Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Writer's Block Interviews: Stephen Black

1. Tell us a bit about yourself and where you live and work.

I am an American who now lives in Asia. I do many things: this year I exhibited Depth, a series of conceptual photographs taken underwater. I worked on the production and release of 3how's first CD/music download and, most of all, I worked towards completing Tiong Bahru, a book I have been working on for two years. Tiong Bahru is a part of Singapore known for its food and distinctive architecture.

I have lived and worked in Manhattan, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Paris. As an artist I have worked on many exciting video, photographic and music projects that were greatly rewarding, little publicized; underground stuff. At the other extreme,I have also created promos for Cartoon Network/Turner Classic Movies as well as worked for CNN, Fox, Fuji TV, MTV and France 2. I enjoy collaborating and/or documenting. In this regard, I have worked with Stelarc, Kazuo Ono, Min Tanaka, Sadato, David Sylvain, Michael Lee and a bunch of artists from Manhattan's Rivington School. 3how is a collective musical group and we are always doing something new, often with text and theatre.

2) Describe your journey to becoming an author.

Since I can remember, I have been surrounded by hardcovers and paperbacks. I read Publisher’s Weekly throughout grade school, often while riding in the car with my dad. He still sells books. My mother has never stopped encouraging me. She has the patience of a saint. I received high grades in English throughout my schooling. Wrote for the high school newspaper, wrote for a Japanese photo magazine, wrote tons of stuff which has yet to see the light of day. I was also fortunate to study with Hollywood legend Robert McKee, both in a semi-private class and in a packed auditorium.

3) Do you gravitate toward any particular genre in writing? Artistic mediums?

The "I novel" style always interested me, but ultimately I am more concerned with how to make narrative stories read like musical collages.I also like writing scripts. I have no preferred artistic medium, but I do enjoy experiencing the works of individuals who defy characterization.Picasso seemed to change every ten years or so, yet there is always something that is constant in his work. John Zorn creates music in a great variety of styles, yet usually there is something of "him" in all of his work, something besides his amazing technical skills. Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie both have signatures styles, yet they do not seem to be copying themselves.

4) Tell us about Obama Search Words. What inspired you to write it?

Obama Search Words was started well before the President was the Democratic Party Presidential Nominee. My mother came to Singapore and had with her a copy of Obama’s Dreams From My Father. I read it and learned that Obama lived in Indonesia for a few years of his childhood. I thought food was an interesting way to look at his life— and, whether he was going to remain being “just” a Senator or something greater, I would have a unique, “evergreen” look at his life. I went to Jakarta and was very fortunate to talk about his eating habits with his neighbors, teachers and classmates. Obama’s mother made sandwiches for his school lunch, but sometimes he ate local food at the school canteen: I learned things like this.

Soon after Jakarta I went home to Ohio, where I made a trip to Chicago to do more food-related research. During this time Barack Obama narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton! The title of the project, Obama Jalan Jalan ( and its concept drastically changed as I realized that I no longer needed the “safety” of food as a subject matter. The man whose life I had been researching was on his way to becoming the President of the United States! The creation of a book of facts and fact-based fiction about Obama’s life became my goal.

5) Describe your path to publication. Has this experience met/exceeded your expectations?

I cannot say I expected anything from my writing. Unless you are writing for a magazine or a publisher, there are no guarantees. You cannot predict luck. Whatever I write, I hope it is the best that I can do. If it finds an audience, I am fortunate and thankful.

6) How do you promote your work? What methods have worked best for you?

Marketing, publicity and promotion: I am now starting these things, although I likely published the first Singapore-based ebook on Kindle in 2009. The first reason for this is efficiency: Marketing is, more or less, a full-time job and it did not seem justifiable to spend a huge amount of time and resources to market a single book. The effort required to market 10 books is almost equal to that required to market one. This article presents the same argument:

Now, in 2012, I have the following titles on line: Contact With Shadow, Furikake, Halus: Portrait and Landscape, On Seng Poh Road and Obama Search Words. Let the publicity begin.

The second reason I didn’t do marketing is that I naively and incorrectly thought that, even without a publicity campaign, that a Kindle book about the President of the United States would attract search engines and audiences. Wrong!

Now, almost daily, we see new services which minimize the obstacles between audience and author. iPhones, tablets and ebook readers are waiting for writers, hopefully including those writers on my Book Merah ebook imprint. Here, I should also plug my band, 3how. 3how performs all kinds of brilliant, daring crazy stuff, sometimes based on my text or things we’ve co-produced. We twice performed Big Homer, a rock opera about a pigeon who becomes lost in 1980s Singapore.
3how’s PR materials include a link to Book Merah. And, when I do visual art exhibitions, my text works are also mentioned.

The idea is simply that my "brand" is whatever I do: art, writing, photography, video, music and breeding thoroughbred Chihuahuas. (Just kidding about the Chihuahuas.)

Once I finally have my online presence updated, will look into publicity services. Finally, I hope to reach out to traditional publishers and distributors, especially those that publish art and photography books. My latest book, Tiong Bahru, is an artist’s book disguised as a travel guide; part Paul Theroux, part Joseph Beuys, part Discovery Channel.

Finally, I have to mention my Ungluing Obama campaign: Hopefully this will reach its goal and also increase awareness of my other projects.

7) Who are your favorite authors? What is on your reading list right now?

Paul Theroux, Paul Aster,Don DeLillo, Steve Martin. Now, the only things I allow myself to read are book and reference materials related to Tiong Bahru.

8) Describe a typical day in your life.

I have not had a “typical day” in quite a while. My writing schedule is unpatterned. In May I was in Bali, doing almost nothing but writing, but a block of time like that is a rare gift. I pay the bills with photography, video and writing assignments. Lately, I am trying to make the unglue campaign a success, which means sending off hundreds of emails of various kinds.

9) What projects do you have in the works?

There are two projects I must finish soon: an updated version of the Agaricus blazei Murrill Notebook( and a story about a Burmese commercial diver in Singapore.Here is story describing a performance in which Joe, the diver, joined forces with 3how.

10) What advice would you offer to aspiring authors?

Writing and art are very hard work, dangerous in some ways. I don’t recommend them; too unpredictable... The creation of a book is not a package tour, a weekend hobby nor a university class. To paraphrase Tolstoy, ink is blood.


Stephen Black established Book Merah in 2007 as a platform for ebook projects. He also works in conceptual art, photography and video.

Book Merah is on Facebook and Twitter. will soon be updated

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