went. I brought two books with me. James Joyce's Dubliners and Frederick Wheelock's Latin Grammar. When I got to the island I associated with no one. I spent everyday wading fifty feet out into the glass-green water which rose no higher than my ankles and stood in the sun reading my Latin grammar book or Joyce's short stories. The transgender bartenders kept flirting with me and I was still pretty naive and almost found myself in an awkward situation from which I was rescued by a very lovely Tahitian girl to whom I lost my virginity on the same secluded strip of beach where I spent my days studying my Joyce and my Latin grammar.
Although I no longer read Joyce and haven't for 25 years I am still faithful to Latin. Virgil is my favorite writer.
AK: Is your writing medium-specific, that is to say, could this kind of writing have been conceived of without the internet? And could you now yourself ever consider going back to the kind of writing that we knew before the internet?
AH: My literary work is absolutely medium-specific. There is no possible way in which I could produce my work without the tools and resources furnished by the advent of the internet. I have written seven traditional novels (traditional in the sense that they were written the traditional way without utilizing internet-based tools.) I could never conceive of myself writing in the pre-internet style again. This would be like trying to climb back into the womb. The internet has birthed me.
I do not use the word "birthed" arbitrarily or colorfully. The internet is a technological mirror of our psyche. The internet is an evolutionary medium for consciousness and social and cultural growth. The internet is anything but mechanistic and artificial. Mechanistic is our jobs. Artificial is the food we buy.
There is no appreciable gap between the author and the internet. The process is very grounded and organic. There is nothing virtual or cyberspacy about it. This is a romantic view of the internet. The internet is strictly a facilitator, enabling me to finally produce the work I had always conceived of but never had the specific tools which I needed in order to realize my ideas. The greatest modern inventions in history have been created by Guttenberg, Edison and Ford - and Bill Gates.
For me as an author writing in the 21st Century without incorporating internet tools into my literary work would be equivalent to using candles to light the home instead of lightbulbs and traveling using a horse instead of driving. This sounds like the life of a devout Amish follower or a fanatical and delusional follower of the Unibomber manifesto.
AK: Let’s look at the issue of locality versus non-locality. If we take a writer like Robinson Jeffers. His work is unthinkable outside of the context of the Californian coastline. The rhythms of his poetry have everything to do with the landscape he lives in. Similarly the greatest South African writer, Herman Charles Bosman, writes from the Groot Marico bosveld or the Groot Marico bosveld writes from him - the two are inextricably linked. You live in San Diego. But your writing, which is clearly medium-specific, would appear to be coming from nonlocality, from no-where? Is there a techno-spatial geography that is operating on or out of your writing? Or does locality play a less important role for you, and perhaps for all web-connected writers in the future (ie. now)?
AH: San Diego has a neutral atmosphere. That means it does not as a city carry around a strong cultural air or attitude. Los Angeles for example is very heavily influenced by the entertainment industry and it is difficult to escape the pervasive commercialization of that environment. San Diego does not have a centralized mentality. Everyone here is invested in living their own lives and rearing their families. There is not the over-riding feeling here that everyone is invested only in career and ambition for celebrity-hood and excessive material wealth.
I have traveled around the world and lived in many place in the US including the east coast. I don't think I could work as productively anywhere else. Everything I need is here. Also there are no distractions to pull me away from my work. San Diego is a conservative city and does not accommodate the more colorful pleasures that some cities afford. I am easily sucked into those colorful pleasures. I know this from having lived in New York and from having grown up in West Los Angeles near Hollywood. I have a very addictive nature and if I am in the right (that is to say "wrong") city I have a very hard time with impulse control. Living in San Diego is for me like being a writer-inresidence in a comfortable art community that has pleasantly maintained grounds and offers all the necessities a writer needs. I have all the essentials here. All the unessentials are unavailable which for me personally is a perfect situation. All of my energies are channeled into my work and do not get dispersed or diffused.
About a "techno-spatial geography". I would agree that I thrive in the new geographical terrain that has formed in the trans-continental ether. Because San Diego has such clear culturally atmospheric conditions the techno ether saturates the area through very clear receptivity. A city like San Diego has the perfect social climate to admit technoculture frequencies without any filtering or noise. It's like when you are trying to dial into a shortwave radio and need to make locational adjustments to gain the clearest access. San Diego is positioned in an ideal geo-psychical position which provides clear access to techno-spatial transmissions.
AK: There seems to me to be an analogue prefiguration in literature for your project; at least in terms of the personae. In the work of Fernando Pessoa. Indeed, his major project, The Book Of Disquiet, consisting of thousands of loose pieces of paper in a trunk, demands of its reader a complicity in the ultimate narrative formed by forcing the reader to create the narrative in terms of the route he or she takes through the material (which is undirected by Pessoa). One could say the same for the traveller who goes through your site(s). There is a collaborative narrative constructed every time one surfs through the many possibilities you provide. Was Pessoa an influence? To what extent are you concerned (if at all) with narrative?
