When Jeff Miller launched his Ghost Pine: All Stories True punk zine in 1996, he didn’t realize he was about to embark on a 13-year journey that would lead him from Ottawa to Montreal, from a punk scene to a vegan kitchen and some odd places in between. Jeff recorded those true-life experiences in Ghost Pine, and though the zine folded in 2009 it now lives in on in the best-of anthology, Ghost Pine: All Stories True (Invisible Publishing, April 2010). This Wednesday, Jeff will be talking about the history of the zine and the creation of his unique non-fiction as part of the TINARS reading series.
Jeff chatted with Books@Torontoist about the history of Ghost Pine, the process of taking it from zine to book and more.
Jeff Miller: The book collects the best of my zine, Ghost Pine, which came out for thirteen years between 1996 and 2009. The broken is down into sections that deal with recurring themes time and time again within the zine. This book is collection of stories, and a coming of age. You can see my coming of age when you read through its pages. I thought it would be an interesting document of my progress as a writer and as a human, but also as a document for cultural change. During the time the zine was active there were a lot of changes in the world. I never really wrote a lot about what’s happening around me, I often focused on the smaller details of my life. But when I read it now, little details about how the world was a different place back then jumped out at me. I found this interesting and worthwhile exploring in a collection.
TO: How did you select which essays would be included in the book?
JM: I started by reading every issue since the first one, which came out when I was sixteen. Maybe the earlier issues weren’t as strong as some of my later work, but I pulled out some of the best stories from the earlier issues. Reading through each issue took time. A bunch of the stories had to be typed up by someone, as I used to write my zines by hand. By the end of this process, I had a manuscript that was a couple hundred pages long.
TO: What inspired you to start a zine, way back in 1996?
JM: Ghost Pine was inspired by the hardcore punk scene in Ottawa. When I was growing up, there was a vibrant music scene there. A bunch of great bands played every weekend. To me, it was amazing participant-based scene, it didn’t feel like there was an audience. Everyone was taking part in some way. I had this idea to keep the scene going, and in order to participate, I needed to do something. Since I was always writing, I thought a zine was the best way to contribute it. The zine evolved from there. It went from being a ranty thing to a selection of autobiographical stories with a beginning, middle, and end, without the same antagonism. The big shift occurred when the fourth issue came out in 1998. I started trying to observe the world, write about my experiences in a way that people could relate to.
TO: Why was the zine called Ghost Pine?
JM: Originally it was called Otaku, the Japanese word for nerd. At the time thought it as a nice metaphor. The punk scene was about collecting rare records and being on top of that kind of thing. I eventually got tired of that name and wanted to concentrate on the details of every day life. I wanted a name that would be welcoming, accessible, and reflect what the zine is about. I had this baseball cap since I was a kid, I didn’t know where it came from or anything about it, but it featured a picture of a ghost hiding under a pine tree. Under this image, it said “Ghost Pine.” I really liked this. It was a metaphor for what I wanted to do with the zine, when I explored the small details in life, details or moments that are rather mundane and meaningless, but when you expand upon them, they end up meaning so much in people’s lives.
TO: Why did you decide to end the zine in 2009?
JM: I found it more difficult to write about myself. I thought maybe I was less interesting now that I’ve grown up. I’m a bit shyer now. My life is more stable and change occurs differently when you’re older. Some of the things that I was going through didn’t really fit in stories in the same way. When I was younger, everything seemed to happen in story form. The timeline was different too. In a period of a month, events would happen that I perceived as life-changing. Now I find the changes happening in my life are more long-term things that can’t be summed up so succinctly. I’m still writing, though. I’m currently working in a novel and I’m about three years into it. I’m on the fourth draft. It’s going slowly, but I am committed to making it as good as possible and working through that, regardless of the timeline. If I do say so myself, it’s coming along nicely.
TO: Did you find the transition from non-fiction to fiction difficult?
JM: I went to school for English literature. It’s funny, when you read James Joyce, everything in it is taken to be a symbol for something else, or a metaphor. I felt that kind of pressure with every single word, it was almost crippling, like “now I’m going to write about this chair, but this chair symbolizes something else.” When I write about things that actually happened, I didn’t feel that pressure, that need to transform the story into a giant symbol or metaphor. As a writer, it was liberating. Now that I am writing fiction, I’m ready to take on that challenge. I find I take more care in the language itself and less about the plot, which is an interesting challenge and one I’m enjoying.
TO: How did the concept for the book design come about?
JM: For the book cover, I wanted some design elements from the original zine. The font on the book cover is the font I always used in the zine. The format of two rectangles, one taller one and one smaller one, is a design element I wanted. Other than that, I just the designer take care of it. Yo Rodeo designed the cover and they’ve done a lot of amazing posters for bands on the East Coast, like Dog Day and North of America. I laid out the specific design elements I wanted and they did a great job.
TO: For your TINARS event, you’re talking about the zine, but also about memory and how that relates to it. Can you elaborate?
JM: I’m going to be presenting a history of the zine, but the presentation won’t just be an overview. While editing the book, I noticed several discrepancies between the ways I described things versus how they appeared in other forms of documentation. I’m going to explore the weird difference between what I wrote and the photograph I wrote about. Even though I maintained that all my stories were true and never tried to distort objects and facts for the sake of storytelling, the story asserts own control at a certain point. I received a bunch of reviews where they would say “I can’t tell if this is fictional or if this is a memoir or what.” I just thought that the way I wrote, which is a more traditional short story form, was tripping them up. So I added the motto “All Stories True.” There’s a scrapbook feature at the back of the book that highlights different eras of the zine. When curating this, I noticed a few slight errors when I was looking at the photos. It was definitely an interesting revelation, that despite my best abilities, distortions manage to filter into the stories. As a result, I’ll be discussing the differences between memory and documentation, sort of a fact-check of my own work.
TO: Are there any stories that are particularly memorable for you?
JM: While going through the process of making the book, there were several stories that stood out. My all time favorite one is “Non-competitive League,” about being in Grade 9 and having to take this mandatory gym class with other jocks. There were jocks in it and all these freaky weird kids who wore metal T-shirts. The story is about how we went from all meeting each other in gym class and the next year we all became punk rockers. Another one is “Drag It to Dinner,” about a vegan cook-book chef I worked for. It’s about his life and how he started writing cook books. I found this story to be really touching. Even in reading the first second, third issues, I was surprised. I was expecting to hate it and hate who I was as a teenager, but I came away from it feeling that it wasn’t so bad. It’s not great writing, but at least I was trying to be honest. And that honesty saved it from being terrible. There’s an honesty about the level of writing, too. I never at that time said I would have a great writer. I’m not ashamed.
Jeff Miller will be speaking at the Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen St. West) on April 14th at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $5 at the door or free with book purchase. The after-party will take place at The Beaver (1192 Queen St. West) from 9:30 p.m. onwards. Tickets to the after party are free.
Author photo by Meqo Sam Cecil, courtesy Invisible Publishing.