Thursday, December 02, 2010

Permanent Autonomous Zone: A conversation with zine writers Erick Lyle and Jeff Miller

by Matt Dineen

What if our lives were filled with moments of liberation from the everyday? Is it possible to carve out spaces that challenge the dominant logic of the market, where we can pursue meaningful work and actualize our dreams? This most daunting task must begin with conversations between co-conspirators.

At the end of this past summer, I had the pleasure of sharing such a conversation with two writers who were on a tour together with their recently-published books. Erick Lyle and Jeff Miller both come out of the underground zine community and had just released anthologies of their past work, Lyle’s SCAM and Miller’s Ghost Pine. The morning after their reading at the Wooden Shoe anarchist bookstore in Philadelphia, I escaped my stifling wage job—still on the clock—to interview them in a park in West Philly.

Do you guys want to start by talking about the tour you’re on? You did an event here in Philly last night. You’re heading to Baltimore tonight. Can you talk about the idea behind the tour and also your books that have come out recently?Jeff Miller: Originally, the tour was my idea. I’ve been doing a lot of promotional events for the book in Canada and I kind of wanted to break out a little bit. I also feel like there’s not enough cross-border, cross-pollination of zines. Erick came up to Canada in 2008 and we did a couple shows and that went really well. I just thought it would be nice to meet some people in the States, try to sell some books, tell some stories, and travel around a little bit.

Erick Lyle: Yeah, it’s neighborly to get together like this—fostering international camaraderie. Jeff’s anthology came out pretty much the same time as mine. We’ve been pen pals for almost 10 years, so the timing was pretty good. I probably wouldn’t have gone on this trip, honestly, but since Jeff was gonna do it—it just seemed like a good idea. Like, “Oh that would be fun to team up on this.” And the timing was great because I have the SCAM anthology out now as well.

I think what’s cool about this tour is that we’ve read with a lot of different folks, and it’s been all over the map. Like in New York we read with Cristy Road and Mike Taylor who have made zines for years, but also with this guy Colin who does a blog about how he’s gonna eat pizza in every pizzeria in New York City. Or with this woman Eleanor Whitney who writes about art and design, and also food. We are reading with China Martins tonight who has done a zine for years about being a mom. So I think what pulls it all together, what it all has in common, is that it is the underground press; it is indie press. And we’re reading in indie stores, and that this is about supporting underground and independent alternatives. That it’s a vital thing to do, and that there is a community that exists outside of the mainstream that’s trying to continue this tradition of independent stores.

So like last night, we read here in Philly at the Wooden Shoe which is a place that’s been carrying my zine for like 20 years. They’ve got a great new space. It’s better than ever, so it’s nice to see that. Just trying to be a part of that all the time is really important to me. We’re going to Red Emma’s in Baltimore which is a worker-owned place. So that’s pretty cool.

And it’s interesting because Jeff works at a bookstore in Canada. I have worked at a bookstore before, and I’ve seen the corporate tour where the author comes and there’s 2 people. And our shows have been pretty packed, I would say. There is a vitality in the independent scene. It is a real deal. So it’s cool to see that. We’ve put a lot of work into this over the years and work’s coming back to us too. We’re enriching it together.

JM: I feel like one of the best things about being independent is that you’re resourceful enough and economic enough to get around and there’s a community of people that will help you get around and come out and support. And yeah, it feels really good to know that more people came out last night at the Wooden Shoe than come out when we do an event at the kind of corporate bookstore where I work in Canada. There, some best-selling author will read and there’s like 3 people, 4 people. So, like Erick was saying, it is a real demonstration of independent community, and not necessarily just a zine community. I think we’re really blessed to have a lot of overlap with music communities and activist scenes. People love to come out and hear stories. Our lives are so under-represented by current media and current literature that when independent voices come along, people respond strongly and it’s really amazing.

Well Jeff, you mentioned that you’ll be going back to Montreal to work at this bookstore. I was wondering if you could both talk about life after this tour in terms of how you’re supporting yourselves while continuing to create your art and everything?

Well, I recently moved to New York City—I guess it’s been about a year—and, theoretically, it’s the most expensive city in the entire country. Although I moved from San Francisco and I feel that San Francisco is even more expensive in a certain way. So, it’s a hustle. But I don’t know, for me, it’s a lot of tried and true methods; like I steal all my groceries. New York is full of plentiful, dumpstered food. I was just talking about this with a friend at this cafe here. He was like, “Yeah man, last time I was in New York I dumpstered a bike and a bag of weed.” [Laughs] People are so rich they’re like, “I got a bike at home. I’m just gonna throw this one away. I don’t feel like riding it today.” [Laughs] So there’s plenty of excess, and that’s what we’ve been living off all these years. There’s plenty of copy scams to get the zines printed. We go on tour and sell the zines. So that’s a profit. But I don’t know. It’s the same old thing: scraping by, selling writing here and there.

The stuff that’s in this new issue of SCAM was originally freelance journalism that was printed in a newspaper and I wanted to re-present it to the punk scene. It was in the San Francisco Bay Guardian so I knew people weren’t gonna know about it. The usual SCAM readers weren’t gonna see that so I wanted to get it out to the bigger punk scene.

But it’s the same old scam, basically. Making it happen in any way. I just live in such a way that my priority is time, more than money. And that’s always been what SCAM magazine is about to me: the idea that you’re taking your life back, to devote it to the things that you want to do. That’s its own kind of work but it feels meaningful to me. I basically just spend all my time writing and doing things as much as I can for the creative stuff I want to do. And I’m always broke because of it, but I feel pretty good about it.

Oh also, the government of Canada pays me to not write zines. [Laughs]

JM: I don’t understand. [Laughs] Yeah, as far as money goes, it’s always been a struggle. But I feel like when you start monetizing the things that you care about, that’s when everything goes wrong, basically. If I were to say, “I’m gonna put, like, 50 hours into this zine and after I scam the copies I better make 10 dollars an hour.” If that’s your goal then you’re kind of doomed from the start. It’s just not gonna work out for you. So, I don’t know. It’s like Erick was saying, just living cheap and trying to keep as much time free as possible. I have a bunch of friends who are writers in Montreal and some of them have tried to find jobs where they can make enough money so that in the summer they have time to write or whatever. But I’ve always felt like that’s sort of a bad idea. The key, really, is to find a way to live on nothing. It gives you endurance as a writer if you’re scraping by somehow.

But yeah, in the 13 years of doing Ghost Pine it hasn’t been too much of a struggle. When you decide you want to do something you just have to fuckin’ do it and make it happen, despite all the obstacles that get thrown in your path. And maybe now it’s a lot easier just because I know the ins and outs of it through trial and error. And I’m more confident in myself, knowing that I can do it, pull it off and get better. So my advice would be just to accept being poor, strive on, and make whatever you need to make...

The remainder of this conversation is published on Toward Freedom.

Matt Dineen lives and conspires in Philadelphia where he is part of the Wooden Shoe collective. He is also a publicist for radical activists and artists with Aid & Abet booking. You can write to him at: and see things that he’s written and collected at:

For more information about Erick Lyle and SCAM check out:
For more information about Jeff Miller and Ghost Pine check out: