Out of the Boss Fight Books Laboratory: An Interview with Gabe Durham
Justin Lawrence Daugherty
Justin Lawrence Daugherty: What were the highlights of the first year of Boss Fight Books? What has really stood out for you?
Gabe Durham: Getting those first paperback copies of EarthBound in the mail was hugely exciting. The existence of a Boss Fight Books wiki was oddly validating. Meeting people who get what we’re doing feel great—particularly when someone has read multiple books and embraces the ways the books are different from one another. It was cool and surreal to work on forewords with gaming legends like Howard Phillips, Ted Woolsey, and Marcus Lindblom. As an editor, I got to witness and be a part of a lot of breakthrough moments when working on these books—watching them take shape from one draft to the next. Taking little bits of free time here and there to work on my own book, Bible Adventures, has been really sustaining. My life is now so full of the logistics of running the press now that it would really bum me out if my own writing accidentally went away.
The biggest highlight is also the most general: The job-well-done feeling of bringing these books to life. It’s way more work than I thought it would be, and yet now these first six books really do exist, out of our little laboratory and into the world.
JLD: So, the Kickstarter for the 2nd season of Boss Fight is going crazily strong. Are you surprised by the support and turnout?
GD: I’m really pleased. Day One in particular did better than I’d hoped. I was relieved to see a lot of people who supported Season 1 come back for Season 2, eager for more. It feels like there’s more trust this time around, now that Boss Fight is transforming from “a cool idea for a press” into an actual press with six books out and more on the way.
It’s hard to know what to expect from a second Kickstarter: The company already exists, so what’s being funded isn’t a new concept but an extension of an existing one. So the excitement this time is more on the individual books themselves.
What helps me not feel slimy about crowdfunding is that we’re not giving the hard sell, asking for free money—we’re just offering up our future catalogue for (very) early pre-order so that we can take the money and put it toward the new season. Putting out a book is so time- and resource-consuming that having these early orders on hand is such a relief. I’m really grateful to everyone who is backing us in advance through the Kickstarter.
JLD: Tell us about some of the books already slated for the 2nd season at BFB. What can we expect from the upcoming cascade of books?
GD: Right now, it’s looking like the first half of the season will be Baldur’s Gate II, Metal Gear Solid, and Bible Adventures. All three of these books have been in the works for longer than Spelunky or WoW.
Matt Bell and I had a full back-and-forth edit and conversation about his first BG2 draft, and he wrote me this week to say he jettisoned most of what was the largest thread in that first draft. So I’m excited: What I read in the second draft is going to be as much new material as old.
Ashly and Anthony finished a full draft of Metal Gear Solid almost a year ago, and have been super patient each time I’ve sidelined my edits on their book for Season 1 edits! The good news is that Season 1 is done, so it’s been awesome this week to jump back into the book with them. We’ve been prepping an excerpt for publication, one that looks closely at gender in MGS. What with all that’s been going on in the game world lately, this chapter feels pretty timely and very evenhanded. We pitch the book as a “celebration/takedown” of MGS, but the celebration feels (to me) like the heart of the book—looking hard at a flawed, messy game and loving it anyway.
JLD: What motivated you to get BFB started? What’s your philosophy behind the work?
GD: It began as a “What if…?” What if there was a 33 1/3 for video games? It’s rare to have an idea for a thing and then look on the internet and find that the thing doesn’t exist. In the couple years before Boss Fight, I’d been reading a lot of nonfiction—David Shields, John D’Agata, Joy Williams, Truman Capote—and was excited about the genre’s potential.
So I toyed with the idea, batted it around in my mind, began talking to people about it, and read Extra Lives very quickly. Then I put out a call for friends to tell me about their favorite games writing on Facebook and then dove deep into what they sent me. Reading all this smart writing about games made me realize just how much there was to explore, how many different angles a writer could take.
I also noticed things that could be better: For one thing, games writing often seemed like an island unto itself, its writers unwilling or unable to fold games into the bigger tent of arts criticism. When Tom Bissell mentioned a novel in the same breath as a game, it was a surprise only because so few people were respected both games and books enough to make those connections.
But it shouldn’t be a surprise! All the most interesting people I know exhibit curiosity that reaches far beyond their own disciplines. That was the main reason I wanted to work with Jon Irwin. In his Kill Screen articles, he was really awake to those connections, bringing up Joan Didion when discussing the new GTA and really making it connect.
So I thought it would be valuable to (1) give a new platform to creative people who were already in the games world, and (2) see what writers who were not explicitly games writers would do when focusing on a single game. Each author is bringing something different to the table, approaching their subject in a way nobody else can.
JLD: Can you divulge your sleepers for games you really want to see excellent pitches for?
GD: I’m slowly learning to articulate what I want from these books. Most of all, a ground-up approach rooted in curiosity. Like: “I want to write about The Legend of Zelda and X.” Or: “I want to write about The Legend of Zelda through the lens of X.” The author picks a game because it presents them with burning questions that it’s going to take a whole book to investigate, and then formulates an approach. All the while digging deep into research, all the while playing the game in question and making notes.
It’s not enough to want to write about a game because the game is cool—What about your take on the game is going to make us think thoughts and feel feelings? Good works of nonfiction are explorations. If we were lazy, we could just settle on a formula: a little history, a little autobiography, describe some gameplay, end on an emotional note, and call it a day. Already with some pitches, I’ve had people say, “I’d like to do kind of an EarthBound thing with it…” and I start to tune out. I’ve read EarthBound! Many times.
The larger problem, though, is that so many of the pitches we’ve received are excellent, doing all the right things, and we still have to say no.
None of this is answering your question. I want to see pitches in genres and franchises we haven’t explored yet, ever-widening the circle of possibility. Or I want to see pitches in genres and franchises we have explored, but from radically new angles.
JLD: What are your thoughts on publishing books of fiction or poetry on video games? Any plans?
GD: We’re publishing some fiction in the new anthology, Continue?, along with some weird prose like a couple Brian Oliu’s Leave Luck to Heaven pieces, which is a nice change of pace. The idea of Boss Fight eventually publishing other, weirder books outside of the numbered series interests me.
It’s important to me, though, that the main series titles all fall under the loose label of nonfiction. Not only is publishing fiction about game characters a rights issue, it’d be getting away from the theme of the series—curiosity. What happens when we devote so much attention to these singular art objects? What can games tell us about the world and ourselves? Fiction can of course do this too, but not as directly.
JLD: What are you playing right now? What have you loved most recently?
GD: This year, the game I’ve spent the most time playing has been The Binding of Isaac, first on its own and then with the Wrath of the Lamb expansion. I was really curious because (1) it’s often mentioned in the same breath as Spelunky and (2) I’ve been working on the Bible Adventures book, and I was curious to see how the game uses Bible tropes. And the answer is: very playfully. It’s a really smart game, and so addictive. Really interested to see what the new version, Rebirth, is like.
Beyond that, I’ve been making my way through the Mass Effect trilogy and am now on ME3. I’m a FemShep, obviously, because good voice acting is important. And then most recently, I’ve been playing Osmos on Steam, which is a really nice and calming cosmic take on the “become the biggest fish in the ocean” genre.
There’s only a few days left in the Boss Fight Books Season 2 Kickstarter, so be sure to get your copies reserved (and your vote placed on which game should be featured in the season’s last yet-to-be-decided title)!