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An interview with Brian Gage, author of Snark Inc: A Corporate Fable (Soft Skull Press, 2002)
snark inc

We'd hoped to find a photo of Brian Gage at his website, but as he's a Flash developer, we couldn't swipe it. And it was too small anyway. So you'll have to be content with looking at the cover of Snark Inc: A Corporate Fable, out now from Soft Skull Press and available from Powell's Books, among others.

Have you ever attempted chit chat palindromes, where you try to make small talk that would be heard (or read) the same backwards as forwards? Well, after helping a friend move, we gave this game a shot. Our word play grew more intense after his car broke down in the liveliest crackhead hangout in the District of Columbia. We thought it would kill time, and we were momentarily right, but I guess we just seemed snooty. An irritated local threw my friend to the sidewalk and mugged him, and I screamed, saw the criminal run, and felt my handbag cower in my arms, feeling oddly dissed. Since then, we've become too conscious of our surroundings to play our most complicated word games, and have even failed at lipogrammatic conversations where we simply must avoid the letter "Q". It's sad what criminals can take from you.

Still, I refuse to let victimhood leave me scarred and neoconservative, so I jumped at the chance to interview Brian Gage, writer of the unusual adult picture book Snark Inc.. Though his politics were even more downbeat and leftist than my Angela Davis phase in grad school, the content behind his unclassifiable work fascinated me. It made my questions spill out rapidly, eagerly, unpalindromatically. His answers came back in similar fashion. I think the responses will assure fans of his book and elaborate website that Gage is no one-hit, office-destroying anarchist, but a thoughtful, office-destroying connoisseur of the written word.

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Splendid: How did you come up with the name Snark®?

Brian Gage: Lying in bed about a month after graduating from college wondering what on Earth I was going to do with my life -- I was tired of being a janitor and certainly didn't want a corporate serf job. I was having terrible insomnia and was in one of those translucent states (right between being awake and falling asleep) -- then all of a sudden I was aware of this little rhyme that was bouncing around in my head and the word Snark just popped in somewhere.

Splendid: Does it have any relation to the Lewis Carroll poem or does it refer to something else?

Brian Gage: I hate to admit it, but I never discovered The Hunting of the Snark until I showed Snark Inc. to a friend and he asked the same question. Our Snarks are very much different entities -- mine is a metaphor for materialism and greed. Carroll's is half snail, half shark, I believe.

Splendid: Did you have any particular corporate models in mind when you wrote this?

Brian Gage: No. The Snark Corporation represents corporate power. Take the worst of the worst, and that's my model.

Splendid: Could you comment on women getting short shrift when no one in the "small little part of SnarkŪ, USA" who's female recognizes Will's internal superiority of character, rather than his lack of SnarkŪ pearls?

Brian Gage: I'm so glad you asked me this question. I kept wondering when I'd get called on it. It's not that women get the short end of the stick, and I hope that my female readers don't feel this is the case. I'm sure somewhere in the Snark Universe there are women who would recognize Will's internal strength, and there are definitely some "Wilmas" struggling the same fight. However, the narrative I wanted to forge wouldn't have worked unless everyone in the book was a product obsessed, materialistic robot. The story is a tale of corporations' misanthropic nature and power over individual freedom, and I wanted to focus only on one person's plight.

Splendid: What's your favorite movie, book, and artist?

Brian Gage: For movie, The Shining. For book: a tie between The Grapes of Wrath and Things Fall Apart. Artist: Stanley Kubrick.

Splendid: Whose work influenced you most, if anyone's work did influence you, when writing this story?

Brian Gage: I love the lack of redemption in Stanley Kubrick films, and that seems to be a recurring theme in everything I do. No redemption. I'd say for this book Dr. Seuss and Edward Gorey were also influences.

Splendid: Who was your first writing teacher, and how did s/he affect your future work?

Brian Gage: I was attending college in my hometown (Youngstown, Ohio) and was taking an English lit class. The professor pulled me aside after a few essays I had written and encouraged me to go into writing as she felt I had a gift for it -- I believe I was 18 or 19 at the time. That stuck in my head, and I've been getting the same feedback as I continue to write. Hopefully, I always will. I don't think I'm here for any other reason...

Splendid: Did you choose Tom Ellsworth for his art, or were you friends who had similar social/artistic sensibilities?

