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But They Know It When They See It

What qualifies as "underground" fiction? The editors of a new anthology series are figuring it out as they go along.

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The Best Underground Fiction Volume One

Stolen Time Publishing

Chicago writer Elizabeth Crane says she's not quite sure what underground means, just that the word "sounds way cooler than I am." Her debut story collection, When the Messenger Is Hot, sold out its first edition and earned raves from Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times Book Review. Her second, All This Heavenly Glory, came out in paperback last month on Back Bay, an imprint of Warner Books. So at first she seems a bit out of place in a new hardcover anthology, The Best Underground Fiction Volume One. Even one of the book's Chicago-based editor-publishers, Scott Miles, briefly second-guessed his decision to include Crane. "Is that what 'underground fiction' is?" he says. "Is that all that subversive?"

The book's mildly effusive intro suggests that the idea emerged from a conversation in a bar, but The Best Underground Fiction actually originated in a college classroom. Scott Miles, 32, and Jeff Mikos, 29, met in 2003 while attending a workshop in Columbia College's fiction writing department. Mikos was a systems administrator at the Board of Trade; Miles, a Detroit-area native, was working as a copywriter for an electronics catalog ("think Elaine Benes, just much much much less glamorous") and had spent much of the previous five years working in a Seattle fish-packing warehouse. "It was one of those fortuitous meetings," says Mikos. "There was a small writing group that sprung out of it, and after that we just all sort of became friends."

Miles had some prior experience with underground publishing. After moving to Chicago in 2001, he started Trading Punches With Grandma, a photocopied fold-and-staple literary zine he passed around for free in cafes, bookshops, and "wherever we could find a little stoop," he says. (And I published one of his stories at the2ndhand.com last year.) By early 2004 various collaborators had left town and the project began to fizzle.

Around the same time, Miles and Mikos were talking over beers at George's Cocktail Lounge, a tiny package bar at Balbo and Wabash. There they began conceiving a bigger project. They were inspired by authors like Irvine Welsh and John McNally, whom Columbia brought to Chicago for its annual Story Week festival, and both felt they were witnessing the emergence of what Mikos calls the "next era's canon"--works by the visiting authors as well as locals (and Columbia faculty members) like Don De Grazia and Joe Meno. They committed to launching a series of anthologies that would showcase what they considered new and adventurous fiction--work that evoked the feeling that "anything is possible," as they write in the book's introduction. The word underground, they add, conveyed just the right double meaning: to them it was both a "movement that's born in a basement late at night and operates outside the mainstream" and a "foundation for newer, emerging work."

Crane's contribution, for example, is a previously unpublished story about the magical appearance of blue writing on a girl's forehead--and the not-always-magical consequences it has as it changes throughout her life. The story, if not Crane's success, exemplifies the book's conceit. "In the end the content filled out what the title was," says Miles, who first contacted Crane through her Web site. "After I had the story I stalked her at the most recent [Printers Row] Book Fair, where she did a reading and a signing with Steve Almond....There they were, both of them in the book I was publishing. Kind of surreal."

When they began hunting for material, they looked to students they knew through Columbia. John McNally (The Book of Ralph) contributed "Planetary Danger." Miles and Mikos met Scottish literary star Irvine Welsh during his residency at Columbia in the spring of 2003; with the help of Gary Johnson, associate chair of the fiction writing department, the two acquired the rights to Welsh's "Granny's Old Junk," a story (first published in The Acid House) about an addict who plans to rob his grandmother's nursing home to feed his habit. From there Mikos and Miles started brainstorming names. "I'm a big fan of literary magazines, and I happen to see all these great people out there who don't get the play that I think they should sometimes," says Miles.

They also took out an ad in Poets & Writers and called for submissions from Columbia students--two former classmates, Marc Paoletti and John Poplett, have stories in the book. Some of Miles and Mikos's choices became increasingly well-known while the book was being assembled. Sam Lipsyte, for instance, became a critical and popular success with his 2005 novel, Home Land, but they opted to include a piece from his 2000 collection, Venus Drive, which was published by Open City Books. Connections helped: Miles knew Open City's coeditor, Joanna Yas, through his own writing. "She let me have the story for a cool $100," Miles says. "Pretty cheap."

Not long after they began foraging for stories, Miles came across The Best American Nonrequired Reading, an annual anthology edited by Dave Eggers. "I was like, 'Oh no, here's this guy who wanted to do what we wanted to do but did it much faster,'" he says. "It's got you questioning one minute, but then you go, 'Damn it, I'm gonna do this anyway.'" There are similarities between the two: The Best American Nonrequired Reading draws from independent print magazines and online zines. But where Eggers's series is devoted to previously published stories, most of the stories in The Best Underground Fiction are new work.

Miles and Mikos funded the print run of 500 copies out of their own pockets--"or, rather, my credit card's pockets," Miles says--and they're improvising distribution, selling it on consignment around the midwest at independent bookstores like Quimby's. They'll also sell the book online once their Web site, stolentimepublishing.com, is up and running. "We'll do a handful of readings, a lot of word of mouth," Miles says. "It's very much in the spirit of the underground."

There's no price listed on the book, but it's not free. "It's $21.95," Miles says. "We didn't want to scare away anybody with the price, and we figured if it wasn't going to sell at $21.95 we could definitely start bringing it down." If sales are strong they'll publish a paperback edition, and they're beginning to consider writers to include in the second volume.

As for Crane, on June 10 she's celebrating the paperback release of All This Heavenly Glory by throwing a party at her home in Wicker Park, an event that puts this business of underground versus mainstream in perspective. "I'm sure this is exactly what underground means," she says. "Two published books and you still have to throw a party in the yard."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.

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