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Exclusive Evil - An Interview With Me. No, Really.
Extra thanks to Sean Cusick for the questions.
I’ve mentioned the paperback for my book, Everything Abridged hitting April 11 a few thousand times. So here’s a bit of me as a super-serious author of unprecedented importance. It has a lot of thoughts on writing, if you’re into that.
A ways back, Sean Cusick, a brilliant Art Institute of Chicago MFA student, reached out for an interview. Then he extra-graciously let me share it with you. Enjoy my Tolkien-length responses.
You’ve been published very consistently in the New Yorker and a few other online pubs for about the last two years. What’s your hit/miss ratio? Do you give yourself a “submissions per month” quota?
The hit/miss ratio varies with the institution. To avoid stepping on toes, I’ll use uncrackable codes. About half of my New Jerseyman lobs have gotten in, which feels like a miracle. I’ve pitched MacArthur’s Online Habit a lot of material, but only gotten through twice. The Surviving Internet Comedians articles are a fixed monthly feature. Other outlets have technically been 100%, but I’ve only tried one thing there.
I don’t have a quota for submissions, for me that road would end in madness. I just try to give each day an honest effort. I don’t like going at half or double speed. Working a sane amount consistently keeps my brain in one piece, and let’s a nice backlog build up.
You say Own Goal is a personal favorite piece of writing. What was your hardest?
With this question, there’s a little divide between the letter and spirit of the law.
To the letter, I’d say “Recent Activity” after a long chain of math errors on my part. That story’s a set of financial transactions, and it turns out I’m not qualified to write it. I’ve never come so close to driving an editor to madness. I think I talked about it in my Clarkesworld interview.
To the spirit of the question, e.g. literary process, it was definitely my unpublished political satire. It’s the most prophetic project I’ve ever finished—a novel-length spin on American populism, originally drafted in 2015. Then inch by inch, catastrophe by catastrophe, it became old hat.
I rewrote it a few times, and watched the world move on. It was hard to complete, and harder to watch its time pass. One day, I might drink drop a PDF on my newsletter as a fan bonus.
Everything Abridged uses a remarkable number of forms - dictionary, journal, 2p (as stand up routine, letter, tour guide), account transaction history, comics pitch doc, QnA responses, annotations - Form and stories - chicken and egg here, which came first?
Unfortunately, I have the least helpful answer: it varies. Sometimes I’ll have a subject and tone tacked down ahead of time, and find it’s not working in its current form. Then I’ll play with different filters for the events/topic. On other occasions, it’ll be something like a personal challenge. Can I write in credit card transactions? Iterations of presidencies? Some mornings, I think I’m just the fiction version of Steve-O, seeing the largest object I can jump from without dying.
One of the most memorable classes I took in undergrad was Media Theory. Almost all of it flew over my head, but McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” quote stuck with me. I’m sure he meant something much deeper than bending short story formats, but it’s still a big help.
Post Atomic Stress is, to my knowledge, your longest work. Is this a harbinger of things to come, or are you focusing on shorter structures?
Definitely a harbinger. I’m stitching my attention span back together like the rest of the planet. My next book, universe willing, will be one continuous work.
Several of the stories in EA seem like they might be the same world (Liberty Points; Death Comedy Jam; Post Atomic Stress, Welcome, Zen in the Dark) - a sort of near-future corporatocracy, but with some freedoms/agency left. Kinda like Saunders-for-characters-who-still-have-some-means, on its way to Blade Runner. Are you building a world for fictional, satirical purposes, or is this where we’re going? How sure are you?
I consider those stories dots in a dire timeline. That said, my projections of the future are closer to warnings than prophecy. History’s full of near-random, unpredictable jackknifes. The world was headed one way, and then Alexander the Great died. It was headed another, and then Genghis Khan made manager.
I don’t believe I have a special handle on where society is headed. I’m just ringing the alarm on my pet topics (mutually assured destruction, omnipresent surveillance, passive manipulation, etc.). I’ll gladly thump my chest if the world goes my way, but I really, really hope that it doesn’t.
For example: I hardly touch genetic engineering. That is not going to have a small impact. Our first-grade conversations around bioethics are not a strong foundation for the choices CRISPR and company offer.
When did you come up with the dictionary as a quasi-framing device? And how did you write it?
