encyc.jpgThe Encyclopedia Project is a 5-volume hardcover book project, an encyclopedia of fiction and fictional forms. The first volume, Encyclopedia Vol 1 A-E, came out earlier this year and is 336 cross-referenced and indexed pages of writing, photographs, lists, video stills and drawings by 114 writers and artists. It’s cool. When I first heard about this project I had a hard time imagining how it was going to work. I missed the launch party but I got a copy of the book and asked one of its editors some questions. Oh and ps, I can’t type encyclopedia without doing that little song you learn in school to remember how to spell it. Anyway, here we go:

Tell me about the origin of the idea for encyclopedia. Where did you start?

It all started in 2004 when Tisa Bryant, Miranda Mellis, and I were in the MFA Graduate Program in Literary Arts at Brown. We were inspired to create a new kind of fiction-oriented publication by Gail Scott, a fabulous Canadian woman who was a visiting writer in our program. We knew that we didn't want to start yet another journal/lit mag (nothing against 'em--we've all worked in the realm, we read them, we publish in them) and we knew that we wanted the form and structure of the publication to relate to/inform/engage with the content. We wanted to include all kinds of fictions and narratives, and visual art as well. After a few meetings and a lot of wine, Miranda started talking about the old encyclopedia—and that was that. We got excited by the encyclopedia as an organizing principle, and we were interested in the way the encyclopedia sought to contain all knowledge—we knew immediately that it was a model we wanted to tweak/subvert/play with. We started in Providence, but now we're in New York and the Bay Area.

What is your mission?

'Encyclopedia' means "circles of knowledge" and that is a guiding principle for the work and artists that we publish: we want to expand and break open existing circles of knowledge, to allow overlap and back-and-forth and cross-referencing and unexpectedness.

We aim to: Create a series of books that are beautiful, strange and packed with innovative art and literature. Publish the creations of emerging writers and artists working in innovative forms. Represent 50% non-white artists and writers, as well as people of all ages and sexual orientations. Consider the vastness of contemporary fiction/s, to present various approaches to narrative, to present experimental/multi-genre work. Reanimate an antiquated form. Create connections. Have fun.

And also, for Vol 2: to minimize our impact on the environment by using recycled paper and other green products during production.

How does the encyclopedia format help accomplish that mission?

The cross-referencing system connects pieces throughout the book based on common words, themes, names, etc. It creates conversations between work and artists that might otherwise seem unrelated. Rebecca Brown's long, lyrical essay on EM Forster, 'Aspects of the Novel', cross-references to Brian Evenson's short piece on 'Anamorphosis' (which ends with the line "...this, perhaps, is what anamorphosis can best teach a fiction writer: everything is monstrous, yet everything is normal." I love that line.) Micah Perks' entry for 'Ending' cross-references to Katie Hays' 'Bloomsbury.' And on and on.

But more than that, though, is the notion of taking a traditional form with a particular history (one of exclusion, elision, empiricism) that is pretty much obsolete (see: Wikipedia, etc) and reimagining it to serve entirely new purposes. The encyclopedia is public domain, it is normal: we've taken it, made it pink and teal, and filled it with language and art that is gorgeous, monstrous, immediate.

And by doing the project on our own terms we can be very clear with our intentions, and can act on them, can define and redefine them, can continually expand/invent this project.

This project is kind of enormous. How long did it take you to get from idea to first volume out?

Heh. Forever. From initial conceptualization to actual existence in the world took about two years. Two years and some months. It was a long, crazy, amazing process. Just the process of soliciting artists and editing and deciding on content took about a year. Then we moved on to designing, then printing, then getting the book and getting it out in the world...and now we're simultaneously promoting Vol 1 and working on Vol 2. We just brought on a fourth Encyclopedist—Joanna Howard joined us this summer. She's holding down the fort in Providence

Did any problems come up during the process? Any interesting stories?

