Sunday, July 10, 2005

The Art of the Pitch: Conversation Between James Curcio and Ben Mack.

James Curcio, author of Join My Cult! and Ben Mack transcriber of Poker Without Cards both create works that deal with issues of culture, consciousness, and viral marketing within the context of the modern world, however they approach them in totally different ways. Each have been hailed by some of the hallmark names in counter-culture and avant-garde literature such as Robert Anton Wilson, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Dr. Christopher Hyatt, and many others.

The following conversation, transcribed from a recorded phone conversation, deals with the problems they faced in the process of wrestling with those issues, and the different solutions and approaches they found.

James Curcio: Hey Ben... I wanted to start this conversation off by saying I enjoyed your book--

Ben Mack: I enjoyed yours also.

JC: However I do have a lot of questions about process, and your background... I'm sure we'll get to them in the usual roundabout fashion. Was it a dream of yours to write a book? Obviously books don't write themselves, but there are plenty of things in our lives that are the results of happy accidents... and others that we set out to do from the start. Like in Joseph Campbell's idea of the mythic hero, you have the intentional quest, and the quest that's brought to the unwitting protagonist who would have been plenty happy being a shepherd all his life.

BM: I was happily transcribing away at The Transcription Company when I was given the set of tapes that comprise The Transcript.
[clears throat]

JC: I was under the impression that all this was a ruse, like how Dangerous Liasons pretended to be real letters but were written by the “gatherer” of the letters.

BM: Poker Without Cards is not only an accurate transcription of Howard Campbell’s discussion with Dr. Fink but my publisher decided to also include real emails I sent him that he published without my permission.

JC: But you put forth to publish Howard Campbell without his permission…

BM: Howard set out to have his experiences depicted in a book. He wrote and distributed TWISP and Manufacturing America. Anything he says about being thrust into this position is bullshit. He wanted his story told. He told me that he write partially to have his perceptions validated by showing people he wasn’t embarrassed by his experiences and that he wouldn’t deny that they happened to him—he wouldn’t submit to the Christian mindset that claims that prayer must include Jesus and that similar focus without the name Jesus is evil magic but focus in the label of Christ is good magic regardless of what you are using your focus for.


JC: You didn’t address publishing PWC without his permission.

BM: Yes I did. I said he wanted it out or he wouldn’t have made all the copies of his earlier manuscripts. He wanted his ideas read by as many people as he could reach—he writes about that in Manufacturing America. My point is that some people write to a diary and that is meant, usually, just for themselves, but when you write anything else you crave and audience and pretending you don’t is a ruse. Did you intend for people to read Join My Cult!?

JC: Join My Cult! was very intentional. From the first sentence I penned I was resolute that I was going to write a novel, damnit. Granted, it took almost a decade to write, get accepted by a publisher that I felt was a match for the content, edit it, and get it released... It was a way for me to work out a lot of questions and issues that I was having, that I couldn't always bounce off of the people around me. I mean in a way I got some feedback on those things from dead giants like Neitzsche, Campbell, Jung, and so on... but that's really just a one-sided conversation. Dead men are fairly predictable.

BM: I push people to write because I get validation from others that wrote--their words told me I wasn't alone, that other people shared similar perspectives, sentiments and experiences. But, I never wrote about it like you or Howard kept writing about your experiences. Howard started xeroxing TWISP and Manufacturing America and giving them to anybody who seemed interested--and sometimes to those who weren't interested. He spent thousands of dollars at Kinkos.

JC: (laughs) You speak as if you know these things first hand.

BM: At times my life feels surreal for how much I know about Howard Campbell and how many of his ideas I have internalized. But, Kinkos in particular gets me there. I’ve been there at 4 AM and I feel like I’m in a David Lynch movie because somebody comes in and I see something that is a tell, a tell like you learn from reading Mike Caro’s Body Language of Poker—a tell that telegraphs that this person has read Poker Without Cards or at least they see fnords. A lot can be learned from Mike Caro’s life strategies.

It often is brought up and comes out at Kinkos in the early mornings.

JC: For some reason all my experiences at Kinko's have been surreal. There's this digital painting I did based on a crayon drawing I did there, I made this triangle out of paper-clips and was trying to explain to people how I controlled their minds with the crayon drawings. I was running around the store pointing frantically at the picture and my forehead, saying "HE TALKS TO ME HERE!" Basically, I was bored and passing the time. Still, that wound up making it's way into one of Johny's monologues in the book. And the crayon drawing became a piece... I've sold a couple 16"x20" prints of it. So, I guess that's what I mean with the spontaneous part. Anyway, go on...

