Interview with PaperBird – James Nulick
March 27, 2020
I first discovered my friend PaperBird’s YouTube channel four years ago, when I was, well, in a heightened, oracular state of mind while trying to decide which book to read next. I googled ‘books to read when stoned,’ and suddenly, just slightly over the horizon, a beautiful speck of sunlight appeared, and so I clicked PLAY…
JN) Yo, PaperBird! Whereupon we finally make our secret relationship official! We’ve been internet friends for what, three years now? But before we get into all that, I gotta ask: boxers or briefs? Please answer carefully.
PB) Yo James! First off, thanks for all your support over the years, I think you were one of the first to reach out and connect. Before that it was just a doofus babbling into the void. To answer your important first question, it’s been boxers for decades. I usually get the ones from JCPenney’s whenever they go on sale during Labor Day. Except this last time, whoever designed them must have skipped the class on human anatomy. Made the ass part all weird.
JN) I’m strictly boxers as well! Fruit of the Looms, though now they have changed, too. The material is paper-thin, and yeah, the ass part is kind of boxy now. I don’t like it! A brief moment on the plague nonsense – are you and your family safe? Are you working from home? Are you in for the long haul? How is your toilet paper supply? Do you have enough fresh wipe for a month?
PB) It’s been uncomfortably cozy the last week or two, about to get even cozier since our AC unit went out. Grocery runs feel like Armageddon. I’m self-conscious about putting on a mask, so instead I’ll put on a ski mask, which makes it even harder to breathe. But people get out of the way. I feel blessed that my job allows remote work during these crazy times. I really feel for those who have gotten furloughed or lost their jobs, and I hope everyone bounces back real fast later in the year. I hope all is safe and sane in your household as well.
The freshwipe situation is good at the house, last year I had placed a bulk order so I have a stash in the closet. But a bidet might be a good idea. Have you ever tried one of those?
JN) I’m safe, my brother. My other half is taking good care of me, thank you for asking. I was in Spain last October, and there was a bidet in our hotel room, but no, I think I’m too American, too uncouth, to use a bidet! Where do you usually read? On the sofa? In bed? In the kitchen? I usually read on the bus, but that’s all been canceled due to the current plague, so now I read exclusively on the sofa, which is slightly uncomfortable, though I’ve been thinking of reading in bed again as of late.
PB) In true bookworm fashion I read anywhere and everywhere possible, at home, in any room, at work, in restaurants, in the library, in the car, at stop lights, in the dark with a Paperwhite… Maybe everywhere except the inside of a vehicle someone else is driving, because I get motion sick real easy.
JN) Where did you go to school? Did you go to school in Austin? I’m imagining you have a degree of some kind, perhaps a Bachelor’s in English? What was your intent when you went to school? Can you remember that far back?
PB) My mind is very much still stuck in that time. After graduating high school in 93 the dream was to be a writer so I went to UT Austin and instead tried to become a doctor. As a “side gig.” Ended up on a floor with a bunch of other wild, repressed Asian-Americans. But when I fucked up on the penny lab in Freshman Chemistry I switched to Psychology because it was easy by comparison and also because that major had some attractive dumpy girls. Not that I talked to any. For such a large school, sometimes you feel an even larger sense of alienation. I did a minor in English that was mostly creative writing classes, teachers were Laura Furman, who now edits the O. Henry anthologies, and Ben Marcus, pre-bald, who cracked open my skull and played with my brain like Play-Doh. I owe a great deal of my reading taste to his initial guidance.
JN) In one of our early email exchanges, you’d mentioned that you’d written a novel. May I ask where you are in that process? Have you finished writing your novel? Any plans for publication?
PB) I’ve written a couple novels, the first two were written when I was in high school, the third was written from ages 17 to 37, that one I went overboard trying to perfect, it was a deep obsession, and when I finally finished and the rejections rolled in I pretty much gave up trying to publish it. Even though I had hundreds of rejections from various short stories before then, it was like the absolute last straw. Just never felt comfortable doing the right maneuvers to sell the work. There were two presses in particular I really respected, but Calamari passed on it, and the New York Tyrant doesn’t read unsolicited work. But I still like dusting it off every now and then and dipping back into that madness, some of the more recent videos I’ve made harvest from its territory. I might as well just publish the chapters in the description boxes of future vids – a new type of serialization!
Congrats, by the way, on finishing your latest project! Much respect for your grind. Are you an early bird writer, or the night owl type?
JN) Thank you, PaperBird! My latest tome is called The Moon Down to Earth. I’m currently looking for a home for it. Wow man, I’m sorry to hear you were passed on by Calamari. I too was rejected by Calamari! Derek White is a nice guy, though, he was kind enough to send me one of my friend’s books for free, Mr. Scott Bradfield. And yeah, I’m not connected enough / too working class for New York Tyrant. My publishers Expat Press and Nine-Banded Books are a better match for my particular brand of darkness, so it all worked out, anyway. I’m just happy they believe in my work. I’m an early morning writer. I used to be a nighttime writer when I was young, but I’m too emotionally exhausted from work to do that now, so I write during the early morning hours, from 5am to 7am. When do you write? Do you write every day?
PB) My strategy was, I’d load up on caffeine about 30 minutes before work ended, then sneak into an empty executive’s office and just crank it out. That way I could beat the soul-draining commute, and most days I would leave the building kicking my heels ready to blast some hip-hop in the car. Never got to early Vollman level though where you basically just stay at work and keep on writing. After a while though because of constant writing (and gaming and playing the piano), my wrists blew out and I had to start relying on voice dictation which nowadays is so good on the smartphones that I’m basically writing all the time, whenever I go for walks, whenever I’m cooking pancakes, whenever I’m driving, it’s just a constant stream of word vomit, though, not really anything focused like a story anymore. By the way, have you ever tried writing even earlier in the morning, like before you are fully conscious, if you’re able to touch type? If you keep a keyboard next to you on the bed and reach for it when you’re half awake, and just start typing away with it on your belly, you can get some really interesting results. I think you can write some pretty interesting erotica that way also.
JN) Umm, no, keeping a keyboard next to me on the bed wouldn’t be very conducive to my writing. I’m sure I’d make a mess of my belly, though. One of the things I enjoy about your book reviews, besides the knowledge you bring to the table, is your unexpected raunchiness, your irreverent sense of humor. I’m imagining you’d be quite entertaining on a bar crawl, so, I’ve gotta ask, and pardon me beforehand if it’s rude, but – do you still jerk off even though you’re married? Is it rude to do so when you have a spouse or a significant other?
PB) Well I think as males it’s kind of biologically impossible not to especially with incognito browsing just a couple clicks away. I wish I could have the willpower of Norman Mailer who was extremely against masturbation because of the soul drain that would result which I completely agree with, but putting that into practice takes a whole lot of self-enforced immersion into the nofap mindset. Now I’m more interested in, rather than rubbing one out in a parked car in an empty parking lot somewhere, then crying tears of shame afterwards, doing something more challenging acrobatically like zero touch fap or some other climax prohibitive position. I guess some people use cages but I think that would just chafe too hard.
JN) Zero touch fap, shooting without touching your junk, is something I have tried to master, and have failed at many times. I’m just not a penile Zen master. I will always be relegated to the cheap seats, even after twenty-three days of nofap, my current personal best! Ok so how many times a week lol?
PB) Honestly right now it’s been zero because of quarantine in a crowded house although I’m sure some people would say you’d have to cut off my hands, there’s no such thing as involuntary nofap! But wait let me check my counter… 18 days, WTF! Come on man, let’s roll on this train together. Want to be my “accountability partner”?
JN) Yeah, I’ll do the nofap with you and would probably support you as your accountability partner! Do you want to begin on April 1? There are only 30 days in April. Let’s nofap together! Together we can beat the odds… Before setting aside the raunch for a moment, what’s the raunchiest thing you’ve ever done? When I was a saucer-eyed twenty-two year old I got a horrible job as a graveyard shift convenience store clerk. I lived in a small desert town between Phoenix and Tucson (Casa Grande, AZ). Sometimes I’d be driving to work and I’d pull over in the middle of nowhere, strip down to nothing, walk out into the huge black velvet desert and jerk off until I came onto the ground. Being a young man at the time, I somehow believed I was melding my effluvia with the skin of the desert, under the pinhole magic of the stars. How about you, my friend?
PB) Dang that’s funny, I’ve always wanted to do something like that, run out into the middle of the woods naked, although ideally with a sexual partner. But to do it without any foliage for cover, that takes balls, man. Much respect. I don’t know if this is considered raunchy, but once in seventh grade, we were on a school field trip and this one girl I had a crush on was sitting in the aisle of the bus playing cards with her back to me, and I was drinking in that ass with my eyes until I straight blew a load in my shorts, with some kid sitting right next to me! He had no idea! I used a magazine for cover and otherwise had to be still like a mummy. Kind of reminds me of the mummy scene at the end of my Francine Prose video.
Also another time, I was with someone who was really into drinking wine, so I dipped my junk into a glass of Merlot, big mistake, shit burned like a mofo.
JN) You dipped your junk in a glass of Merlot? That’s pretty twisted! Did you let the wine connoisseur drinketh from your cup afterward? I’d never heard of Joseph McElroy before watching your video ‘Top 5 Books to Read When Stoned,’ which is, by the way, the video that ‘introduced us’ to each other four years ago. How did you first learn of McElroy? And, perhaps a bit more generically, how do you determine what to read next? Does any of your education play into it, or not really?
PB) I started reading McElroy later in his career, around the time when Actress in the House was published, after hearing Michael Silverblatt fawning over him on Bookworm. I wasn’t connected on social media, if it even existed back then, so didn’t know what kind of readership he had, but prices of Women and Men were fairly affordable, and I got a hardback copy and then a paperback, which I ripped into four sections because it was so heavy, generally considered a crime later because his books eventually became super expensive secondhand. (That is, before the recent reprint.) Being an extremely jaded reader, reading Women and Men, then Lookout Cartridge, flipped that jade lid off my head, after which I devoured everything else he wrote pronto. (Even had a brief email exchange with him about Hind’s Kidnap!) His writing to me seems the hardest to reverse-engineer, and yet it’s so prodigious, his mental capacities seemingly inexhaustible, that given the ratio of difficulty/publishing history, he’s definitely kind of a living unicorn. A straight-up endangered species. We have to do everything we can before he gets imported into a wet market somewhere.
Nowadays with the lid back on I mostly read writers I’ve never read before with hopes of shattering it again, but after a certain age it’s hard not to read more than a couple pages before knowing exactly what and how shallow the argument / ambition is and exactly how it’ll go on its way getting resolved. So I’m more interested in finding works where either people are biting off more than they can chew or have no idea what they’re chewing to begin with, their motivations not coming from a place of any specific protest which I hate to see but more of a general protest at being alive, having done some time on the dark side usually involuntarily, a result of a genetic predisposition or aberration, a typo in the code. Alas the vast majority of books that pass through my skull don’t really stick unless I intentionally misread them or rewrite or repurpose them to serve my own personal needs and demons, if all else fails.
JN) Well if The Moon Down to Earth ever finds a publisher, I’ll send you a copy because I’m sure you’ll dig it, it was written in Septuple meter at a low cannabinol drone. Are you handy around the house? Do you know how to properly use hand tools? Who made your lovely bookshelves? Did you put them together yourself? I have three lovely glass door bookcases (Faulkner Library Cabinet, Crate and Barrel, the line now sadly discontinued), all overflowing. Are the cases that house your books just as important as the books themselves? Or is that utter nonsense? Function over form, and all that.
PB) I’d love to see your shelves, maybe we can do a video chat? It’s sad when the shelf line gets discontinued, I think that also happened with mine, next time I’ll just go with something eternal like the BILLY bookcase, but so I went with something pretty expensive if I recall, and it took a long time to put them together. Hand tools? I like playing with knives, but other than that, unless it’s something I can fix from watching a YouTube video, it usually ends up being a service call anyway, although I did change the intake on my car. I’m about to mess with a dremel for the first time on this one video I’m working on.
JN) A video chat with you would be most lovely! On the topic of videos, you have a very sexual, ASMR voice, at least to my ears. Do you practice speaking before recording, or do you just go for it, no practice, no foreplay?
PB) If that’s what it sounds like, I’m definitely not doing it on purpose, those kind of videos freak me out. Especially the ASMR mukbang ones where you feel like you’re inside a girl’s mouth getting chewed up. But that’s nice of you to say, though, in real life you probably wouldn’t be able to hear my voice as well as through video, something about its frequency gets lost, especially in a crowd. I’ve been told lots of times that I’m soft-spoken, which is weird, because in my head it sounds like a normal volume, and normal to them would be like shouting to me. Then I get tired of repeating myself “shouting,” so it’s got to where I don’t really care if people hear what I have to say or not. It’s like a variation of the imparlance disorder in Evan Dara’s Mose Eakins play.
