Getting Along Like A Housefire On Fire
HOUSEFIRE was an online journal that only published work based on prompts provided by the editors. I remember when it first appeared on the internet in 2011, it was dropping piece after piece by the most exciting writers of the time. We’re talking xTx, Michael Kimball, Frank Hinton, Crispin Best, and on and on and on. Every post had badass accompanying art and fun contributor bios that were more flash fiction than self-promotion. The whole set up was slick, cool, and imaginative. And then they were publishing books, and short films, and serialising a collaborative novel. And then it was gone. And I felt so stupid for never getting around to writing to the prompt they had sent me. And I wished I had taken the time to read more of the stories and poems when they first went up. All fires eventually burn themselves out and HOUSEFIRE was no different, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth remembering, especially when the memories are so good.
A couple of people who were involved with HOUSEFIRE shared why the site was important to them:
Being introduced to Riley Michael Parker and to Housefire was formative in the way I imagine it was to turn on the radio in 1977 and hear punk rock for the first time. When I got involved, first as a contributor and then as the Interview Editor, I learned (really for the first time) how to experiment with art, to throw as many lit matches at the wall as I wanted, just to see what would spark. When I think about Housefire, I think about being 18, 19, 20, and suddenly watching the universe unfold in a thousand different sexy, disgusting, funny, honest, macabre, beautiful directions, all at once. There was nothing else like Housefire, and there isn’t now, either.
When Riley knocked on my inbox asking me to send over a piece for the Nouns of Assemblage book, it rings now as one of the first times a cool buddy solicited me for a writing project like that, an early flick in the skull of KEEP GOING. Ya see, I was also freshly spit out of undergrad, recovering from the quick collapse of a young marriage, and likely between unloading boxes back into my parents’ house. That is what the good work Riley and the crew did with Housefire–they connected, encouraged, and validated others through the general muck and gunk of living. It lifted me up, it etched a necessary lesson about community to my young hick heart, and it started the roll that sent me down several stoked paths as a reviewer, bookseller, and editor. With Housefire and with Riley, it has always been true to life; that fiery ball of tensions–the shock and the kindness, the enthusiasm and the grit, the this and the that. All of it churns there together. I respect that. Also, I watched Boyhood at the Alamo Drafthouse with Riley and Parker Tettleton once in Austin, TX, and that, too, seems important to this conversation.
Riley Michael Parker answered some questions I had about the journal:
Why did you first decide to start HOUSEFIRE? Was there something specific you wanted to achieve with it?
To be honest, I just love stories. I just wanted to bring good stories to the public, and promote the writers that I liked. It was all just for fun.
I loved the prompt based nature of the work you published. How did you come up with that approach?
People work well inside of boundaries. Especially artists, which in a way seems counterintuitive, but it’s true. Like for example, a visual artist—if you were to give someone a giant wall and tell them to paint whatever they wanted, there’s a good chance that the wall would stay blank, or that they would just throw together something that they weren’t really proud of. But if you were to give that same artist a sheet of paper and tell them to draw a raccoon fighting a shark, they would very likely knock it out in ten minutes and be super stoked on it. The novelty of the request helps the artist, as does the idea that by making this one quick thing they will have already made at least one person happy. Writing can be the same way. Prompts are rewarding, and fun. Flash fiction is pretty easy to write. Prose poems are easy to write. They’re short. Writing good flash fiction and poetry is tough, but the challenge can be exciting, especially when you you have a direction in mind for what the piece will end up being, and prompts do that for people. I wanted writing for HOUSEFIRE to be fun, and the prompts seemed like a good way to make that happen. And tbh, I really enjoyed pushing people in weird directions. I liked moving people outside of their comfort zones and getting them to make something that they otherwise would not have made. I liked to see how people would untie the knot I handed them. Everything was supposed to be fun.
What was the relationship between HOUSEFIRE and Metazen, your sister site?
