Notorious Maximumrocknroll columnist and general provocateur Mykel Board spent a year in Outer Mongolia, then wrote a book about it. Interview by Edgar Barrington.
The Modernist: I wanted to know what made you decide to turn your year in Mongolia into a novel, what made you want to write a novel?
Mykel Board: It’s not really a novel because a novel has a feeling of something that is made up. Even a Daughter is pretty not made up. When I was there I took email notes, I wrote every day about my adventures and I didn’t have a phone let alone an internet connection where I was. So in order to send email I had to physically take the computer down to the email center, plug it in, upload all my email messages and download them and my cousin collected them for the year. And they became my notes and I figured, “Oh I had all of these cool experiences, I should write them.” And that’s when the book came out.
Oh nice, so the idea to write a book was actually after the fact, retrospectively?
Well I had a vague idea, I didn’t go there to write a book, I went there because that was my main goal in life. I thought I wouldn’t be able to die unless I had been to Mongolia. So that’s why I went there and I guess in the back of my mind was “it might be a book” and as time continued it looked more and more like it was gonna be one.
I see. I wanted to ask you too about your literary influences, authors that you either just enjoy or that you felt had some influence on the way you write.
Oh that’s a good question. Well my favorite author is Celine, and I read just about everything -- except a little bit of anti-Semetic screed I passed up. But all the novels and everything I’ve read and his style was a big influence on me. It’s weird because I rarely read travel writing, I’ve read one or two books by Paul Theroux, who’s I guess the most famous travel writer, but most of my reading is things like Celine or maybe more mundanely William Burroughs or those kind of guys. But my writing is much more direct than that. My writing style is, well maybe there’s a little bit of Celine there because it’s kind of rough and nasty sometimes, but my style came out of training, a great writing course I had at Columbia College in Chicago, and most of the style I’ve had has been developed over the years starting on the things I learned in that course.
Cool, how long did you stay in Chicago for that course?
The course was only a year. I had transferred, my first school was Beloit in Wisconsin, then I transferred for my last year to Chicago to concentrate on writing and then I took time off and went to grad school at NYU in New York. But at Columbia College, the structure there was really great and more than just technique and which adverbs to choose, it really showed you how to see what you were writing, how to revisit the scene and see or touch or smell, almost like kind of zen group therapy.
Interesting. Around what year was that?
Columbia College was 1972.
Cool interesting, I lived around Chicago for around 10 years but that’s quite a bit before my time. Anything non-Columbia related about Chicago that you care to mention?
Well my first time in Chicago was the Democratic Convention 1968, that was a riot.
Then I went to undergrad school in Beloit so I was often back and forth between Chicago and… I like Chicago, Chicago’s like New York with the volume turned down. And it’s got great architecture, I think the best architecture in America, and what else can I say? While I was there at Columbia I really discovered the basis and the joys of rewriting.
To me writing is like taking a shit -- getting it out is a drudgery. It’s something you gotta do, you get it all out, then the joy is making a sculpture with the shit – rewrite, revise and revisit the original location and your image and then you focus on it, and the real craft is rewriting and I learned that at Colubmia. Although they did not use the taking a shit metaphor.
I’m glad that’s your own, it’s wonderful. You mentioned in your columns and it said in the back of Even a Daughter that you wrote a bunch of novels under pseudonyms?
Not exactly a pseudonym, there was no author’s name. I wrote 17 porno novels, I would go into the company, get an assignment, like this week it’s young virgin’s book, this week it’s homos in jail, this week it’s fighting girls, and 20 hours later I’d come out with a novel, I’d get $230 and write the next one.
Wow that’s unbelievable.
In the beginning it was a tough job because the pay was so low but after awhile I could write a novel and I had the joy of putting all my friends in my novels.
On the subject of sex there’s one specific question about a section in your book I had. You went to that club, I forget the name of it, and you ended up… briefly sort of having sex with this woman…
Under the staircase
Right right. There was no mention in there of slipping on a condom or anything, I was just curious…
No condom, I was drunk and fortunately in retrospect it was probably stupid but I had no price to pay for that stupidity.
Ok good, I guess there was no sense of remorse brought up in the book so I was curious if outside of the book there was.
Yeah and if you remember in the beginning of the book I brought all those condoms with me expecting to use them and when push came to push I didn’t have one, or at least didn’t consider it.
And as a result of that, I think you said, you ended up breaking up with your girlfriend. But I was kind of surprised that – just through having read your columns and never having met you I was not surprised by your behavior or I guess intended promiscuity, so I wondered how that… why your girlfriend was.
Me too! It’s amazing she thought she could change me or something. I don’t know. I think to be fair it was more the fact that I wrote about it than that I did it. So you know it’s like “oh Mykel’s girlfriend and look what he’s written about in Mongolia.” I think that upset her more.
I see and then of course for myself living in Japan, you called the company Logos but I was wondering if you’d tell me… I assume that was not the real name of the company you worked for here?
The name of the company I worked for in Japan was The Tokyo Center for Language and Culture. It’s not a real school, it’s kind of, I don’t know how to describe it, it’s an agency where they send you to various companies and teach. I taught for the Taiyo Company, Taiyo Fishery, who at that time owned the Taiyo Whales which eventually became the Yokohama BayStars, and I got free tickets for the Taiyo Whales actually and I think I am probably the only American Yokohama BayStars fan in the world. I worked for a contracting company, they just sent you all over the place. They were based in Shibuya.
And how long did you live in Japan?
2 years. A really good 2 years except for the train.
What about them? What’s the downside?
Well I lived on the Odakyu line which is the most crowded and I don’t mind being pushed up close against an attractive person for awhile, but not so tight that you can’t breathe, and that’s how it was on the Odakyu line. Where are you?
In Tokyo, Gotanda is about 7 minutes from here, which is about 7 minutes from Shibuya.
Oh you’re lucky. I was way the hell out for most of my time there in Sobudai near Sagami-Ono on the Odakyu line.
I was curious about the trains because what drives me nuts more than them being crowded is that they don’t run at all after midnight.
That’s the 2nd point, unlike New York where the subways never stop, trains in Japan stop at midnight and it’s really nasty, what do you do? You can stay in a capsule hotel or you can pay a fortune for a taxi, or you can sleep in the train station or something and that’s really nasty, that’s the 2nd reason I don’t like the trains in Japan.
And further off the subject of your novel, I wanted to ask a music question, any of your either recent favorite bands, or have always been your favorite bands…
My recent favorite bands, actually a great band who used to be in New York, a Japanese band just returned to Tokyo so you might have a chance to see them. They’re called the Stackers. They had to leave because the drummer got deported. I don’t know why but the drummer got deported so they all went back to Japan and they’re in Tokyo now so keep an eye out for them.
And what sort of general style do they play?
They call themselves an Oi! Band… I don’t think they’re an Oi! Band they’re kind of like a fun punk band. And then another band from New York called Pee Lander Z. I like to call them the Japanese Butthole Surfers. They are a wild performance band and a lot of fun. And another band with a great named called World War 9 is a sort of loud sloppy garage punk band and they do GG Allin covers so it makes me happy.
Excellent and I have one more question, I wanted to know your newest adventure or what’s next for Mykel Board?