How much space do you have? I could go on and on. To sum it up, though, I'll say that we all brought certain skill sets to the project--but we also had a lot to learn. We wanted complete creative control so we published the book ourselves, and, to that end, started our press, Encyclomedia. From the beginning, we've done it all ourselves—from fundraising to finding and working with our printer to distribution to editing to working closely with our book designer—and have had to figure it out as we've gone. And we were in school full-time writing theses for the beginning stages, and then graduating, job-searching, and trying to stay focused on our own individual writing as well. One good story is that Miranda, Tisa and I all have our first books coming out in 2007! We're considering a big old book tour...

Throughout the whole process there were many many delays—one thing we've learned is that something like this always takes a lot longer than you think. But really, I think the most interesting story is that of the collaborative process that we undertook. We make all decisions by consensus, and have worked so, so closely on this project—I can speak for my co-editors when I say that we have all gained immense knowledge, inspiration and energy from each other.

How did you get the funding for the project?

A scrappy combination of things! We're super grassroots, man. For real. From Brown University we received incredibly generous grants from the Graduate School and the Creative Arts Council. We've had some fundraisers and have received private donations, and we also sold advance copies. In the end, we published the first volume without having to sink our own money into it, which is pretty great considering the high cost of publishing a hardbound book w/ color art and sexy paper.

We also solicited a lot of pro bono work from many supportive friends who donated epic amounts of their time, ideas and labor. James Meetze is a graphic designer from San Diego and did all the layout, and Jason Pontius, a web designer from Oakland, did the book's cover, and our website. Aisha Burns, a graphic designer from NYC provided initial design ideas. Our good friends at SchwaDesign, a Providence-based design firm worked with us to design our logo, and many others helped by editing and proofing, playing at our benefits, and offering general advice and support. The list is immense, really.

Tell me a bit about your selection process for writers/artists.

For the first volume, we made massive lists of writers, artists, thinkers, and teachers who we wanted to include. Then we sent out solicitation letters: each person got a list of 5 words beginning with A, B, C, D and E. We asked them to create an entry for one or more of the words—text entries could be between 1 sentence and 4,000 words, or could be visual art. Then we sat back (well, not really, we had plenty to do) and let the submissions come in. In this sense, it was really a chance operation: we had no idea what people would do with the words, how they would approach it, etc. And we were thrilled with what we got.

For the second volume, we continued the solicitation process, but have also opened it up to unsolicited work. People can go to our website and see a huge list of words beginning with F-K. They can pick from those words, or come up with their own. And as I mentioned previously, we are committed to publishing 50% artists and writers of color—this of course is considered when soliciting people.

Are you still accepting submissions for later volumes? Which ones?

Yes indeed. The deadline for submission to Vol 2 F-K is January 15 2007—people can check the website for more info on that. And if people want to contact us with ideas for Vol 3 L-P, Vol 4 R-U or Vol 5 V-Z they can go right ahead.

Was there a soundtrack for the production process for volume one?

Ooo. It depended on which house we were meeting at, but we definitely rocked it out where ever we were...everything from TV on the Radio to this oldies station that Tisa listened to online to Magnetic Fields to Prince to Ted Leo to Fela to Arcade Fire to Rebecca Gates to Tricky (Tisa makes me think of Tricky) to the delightful sounds of Miranda's awesome former band My Invisible. Also the sounds of Chapin Ave, in Providence RI; whatever was playing at AS220; and now, in our new bi-coastal existence, the sounds of our voices during conference calls.

What other books/magazines/anthologies/people/places/things inspired you for this project?

Off the top of my head, a very partial list: encyclopedias, from Britannica to World Book to the Encyclopaedia Acephalica to the ones Tisa loved when she was a kid. Diderot and Pliny the Elder. Gail Scott and our teachers at Brown—Thalia Field, Brian Evenson, Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop, Forrest Gander, Carole Maso. Cabinet, BOMB, Narrativity, Conjunctions, Callaloo, NOON. The good people at McSweeneys. The Family of Man, the spines of old books, this pretty blue book that Miranda had on her bookshelf. Pantone guide. Small presses. Libraries, card catalogues, maps, charts, graphs, lists. Feminist processes. DIY. Each other. Etc etc etc.

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