We were friendly!! We didn’t coordinate much at all, really. Before HOUSEFIRE, Metazen was looking for an editor, and I applied, and was accepted. I was very excited about the scene at the time, and was stoked to be entering that world. But once I started getting stories, I got really disenchanted with the whole thing. I basically hated everything I was given to read, which was weird to me, because I liked the site so much. Which, looking back, is really a testament to Frank and how good they ran the magazine, because the curated finished product was often so stunning. But all of the submissions I was getting were really bad, or at the very least, they just weren’t for me. About a month went by, and I rejected every story I got, so Frank reached out to me, asked me what was going on. We talked, and I was going to quit, but then I had this idea that I would curate my own thing, like a Metazen imprint that catered to my taste, which is kind of crazy now that I think about it. Like, who gets told that they’re doing a bad job and responds with a request for more power and spotlight? I do, I guess. And Frank is super sweet and supportive, and very Canadian, so they said yes, BUT it wasn’t going to be on the site, I could do it if I started a separate thing, a sister thing, so we became sisters. Which in a way, I wish HF hadn’t been its own thing, but had just been a section of the Metazen site. I feel like it would have been stronger on the same site, like it would have made both things stronger. Though I did like the freedom of being on my own… Really, I guess it all turned out about as well as it could. No reason to second-guess it now, lol.
When the site first launched you were only publishing solicited material, but then you opened up submissions. Why did you make that change?
I loved HOUSEFIRE when it was 100% solicited!! I knew which writers I liked, who I thought was talented, and so it made more sense for me and my crew to chase after those folks than to wait for them to come to us. And it was a hell of a lot of fun to get people that I admired to create work from some weird little idea I had, to feel partially responsible for this super rad piece of art that someone made. Opening submissions was the worst decision I ever made as the head editor. It’s the thing I regret the most about the direction that we went. But it was that or stop publishing, because the prompt model that we were running could only work for so long. People got over it, and constantly reaching out to new people was time-consuming, and a lot of times pretty useless. There were a lot of people I reached out to who didn’t want to write from a prompt, or couldn’t. We found ourselves publishing the same people over and over again, and that pool would shrink as folks took on other projects. So we opened submissions. And woof, I hated it. It was everything I disliked about reading for Metazen, except worse, because I saw everything that came in. It made running the site super un-fun, super fast. So that’s when Rob Gray stepped into the role of online editor, and I just did other things. Worked on the books we put out, and made ebooks and stuff. Did visual art, et cetera. He had a lot more patience for reading submissions than I did, but it eventually burned him out, too. We shouldn’t have done it. We shouldn’t have done a lot of things we did. We should have kept it fun.
How else did the site change over the years?
Other people got involved. Things change when personalities change. Group dynamics dictate a lot. It got worse, lol. It got boring. There at the end, I wasn’t even reading everything we published. It wasn’t anything anyone was doing in particular that that turned me off, the site just lacked focus, and it got kind of bad. Too many cooks, and not enough direction. I blame myself for that. I just wasn’t there. I wanted people to feel like they owned a part of it, so I let them do whatever they wanted. But it was like the big blank wall. Too many things that we could do, and so we ended up not doing very much at all. We should have kept it focused, and small.
Another thing I loved about HOUSEFIRE was the contributor bios (pieces of flash fiction about the contributor instead of a factual bio). What was the idea behind them, and who wrote them?
Thank you! I thought they were fun. They came about basically because I hate contributor bios, lol. I think they’re super boring, and unnecessary. I don’t need to know where someone grew up, or if they have a significant other, or a cat, or a day job. Who cares? So I just started writing silly little flash fiction things, sometimes inspired by the person, mostly not. It was just an outlet for ideas that I’d had that were too small to do anything else with, but that I enjoyed enough to share. In the beginning I wrote them all, but then Rob Gray started doing them when he ran the website, and he did a really awesome job. I always read those, even if I didn’t read the published piece, lol.
What was your favorite thing about running HOUSEFIRE?
