Adventures with Mentors: Al Katkowsky

Say you’re a no-good clerk, or you used to be. How many times can you talk about your favorite band, book, or film? What do you do while you wait for your boss to yell at you? How can you get past the curated hipster responses to something real? Al Katkowsky has saved your sorry ass with his book and app “Question of the Day.”

By Jason Braun, Host of Literature for the Halibut, KDHX 88.1

I first met Al Katkowsky at the AWP conference in DC in March of 2011 at Jane Friedman’s Panel on “The Future of Authorship in a Transmedia World.” I’ve written about that panel before on Jane Friedman’s site and I’m still covered in the residue of exploded brain matter as a result of what was said there that day.

Al talked about his experiences as a musician and how that translated into being an author. He also said that you don’t have to be a computer mastermind to create an app. I thought to myself, well I’m no computer mastermind. He’s talking about people like me. Later during the handshakes and post panel smooze, I gave him a Jason and the Beast CD which included a comic book I wrote with Matt Kindt. A month later, I interviewed him on KDHX’s “Literature for the Halibut,” about his book and app, and the future of the book.

A year later, I was in New York for a conference on Para-academic publishing representing Sou’wester with my boss Valerie Vogrin and Eileen A. Joy of Punctum Books. In the final stages of beta testing my app Paradise Lost Office, which I created with the help of Dan McKenzie and Matt Kindt, I was about to release an app of my own.

I met up with Al at Manhattan’s Half King amid a crowd from the Tribeca film festival. I had used Al’s flash card model to create Paradise Lost Office and told him so. He said he’d been inspired by Brian Eno’s flashcards. He gave me two tips: make it a paid app becaus you’ll have a much better shot at getting on the charts, and create a launch event that gets everyone to download it at the same time.

qotd bookThen Al took me on a tour of his favorite and some of the oldest New York City bars. Leaving the Half King, we went to the Whitehorse Tavern where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death, then to McSorley’s Old Ale House, and then to Pete’s Tavern. As the booze sank into our brains, we talked apps, PR, the future of the book, the beautiful eastern European women at McSorley’s and the anarchists who loved them. There’s a recording of all of this somewhere, I’m sure. I caught up with it all for Critical Margins to follow up on some of those leads that I may have lost, along with the brain cells.

What’s the first thing you ever published?

“Question Of The Day” is my first.

What have you learned from a being a musician that has helped you succeed as a writer?

That the first person who ever told you that you are worth hearing is right. The odds that they are the only one who feels that way are infinitely small.  Take a second and consider what I just said.

There are a lot of people who haven’t heard you yet, people that want to, need to, or will get value from what you are doing.

What music (if any) do you listen to while writing?

I don’t, it’s far too distracting! But I often get inspired while listening, then I have to turn off the music and write. Sounds contradictory, I know.

Would you include a photo of your workspace?

As Woody Allen once said, “Not even if it would help the space program.” It would…it would be bad.

I understand Question of the Day started as an idea for a book, then became an superstar app, and then it was published as a book–could you tell us a little bit about that rollercoaster?

Well, QotD was an activity I initiated and facilitated where I was working; it challenged people to stick their necks out and support others in doing so. It went from self-published book to iPhone App, to being picked up by Writers Digest Books.

I did everything I could for the book, got distribution on my own, made appearances, etc. I didn’t know what to do next, then I made the app and it took on a life of its own. Still, that was a struggle at times. I had the app rejected for “Objectionable Content,” pertaining to video. The app was both praised and criticized, sometimes in ignorant and hysterical fashion. As I once wrote in a book review, “This is the fault in extending fairness in forums: even the unqualified have both a voice and enough leverage to do damage. Elections suffer similarly.”

Still, the app grew, and we wound up with over 200,000 downloads and one million plus video views. My Gig-getting chops that I developed as a musician paid off, and I made promo appearances at The Apple Store in Manhattan, Santa Monica and San Francisco, as well as Writer’s Digest Conference and Tools Of Change. For a year, I endured criticism for keeping the app free and refusing to stain it with ad content. Then, Writers Digest picked up the book. We expanded it, and they cited the app as a built-in promotional tool.

If you met Hemingway in a bar what would you say to him?

“Is this medicinal, or are we just having a good time?”

What are you reading now? Is it in a printed book or are you reading on a tablet of some sort?

There are about fifteen books on my “next” list. I’ve begun “The Signal And The Noise” by Nate Silver and “The Flame Alphabet” by Ben Marcus. They’re both quite dense, and I love them. During these, I knocked out “ScrewJack” by Hunter Thompson in an afternoon, at least partially because I always wanted to be able to say that I knocked out a book in an afternoon.

They are all print books. I look at screens too frequently as it is; my eyes need the break.

What’s next for Al Katkowsky?

 An EP, a full length and a screenplay. Two more books are in the works.

Is there anything else?

 There’d better be?

Jason Braun is a musician, poet, mixed media artist, radio host, teacher, and hacker extraordinaire. He performs under Jason and the Beast, and his latest album, Made This For You: The Mix Tape As Literaturecame out this year. He is also one of the hosts for 88.1 KDHX’s Literature for the Halibut. Check him out at his site,

Interview with Kevin Eagan in the Belleville News-Democrat

Critical Margins got a shout out from me in a recent interview with the Belleville News-Democrat.

Reporter Teri Maddox asked me some great questions about my reading habits and how they have changed now that I read on a Kindle more than ever before.

I mentioned my recent experiments with e-marginalia, including the current series that follows my thoughts on David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.

Anyway, here’s the link to the article — check it out, you’ll learn a bit more about me and why I do what I do on this blog.


75 books in a year: Voracious Glen Carbon reader turns up the volumes

BND article: print version

Critical Margins promoted on The Kindle Chronicles

TKC Front Page

Earlier last week, I got the chance to speak with Len Edgerly via Skype for his Kindle Chronicles podcast. The podcast is now up at, so go check it out: If you use podcast apps, you can subscribe to The Kindle Chronicles via iTunes, Stitcher Radio, or through the podcast app of your choice.

TKC Front Page

For those readers not familiar with Len’s podcast, please check it out! Not only is Len one of the best curators for Kindle news and content, he is very interested in how these technologies change and shape the way we read. I’ve been listening to his podcast for a while now and am continually impressed with the topics discussed. Len has interviewed writers like scholar and autism awareness advocate Temple Grandin, novelist Margaret Atwood, and Amazon’s VP of Kindle Content Russ Grandinetti. One of his most recent podcasts includes a series of interviews from his time at Book Expo America.

Our discussion centered on two main ideas: whether books are social or solitary, and what improvements are need for Kindles and other e-readers to be even more social.

Len mentioned two upcoming events in his podcast: 1.) He is hosting a webinar about selling your article on the Kindle Desktop Publishing platform. (To sign up, click here.) 2.) He is hosting a book reading group via, the social media site connected to the Kindle reading app. The first book is A Gay And Melancholy Sound by Merle Miller. This book is part of the Kindle “Book Lust Rediscoveries” series. For more information on how to join the group, read the podcast notes.

I’ve had Critical Margins up and active for a while now, but I plan on having even more content as the months move on. I don’t see this as just a blog; there’s a lot of potential to do new things now that platforms like Amazon’s KDP and Barnes & Noble’s Pubit are available for publishing original content. Also, I am always seeking out guest contributors. I hope to set up an ongoing series of posts this Fall. Do you want to write for Critical Margins? Send me an e-mail (criticalmargins [AT] or leave a comment and I’ll get in touch with you.