As I sit down with Ken Baumann, I am filled with a familiar sense of friendly warmth. He smiles and shakes my hand as though we’ve been friends for years. He has an air of comfort about him that eases any nerves surrounding the interview.
Ken was an actor for a large part of his young adult life (well-known for his role as Ben Boykewich in The Secret Life of the American Teenager). Though I would refer to him as quite the renaissance man. After he quit acting, he and his wife moved to Santa Fe. He began studies at St. John’s College, from which he graduated last May. Ken single-handedly founded Sator Press. He is a writer, author and book designer as well as a husband, a friend and so much more. He was even a high school teacher for six months.
He brings a refreshing tone to the interview and doesn’t hold back his feelings.
You were raised on a horse ranch in Abilene, Texas? What was that like?
“It was small in comparison to ranches in Texas. At one point we had 20 acres, but at max capacity we had about 60 miniature horses. There was a lot of walking around our huge yard with my brother. We would play laser tag and we walked down to the lake by the campfire. We would make s’mores. I wish more kids would grow up like that instead of in cities.”
What brought you from living in Texas with your family to living in Santa Fe?
“Ok so, long story very short, I started acting in Abilene. I acted in theater productions professionally and eventually I was working enough that Los Angeles was more of an option. I started working in tv and commercials there. Eventually I met my wife (Aviva Baumann) who was also an actress. When she decided to quit acting, I quit. I didn’t want to work in film and television anymore. I heard about St. Johns college and decided that’s where I wanted to go. My wife is from here. She’s a local.”
You attended St. John’s College here in Santa Fe? What were you majoring in?
“It’s a great books school. Freshman year you start with Greek texts. Then, you chronologically progress through the texts that have been the most influential in ‘Western’ culture. I was an Undergrad at 23, just graduated last May. I have a BA in Liberal Arts.”
Do you have a favorite role you’ve played? Why is it your favorite?
“Yeah, It’s obscure, I don’t think you could find it if you wanted to. It was a little short film in Dallas called ‘Consideration’. I think I was about 10 and I played a boy named Albert who murdered my father with a baseball bat. It was kind of fun swinging a bat at a watermelon over and over. It was the first production where I felt like an artist and not just a kid. As a young actor, that is something you are always looking for in a role.”
Did you write before you came to Santa Fe?
“Yes absolutely. Writing and acting were always in parallel. When I was a 7,8,9-year-old kid I took it pretty seriously. At 7 years old, I wrote a book. Then J.K. Rowling came out with Harry Potter and I was like, ‘J.K. Rowling stole my idea.'” *He shakes his fist in the air, with a smile on his face “Solip and Say, Cut, Map and EarthBound all came out in a span of 4 years while I was still acting.”
Do you have a favorite thing you have written so far? Why is it your favorite?
“Absolutely. It’s a novel called A Task. It’s the book I’m tying to get published now. I spent a long time on it. I wrote the first draft in two years, scrapped it and wrote the second draft in 4 years. It’s my most precise and accessible writing. I started writing it because I had an image in mind. I wanted to answer questions of suicide. I lost friends to suicide. I think in writing it, I’ve answered questions for myself. Right now it’s lingering in some inboxes in New York City.”
What advice would you give to writers who want to get a book published?
“The Big 5 (publishers in N.Y.) hesitate to give you a chance if they think you are a lost cause. But, after reading some of these lost causes’ books, I’d cut off a pinky to publish them. Understand for yourself what exactly you want. If you want to write something a few hundred people or friends read, find a small press. If you want to write something thousands of people will read, try a bigger publishing company.”
Why did you name your publishing company Sator Press? What would you like people to know about it?
“I was interested in the Sator Square. I liked that is was a graffiti palindrome that showed up all over the Roman empire, but no one really knows what it meant. At the time I was thinking about starting a press anyway. Then a friend of mine named Christopher Higgs send me a book and I thought ‘Damn I HAVE to start publishing books now!’ I have published 9 books since 2009, 10 if you include Maze of the Blue Medusa. I was on a TV show being paid way to much money at the time so I just wanted to pour as much love and attention into the press as I could.”
You are the author of several different genres. Do you have a favorite genre you like to write in?
“I think that for better or worse I am a novelist. I realized this after listening to and reading conversations with novelists, poets and journalists. Qualities that I see in novelists, I see in myself. There is a passionate skepticism in novelists. Also, I feel like I’m probably best craft wise at writing fiction, though I am getting better at essays. Poems have the most surprises. I find myself being surprised by the connections in the language I didn’t know where there.”
Tell me about the dungeons book you’ve created, Maze of the Blue Medusa. Do you play Dungeons and Dragons?
“The idea came from Zak Sabbath (aka Zak Smith). He’s a painter. His pieces have been featured at the Whitney (museum). He’s also a porn star, a punk, a very strange guy and he writes table top role playing stuff. Though I was introduced to D&D by a friend named Bernardo. Playing D&D was a way for us to be intellectual and have fun. I run a game once every other week. D&D is my favorite game on the planet, period! The layout for Maze of the Blue Medusa was crazy and I was doing it while in one of the most insane parts of St. Johns. I had an ulcer that was bleeding and was in and out of the hospital. But, I can say I literally bled for it. We set out to create the most acclaimed dungeon book in history and I think we’ve done that. We were very conscious to create a modular design. You are constantly being spaciously re-oriented. The books originally sold for $50.00, but now they are $350.00 on eBay. We printed 2,100 copies and they are completely sold out.”
You co-founded the app “Sweetspot”. What was the purpose of the app?
“It’s dead… which is good. Sweetspot was going to serve a purpose. Namely, we wanted to have an app we could use to send recommendations to people who were visiting our town. Our desire was also to cash in on the Silicon Valley con. We poured a lot of money, time and love into it but we couldn’t keep up with the operating systems. We didn’t have the capital or time to keep up with it. I’m not really glad it failed because I think it would have been nice for the guys who worked on it with me to get paid for all of the hard work they put in. But, I’m glad we didn’t cash in on that con. It’s really disgusting to me what’s going on in venture capital so I’m glad to not have benefitted from that.”
Is there anything you have coming up that you would like people to know about?
“I just put out a book through Sator Press called On Hell by Johanna Hedva. It’s a modern retelling of the Icarus myth. It’s about a kid who hacked the CIA. He’s trying to hack his body so he can fly. It’s SCI FI and horror. Also, Infinity to Dine by Lazenby. Lazenby is a genius! His mind is really special. It’s an essay collection from probably one of the most erudite people on the planet right now. Also, you can find the essays I’ve written on my website, kenbaumann.com.”
For more on what Ken Baumann is working on, make sure to check out Sator Press. You can also talk all things Sator by following him on Twitter at @kenbaumann.
A special thanks to Tom Richmond for the amazing cover photo of Ken!
“If one reads enough books one has a fighting chance. Or better, one’s chances of survival increase with each book one reads.” -Sherman Alexie