The people!! I loved meeting creative people, and collaborating. I loved traveling, and having people visit from out of town. Some of those people still talk to me to this day, even though I don’t publish them anymore!! lol. We had some really great readings, and some amazing parties. Lots of laughs, lots of fun. It was extremely rewarding to be a part of that. It was nice to feel that love, and to love people back, and make a bunch of art together.
Why did HOUSEFIRE close in the end?
Me. I’m a hard person to work with on a good day, and I had about two bad years. I mean, when I started HOUSEFIRE I was already a mess, and it got worse from there. I am a depressive, and back then I leaned into it pretty hard. I am combative, and opinionated, and competitive, and I have a bully’s sense of humor. Basically, I’m an aquarius, lol. And I was the frontman for the band, basically, like the mascot, and that caused problems. I would upset people, or snub someone I shouldn’t have, or just make some comment and make everyone else’s life (at HOUSEFIRE) a little harder, and I was pretty amused by all of it. I grew up in a family where we would tease each other as a way to show affection, and so as a young adult I did the same. My father is mexican, dark-skinned, and my mother is white, so we talked about race a lot when I was growing up. We joked about it constantly, and I still do, especially with my dad, and as a public figure who passes for white (my mom is VERY white, lol, and I look pretty damned white), that can be problematic. As someone who is bi/queer, and has been called a faggot his whole life, I joked a lot about sexuality when I was the face of HF, and once again, it just led to trouble. I was dating women at the time, and didn’t make my interest in men a central point of my public persona, so when I talked about homosexual themes in my work or in my stage banter it came across as disingenuous. I was really only open about that stuff with a few people, and my work was my outlet for that part of my sexuality, but it came across as like, rude, I guess. Like I was making fun of homosexuality. I did a really bad job of endearing myself to the general public. My persona, my brand, was a transgressive one, and I was always pushing people, and making fun of other writers. Usually because I liked their work, lol, but that’s not how I was coming across, and basically everyone else at HOUSEFIRE had to defend me and explain me all the time, and that was exhausting, I think. They just wanted to publish writers, lol. And then things got really bad. I was almost murdered, by my father’s wife. I was in California, visiting, and I was attacked. It really fucked me up, and Rob and Lindsay (Lindsay was another major player in the company, and a fantastic creative) took me in, because they loved me, and we were creative partners. But I was in a real bad place, and I didn’t respond well to their generosity. I was really depressed, and afraid of people, and was having like daily panic attacks every time I went to bed (I was in bed when the attack from my father’s wife started). And so I was in like, full-on arrested development, couldn’t move on, couldn’t focus on my life. Like, life seemed so scary. So I put all of my attention towards art, instead of finding a better job and a place to live. And I started smoking pot, and playing a lot of board games and stuff instead of focusing on getting my life on track, and like, an apartment. I pretty much lived at R + L’s for six months or something, bouncing back and forth between their place and two other couches. And that made them not like me very much, lol. I understand. I mean, they were not attacked. There is no way to really explain how lost and scared I was, and as an outsider looking in, I was just making terrible choices. I think they felt like I was taking advantage of them. And I was. I mean, I was taking advantage of the fact that they were safe people, that they weren’t going to kill me. I was so afraid of strangers, and their home felt safe. I just couldn’t imagine living with someone I didn’t know. So I pissed away money on other things, and kept myself too poor to live anywhere, all while trying to run HOUSEFIRE and make a bunch of books. It was awful. Anyway, a day came where Rob told me I couldn’t sleep there anymore, and within a few months he told me he didn’t want to be my friend. I understood. It hurt, but I got it. I was pretty broken, and wasn’t really adding positivity to his life anymore. He didn’t know everything that I was going through, but even if he did, it was time. He had been so kind, he and Lindsay both, but it had to end. We had to move on. And when they left, that was it. I was already barely hanging on, and I just gave up. That was the end of HOUSEFIRE. I am doing a lot better now, but it took time, and it took losing pretty much everything I had.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
You know, I am not really past oriented. I try and be future oriented, to build towards things. The past is the past. I like where I am now, and where I’m going, and I can’t change the past without changing the present, so I guess I wouldn’t change a thing. I mean, in a perfect world, everyone I love would love me back, and people wouldn’t leave me. I would still have all those friends I lost when I was busy being a depressed, paranoid, and combative fuckface, and as a company we would have put out a lot more books, and paintings, and films. But in a perfect world I would also have an endless supply of money and would live forever, so there’s no reason to entertain that kind of thinking, really. I am glad it all happened, and I wouldn’t change the past, but I also wouldn’t do a lick of it again moving forward. Not one lick. What’s done is done, and it’s great, like, I’m glad I am where I am, but I don’t want anything like what happened with HOUSEFIRE in my future. I’m glad it’s over.
