On a recent Saturday at 4:55, novelist Matt Segur escaped his bulky coat and claimed a small table at cozy Simon's Tavern in Andersonville. He'd agreed to meet Brook Long, a musician friend from his undergrad days at Northwestern, for drinks at five, but he didn't seem to expect Long to show up on time, because he went ahead and ordered a Knob Creek bourbon, neat.
"This doesn't taste like Knob Creek," he complained. "It doesn't taste like bourbon. It tastes like rubber cement. I hope I don't go blind." But he drank it anyway.
Segur, who's 25, is the author of a subtle, funny book called Soft Power, which he published himself in the fall. It begins as a well-turned murder mystery, which would have been nice enough, but its last third grows into a gentle, logical horror show that's as intellectually fertile as it is nightmarish and fits the nice tight plot to boot. What's more, Segur writes female characters who are in fact more vivid and plausible than his men. Accomplished novelists twice his age still quail at writing realistically across the gender line--Segur should be up to his big brown eyes in advances.
But Segur figured that shopping his manuscript around would be a waste of his time. Though he likes many new movies, the big literary releases, to his mind, hew to a lot of "unwritten rules" that he isn't interested in following. "I can't have much hope that the New Yorker will like my stories when I don't like most of theirs," he said. "I'm sure there are books 'out there' that would interest me, but given limited time in which to read, I'd rather pick up Journey to the End of the Night than White Teeth. I don't like the litfic manifesto 'You must write only about ordinary people and events' when used as a garrote. I don't like the shying away from big ideas." He wishes the literary scene behaved more like indie film, where working in a genre like mystery or science fiction doesn't get you automatically pegged as a housewife or a hairy-palmed case of arrested adolescence.
And anyway, as he worked on the manuscript, Segur was fomenting his own publication scheme. At Northwestern he and Long had accrued five or six like-minded friends with talent in the musical and literary arts, and the lot of them were plotting to start something like a souped-up record label. They wanted to print their own books, post their stories and short films on a Web site, and press their own CDs.
But that would require money, and as Segur wrapped up his degree in early '99, his first obligation was to get a job. "I was better off than lots of people when I graduated," he said. "I had kind of a trade-school degree," in math and computer science. On a lark, he applied to help design games for Bungie, a small Chicago video-game firm. They hired him part-time before he'd even finished his course work; he went full-time that March and was put to work on a story-heavy sci-fi game called Halo.
It was a great job, tinkering with games on a private little team. A year later Microsoft came sniffing, looking for games to launch the Xbox. Halo was only half-finished, but on the strength of its demo the company swooped in, laid off most of the customer support, marketing, and sales staff, and offered the tech people exciting new lives in Redmond, Washington.
Though Segur understands Bungie's owners had hoped to get bought out--video games are so expensive to launch that one failure could swamp a small company--he was among the unhappiest prospective Microhires. While he grew up all over the States, Segur felt he'd put down some roots in Chicago. "I didn't want to move away from my circle of friends," he said. But Bungie needed Segur to finish the game, and by mid-July they'd "kind of bribed" their mulish employee to go west just long enough to seal the deal. Segur wouldn't say how much money he got, but it sufficed to seed the publishing imprint and record label now known as Ghostweed. He came home with the bacon on December 23, 2001; shortly thereafter he finished Soft Power and started preparing the book as well as a CD by Long's band Greentrials for release in November '02.
While Segur was in Washington, the Ghostweed group struggled, unable to get together and hash things out. "You know, you have to spend 20 hours talking about bullshit before you can even decide what to call yourselves. There were the standard dynamics of people getting sick of each other, too," Segur said. Between that June and that October, "it went from me thinking that six people were going to be involved in substantial capacity to not being sure if anybody would." Now, though one other member still writes stories for www.ghostweed.com, Long and Segur are the last full-time coconspirators.
Long, a charming blond from Evanston who claims he didn't know the Northwestern campus was in his town till he was about to apply there, came in and got himself a beer halfway through Segur's story. Long is currently the only member of Greentrials, whose CD, Where Eaglets Dare, is a delicious suite of hummable ghost tales. The songs all tell short stories, most narrated in the second person--as though his characters assume the feelings of the girls who reject them to be more interesting than their own. Long's not entirely happy with it, because his lyrical electric guitar is fleshed out by a lot of pedal effects and keyboards rather than by the happy racket of bandmates. He says he lacks the time (he's in law school at Northwestern now) and the wherewithal to get a band together: "It's like there are five steps you have to figure out to even get going, and I don't know any of them," he says.
