Little Engines
edited by Adam Voith
(TNI Books) $5

Adam Voith is about to get married, so he wants to meet at Burger King. Or, at least, that's part of the logic. Originally, the plan was to meet on Eastlake, where he works, and Burger King was the only landmark both of us knew along that nondescript street. But when I arrive at the fast-food joint, Voith confesses that he's skipped work altogether for the day, so we could really have met anywhere. "It's a stupid temporary job," he says. "They're going to lay me off, so I don't have much incentive to go." Plus, of course, he's about to get married, and therefore he has lots to plan.

I doubt that Voith, a slim, articulate fellow in his late 20s with a professorish beard and corduroy pants, has difficulty planning. Two years ago, Voith moved to Seattle from California and launched TNI Books, which has published a "found-word" (more on that later) CD by Damien Jurado called Postcards and Audio Letters (co-released with Made in Mexico, and now out of stock); a children's book with a 7-inch by Pedro the Lion called A Guitar for Janie; and Voith's own novel, Bridges with Spirit, which is a spare and often hilarious narrative depicting the limited lives of a post-college bohemian set.

This melding of indie music with literature defines Voith's approach to publishing. While bands everywhere record in their basements, writers who self-publish are generally treated with the skepticism reserved for blind beggars in wheelchairs. The success of Dave Eggers' McSweeney's Books, however, has put a whole new spin on the venture; as Voith says, suddenly writers who don't want to go through traditional publishing outlets are assured that "there is an audience out there composed of more than just your friends."

Given the McSweeney's model, Voith's publication of a literary magazine is a natural step. Little Engines, in bookstores now, is more traditional than McSweeney's in content, with less of the punch-line humor that characterizes Eggers' stable of writers. But Voith had no strict vision when he looked for submissions. "Narrative storytelling was pretty much the only requirement," he says. "The next issue will probably feature more comics, more short fiction, stuff that's more out there."

Some of the submissions came in through TNI's website, tnibooks.com, where Voith also publishes regular dispatches. I ask him why he didn't just stick with an online magazine, and he rubs two fingers together and says, "The tangible aspect." Voith doesn't mean money, of course; he means the feel and smell of paper, the heft of a perfectly bound spine, the glassy sheen of glossy covers. And Little Engines is remarkably satisfying in its sensual attributes. The cover is a swath of dusted blue and brown, decorated with a simple line drawing by Oakland artist Chris Pew. Inside, the geometric layout encourages you to turn the book in different directions, while the stories and poetry are set in beautifully clear type.

The works themselves range from a short story by Andy Jenkins (who used to be in the band Milk, and now runs Bend Press in Torrance, California) to a longer, studied story by Gerald Beckman. Voith also interviews Beckman about the craft of writing, and the older writer comes off as a gritty Texan mentor, a natural center of gravity in the collection's swirling, sometimes fanciful randomness. There is a new "found word" piece by Damien Jurado (as you might have guessed, he and Voith are friends), which, as with Postcards and Audio Letters, purports to be a transcription of conversations found on answering-machine tapes in thrift stores--although the conversations, between various old men, are almost too perfect to believe.

Little Engines is aptly named, in that Voith hopes it will be the mechanism that powers TNI Books, bringing in writers who will produce novels, short story collections, and more of the inspired multimedia stuff that has been the lifeblood of the company so far. Already, Voith is hoping to publish a book by Beckman, and a book of photo-booth portraits depicting how people pray. Sometime down the line, he also hopes to put out another one of his own novels, the perils of self-publishing be damned.

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