As a child, Greg Gerding never dreamt that he would become an author, let alone that he would come to own his own publishing press. He liked to read – he was determined to conquer the calendar of books his local library released every summer – but even though he enjoyed the exposure to new ideas and the worlds depicted on the pages, his appreciation for reading lingered in the shadow of his one true love. Greg was a baseball player at heart. He dreamt of playing in the major leagues, and so he built his entire life around that dream, as all children do when they’re fortunate enough to be talented at the thing they love.
When the time came after his collegiate career to step up to the plate and swing for pro, Greg swung with all his might. He imagined knocking his chance out of the park, bringing his childhood dream to fruition. But he struck out. The path that he had been following all his life came to an abrupt end, and suddenly Greg found himself staring into a directionless void. Instead of moving to a new city to be with his new team, Greg stayed in D.C. Instead of playing baseball, he took random jobs he had no interest in just to pay the bills. Young and disappointed and confused by his recent misfortune and the current state of his life, Greg started to ask himself the questions that haunt us all at one point or another…Who am I? Where am I? How did I get here? And, most frightening of all…What’s next?
To try and silence those haunting questions by giving them an answer, Greg bought a blank book and a pen and wrote down everything he was thinking and feeling, drawing on the skills he had learned in the few creative writing classes he’d taken in college. What came out was a memoir shaped like poetry. The words he wrote were heavily influenced by his recent discovery and fast-growing appreciation for writers like Charles Bukowski, Arthur Rimbaud, and Henry Rollins, and bands like Fugazi. The way that those creative minds and others like them expressed themselves through their writing resonated with Greg at a time when he needed guidance and direction, igniting the flame of his creativity and placing him on a new path that he has followed religiously for twenty-six years. In that time, he has written and published seven books, started an eighth, and established his own publishing press in Portland, Oregon – the University of Hell Press.
Q: What is the University of Hell Press?
A: We are a genre-less press that promotes artists who are creating irreverent and thought-provoking work that give readers an intimate and raw view into the everyday human condition. Some examples of the work University of Hell Press has published…
All this can be yours by Isobel O’Hare – With the aid of erasure poetry, O’Hare reveals the truth behind apology statements made by powerful men in an attempt to open the wider conversation of necessary systematic change. Most of My Heroes Don’t Appear on No Stamps by Ran Walker – Utilizing an African-American form of poetry called Kwansaba, Walker offers a profound commentary on a wide variety of topics ranging from interrogations of celebrity culture to issues that speak directly to the Black Lives Matter movement. This Never Happened by Liz Scott – This alternatively heartbreaking and darkly comic tale seeks to uncover the mysteries of Scott’s family, leading her to mine photographs and letters, leaving no one unexamined…not even herself.
Q: Where did the name ‘University of Hell’ come from?
A: When I was still living in D.C., I ran a weekly open mic night series in a dive bar that was in the basement of a club called Club Heaven, and the name of the bar underneath it was Bar Hell. That was a significant time in my life, and I always thought that Hell was a fun metaphor to play with, so when I moved to Portland and was ready to establish my own publishing press, I decided to build the brand around Hell. The work we produce is deep and thought-provoking, and not at all Satanic in nature like some people think, so I incorporated University into the brand to try to communicate our true nature.
Q: What’s the story behind your book, I’ll Show You Mine?
A: This style of project was heavily influenced by the book, Working by Studs Terkel, which is a book compiled of interviews that Studs Terkel did with people with all different kinds of jobs. I was also influenced by my love of sociology. I have always been attracted to literature that had a heavy sociology theme, and in college I unintentionally earned a Minor in sociology because of all the courses I took just because I thought the subject sounded interesting. Following suit, I interviewed strangers – most of whom I met through Craigslist – and asked them to share their stories about their history with love and sex and relationships. I gave them warning ahead of time so they knew why I was interviewing them. It was still awkward, despite the heads up, which is unsurprising given the subject, but as the conversation went on, they lowered their guard and opened up about their heartache, their desires, and their greatest loves.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Similar to I’ll Show You Mine, my current project is a collection of ordinary people’s experiences, but instead of focusing on the encounters they’ve had with love and sex throughout their life, this time it’s about their ongoing battle with 2020.
Q: What inspired you to write a piece like this?
A: The topic of 2020, and specifically its impact on people’s lives, stemmed from the realization that this year is going to go down in history as one of the most significant years we’ve ever experienced in the modern world and people are going to look back on it and ask themselves, “What the hell happened in 2020?” I wanted to help answer that question by capturing and sharing something raw to help people remember the scars 2020 has left behind. Instead of interviewing strangers, as I did with, I’ll Show You Mine, I invited people within my own personal network to tell the story of their year. Other authors, local musicians, small business owners, people I admire. I invited all walks of life to participate, and I ended up with approximately fifty essay-style stories.
Q: Were the contributors excited to participate? Nervous?
A: Both. Some responded initially with, “Oh my gosh, I don’t even know.” Others have had a clear idea of where to start. Some have sent multiple essays because it’s hard for them to just pick one experience to focus on.
Here is the list of contributors to Greg’s newest work: Alex Dang, Tim Mays, Amoja Sumler, Gabino Iglesias, John S. Blake, Ally Henny, Adrian Ernesto Cepeda, Skyler Reed, Ran Walker, Isobel O’Hare, Ben Tanzer, Jackie Shannon Hollis, DeMisty D. Bellinger, Christine Maul Rice, Kenning JP García, Brian S. Ellis, Nancy Townsley, Dian Greenwood, Ellen Yaffa, Travis Laurence Naught, Corie Skolnick, Liz Scott, Joe Austin, Kate Ristau, Tracy Burkholder, Chris Valle, Sean Davis, Leyna Rynearson, Joseph Edwin Haeger, Ashley James, James Jay Edwards, Rabb Asad, Leah Noble Davidson, Jenny Forrester, Stacey Clark, Chris Dupuy, Kimberly Sheridan, Jason Arment, Zaji Cox, Rashaun Allen, Jason Zenobia, Dang Nguyen, Shannon Brazil, Lauren Gilmore, Wryly T. McCutchen, Florencia Orlandoni, Linda Rand, Eric Witchey, and Eve Connell
Q: What is The Big Smoke In America?
A: The Big Smoke America is an opinions and editorials website where I am publishing essays and articles daily from a diverse roster of writers who are responding to current events – ranging from politics, social issues, and activism, to science, business, lifestyle, and culture, it runs the gamut. We separate ourselves from the rest by being more thoughtful about issues, engaging more critical thinking. After launching University of Hell, I was asked by my friend, Alexandra Tselios, who started The Big Smoke in Australia in 2013, to helm an American edition. The Big Smoke America launched November 2015, ahead of that insane 2016 election cycle, and just celebrated five years with over 2,100 essays and articles published during that span. It feels like a natural extension of the quality writing crafted into book-length works through University of Hell, but instead published daily as individual essays and articles that are timely. I am always seeking new contributors for The Big Smoke, I encourage people to read the work we are publishing and then check out the submissions page.
University of Hell Press website – https://universityofhellpress.com/
University of Hell Press Store website – https://university-of-hell-press.myshopify.com/
The Big Smoke America website – https://thebigsmoke.com/