Brian Gage: I had never met Tom until I took a class on how to illustrate and publish your own children's books (That's children's books you've written yourself, I'm assuming -- not books your kids have written -- Ed.). I signed up for the class knowing I couldn't draw, and hoping to meet someone who could. Tom was invited into the class to give a perspective of what a professional illustrator goes through. I just happened to be reading my story to the class when he was our guest. Afterwards, he approached me and told me he'd like to illustrate. I was sold the second I saw his illustrative style -- it fit exactly what I thought the art should look like. Since the book, Tom has become one of my closest friends. We do have very similar social sensibilities; however, I think we are driven by different artistic motors. Tom's art is most often driven by the personal, whereas mine seems to be only driven by social issues.

Splendid: Will is wide-eyed like a doe; the evil villain boss man looks a little like Jafar (from the Disney film Aladdin). Did the two of you choose to skewer Disney with your illustrations?

Brian Gage: Forgive me, but I don't know who Jafar is. But I know Tom is very influenced by Disney artists. And the goal of the book was to parody kids' books, so it seemed appropriate to have it look as bold and lush as possible. If that happens to encroach on Disney, then I think that goal was accomplished.

Splendid: Is there anything at all redeeming about any corporate culture?

Brian Gage: In its current state, no. The problem is there isn't enough democratic input from the workers on any level. Instead, most corporate cultures have a firm "love it or leave it/employment at will" clause, and dissent is not welcome on any level. Everyone in the US loves to tout their love of democracy, but just mention implementing a democratic environment in your workplace and see how many friends start waving their post-9/11-purchased American flags. That's a serious problem when considering people are brainwashed into the notion they're living in a free society that values democracy. If you don't have any input into the entity that controls your life the most (your job) then freedom becomes moot.

I'm a firm believer that those who work in the factories and cubicles should have ownership and stake in the companies. Unions do exist; however, you're noticing those jobs (especially in the automotive industry) are slipping to places where unionizing won't occur, or south of the border. Partly thanks to NAFTA and partly thanks to the fact that workers in third world nations are just thankful to have jobs -- you can forget about them organizing against the employer to get better salary and benefits. They are intimidated, belittled, and frightened into keeping their mouths shut. This was the case in the US until the Wagner Act was passed. After that you saw a massive onslaught of propaganda to demonize unions and indoctrinate people into what was being called "The Capitalist Story" by the business class. It would be misleading to suggest that The Wagner Act solved all problems facing labor in the US -- labor abuse is still rampant in this country. It basically boils down to the fact that people have no voice in controlling corporations and that, in essence, delivers power into the hands of unaccountable private tyranny.

Splendid: Do you have any faith in companies that create earth-friendly products, actively seek to hire disabled employees, recycle, donate portions of their profits to charity, use products made from recycling?

Brian Gage: Of course. I'm not so blinded by my disdain for the corporate power structure that I lose sight of things that benefit people's lives. The problem isn't really people trying to make profits -- that has existed since the beginning of recorded history. The problem is when people become a source of human capital in profit creation, and the corporations run amok with rampant and unchecked power. If someone tries to argue that that doesn't exist, I'd recommend they look into the Enron fiasco. Corporations are greedy, market-interfering institutions by their nature. They are modeled after modern-day fascist institutions with all the power being at the top and those at the bottom having no say. The longer the workers (from the migrant farm worker to the receptionist answering phones) let the power stay at the top without making strides for a democratic voice amongst the workforce, the more the people lose.

Splendid: What is your vision of non-corporate utopia?

Brian Gage: I don't really think utopia exists. A friend and I were having a conversation earlier about how all philosophers are revered because they never had to put their visions into practice. But politicians are very much political philosophers who have to implement their vision in the real world. That's where the utopia falls apart. I don't know anybody who doesn't think their way is the right way, but start to implement that in society and things fall apart. Be it capitalism, communism or socialism. I think my idea of non-corporate utopia would be a place where profits were not put before people. That to me is one of the largest problems we're facing today and an element of Corporate America that needs to be quashed as fast as we can do it.

Splendid: Who do you prefer as a poet: Ogden Nash or Lewis Carroll? Which modern poet influences you in the poetry arena?

Brian Gage: I don't consider myself to be a poet. The verse in the book is merely a tool to further the function of the narrative. After this three-book series, I hope to never rhyme anything again. It's fun to read, but very tedious to write. But to answer your question -- I think Bukowski is amazing. Among more contemporary poets, Daphne Gottlieb is very talented.