Back when Kickstarter was viable for unknowns (late undergrad for me), I toyed with the idea of crowdfunding a standalone satirical dictionary. I ended up shelving the idea thanks to a mixture of bad advice and jungle juice. Half a decade later, I stared down my raw material for a collection and felt it was missing something. Then I remembered my long-lost Devil’s Dictionary knock-off pitch, and the definitions started pouring out. I highly recommend being a creative hoarder. Never throw anything away.
What’s wrong with the stuff that didn’t get into EA? Is it dead forever? How much is there?
One piece about surveillance felt artificially compressed, and too close to existing ideas in Post-Atomic Stress. I might take a tilt at making it a full-length feature later.
Another story, unfortunately, got scooped by the zeitgeist. A massively popular, critically acclaimed comedy with a similar conceit emerged. So while I love and admire Nathan Fielder, I also hate him.
Another piece…is fine. I should sell that.
Elon: hilarious, heart-breaking, ho-hum, head-scratching, or heroic?
From my angle, hilarious. Humiliating yourself should be impossible with multiple personal think tanks. But his ego’s outgrown the reach of the world’s largest fortune. Considering what he could accomplish by literally throwing bundles of money at problems, his cascade of personal and professional failure becomes hard not to smirk at.
What’s your workday routine? I see you teach, you obviously write, you Tweet almost daily. How do you put it together?
I work in multiple short heats. I talked about this a bit in that Clarkesworld interview: I find I’m most productive in little chunks, broken up by breaks for air/sleep/reading/bad acrobatics. Keeping that approach consistent gets more, better work done than chaining myself to a laptop for six hours. More power to the people that reach the finish line that way, but I’d gnaw my own arm off in two hours.
To be honest, the order of my work is driven a lot more by deadlines and timeliness than coherent organization. If I ever make a notable amount of money, I’m getting a personal assistant.
Teaching’s an adjustment, and I’m enjoying it. I’m lucky to have tripped into two great groups of students. If I had to teach my eighteen-year-old self last semester, it would have gone poorly.
Why is genre fiction better than literary fiction?
I’ll drop my ego for a second, and say it’s a little more complicated than that. I think my genre fiction is better than my literary fiction because that’s where my ideas, energy, and heart are. The most disposable entries in both lanes are made simply because the author and company think it will sell. I wouldn’t encourage Joan Didion to write about cyborgs, unless she was into them. It’s much more likely she’d find the process to be a kind of living death. We all have our fixations and aversions.
I just started an MFA because apparently I don’t understand how money works. Any tips, as both grad and instructor?
To whatever extent is possible (lord knows the world has its unpredictable pressures), avoid putting yourself in the mental or practical position that you have to blow up right now to survive. You need to stay sane and eat food.
The paradox: if the economy doesn’t cave in, try to tilt towards jobs that aren’t totalizing in time. Sixty hour workweeks and writing are a challenging pair, unless you’re as terrible an employee as I was.
You satirize small-size ideologies (the various “-ists” of Post Atomic, the SRM of Zen in the Dark)... or is it large-size political groups (your subway ads) or, perhaps more to the point, does any form of organization or action work in 2022 America? Does fiction like this matter?
The encouraging/horrifying thing in American politics, is that a lot of the levers of power work and work well. There’s just nothing stopping the insane, lost, and damned from reaching for those levers. Putting people in buses, handing them information, putting initiatives on the ballot: all of it is doable. Some of the most motivated people in the country use that to put gun turrets in schools.
Whether a story/piece matters depends on your end goal. Are you entertaining yourself? Making the sheeple wake up? Angling for blockbuster movie deals? I’m flighty enough that my targets vary from project to project.
Specifically, I waver between a few classic ideologies on satire. On a bad day, I think it’s purely a balm for the sane people left. I have trouble imagining Mitch McConnell thumbing through my work and thinking “What have I done?” On a more mischievous day, I do have a bit of a “sticking it to the bastards” mentality. It’s a side effect of reading Transmetropolitan as early as I did. In my wildest moments, I think I can change someone’s mind. I hope that’s happened at least once.
In retrospect, did anything speed up, or slow down, getting your work done? I suppose this is a version of the “any advice for yourself as a younger writer” question.
Speeding Up: Keeping track of stray ideas made a big difference. Always, always, always have some form of notepad or phone file for random inania. Tearaway pads are the advantage that stand-up comics and journalists have over everyone else. I’m not always in an inspired mood, or ready to brainstorm. Keeping a suite of ideas to return to and mechanically expand upon keeps my mental slumps productive.
Slowing Down: I hope this doesn’t throw off the tone here, but my mother’s death was a complete productivity car crash. Instead of escaping into my work, I let my work escape me. Literary humor felt a bit pointless, along with everything else. It took time to rebuild healthy habits, outside of showing up to the office and filling my chair.
Broad Advice: It’s nice to have a side project that doesn’t matter. The pranks actually played that role, until I tripped into a news camera. Now I think stand-up and falling off of skateboards fill that hole. Something that’s still creative, but I allow myself to suck.
I’m hoping you could fill in a bit of biography for me. Were you always a writer? I’ve gathered that you worked in advertising, and while I think(?) that experience burned you a bit (as it does everyone, sigh), what did you do, and how has it affected your writing and worldview? And, after or during your ad career, at what point did you say, “I’m a writer?” Or, again, were you always?
I’ve chased writing since I was fourteen. My father considered it a kind of suicide, but he wasn’t sober enough for me to take him seriously. Joseph Heller and Terry Pratchett were major inspirations for me. I also enjoyed James Agee and George RR Martin a lot, but I’m categorically incapable of taking life seriously for more than twenty pages. I always had speculative fiction and graphic novels as goals, so I guess I’m halfway there.
In advertising, I was a copywriter. No doomsday weapons, don’t worry. Amusingly, while the company itself was a daemonic engine, and I was churning out meaningless dross, I had the nicest boss of my lifetime in that role. He was pleasantly checked out. My work ratio was overtly 5 parts personal to 1 part advertising, and he took it as more of an amusing quirk.
I think I was decent at it. More Season 1 slick philanderer Don Draper, less Season 4 walking corpse Don Draper. The nice thing about the job, is that Hollywood gave friends and dates a much clearer idea of what I did. Now my family thinks that I’m either homeless or Stephen King.
I had similar mass media stereotypes going into the agency. With some time on the ground, really meeting and engaging with the people, I discovered those stereotypes were absolutely true. You know exactly what life on the ground in an ad agency is like. I can only assume that it’s made me a hair more cynical, and better at lying to people and myself on a day-to-day basis.
I had a lot of strange jobs before and after that, some concurrent with my grad school days. Early on, I interned at a fashion magazine (without learning to dress myself) and finance newsletter (without learning to save money). I had a brief publicity job under a crazed ex-boxer that I’ll keep to myself for now, since it’d be professional malpractice not to write about it. The story involves a former mayor. I suppose I’ll antagonize everyone that’s held office in New York at some point.
Where do you think your writing is strongest? Weakest? Have you ever tried to deliberately work on your weaknesses? No?
Someone said I was funny once. I hope that’s true.
As for weaknesses, teachers and peers always said I took the cartoony tone/slant a step too far. I don’t think that’s changed, The era I’m commenting on just got crazier. We’re one DeSantis inauguration from me being a dry literary realist. Hopefully I can get some good work in before sanity returns and turns me into a hack again.
[Update: This is kind of a dodge. I tend to go too light on sensory detail. Now I double back to add it. On a similar note, I’ll sometimes go too light on the setup/transitory babble in prose. Essentially, I always end up having to check if I actually said what I intend to say, and gave the reader enough to understand it.]
How much do you lift, bro? I just got my DL over 400 after 3 years of casual crossfit. And is exercise part of your “process?” Or therapeutic? To fend off the new legions of lit groupies?
Sup, bro. Here’s my stats:
Lifting: So much. Not cut in half by a recent injury at all.
Breaking: Standard powerhead. I can stitch flares/windmills/headspins/darkhammers into each other. At just 31, age is already taking a rapid toll.
Skating: I suck bad. I do most of my falling in transition and freestyle. A lot of rail-to-rail tricks and basic miniramp stuff.
I consider health part of staying sane and productive. We have too many stupid myths about art drawing from ongoing self-destruction. Not to diminish the many excellent books written mid-bender. But I’d say great work comes out in spite of those circumstances, not because of them.
What IS your process? One project at a time? Multiple? One draft or 50? Handwritten by candlelight with tea, or on your phone while on the bus?
I pursue one long-term project at a time, and as many short-term projects as I have time for. It’s a good balance between letting myself chase fun waterfalls and actually getting something done on occasion.