BM: I talk with anybody who will discuss Howard’s writing--listening to their questions and learning. I would read tons and revisit what I he had written with a new perspective of a reader and rewrite my own ideas. I got great at explaining the content of his book. I met strangers who knew me through his writing--and, to the extent they were gentle, I would have conversations with them and more.

I learned how to navigate the evocative nature of his work--I'm still learning this. I’ve asked Howard about how he does it, when he will talk to me…

JC: Why do you suspect there are times Howard won’t speak to you?

BM: I don’t know. Howard explained to me that when he received the email from Nurse Oglethorpe, he was amazed. He wasn't shocked as some people have asked me--more like he was drained. "Ahhhhhhhh shit" is probably what he thought to himself, "Here we go again". He'd seen this twice before. He knew one kid, Greg, who had read TWISP and spiraled down and the psychiatrist Greg saw wouldn't take TWISP seriously. Howard tried explaining that reading certain books can be hazardous to your mental equilibrium. Howard pointed to The Bible and Darwin's Origin of Species--but he just wanted to give Greg drugs and ask him to put aside the ideas in TWISP. A similar experience happened with a teenager in Oakland, California--a kid named Phillip.

JC: Oh yeah, I've experienced the same thing with some of my readers. But when they come through the other side... well at least so far, it's been for the better with all of them. But I'm sure that eventually Join My Cult! will widen a crack in someone that's already there, and they won't come back from that downward spiral. Well, if it wasn't Join My Cult! it would be something else. I don't think there's really a lot of culpability in that, there's no ill intent behind it. You can't go through life walking on eggshells because you might drive someone crazy.

BM: They say that insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result. That’s what I edon’t get about the psychiatric community that was so well explained in the movie Patch Adams—what they are doing is not working but they won’t allow alternative treatments. Dr. Hyatt had his counseling license revoked because what he was doing was working—they are insane for expecting different results from the same action and I don’t understand why they persist at what they do.

JC: I'm not sure that's a good definition of insanity anyway. You will get different results by doing the same thing over and over again. There are so many minute contextual changes that can make an experiment go a totally different way. It's like raindrops running down a window. They all seem to follow different paths along the same surface. The scientific method, to those who understand it, is about probability. It's not about certainty. Maybe I'm just nuts by my philosophy has kind of been, if you do something and it doesn't follow your expectations, adapt of course, but more often than not you just need to keep doing what your doing until the context is supportive of it, and suddenly it's "wow! this is so unique and original!" Dogged persistence is the name of the game. You don't spoil the fun and tell them you've been doing it for twenty years.

BM: ...Howard started to explain to Oglethorpe about TWISP, but she had these questions she needed to answer and was rushed. He decided the only sane action was to try a new tact so he reworked his schedule and booked a flight to Hawaii with his girlfriend at the time, Callie.

He wasn't expecting Dr. Fink to tape record the conversation. What happened in that room was the most traumatic experience of his life. He explained to me that when he left, he wasn't expecting anything--he was trying to get a handle on his own life.

Howard Campbell has taught me that my first responsibility is to make myself a functioning member of society--functioning to the extent that I am navigating my own way as opposed to being pushed and pulled by the dynamics of law and money and social expectations.

By the time I tracked Howard down, Poker Without Cards was being given away as a free download and suddenly I was getting more and more people wanting to ask me question about the nature of reality. Look, I DON'T KNOW HOW REALITY WORKS. I can't explain it in words—reality is what we live and is ultimately subjective.--

JC: --It's hackneyed but the best thing you can say about it is 'your mileage will vary.' There are some constants though-- in form, just not content.

BM: The dissemination of Poker Without Cards has radically changed my life. I know that energies I resist persist so I decided to ride this train to its end. I've grown accustomed to cushioned seats and air conditioning and I hope this ride can sustainably provide these amenities. This can only happen if readers value from the content of the text and share their value with friends. That is the selfish part of why I ask people to write. If you have benefited from PWC and got it for free, can you give me $23 worth of writing in your blog or somebody else's blog? I'm appreciative of your consideration.

JC: [laughs] The amount of work we put into these things.. It’s really just a labor of love until it reaches enough people. Join My Cult! seems like it's about to hit that tipping point, though it's not quite there. I'm not sure if this is on topic or not... is there a topic? But one of the reasons I wanted to approach you, have this conversation, and possibly work with you in the future... is that I found a lot of resonance with the ideas in your book. Furthermore there's a lot of tie-ins, ideologically speaking, between your book and my own, as well as the novel I'm working on now. It seemed to make sense to me to mix memes a little and see what comes of it.