I will say that my biggest mistake was that I wanted HOUSEFIRE to be a business. I wanted to make money, so that we could fund art projects. I didn’t ever think that I would be wealthy, or live in luxury from publishing, but I hoped that we would make enough money so that each project could be bigger than the last one. I wanted to have enough money that we could say yes to every good idea. I just want people to make rad things, and sometimes people need money, so I wanted HOUSEFIRE to make money so that I could give it to talented people and help them change the world. But small press is not a place to make money, lol. Or if it is, I don’t get it. I lost money on HF constantly. Every project put me deeper into the same hole—or at best I would crawl out of one hole and into another. It is the most expensive hobby I have ever had, and I’ve played Magic, The Gathering!! lol. There’s this great joke about publishing, which is How do you make a million dollars in publishing? Start with two million dollars. And it’s true as fuck. But I wish we would have made money. I wish I could have paid everyone for the art that they made, and rented offices, and paid people salaries. I wish I could have funded a thousand art projects a year. Novels, poetry collections, short films, experimental paintings, everything. Not a single project we put out turned a profit, because the money was always spent on trying to make the next thing happen, and that was stupid. As the head of HF I was stupid, and naive. I still am. I learned a lot, but I am still a dreamer, and I know very little about business, people, and the world in general. I know more than I used to, but it’s not a lot. I just keep dreaming, and trying to make stuff. I try and do more good than harm. I am just doing my best these days.
The site relaunched briefly in 2014. Why did you decide to bring HOUSEFIRE back, and why didn’t it last?
That was me trying to find myself again after all that darkness. HOUSEFIRE had been such a source of joy to me in the beginning, and I wanted to recapture that once I had really started to get over being attacked. I kind of didn’t know what else to do. But you can’t go back in time. You can’t recreate the past. It was over, and when I realized that, I moved on. I left it behind.
The site is no longer online. Do you still have access to the archives, and would you ever make them available to the public again?
Haha, no no no. Everything is meant to be lost forever. We will all return to the earth and be forgotten. We have no lasting impact. Neither does our flash fiction. Those of us that were there, we enjoyed it. Or, some of us enjoyed some of it, lol. You know what? I enjoyed it, and I hope that other people did too, but I can’t say for sure. It was for us and no one else, and now it is gone forever. Returned to the dirt. I have no desire or plans to look at any of it ever again, for as long as I live. Graveyards are for the dead. The artists still own all of the content that they created, and they can do whatever they want with it, but I will never build another house for it to live in. I am out of the small press publishing game for good.
What have you been up to since HOUSEFIRE? Any other projects we should keep an eye out for?
