Little Big Man:
JOHNNY TEMPLE of Akashic Books
Highlights from The DC Issue
Photography by TRAVIS HUGGETT
Friday, October 31, 2008
The following piece appears in Issue 37: The DC Issue. For more on this issue, click here
LITTLE BIG MAN
By Michael Gonzales
Eighteen years before Johnny Temple founded the indie publishing company Akashic Books in 1997, he was just another geeky white kid growing up in Chocolate City.
“I always thought that Washington, DC was a great place to live,” remembers Temple, who hails from the black middle class hood of Shepherd Park. “It’s a disenfranchised city, but it’s still one of the most interesting places in America.”
Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a button-down shirt, Temple, who is now 42, sits opposite me in the Brooklyn office of Akashic Books. Surrounded by random stacks of manuscripts and a staff of three, his office is an island of literary produc-tion. Though I contributed fiction to Akashic’s short-lived literary magazine, Bronx Biannual (edited by Miles Marshall Lewis) — and was invited last year to moderate a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival, which Temple chairs — this is the first time I have been to its office.
Sitting cross-legged on a sweltering day in June, Temple smiles as he reminisces about his boyhood days hanging out in Rock Creek Park slamming to hardcore groups, bopping to bass-heavy go-go bands and getting into trouble. “My sister and I were latchkey kids, so we ran a little wild,” he says. It’s difficult to imagine this apparently straitlaced publisher causing so much trouble, considering that both his parents were lawyers.
Speaking in a gentle tone, Temple’s dry humor reminds me of Bob Newhart. “Our parents trusted us, which was a mistake. I don’t want to exaggerate, but I did have a few run-ins with the cops. I guess I was pretty delinquent as a kid.”
Temple, who has been married since 2002 and has two daughters of his own, grins mischievously. “Just dumb stuff that teenagers do, like breaking and entering, vandalism. I knew a few drug dealers.”
“I’m assuming this was before the crack era?”
“Yeah,” Temple says, “but before crack came to DC, there was angel dust. So, it really wasn’t so rosy to begin with.”
Located in a former can factory a corpse-throw away from Gowanus Canal — this once grimy neighborhood was the place folks used to brag about being “where the bodies are buried” — Akashic Books has grown considerably since reprinting Arthur Nersesian’s loser tome The Fuck-Up in 1997. Although originally self-published by the author after 30 major publishers rejected the manuscript, Temple was giddy reading Nersesian’s brilliant brand of New York neurosis.
“When I first met Johnny over lunch, he had never worked as an editor, let alone published a book,” says Nersesian, whose seventh novel, The Sacrificial Circumcision of the Bronx, was published by Akashic in October. “My first thought about this skinny kid sitting across from me was, ‘This is bullshit!’ But as you can see, 12 years later we’re still working together.”
Since publishing its first book, Akashic has acquired the same kind of literary swagger that was once associated with cool imprints like Grove Press and Holloway House. Releasing an average of 25 books a year, Akashic’s impressive list of writers includes Preston L. Allen (whose 2007 gambling novel, All or Nothing, was compared to Dostoyevsky, William S. Burroughs and Charles Bukowski in a New York Times book review); Joe Meno (Hairstyles of the Damned); Chris Abani (Song for Night); Amiri Baraka (Tales of the Out & the Gone); and scores of others.
Still, while those quirky titles might make Temple feel like “some kind of literary DJ,” what really keeps the lights on around this joint is Akashic’s ever-growing crime fiction collection. Beginning with 2004’s Brooklyn Noir, the location-driven series now includes books set in Istanbul, Baltimore, Chicago, London, San Francisco, Rome and, of course, Washington, DC.
Kenji Jasper’s latest book Cake, which was written under the pseudonym D, is the second installment from the street lit brand, The Armory, which was formed in 2007.
“Johnny likes to shine a light on people who live in the shadows,” Jasper says from the porch of the Brooklyn café Frank White, moments before a book reading began. “We both have dark tastes, so when I expressed a desire to create a line of literary street lit, Johnny was willing to take the chance.”
A Washington, DC native who crash-landed on Planet Brooklyn in 1999, Kenji recalls, “One of the proudest moments of my literary career was being chosen by editor George Pelecanos to write a story for D.C. Noir (2006). He’s someone whose work I’ve always admired, and Johnny put us together like he was Quincy Jones in the studio.”
“There has been a lot of bad crime fiction and white-guy political thrillers to come out of DC, so from the beginning George’s main concern was to be true to the city,” Temple explains. “He didn’t want there to be one or two token black writers. He was smart to say that and we both agreed it would be an insult.”
In the upcoming D.C. Noir 2: The Classics, with Pelecanos once again donning the editorial cap, Akashic reprints a canon of literary and classic writers that includes Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Julian Mayfield, Marita Golden, Larry Neal, Elizabeth Hand and Edward P. Jones.
“These are bleak stories by writers who are not necessarily considered noir writers, but who had no problem exploring their dark sides,” Temple says. “The stories that Pelecanos selected capture the real city. There is so much of the city that is hidden from view, and George and I both wanted to capture the history of the city as seen through short stories.”
Unbelievably, when Temple was a teenager, he didn’t even like to read. “Sometimes I would read my sister’s Nancy Drew books, but for the most part I couldn’t keep up with the other kids. There were kids in my eighth grade class who could talk about Melville’s Billy Budd, but I wasn’t there yet.”
Instead, the future bass guitarist for the post-punk band Girls Against Boys was hanging out in parks and punk clubs soaking up the DC music scene. “One of the reasons I’ve always been such a big defender of Marion Barry [the disgraced mayor whose famous line, “Bitch set me up,” was uttered moments after being arrested on cocaine charges in 1990] is because he helped so much in the development of the DC punk scene, which is one of the best in the country.”
Walking over to a bookcase stacked with every Akashic edition ever published, Temple hands me a copy of Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital (2003). As I flip the pages, gazing at stark black and white photos of Henry Rollins, Bikini Kill and Bad Brains, he explains, “Marion Barry created the summer youth employment program, and everybody except me signed up. Part of the program was playing concerts in the park. Basically, kids were being paid minimum wage to start bands. Groups like the Slickee Boys, Minor Threat and Fugazi all came out of that program. Now I’m jealous that my mother didn’t sign me up.”
Leaving the grit of Washington, DC to attend Wesleyan University in 1984, Temple majored in African-American studies and started taking his music more seriously. “Girls Against Boys was formed in New York, but we had all known each other from DC,” Temple explains. Though the band still tours, they haven’t released an album since 2002’s You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See (Jade Tree).
But it should be noted that it was Temple’s rock star royalties that helped him start Akashic. “Next to the billion-dollar babies that are corporate publishing companies, Akashic Books does so much with so little,” Preston L. Allen says. “Though Johnny doesn’t have the same kind of advertising dollars as the majors, he puts everything into producing his books. Akashic has a rep for producing worthy books; Johnny doesn’t make junk.”
Following Kenji Jasper’s reading at Frank White, Temple positions himself behind a table, where he helps managing editor Johanna Ingalls sell books. “Perhaps the best thing about Akashic is the reputation we have built for ourselves. We have the respect of the New York Times, we have the respect of the booksellers, but most importantly, we have the respect of our writers.”
In the world of publishing, what more can you ask for?