JN) You and I share illicit experiences, as I too was an incorrigible book thief, up until my early thirties. I believe I may’ve been singlehandedly responsible for the nationwide collapse of Borders Books… how many books do you think you’ve stolen during your lifetime? For me, I would say, roughly, at least two hundred or so, give or take? And they were all hardcover! How about yourself, my friend? No need for shyness here, you’re amongst friends…
PB) It was you who brought down Borders! Better not let Steven Moore find out. I have rookie numbers compared to you, maybe in the teens. I only went for the tiny trade paperbacks because they wouldn’t produce too much of a bulge in the shorts. For the larger work, I would have to contract out. This one thief acquaintance got so good using a trench coat / cardboard box between the knees method that he could somehow smuggle entire TVs out of Walmart, so I asked him if he could get me a copy of Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul when it came out as a big ass hard back, and he just did a thousand yard stare. Alas my career ended when I got caught stealing not a book but a bottle of Accent (monosodium glutamate) because I was too lazy to wait in line to pay for it. I’m suddenly hearing that one song by Jane’s Addiction now. By the way, I’d love to know your method and what the biggest volume you got out was!
JN) Unfortunately I’m not at liberty to divulge my thievery methods. But my biggest singular haul was a trio of Borges hardcover books called Collected Fictions, Selected Non-fictions, and a third volume, the title of which escapes me at the moment. You mentioned you have a lazy eye. I also have a lazy eye! In grade school kids called me Chinese eyes due to my almond-shaped eyes, and the lazy eye certainly didn’t help my cause. Does your ethnicity play into the books you choose to read, or not at all?
PB) Holy moly. I think Vollmann has a lazy eye too. Was it weird when you were talking to him in person? I don’t think of ethnicity at all in terms of my reading life. If anything, I’m completely against that sort of current which hit full force in the 90s as “multiculturalism,” The Joy Luck Club, etc, or any other writer with an Asian sounding last name writing about an Asian-American character suffering all the usual torments which, yeah, we all went through, walking down the street as a teenager and having some random guy come out of his house and yell go back to China! and being all confused because number one, not Chinese, and number two, I’m ‘Murican, bro, I like horses and shit, so I guess it must have been even more confusing for you… I’d love to hear your stories there… but so having to strain out those kinds of energies from books and look at it more in terms of artistic achievement, the act of straining a way of separating the good from the bad, as the really great ones just can’t be taken apart that way. But it’s not the kind of literature I go out of my way to get involved with as I identify with a more general alienation, not to say of course that the ethnic component didn’t help get me to that place. But yeah the lazy eye, which makes eye contact literally difficult, I think that plays a big role as well. Also one reason why I never appear on cam.
JN) I think Vollmann’s eye problem is called strabismus. You and I just have the garden variety amblyopia, I think. Hanging out with Vollmann when I was 21 was a total joy, and not weird at all. The man is almost mythological at this point. Once, when we were walking from his apartment (1991, New York City) to D’Agostino, a bum was sitting near the outside of the supermarket and Vollmann made this great Chaplin-like show of bending down and handing him a quarter. I think it was done for my entertainment as much as for the bum. Vollmann will forever and always be my inspiration. We’re both fans of the herbal life, and I love you for that. Well I love you for your brain and your voice, too, but uhhh, how many times would you say you imbibe? Take your time…
PB) Dude, I’ve run dry for a while now, it’s been almost nine months! I might have some ancient carpet shavings in a dugout somewhere but it’s not so big a part of my life to where I ask around anymore. If it ever becomes legal over here, I’m sure that would change. How about yourself? What’s your method of intake? I could never get with the newer technologies which is all you see at parties nowadays it seems, not that I’m much of a partygoer, but I do appreciate a good cerebral jay of the 2001 Space Odyssey variety enjoyed with some Pink Floyd or Bone Thugz and a blacklight. By the way, remember these things?
JN) I don’t remember those at all, though my older sister had a lava lamp in her room, in our shared room! Nine months, whoa, that’s like a pregnancy! I’m currently well-stocked, my brother, especially during plague season. It’s legal here in Seattle. Maybe you should move to Seattle, yeah?! We could hang and get stoned together and talk about Lookout Cartridge… sigh. Is there a book you haven’t been able to find, an unobtainable book that has become your holy grail? I have one but I’m afraid to mention it for fear of someone else buying it. Is there a book you haven’t been able to find that you’ve been lusting after since forever?
PB) Yes, I’m missing a couple later issues of Gordon Lish’s The Quarterly magazine, after they were taken over by Gutter Press. I think those are extremely rare. Along those lines I think the 80s and 90s Knopf hardbacks of Lish writers might be getting more scarce. I’m still kicking myself for not picking up a first edition Greg Mulcahy that I saw at Half Price one time. Wilson Harris books are getting harder to find. It boggles the mind that he hasn’t been picked up for reprint yet. Magazine-wise, it’d be cool to see that one issue of Esquire with the literary universe chart that gave DFW so much hope and anxiety.
