Pick your poison: How writer Joseph Mattson convinced Brooklyn’s Akashic Books to take a chance on speed

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Joseph Mattson. (Kurt Mangum.)
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Who doesn’t love a matched set? Book buyers have always been fans—there’s still something deeply satisfying, even in the digital age, about having a complete library all in a row on the shelf.

One of the most successful recent examples is Brooklyn-based publisher Akashic’s City Noir, a fiction anthology series that began accidentally, when the imprint made a one-off book in 2004 titled Brooklyn Noir. That spawned a sequel (Brooklyn Noir: The Classics), then another, as well as offshoots set in Chicago and San Francisco—and finally, became a juggernaut.

One person who noticed was Joseph Mattson, an author and editor who worked as a publicist for Los Angeles’s eminently enviable retailer Book Soup. (He left that job at the end of November.)

“I didn't have much of an idea how it was doing with the world other than the fact that I had maybe eight or 10 of the [Noir titles], and all of a sudden there were, like, 50,” Mattson said with a laugh from his home in L.A.

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It also helped spawn another idea—one that came to fruition this month. Mattson is the editor of The Speed Chronicles, the second of a new group of drug-oriented short-fiction collections that acts as a sister series to the Noirs. (The third title, due in 2012, is The Heroin Chronicles, edited by Jerry Stahl, who contributed stories to both the speed and heroin books.)

“I called them—they didn't call me,” explained Mattson of the series’ beginnings.

“They had put out The Cocaine Chronicles as a one-off back in 2005. I had the book, and there was this other episode in mind. I was interested in editing as well as writing fiction. I pitched them: ‘I think you guys really need to make this a whole series, a la the Noir series.’ Johnny [Temple] was onto something, and it was working. I felt like it would be killer if they could sort of find a way to do that again.”

Mattson’s day job helped him round up talent.

“Book Soup was monumental in putting an extra arm around the shoulder, because many of the [book’s contributors] had read there or loved the place,” he said. “I also was looking at this from the ‘people will buy it’ side of the coin. I knew it would sell.”

Mattson got initial yeses from four writers—Stahl, James Greer, Beth Lisick, and William T. Vollman, all of whose stories ended up in the final book—and began piecing the rest together.

“They all stuck with me for two-and-a-half years,” he said of the book’s gestation period.

“I had a very specific idea of what I wanted. Speed, particularly out of all the drugs, is the most demonized. It's the drug that no one wants to talk about—the scourge of the nation. You were seeing before-and-after billboards. I think Time magazine had a headline, ‘Crystal Meth: Do It Once and You're Dead.’ It's such a black and white thing in everyone's mind. But it's just as human as any other drug. We, I like to believe, are supposed to find the color wheel, the spectrum in between the black and white.”

Not that it was always easy to find writers who wanted to explore that spectrum.

“Some writers that I pitched didn't want to touch it,” Mattson admits. “It is a heavy, loaded thing in people's minds. It's like the difference between, a few years ago, Hustler or Playboy. You know: ‘Do you do coke or do you do speed?’ Some of the writers in the book have written about necrophilia, rape, various murders, gang bangs, and other taboos, yet it's the crystal meth that shocks readers.”

One author Mattson was after had to bow out at the last minute, but a new author represented by the same agency happily offered to pinch-hit.

“Out of the blue one day,” said Mattson, “I came home and on the answering machine I hear this crackly voice message [from] the gal from the literary agency saying, ‘James Franco’s interested in your crystal meth book, give us a call.’ Like, okay, will do. He had the piece conceptualized before they even called me. I’ve always wanted to sit down with him or his agent and just be like, ‘How the hell did you guys get my phone number?’”

Franco’s contribution is a meta-fictional riff on Twilight (apparently an obsession of the actor-etc.’s—he wrote about the new movie for The Paris Review, as well) that occupies the book’s center, printed on slick color stock rather than black-and-white paper.

“There's just enough graphic element elsewhere that [the contrast] wasn't totally stark,” said Mattson. “He's probably so numb to this stuff, but I don't want anyone to consider the piece less than what it is ’cause it's in color or it's not Natalie Diaz or whatever.”

Though there’s plenty of rotting teeth and scary-zombie narrative jags, what’s striking about The Speed Chronicles—it’s also true of the Noir books—is the way in which writers truly do fill out the spectrum.

“It's the most un-racist drug, in a way,” said Mattson. “You have methamphetamine running from the border between San Diego and Tijuana up to the potato farms of Idaho, down to barges on the Mississippi River, to Indian reservations, to, God bless him, Tom Sizemore having some trouble with it. You have an Academy Award-nominated actor, doing the most vulgar-by-proxy, trashy street drug. [It] can break down all sorts of people. You know, they're struggling with it in some way, and every one of them struggles. It is the most American drug. It's capitalism—double the labor for half the cost. This was just totally un-mined territory.”

That’s particularly true of the variety of these stories’ backdrops. Strikingly, The Speed Chronicles opens with stories by a pair of Native American writers, Natalie Diaz and Sherman Alexie.

“I guess I write a good pitch,” Mattson said with a laugh. “I was blown away when Sherman Alexie decided to do it. He was the person that I really wanted in this book. Natalie's one of my favorite writers, and she's not very well known yet. I knew her as a poet. Her poetry is badass as can be, and just beautiful on top of it. And I came across one story she had published in a literary magazine. It blew me away. I wondered how this would cross over from poetry to fiction.”

“There was a brief moment where my story in the book was where Sherman's is,” said Mattson. “I really had to look at it and say, ‘Am I just doing this so it won't be a thing to open the book with two Native American writers?’ And then I was like, ‘Screw that—that's how it fits.’

Between The Speed Chronicles and his own books—Mattson is the author of two novels, one of which, Empty the Sun, comes with a soundtrack by the psych-folk band Six Organs of Admittance, and he’s the editor of another collection—Mattson has been incredibly productive of late. But he hasn't been using any "writer's little helpers" to get it done.

“If you saw my belly right now,” he said, “you'd know I'm not a speed freak.”