BM: Cross-promotion is simply a matter of commingling memes in an accessible format so people that are interested in one idea know they may find more ideas they are interested in within this other topic they are now enjoying--something like that.

JC: "Brainwashing" is a word that I think both of us use a lot in talking about what it is that we do... or are trying to do... but it's such a loaded word, even talking about "cultural programming" is kind of tilting the machine. When I use these terms I think I'm really trying to get at the fact that, like it or not, cultural relativism is here to stay. Just because people might not like it, because it makes them feel uncomfortable living without "truth"-- I'd rather live with my eyes wide open. If I'm going to have a truth, it'd better be doing something for me. So I'd like to ask you, what do you mean when you use these buzzwords?

BM: Every truth does something for you, some of them help your conscious objectives and some don't...

JC: Yes... that's what I meant.

BM: Brainwashed I use when there is a mechanism that profits from the continuation of a specific "truth." Cultural relativism or consensus reality I think I use similarly to you.

I'm not sure which other buzz words you mean...

JC: Off the top of my head, that's it.

When I first started reading Poker Without Cards, I have to admit I was a little skeptical about reading a transcript. Suddenly I was about eighty pages into it, and I realized my skepticism was misplaced. Still I think it was an interesting approach to take... I very well could have approached Join My Cult! that way as well, in fact my publisher may have been a little less hesitant, initially, to putting it out there because the majority of their books are nonfiction works. In my case, I was taking five years of interactions between these different groups of people, and presenting it in a nonlinear narrative mainly because, though most of the events in the book really happened, I figured no one would believe any of it. So I may as well present it as a parable. Yet, you're playing it straight, from what I can tell. And it's equally effective. Really, I've come to the conclusion that fiction or non-fiction, in terms of genre, is really just a matter of device. Truth has nothing to do with it.

BM: PWC is reality fiction. "Non-fiction" is still subjective so what's the difference, really--I agree with you, it is a distinction in genre not structure.

JC: Why did you decide not to present this work as if it was fiction, even if it isn't? Do you think there's anything to one or the other, beyond pitch?

BM: This is real! Poker Without Cards happened! How thick is your skull? You are not a soft skull. It drives me crazy when people talk to me like I’m crazy and I’ll hang up if you insist on following that train of thought to its end…

JC: I didn't say it didn't happen, Ben. I said why did you present it as if it was fiction. Don't hang up.


BM: Poker Without Cards is called a thriller and not a biography, but largely because I couldn’t attract the interest in larger publishing houses that could have credentialized this as non-fiction. My intention was not that people see PWC as fiction. This stuff really happened. I hate these fucking interviews. This is why I don’t want to do that thing with This guy Brian emailed me if he could ask me some questions for something on their site and suddenly he is writing all about and has slotted space and now I’m committed to answer whatever he asks? I don’t think so. I don’t have to give you this time.

JC: I've been enjoying this conversation up to this point. Snap out of it.


Look, I suppose that's the process that happened with Join My Cult! and I was expecting the same of you as a writer. I thought I mythologized reality somewhat... but then people start crawling out of the woodwork and corroborating the parts that I recall being, to some extent, made up... And the parts I remember clear as day no one else does. Eventually, you throw your hands in the air and just look at what kind of effect it has on people -- hopefully positive in the long run. And you look at book sales, too. Or at least I do.

I parody self-help and NLP or 'neuro' speak both in my work, as well as related advertisements. For me a part of that came from peripheral involvement in the neurolinguistic programming scene, and my running heckling of what I think is a bit of a used cars salesman approach to potentially powerful 'technology.' Yet it seems like it might be the only way to actually make money off of some of this stuff. I'm curious what your involvement is with that, if any...

BM: I first learned about NLP wihile transcribing Howard and Fink’s conversation. Howard explained to me that he was first introduced to NLP from Anthony Robbins when he was 14 and his mom was his publicist...

JC: I can't see NLP style pitches or speech without assuming its self parody. Have you seen the MHB infomercial?

I thought that was actually really pretty brave of everyone involved, because most of the people were playing these absurd charactures of themselves. Making fun of yourself like that takes balls. It can also be really informative. I was a scriptwriter and a camera man, so I had to make fun of myself instead in subtler ways... for that project, anyhow. I mean it was just a lark, but it still takes some guts to do that. Not all my projects are about self parody. I'm not that much of a one-trick pony. Some of them are very "serious," though it's really all just an aesthetic choice.