But as they sat together jawing, Long and Segur exuded all the charisma and esprit de corps of perfectly matched bandmates. We were discussing Audrey, the leading lady in Soft Power. Stanley, the book's wry and reticent hero, is opaque, his thoughts barely perceptible behind his wisecracks, till he accosts Audrey--a maintenance anger junkie with a spleen of gold--on the el. Stanley's just had a dream about a dead girl, and the girl looks like Audrey, and he feels compelled to tell her despite the fact they're total strangers. Naturally she cusses him out, but as she warms to him in subsequent run-ins, we see him through her thoughts and he finally comes to life; the reader, like most of the characters in the book, troubles himself to get to know Stanley at her insistence.
After learning that Stanley has discovered a corpse in a box at the storage warehouse where he works, Audrey charges forward to solve the case with amateur gusto and an armload of conspiracy theories that make Stanley scratch his head and say, "Pretty thin." She's persuaded that there must be some "Mr. Bad" responsible, but the enemy is in fact neither human nor even sentient, at least not in the way we understand sentience.
"Audrey's 'tragic flaw,' in the eighth-grade Greek-lit-appreciation sense, is a belief in justice," Segur explained. "It's clear her pursuit of the mystery, such as it is, stems in part from a belief that when something bad happens it's the responsibility of every witness to do his or her best to hold someone accountable. Her attitude contrasts with the complacency of some of those around her, and that lack of complacency is held up as a virtue. But it's also her undoing."
I asked Segur how it is that he writes so well about the opposite sex.
"Maybe I'm just afraid I'll get busted about that stuff," Segur said. "And Stanley's not all that different from me, so I'm not as worried about making a mistake. So maybe I'm less careful..."
"Or maybe you're more careful so people won't know what you're thinking!" said Long, and they both laughed.
"My sister shows up a little bit there," Segur continued. "The two biggest sources of female characters for me are all people I know or people I'd like to know, because I'd like to date them, uh, which sounds weird next to my sister I guess..."
"Which wouldn't sound so weird if she weren't so much like your mom!" Long finished, getting up to pee.
After Long disappeared down the bar's dank back hall, Segur said, "There's a little bit of Brook, too, but I had to wait for him to leave to tell you that."
In feel and tone, Long's CD matches the sweet-natured terror of the book. He and Segur swear they didn't intend their first releases to form a companion set; none of the songs' story lines echo Soft Power's. But there isn't a recording in my collection that goes as nice with Segur's words as Where Eaglets Dare. Clearly the two have swapped their share of books and mix tapes.
Long's approach to songwriting has parallels to Segur's approach to fiction. He attacks songcraft's formulaic nature head-on: "In the current vogue, we're all above storytelling as mechanics, as craft," he said. He tries to address his influences blatantly--he claims he once wrote a song by consciously rearranging the elements of a Stevie Wonder song. "Songcraft is something that's going to sneak up on you subconsciously anyway, and you'll write something more formulaic than formulaic," he said. "Every song you've ever heard has been working on you without your admitting it, and you'll have your bare ass hanging out there to the world and everybody will see all your influences. 'Oooh, I'm writing straight from the heart--it's all coming out of here!'--and you'll sound like the fucking Indigo Girls."
Both the musician and the novelist are still waiting for someone to take substantive notice of their work. Things are painfully quiet on the review front: they sent Soft Power to a book reviewer in Boulder, Colorado, where Segur went to junior high and high school; he heard nothing, and later found the critic had quit considering small-press releases, claiming they were too poorly copyedited. Long has yet to play a show in support of Eaglets. And even if either product did get a review or two, most people wouldn't be able to find them: both the book and the CD are available through www.ghostweed.com and on Amazon.com, but neither has any sort of national retail distribution. (Locally you can find the book at Quimby's, Chicago Comics, the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, and Comix Revolution in Evanston and the CD at Quimby's, Reckless Records, and Dr. Wax.)
Segur said Long is "supposed to be devoting his free time to putting together live arrangements of the stuff on Eaglets and a band to perform them." For his part, he's already banged out his as-yet-untitled second novel. "It's about a student in junior high school who founds a poetry club/suicide cult," he said. Given the neglect Soft Power has suffered, he's decided to hold his nose and shop sample chapters around to literary agents. So far he's gotten a couple dozen impersonal rejection slips--but recently two agents, responding within a week of one another, have asked to see more of his work.
"I'd be perfectly comfortable with self-publishing, except that it leads to nobody paying attention to you," Segur said. "I don't know what you have to do if you want people to read things."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.