JN) Back to the raunch for a moment, is there a particular book that made you want to take your junk out and crack open the pages and start making hot sweet feral love to all those widows and orphans? (Printer’s speak for neophytes). I remember feeling this way while reading my father’s vast Hustler collection, but I guess those are more pictograms than anything else. But again, this is about you…
PB) Well since you mentioned Hustler… I remember being a freshman in college trying to convince a floormate I was interested in his copies of Playboy purely for the quality literary fiction they published. As I went off to the bathroom to read them. When I was younger, I remember reading a cousin’s copy of Sally Beauman’s Destiny and popping wood, also the love scenes in Clive Barker’s The Damnation Game. Later in life, American Psycho, which was pretty awkward because I would read in the car during lunch, and the transition from wood to work was jarring. Mixed in with the guilt / shame / confusion for getting aroused by that book in the first place.
JN) I read the Damnation Game when I was sixteen, though the Clive Barker story that really had me tied up in knots is The Age of Desire, from The Inhuman Condition, which I read when I was a super horny seventeen year old. How old were you when you experienced your first orgasm, your first little death? We’re friends, don’t be shy – How old were you the first time you came? I was eleven, in the bottom bunk doing creative things with the band of my briefs (I wear boxers exclusively now), while my sister was talking on the phone with her boyfriend. Where were you? Do you remember the circumstances? Was the liquid rush of history too much for you, or did you just roll with it?
PB) Interesting topic worth exploring. Reminds me of that movie Happiness, where the kid has his first O… Let me think. I was probably four or five. Something to do with how the blankets would wrap around me. No idea what it was but I eventually termed it “resting.” For a while when I was eight I nurtured this strange theory that whenever the onrush would come, my own mother would feel it too. But stuff didn’t come out until maybe around twelve, then I finally realized what I was doing.
JN) I’m going to politely defer on the mother stuff, but thank you for sharing that. I had a male cousin and when we were both about ten I’d ask him to go up a step ladder and then I’d stare at his (clothed) ass while he was up on the top rung. We’re both Vollmann fans – what is your favorite Vollmann? Mine is a toss-up between The Royal Family and The Rainbow Stories. Which Vollmann really does it for you? Have you ever been to one of his readings?
PB) I have a soft spot for The Rifles, which was the first Vollmann I heard of, published in 1994, although I worship each of his Dreams in their own way. He’s such an amazing writer because there are so many facets to his work — the journalism, the essays, the prostitution stories, the Seven Dreams — all that’s left for him is to strap on a guitar and harmonica and the Nobel is his! Haven’t had the pleasure of seeing him live in person, part of me is convinced that the public person is a hired actor and “Vollmann” is actually a network of writers, sworn to secrecy, typing away in various cube farms throughout the world. In fact, I suspect you’re a member of the Tenderloin Department of that institution, am I right?
JN) Well If I am a member of the Tenderloin Department, I’m not allowed to say so. I first met you on Top 5 Books, which was a long time ago, my friend! Have you read any books since that you thought, well, you know, this would be such a better read if I were stoned?! Do any books come to mind? Because, to be honest with you, I don’t think I’m smart enough to read Joseph McElroy’s PLUS, even though I own a copy of it, thanks to you! Any new discoveries a simpleton like me can enjoy without lotioning my hands on a shiny Roget’s? Please let us in on your newest, darkest secret.
PB) You know, John Hawkes comes to mind, but I wonder… Because there are some works that are even better stoned, and some that just make you feel stoned, but wouldn’t work when actually stoned, and I suspect Hawkes might be in the latter category. Maybe not so much with The Way of Florida by Russell Persson. That book is a holy grail among us, stoned or not. This begs further research. Terra Nostra would be cool just to behold and marvel at. The poetry of John Donne. The short stories of Diane Williams. Let’s not forget other types of drugs, though. Darconville’s Cat goes down real smooth with the glass of wine. And pretty much any book can be improved by drinking vast amounts of coffee beforehand.
JN) Further research, ha! Very classy, my friend. Here I am telling you I love you and you’re making paper airplanes. Seriously though, thank you for carving a few hours of your day to spend time with me. I love you and I feel I need to say those words to you in a public forum. Please keep doing what you’re doing for the rest of us unwashed plebeians.
PB) Love you, too, brother. Thanks so much for your support and enthusiasm over the years. I aspire to your levels of Robin Hood-ness in liberating books and putting them in front of the hungry masses. Now time to put on a ski mask and raid the nearest Barnes! Whoops, they’re probably closed right now…
PaperBird makes videos about books and posts them on YouTube. His channel is http://www.youtube.com/c/PaperBird