AH: Narrative is not solely a contribution that the individual reader makes to my literary work. I deliberately assemble the thematic material and present it in a particular fashion using different literary devices and techniques in order to create a narrative that is open to interpretation depending upon the way in which the reader interacts with the contents of the narrative. Another way to state this is that the finished product that I present to the reader is a pool of information which the reader processes in a way that is unique to that reader. Pessoa in Book of Disquiet bases his major oeuvre on a different conceptual model than me. He makes the ultimate demand on the reader. He delivers the data to the reader to sort through with minimal assistance by Pessoa himself. I participate more intimately with the text and with the reader by deliberately selecting a group of themes and the manner in which I am going to present the thematic material to the reader. In one project I will present work that is very dense and compressed. In another project I will present the material in a rhythmic style. In another project I will incorporate the use of unconventional punctuation to propel the reader forward through the text at an accelerated pace. In another project I will employ devices that interrupt the flow of the narrative and will interpose auxiliary material into the narrative stream. In another project I will utilize devices like repetition and looping to reiterate narrative threads and confer upon them more importance than other threads in the narrative.
I have a very great interest in the readers of my literary work. I want to communicate. But I am not interested in communicating to the reader the same material that a writer like Hamsun or Proust or Joyce or Beckett is interested in communicating. I am not invested in writing about me. I am more interested in writing about the reader. I know that the reader and I share a common experience by virtue of our inter-relatedness and inter-connectedness. I choose thematic source material that touches upon fundamental experiences. Themes like sexuality, military action, spirituality, love and human relationships, the environment, politics, the media, our human feelings, our everyday concerns that are universal to all human beings like money, family, mortality, happiness, meaning, friendship, self-understanding, work, play, etc. I know that by the way I structure my literary work and the way I interact with the source materials and how I modify these source materials, I am presenting literary work that a reader will relate to in the same way I relate to it. Our reading of the text will be different from each other and the experience of the text will be different and the meaning of the text will be different from each other, but only superficially. On a meta-cognitive level or on a metabolic level or on a cellular level or collective unconscious level our readings of the text will have a very unified correspondence. I am not concerned with writing about me. I am concerned with writing about the terrain which I share with the reader.
AK: I looked you up on Google. Became worried that "August Highland" is a persona too. Thousands of entries for Scottish national games! But isn't that one of the problems of having multiple personae: that the audience begins to doubt the sincerity of the material?
AH: When doing a search on August Highland it helps to use quotations around my name to reduce the number of search results that are generated by Google. "Metapoetics Theatre" is name I have attributed to my work involving the use of mulitiple personas each of whom produce literary work that is a subgenre of one of the four genres I have originated; they are "Hyper-Literary Fiction", "Microlinear Storytelling", "Next-Gen Nanopoetics" and "Genre-Splicing". Metapoetics Theatre is a literary performance in which the multiple personas play an explicit role. Metapoetics Theatre endorses multiple personas which are an active element in the concept of this literary production. There has never been an attempt by me to disguise the personas or present them as genuine individuals because this would run counter to the fundamental tenets of Metapoetics Theatre which openly presents each member of my simulated literary movements as another extension of myself. There is also a disclaimer in the Muse Apprentice Guild, which is the International Literary Quarterly I edit, that none of my personas appear in the Quarterly. My literary work and editorial work are two separate ventures.
AK: Moving on to the "Muse Apprentice Guild." How do we know that all 600 writers featured are not further extenuations of your multiple persona project?
AH: The Muse Apprentice Guild is an non-profit organization promoting the international world of letters; it has 35 contributing editors around the world and is the largest and most widely read International Literary Quarterly on the Internet with an annual readership over two million readers.
Here is a quick history of the muse apprentice guild:
The next issue (appearing august 31) is the first anniversary issue - on august 1, 2002 the first issue came out with 60 writers including both emerging and established writers - the number of writers tripled in the fall issue and I turned the m.a.g. into a quarterly – by winter there were 500 writers and the m.a.g. had expanded into an international literary quarterly - by spring (the current issue) there were 600 writers and 4,000 literary works - the m.a.g. now has 35 co-editors around the world who act as liaisons presenting contemporary literary work from their respective countries which i publish in the original language with or without English translation - the annual m.a.g. readership has grown to over two million readers making the muse apprentice guild the largest and most widely read international literary quarterly on the internet.
My own literary work (Metapoetics Theatre) is presented under the aegis of "Culture Animal" which is my own literary production company. The M.A.G. and Culture Animal are connected only because I operate both projects. But the connection stops here. There are no hoaxes in my work.
AK: There is something dizzying about what you are doing. It leaves one slightly worried, the ground is shaky and what we know of our critical facility, what we have been trained to validate our sense of proportion, of what is "good" in literature, is radically undermined. You must be aware of this process in your readers. Is it intentional? What is to be gained for literature by so radically undermining the status of the author?
AH: Concerning the criteria we use to judge what is "good" in literature I recommend that readers read the essay by Professor Harry Polkinhorn in the Spring Issue (2003) of the Muse Apprentice Guild entitled "600 Readers?"
At this point we may be in a position to formulate a way to assess the quality of writing or art that is more honest, less dictatorial, more open-ended, a way suitable to our historical period, rather than having to labor under the confusions perpetrated by standards from the past that no longer fit our current realities. In this expanded view whose investment is decidedly not in creating a forced, arbitrary, and deceptive sense of value by starkly limiting the writing it deems worthy of publication, that is, works with the laughably bogus principle of so-called rarity good writing would be that which gives the reader the most immediate and moving sense of the fullness of the writer's self. This leaves open what "fullness of self" can mean. As each of us spends a lifetime becoming who we are, uniquely as selves here at the brief, fiery living edge of history, those who are more completely accomplished in this task will manifest that state more immediately, which will flower from their lives in all ways, whether in their personal relations, their artistic creations, their stance in the world.