BM: Why do you have such disdain for selling?

JC: I don't have any disdain for selling, I think both of us agree that it's important to create materials that we genuinely feel are... beneficial to people. It's important to create quality. Beyond that, sell away! I actually get a lot of hostility from some corners of these so called 'sub-cultures,' people who feel that there's something inherently wrong about selling anything. They can keep on eating shoe leather in their holes if they want to, I'd like to have a roof over my head. It's like these half-baked revolutionaries that want to overthrow something, anything and everything, but who can't cook worth a damn and heaven forbid if they have to wire a house. Look, I'm no survivalist but at least I have the sense to realize just how dependant I am on certain aspects of the status quo. The best reaction you can have to these people is to not give a damn. Keep on doing your thing. (pause) Getting into an altercation with them just lowers you to their level-- unless if you are engaging for PR reasons. I respect that. Nothing brings in traffic like a good flame war, much as I'm loath to admit it. And those people that can find real benefit in what you do, will... If you can reach them, you're there. You have your audience. And that's what the pitch is all about, right?

BM: Yeah... to answer your earlier question, I have never taken an NLP class.

JC: Well, that's a relief. [Laughs]

BM: Heckling devotees of any technology I have found only reinforces the conviction of the followers.

JC: That's true. the reactions you can get from that oftentimes provide some amount of entertainment; sometimes you can get someone to characture themselves inadvertantly to such an extent that they snap out of the hypnosis they'd been in. ..And of course enter another one. Maybe it's a form of entrainment, as well as entertainment. In terms of NLP, part of my heckling is because I feel like many of these people are sitting on top of a goldmine and instead they're selling lemonaid. The fact that NLP is primarily used for used car salesman style advertising is just sad. At the same time, the racket isn't about the efficacy of these techniques outside the seminar. People go to these seminars, drop thousands of dollars to get in, get high as all get out on the hypnosis, then two months later the buzz is gone and they need another fix. That isn't all it needs to be, but so far as I've seen, that's all it is. I don't mean any offense to Bandler, LeValle or Riggio in saying this -- I've worked with a lot of people they trained personally -- but you know, that's where the money is. I just wish there was money in training kids and adults how to use their language to create better realities... Some sort of real-world X-Men college. Calculus, visual art, Kung fu, Tantra and energy healing. But that's the idealism trip. We've seen how things worked for the other "visionaries." There has to be a better way of reaching the same ends. I don't want to sit in solitary like Leary. It accomplishes nothing. I'll tell you this much though-- when I reach the point that I have my own bases completely covered, my funds are going into developing something like this. Not buying me a new Lamborghini. People have tried really hard to get my motives out of me and I usually give some bullshit answer just to flip the table around... but I think I just showed my hand there. Oh well.


BM: So now I have some more questions for you... will you be able to let go of your resentment of money enough to get wealthy with me? Seriously. Are you tired of being broke, tired enough that you are willing to make some money? I know I am.

JC: Yeah I hit that point a while ago, I'm just waiting for it to catch up with me already. (laughs) Right now I have my head down, just trying to get work done. It's pretty crazy, some days I barely remember what my name is. Thankfully I have people around to remind me. You develop a kind of schizophrenia when you're hopping from mastering an album to giving creative direction on a graphic novel to illustrating storyboards and writing the next chapter of your novel all in the same day. It's not a schizophrenia of identity, you know... but. I don't know, a lot of duct tape is involved. Anyone that thinks it's easy work, or 'slack off' work, should try it for a couple months.

BM: Are you tired of seeing America blind its youth through systemetized misinformation? Tired enough that you are willing to try new approaches that before you resisted?