I draw sometimes. You can follow me on instagram @rileymichaelparker and keep up with my nonsense. I plan to make more stickers, and tshirts, blah blah blah. I have a radio show with my friend Michael. We’re called The Good Ol’ Boys, and so is our show. We play a lot of hip hop, and garage rock, and indietronica, and like, a lot of stuff. It’s cool. Also, I am writing a novel about a “talent family”. A bunch of writers and filmmakers and painters who all have the same last name. Maybe someone will publish it some day. I hope so. I think so. I am proud of it. I think it’s worth publishing. It’s kind of close to being done. Super stoked. Also, I am living with a female-bodied partner in an apartment with two cats in Portland Oregon. We are open, but also super into each other. When I say “we’re open” I mean “me and the female-bodied partner are in an open relationship,” but on a related note I can also see other cats (and often do). I sort of have a job, but not really. Contract work. I mostly don’t like it, but I need money to live. It’s ok. But yeah, Portland. I like it here. I plan to stay in the pacific northwest, but I would also consider living in Canada or Brooklyn. I kind of want to live in LA for three months a year, but only if I get to work on TV shows. I love TV!! I watch everything. Well, not everything. I really like The Amazing World of Gumball, and Game of Thrones, and Rick and Morty. And also a lot of other stuff. I am looking forward to Westworld. I hope it gets at least three seasons. I plan to watch a lot of TV between here and death. I am hoping that they come up with a way to not die before I get too old, and that I can afford it. You know, so I can watch more TV, and eat food, and draw and stuff. If not, then I hope heaven is real, and that not believing in it during your lifetime doesn’t disqualify you from going. I would like that top level of mormon heaven, the one where you get create your own planet. I would make a planet with werewolves and vampires and ghosts and zombies, but also a lot of urban development. It would mostly be a “city world”, with only like an hour or two max between major metropolitan areas. Lots of forests, very few deserts. I grew up in deserts, so I am not really a fan. There would only be one language in this world, but every color of person. Even blues and greens and stuff, but I want us all to be able to talk to each other. Humans would be able to change genders/genitalia on a whim, and sex would be amazing. Maybe people would be shapeshifters, I don’t know. Animals would be able to talk on my planet (which is heaven), so there would be less meat-eaters, but some people still would. It would be an interesting source of conflict. Plus, you know, there’s all those vampires and shit that I mentioned before. Lots of conflict there. I like the ocean a lot, so the oceans would be huge, with little islands all over the place, supporting major metropolitan cities. And the seas would be filled with monsters, just like the land. Merpeople, and sirens, and krakens and shit. Real treacherous. But if you died, on land or at sea, you would immediately be born again, and retain all your memories. Like, you would get to have fun as a child again for like ten years (people would grow up faster there than they do on this planet) before you had to work and stuff again. And every time you go to school you would get to choose your own curriculum, so that way you weren’t just rehashing stuff you already knew. Dying would be super awesome, really. Some people would just kill themselves so they could be a kid again and get a better education. Every time you came back to life, your skin color would be different. That would lead to more empathy, I think. Or maybe I decided you can change your skin color on a whim, I don’t know for sure. Maybe the shapeshifter thing. Anyway, sometimes you’d come back as a werewolf, or a kraken, or a rabbit. But animals would talk, remember, so you would still get to go to school. But like, maybe kraken school. But I mentioned ghosts at some point, and I think if you get reincarnated right away that ghosts wouldn’t exist. Wait, nope, solved it—sometimes you get reincarnated as a ghost. Like ghosts are born and shit. It’s a crazy planet. Anyway, look for that when you die. If heaven exists, and it’s like mormon heaven’s top tier with all that “run your own planet” shit, that’s totally what I’ll be doing. Until then, instagram, I guess. And my radio show. And maybe this novel will come out. If it comes out, please buy it. It will be a lot more accessible and relatable than what you just read. Like, with mad entry points, and like super honest about what it’s like to be a person. And like, really funny and heartwarming and stuff. Like, it’s a real book. I’m pretty close to being finished, and man, is it a doozie. But also, just live your life. Don’t worry about me. If the book gets published, and you stumble upon it, and you decide to buy it, like, thank you. Really, thank you!! I hope you like it!! But this is america, so if you don’t want to buy it no big deal. You do you. The same with instagram. You know, follow me or don’t. Live your truth. Just be you, you know? xoxo