Splendid: What rhymes with SnarkŪ, and how much did that influence your choice of corporate name?

Brian Gage: It had no influence -- like I said, the whole thing came to me in a strange dream-like state. Luckily, I was able to keep myself from drifting to bed and I woke to write what was going on in my head.

Splendid: How did you choose your rhyme scheme for the SnarkŪ book?

Brian Gage: The rhyme scheme is very Seussian, and I'd like to pretend that was on purpose, but all of a sudden it was just pouring onto paper. I didn't sit down and say okay, now I'm going to write a satirical rhyme about corporations. Snark Inc. is probably the most inspired piece I've ever written -- I think I had the first draft written in four hours. Once it was all hashed out, I began to think of ways to feasibly get it published. The parody of a kid's book seemed the best route.

Splendid: D'you remember the first poem you read, or the one that had the greatest influence on you, when you were a child?

Brian Gage: Without a doubt -- "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe.

Splendid: Who do you see as your audience for Snark Inc.?

Brian Gage: So far the audience has been exactly what we thought -- mostly disenfranchised 20-somethings who were raised on MTV, told they were going to be movie stars, rock and roll singers, etc. Now they're all coming to the realization that that's not necessarily true, and it's a bit sobering. I think Snark Inc. appeals to that cynical sensibility that seems so engrained in my generation (I'm 28). Sometimes, I'm surprised at the very personal level upon which people my age relate to the book. I had a woman approach me at a book conference in New York and tell me she wished Snark Inc. was what her parents read to her as a child. I thought that was a great compliment. I recently heard someone describe the book as "Dr. Seuss meets Fight Club", and that about sums it up for me.

Splendid: Since the art work and rhyming will attract kids, do you think the book's message is one that'll be teachable in schools?

Brian Gage: The message is definitely teachable in schools, but I don't think this is the book with which to do it. For a cutesy book with rhymes and illustrations, Snark Inc. has a very serious agenda, and I don't think kids would appreciate it. In fact, I fought with Sander at the beginning because he wanted to market it towards kids. I just don't feel this is a book for kids on any level. It was created for people like myself who are fed up with the drudgery of the so-called American Dream.

Splendid: Were there ever alternate endings for the book?

Brian Gage: No. That's the only thing I really stood by. I basically said to everyone who came in contact with it that the ending must stay intact or the book wouldn't happen. I'd rather have the mock-up sitting on my shelf collecting dust than to sell out the ending, because to me that's what gives the whole thing teeth.

Splendid: Was the ending your way of keeping the book real? Or was it like one of Aesop's fables: show the consequences and let us judge?

Brian Gage: The ending is just a metaphor for what happens to someone if he/she loses sight of his/her beliefs. Yet I like that (Aesop) idea quite a bit, but it wasn't my inclination. Who's to say that I'm right? Just because my antenna picked up on the signal first doesn't mean I necessarily interpreted the message correctly. Sometimes I think that's what art is all about -- the audience guiding the interpretation.

Splendid: Are you getting positive response to the book so far?

Brian Gage: Amazing responses. The book is headed into its second printing in less than three months. I feel very happy about this, seeing as it's a book from an unknown author and it's had basically zero publicity. And as I said before, people who approach me or emails that I get, all seem to have a very personal relationship with the book, and they are very excited about it. I get a lot that someone purchased it and liked it so much they bought it for a friend or relative. One guy sent me an email saying he handed it in to his employer along with his resignation. I think that's my favorite one.

Splendid: In a world with such a domineering global economic culture that economists are suggesting the cost of a Big Mac in various countries be used as a benchmark of a country's economic welfare, what message about corporate culture, exactly, do you want to convey?

Brian Gage: Lovely question. This is exactly what I want to convey: The noose is tightening. And the only way we can end this never-ending cycle of crass consumerism and profits over people is through consumer revolt. In the end, all of our masters are just business people. If we as a culture would stand up and say, we're not going to buy your products or work your low paying jobs -- we want a more equal playing field, they are bound to comply or lose their businesses.

This recent backlash against corporations is nothing more than a modern day class struggle and a struggle for equality -- people are catching on. It's about having real freedom of choice and not just a choice in the color of your Toyota. As you mentioned above, there are corporations that are ethical, and do their part to better the society from which they make their profits, but those entities are too few. It's up to us to educate ourselves on which corporations to buy from. I saw an article recently where CBS was steamrolling its logo into stretches of beach sand in New Jersey. Personally, I'll take my beaches the old fashioned way...