JC: I'll let my work speak for me on that one. The initial motivation for writing Join My Cult! was... to write a book that I wish someone would have handed me when I was 17. And I started it in the mental hospital, so it was reall this full-circle letter to myself. Of course you have to read the book to really get what I mean there. I've been genuinely surprised, in a positive way, at the response I've gotten from it. So far all the reviews have been pretty ravingly positive, when I was sure most people would just be confused or irritated. It's not a normal book, you know. It breaks many assumptions about novel format, of course, but also about our ideas about identity and reality. I've recieved a lot of personal emails from readers all around the world that said they felt like it spoke to them, personally, on a level that most books hadn't before... I'm not trying to brag here, I've just been so pleasantly surprised in that respect. There's other respects I've been less pleased about... The main promotion for this book has been my own footwork and word-of-mouth... I think there are a lot of people out there who would enjoy it, could benefit from it that haven't realized it yet. [Pause] You'll notice I haven't wasted time talking about the plot. Plot is a device. So are characters. We could get into a nuts and bolts discussion of what goes on behind the scenes to create a novel, maybe that would be a topic people would be interested in... But not today. Personally I always find myself asking "who cares?" when I read the back copy of a book. I don't care what a novel is about, I care what it's going to do. [Pause] Hm, that might give the wrong idea. Really as a reader and a writer I'm interested in tone but I discover that by sampling a couple pages at random... not through som cheesy back cover copy.

BM: Are you tired of asking yourself, "If I'm this smart, why aren't I wealthy?"

JC: [Laughs] Oh god. The first image that springs into my mind when you say that is living in Orange County, California. So many people driving around in their SUVs, living in five-hundred hundred thousand dollar homes... doing what exactly? Most of them seem miserable, and have no clue what to do with their money that's actually beneficial... to themselves, or the community. All I ever saw them do was shop. I spent my time there playing in the band (Babalon), or working on the final draft of Join My Cult!. I think I wore pajamas for like three months. OK, but before you think I'm saying, those people were all stupid and I was smart, it's not like that. I would offer the idea, however unfortunate it may be, that 'smart' doesn't necessarily correlate into wealth. When you say 'smart' I'm assuming you're thinking of abstract reasoning. I know a lot of creative geniuses that can't balance a checkbook. They say Einstein couldn't tie his shoes, though that may be an exaggeration. Many of us pay for our strengths with considerable blind spots. I know I sure as hell do. When I'm in the midst of a really demanding project, I don't know where I am half the time. Consider the possibility that the intelligence of individuals may not prove as evolutionarily viable as the dupability of the rank and file. This isn't a possibility I am fond of, but there is some credibility to it... even just in terms of sheer numbers. It's possibly just coincedence, but the majority of people i'd consider geniuses that I've met are poor, and many of the ridiculously wealthy people I've met are mentally inflexible and oftentimes impossibly dull. Of course there are plenty of exceptions, and I'd like to help provoke more. ...Myself included, though i'm not sure where I actually stand in the genius - moron continuum. I'm just saying... I'm not sure there is any necessary correlation between being 'smart' and being sustainable.

BM: I imagine you are still working out your surprise at how different you are from most Americans...

JC: Different isn't necessarily better or worse. I couldn't say what I did about cultural relativity and then claim otherwise. But I will admit there is still some lingering shock in realizing that more than fifty percent of this country believes that dinosaur bones were buried in the Earth by Satan to deceive us, and that th universe was created exactly as it is 8,000 years ago. I mean that really is as crazy as believing that the son of God came back as a chocolate egg pooping rabbit when we missed the point the first time. Bill Hicks, as you know, was a genius. And there you go...

BM: Within this distinction between yourself and "them" is pride--the righteousness feels good. It feels good to think that you are so much smarter than everybody else. I know this because i think this way too sometimes...

JC: I don't feel that way anymore. I did, once upon a time. But then again, once upon a time, I wore diapers, too.

When James Curcio isn't conducting mind-control experiments, he is creative director for a number of media companies and projects. Some of these include "Join My Cult!" a novel released through New Falcon Press in 2004, and it's sequel, untitled and presently nearing the end of its first draft, and chapters on Myth and Magick in Generation Hex, an anthology to be released in September of 2005 by Disinformation. SubQtaneous: Some Still Despair In A Prozac Nation, a collaborative album, is also nearing completion, with a roster of musicians including Scott Landes (Babalon, Collide). He is creative director both for "Chasing The Wish," a graphic novel based on Dave Szulorski's popular Alternate Reality Game, and Fas Ferox, a multimedia epic with a team of artists including Christian Cordella and creative consultant Neil Gaiman (Sandman, American Gods, Mirror Mask.)

All of his work is informed by a background in world mythology and the occult, as well as an interest in psychology, and physical-religious
practices such as yoga and bagua-zhang. Most "139 sightings" occur in New York, though he is by-and-large an elusive beast.

Ben Mack is the transcriber of Poker Without Cards, a blend of Orwell and Chomsky gone cyberpunk. To get a clear understanding of how the world really works you need to read Poker Without Cards as soon as you can.


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