What does it mean to be happy? Explore the answers in With/out Pretend’s “Happy If You Know It”

With/out Pretend is a Canadian independent publishing company run entirely by founder and owner, Erin Klassen. I met Erin for the first time at a reading event that followed the launch of her second anthology, You Care Too Much. We wrote about You Care Too Much before it launched and to this day, have never felt more attached to a book! In addition to starting Portraits, the first anthology, we’ve also pre-ordered the newest in the collection, Happy If You Know It, which is the highly anticipated follow up to You Care Too Much. You can order a copy too – click here!

On the Sunday before Halloween, I met Erin at Outpost Coffee Roasters in Toronto’s west end for a long chat about what Happy If You Know It will bring and how she makes it all happen. The temperature was mild for late October and the mugs, warm and cozy – perfect for good chats and creativity.

Erin Klassen, Founder of With/out Pretend. Photo by: Angela Lewis.

Relive that wonderful fall day and read our full interview with Erin, below.

  1. Happy if You Know It is released this November. How did you come up with this title?

When you have an idea that you think is good, it’s almost worse than having an idea that you don’t think is good. I kept thinking, what if I say the title aloud to Jen Spinner, my Art Director, and she’s like, “No, I don’t like it.”

I couldn’t get, “If It Makes You Happy,” by Sheryl Crow out of my head and when I heard this line on the radio, “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad,” I remembered the children’s song and I used to listen to it all the time, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.” Being happy is simple for us as kids, but as we get older, the word gets so complicated. Who describes themselves as happy? Once you’re happy, you’re done, you’ve achieved it all and it’s like you can never be happy again. The word “if” is also interesting to me because there’s a lot of doubt there. All these things that I landed on, I sat on it all for a month before I said it to my boyfriend. Then, I said it to Jen and she liked it too.

This book is about dysfunction and what are things that help you get out of that situation and the feelings that emerge from that. It should be something inside you that tells you to move on out. It doesn’t always work though; so I wanted to know, well why not?

  1. This is your third anthology and your fourth published work since With/out Pretend started in 2015. I was telling someone about this the other day and they said, “Oh my god, she’s already produced four books?” Do you get that a lot? How does it make you feel?

It makes me feel a little gross, to be honest. I don’t ever even know where my socks are! Sometimes I don’t wear socks under my boots because I can’t find them in the morning. I watch Netflix all the time and I eat leftover, cold takeout; it’s not glamorous.

When I think about people who will read these books, I try to pretend that I am talking to me from two weeks ago. It’s not that I’m a better artist or writer or maker of things, but I am just operating from two weeks into the future, where you could be too if you just do what I did two weeks before. It makes me feel not too far away.

The work that we’re doing inspires people to do their own things. I worked with a copywriter for this book who wrote me and said that she could see that it’s possible for her to put a book together one day, that it’s not so mysterious. There’s room for everyone to do their own thing.

  1. An owner of a few creative projects myself, it’s easy to let self-doubt and anxious thoughts swarm and take over – questioning every project or piece we put out there. How do you manage any feelings like this?

I’ve come a long way. It’s been good for me to see the response as I build projects. I started with a zine, Things I Do When I Feel Blue in 2015. It wasn’t scary to start there – it was a list that existed on a Word Document that I made in an afternoon. It wasn’t a big weight that I was carrying. I put it together with a friend who was a great illustrator, and it was fun. I take it one step at a time. A lot of people feel that it’s going to have to be perfect or on brand right away. All the best art is not certified. You think Andy Warhol knew exactly what he was doing? No. If no one shows up or buys your thing or likes it, do something different, but for me, I’ve grown step by step. I think Happy If You Know It is the best thing we’ve done – I’m very sure of it!

  1. With/out Pretend is all about inclusivity, diversity, feelings, creating things with meaning and opening up. What do you hope Happy If You Know It gives its readers?

I make these books because I am asking questions and I am wondering if these 15 contributors have something to tell me. I start from a personal perspective and then get 15 people trying to answer complicated questions.

We see intuition on the surface all the time. Things like, “Be true to yourself, girl,” but what do things like that even mean? Sometimes myself has bad ideas – like shit ideas! Happiness could be happiness today – two bottles of wine – but is that a good idea for Erin tomorrow? I didn’t contribute anything personal to this book other than the intro, because I want to hear from others. I hope that people see it’s ok to ask these tough questions and that you don’t always need to be brave. It’s ok to not always trust yourself, and ask when I should listen to myself and which voices I should tell to fuck off. Some of those voices may be people from our past, and not our true intuition.

My intro talks about my issues with body image. I have never had an easy time. I feel like a prisoner by my body instead of empowered by it. When I see things like self-love hashtags, I wrestle with them because I don’t love myself. It makes me feel that I’ve missed something that everyone else has the answer to and it makes me feel, well, not great. I’m optimistic and maybe I could have it [all figured out] too, but it’s a journey. It’s a process of questioning. That’s what I hope this book will do for people – pose questions that maybe they haven’t asked themselves, and now they feel it’s not a bad thing to ask.

  1. So much of the content we see in your books highlights the importance of self-care and self-love, but the unfiltered versions of both of those things. Why is it so important to showcase this self-wellness in a time like this, when the world seems so divided?   

Things are a lot more complicated. Things have always felt complicated for me, I have always felt like more than two people at any given time. I wrestle with my best self versus my worst self. I’m my own worst critic and think things like Instagram show just the best day in everyone’s life. Even when people are talking about things that are hard on Instagram, it’s a curated version of the worst thing in their life. In Happy If You Know It, these people are empowered to write these words. There’s something lovely about a book that is art focused and not brand focused, where you can start writing these stories.

  1. The book just went to print in mid-October. And then you went to Italy for your day job at Etsy, where you oversee Community Programs and Partnerships for Canada. How do you manage all of this?