Splendid: Do you see any positive effects at all of the influence global corporate culture has on art today?

Brian Gage: No -- Unless you consider homogeny and banality to be good things.

Splendid: What's your opinion of the independent cultural movements in this country today ?

Brian Gage: I hope everyone involved in any of today's relevant movements (DIY, Hip Hop, Culture Jamming, etc) continue to persevere and take back some of the mental landscape. They are all that's left in the battle for free and original thought. There is a day coming when television will take over the world, all food will taste the same, people will read the same things, listen to the same music, and all crave it all at the exact same time. It seems like people are evolving into ants.

I hope that anyone who has an independent voice or likes independently minded art continues to do what they do, create it, support it, be it, and free a few other minds in the process.

Splendid: 9-11 questions are getting rather tiresome, but this one's worth asking: do you feel that people will truly become less materialistic in the wake of the events of 9-11 (and any future terrorism we'll probably experience here)?

Brian Gage: No. Media and advertising have too much of a stranglehold on people's minds. Whatever the TV says, the masses follow. Especially when you see Bush on television telling families to "Get out with your families and go to Disneyland." Do it for America. I think that was the day my TV was officially moved to curbside.

Unless you're pro-Bush or just foolish, it's entirely obvious that most of the "threats" are a method of controlling the public. Especially with the silly terrorist traffic light -- that's outrageous and I can't believe the American people stomach it. When I first read about it, I thought I had accidentally entered an alternate Orwellian Universe. I'm floored that tax dollars were wasted on planning that stupid thing. I just can't get the boardroom meeting from playing in my head: "Hey Rumsfeld, let's pick five arbitrary colors, and then create arbitrary parameters in which we will change the levels of the colors. It won't make any sense but the American people will love it because they saw it on TV!"

Seriously, if people are flying planes into our buildings and all they can do is give us an elongated traffic light, they're obviously clueless on how to handle the situation. And the travesty is that the American public swallowed it. I just don't see how anyone can take it seriously unless they're already programmed to believe anything they're told. I just hope it all goes away soon -- terrorism, Ashcroft and the rest of the Bush Administration, and that silly traffic light. If this is my government working for me, then I want to pick a new one.

Splendid: Do you think once people get over having the bejeezus scared out of them, residents of the United States will be back to SnarkŪ-y business as usual?

Brian Gage: It was business as usual right after the attack. Only the perception changed. Right after the attacks patriotism became as chic as toting around a Prada bag. American flags were the hottest commodity someone could buy and statistically most of those people didn't vote in the last election, nor would they have known who their congressman was. But they were proud to tout their love of Democracy. Give me a break.

Splendid: Could you talk about your next project, The Amazing Snox Box?

Brian Gage: Sure. It's the follow up to Snark Inc. (There's actually three books in the series). It's a modern-day Pied Piper, and the focus of the book is mass media and its control of the public mind, which is one of my favorite topics.

Splendid: Do you think you're always going to be making social critiques with your art, or was SnarkŪ a one statement deal?

Brian Gage: Yes, my work is only inspired by social concerns and political commentary. I just sold another book to Soft Skull which will be a true kids book -- it's an allegory of modern day capitalism. I was recently discussing with a friend that I was going to move out of the US to live in Prague and she stated "Gage, you can't move -- capitalism's your muse." So it goes.

Splendid: Any plans for a sequel dealing with SnarkŪ?

Brian Gage: Um. That's tough. I've never thought of doing a Snark sequel. It would have to be genuine -- I'm not going to write a sequel just for money. There would have to be a real social stance I'd be exploring with the book, and I think A Corporate Fable has done its job there. I consider the Web site to be the closest thing I'll ever do to a sequel. But as Snark Inc. is a metaphor for corporate power, I'm sure there are many other facets and stories in which it can exist. After all, underneath each of those tombstones is another story to tell...

Splendid: Finally, what's the last windmill you tilted at?

Brian Gage: Sometimes I wonder if my entire life is just tilting at a windmill... Long live Don Quixote!

-- Jenn Sikes would marry Edward Gorey, but he's dead.

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About the Publisher:

Soft Skull Press, publisher of Snark Inc., is fearless, progressive, punk-rock/hip-hop literature. Based in New York City's Lower East Side, Soft Skull publishes the history, pop culture studies, art, poetry and fiction that fuel the vanguard.

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