I surround myself with such great people like Jen – who is actually a super human person – she makes me better. She was there when I left; the proof got sent to her house, she was working on the cover. You can’t do everything yourself – I do nothing myself.

Photo by: Angela Lewis.
  1. Do you ever sleep?

I love sleep, and I sleep like eight to nine hours a night. I go to bed early and am not as social as I used to be. I spent my 20s being hostess with the mostess. I still have a close group of friends, though. I’m an extrovert but I really value my alone time and I just spend a lot of time reading and listening to records, sitting and drinking wine with myself or my partner, who’s an introvert, hard, hard, hard!

  1. How do you get inspired to create all the time?

When I involve other people, it’s easier for me to feel motivated to not let them down. It’s why I choose to work with so many different people. I only hang out with people I think are better and smarter than me. What’s the point of being the coolest, smartest person in the room? I want the people who work with me to have confidence in me, and I have that confidence in myself, but I aim high for the people that I work with, that’s what motivates me to be better.

  1. You have hosted numerous reading events in Toronto, often times allowing people you’ve collaborated with to share never heard before stories, poems, songs, etc. What is the best part about having the chance to showcase art and feelings both on and off the page?

My goal with any event is to make people feel accessible. I don’t want it to feel like the artists are in one space and the readers are in another. I want it to feel like everyone is in the room. The people absorbing and reacting are equally as important as the people sharing. It’s like baking a cake – if no one eats it and you just share the photo on Instagram, who gives a shit?

With Adina Tarralik Duffy, who wrote a piece in You Care Too Much, I was fortunate enough to meet her on an Etsy trip in Nunavut and we have so much in common because we collect records. There were 60 people when she spoke at our first reading event, and 1,000 people who read her piece in You Care Too Much. I feel so good about that.

I’m so excited about Najla Nubyanluv performing at Happy If You Know It’s launch on November 22. She has so much heart. She’s a performer, singer and playwright. She’s an artist in residence at The Watah Theatre, which [amplifies the voices of] black women. I’m not a theatre buff and know nothing about this world, but I was working with this woman who shared the event on Facebook and I went. It was me and 20 other people and I brought a friend. We were sobbing and laughing and she was just beyond. I just reached out to her and asked her if she wanted to write a play. And she said yes. I was so happy.

In Happy If You Know It, She wrote about how we’re obsessed with heartbreak. I’m nervous because I want people to get it – I want people to see how amazing it is. And I think the venue (The Garrison) on November 22 will do it justice. It will make people feel strongly, one way or another. I could die the next day and feel happy about all that we’ve accomplished.

  1. On November 22, as you’ve mentioned, you’re hosting a launch party for Happy If You Know It at The Garrison, where there will be a short performance, DEEP CHATS (with a panel of contributors from the book) and a DJ. Who helps you plan events like these?

I do a lot of the events myself. I have a few volunteers helping me at the merchandise table. I always have someone there. Then I’ve hired a friend, Stephanie Rotz of Sophomore Magazine to DJ. People are involved and contributors will be on a panel. The planning is just me, but I don’t find events as stressful as making a book.

Photo by: Angela Lewis.
  1. What steps do you take when asking people to collaborate and what advice do you have for someone just starting out looking to collaborate with fellow artists on upcoming projects?

In my third newsletter you will see a checklist – a how to collaborate checklist. Never collaborate with someone you are sleeping with/or want to sleep with. The number one thing is obvious: Think about how it can help the other person. I think that’s the number one mistake. It’s more fun to do something with someone else – and find someone else who wants to collaborate with you. It’s like applying for a job – you want them to want you, just as much as you want the job. It’s a mutual thing. Sometimes you just have a feeling – Jen wrote me back in 15 minutes when I first asked her to be my Art Director, and I got her name from Angela Lewis, Photo Editor. Jen and I really get along, we’re respectful of each other’s time and we admire what we each bring to the table.

The two of us has touched every aspect of Happy If You Know It in some way or another.

I round up the contributors, handle the theme and the edits. There are like four rounds of edits and writers tell me sometimes that I am not typical, I think in a good way. It starts with a list of questions and a deep sub-edit. It is just me, I am the founder and the owner, but I try to make sure that everything has other people’s touch in it, because it’s more fun and more interesting.

  1. How do you find the people you want to collaborate with?

Internet hunting. I start with a long list of people I like and people I’ve read. Sometimes, I look at people who have won prizes in Canada. I start with a list of 30 people and then I shorten that list. Ninety per cent of people say yes, but it all depends on timing, I don’t give people a ton of time. We’re building this from scratch. Everyone built work for Happy If You Know It. Some of it has been repurposed – but it’s new purpose for the work they have already been working on. The themes that I’m interested in, the contributors already have work within those themes.

For example, Ness Lee is a muralist – her work is so simple, a lot of white and black, striking large pieces, it’s so emotional – I really get what’s happening there, it’s very deep work. I went to visit her in studio and had brought her a copy of You Care Too Much. When I walked in, on her bookshelf, there already was a copy. We were both big fans of each other. But, most of these people in Happy If You Know It I don’t know – I just reach out to them. Most of them come from connections through someone that I know, but they’ve all been strangers, up until now.

Photo by: Angela Lewis.

In just a few days, you can engage with and listen to some of the collaborators who created work for Happy If You Know It.  On November 22, join me at the Happy If You Know It launch party, where you can pick up your copy of the book and chat with Erin, herself. With/out Pretend also has an e-newsletter called Secrets, which offers insights into the independent publishing industry and encourages self-expression and connecting to our feelings. To subscribe, click here!

Special thanks to Erin for speaking with me and for continuing to make such beautiful books! As Erin herself says, “Feelings can be art.”

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