I tend towards writing linearly, though I’ll write a key/inspired scene ahead of time if it comes to me. It’s not a rule, just how I think. It keeps the logic together.
I’m not talented enough for just one draft. Maybe someday, when my virtuosity is celebrated in token black nominations around the publishing world. Until then, it takes several for the words on paper to match the vision in my head.
While I constantly note ideas on the phone, I only write efficiently on paper or in a word processor. The most dreaded part of my process is transcribing something written on ten restaurant menus into Word. I hope the AI that replaces me doesn’t resent that habit.
Mentioning therapeutic - some of your work (and characters, I assume, I don’t know you) draw directly from your life… is this therapeutic? Or just good fodder?
Less therapy, more just using every part of the animal. If I feel I have some insight or energy around a topic, I try to tap it at some point.
What happens during a successful writing session?
On the best days, an idea or line that makes me really excited to be there comes along. But I’m becoming less dependent on divine lightning striking. The further I get, the more important I realize showing up is. Since most of my writing happens in the kitchen, I don’t have much excuse for not showing up.
I see that EA is made up of works published between 2016 and 2020, and I assume, works written specifically for the book. What was your selection process including your published works, and did you have a process for how you created/selected the purpose-written stuff?
I have this loose vision of a disconnected trilogy of books about America. One about our future, one about our past, and one about today. Everything Abridged is tilted towards the future, which led to a heavy concentration of my science fiction. I can’t give away the specifics, but my next book attempt is about our dumb, dumb history. The third satire, regarding the present, is a little more amorphous right now. I’m torn between two ideas. Either way, I need to make the second book happen before I worry about it.
What’s the best money you’ve spent as a writer?
I took a stand-up comedy class that explained the balance of information in a classical joke. Leaving enough information for your target audience to close the gap, and not a drop more. A comic named Kevin Dombrowski taught it, he’s great. It’s informed a lot of my thoughts on humor.
Hell in an Inkwell feels like a defense of pop genre art, written as a speech delivered at your alma mater, Princeton. Urban Market speaks to identity-based demands of publishers. You studied and now teach at Columbia. You seem to write about what you want to write about, but there’s cultural pressure about what you should write about. How do you balance all that?
I’m extremely stubborn. It’s questionable if I’m even balancing it at all—right now I’m just doing what I want to. I might write a heart-rending tale of inner-city black struggle if I end up with a family to feed, or scrape the bottom of my bank account. Until then, I’m fortunate enough to have just enough lunatics willing to play my game.
Has your writing or your process changed since finishing EA?
Like a lot of great speculative satire, you dial current circumstances up to their logical extreme - No One Gets Shot is America awash in guns and failure of academia to provide solutions. In Free Panels and Recent Activity, it seems like frustration and/or isolation lead to extremism. Professional complicity runs through Post Atomic, Welcome and Own Goal. So what’s your go-to cocktail, for relaxing and/or binging?
Are you ready to lose all respect for me as a thinker? I still like Jager Bombs. Somehow, my palette hasn’t left freshman weekend.
How important were your relationships - with your editor, your publisher, your early readers, friends, family - in getting EA finished?
I should get early readers. That seems like a smart thing to have.
My sisters are consistent cheerleaders, which is nice. I don’t feel like I’m writing this stuff in a cave, only emerging to drop off my stone tablets.
The publisher and I have been a very natural fit, particularly Chelsea Cutchens, my generous and much more organized editor. I know enjoying that relationship makes me very fortunate.
I feel like your influences are vast. I see Douglas Adams to Bacigalupi to Butler to Cixin Liu to Dick to Evangelion to Gibson to Huxley…I could go on. But what do YOU consider your influences?
You saved me a lot of typing. I’d just add Fran Ross, Warren Ellis, Genet, Paul Beatty, Masamune Shirow, Aaron MacGruder, Maria Bamford, and Neal Stephenson. I also love Samuel Delaney, but I don’t think I’ve pulled off a successful impersonation yet.
No fantasy? I mean, not even, like, a little space magic?
I’m a big fantasy fan, I just haven’t had that “big idea.” Good space magic needs a fresh spark or you’ll end up walking along very familiar lines. Right now, in two months, I could write a middling copy of Dune, or Star Wars with the numbers filed off. Or I could go real crazy, and rewrite Lord of the Rings with my culture replacing medieval Europe. But I think you want me to come correct.
Between us and your indeterminate number of classmates: I have one idea, and it’s close to my heart. But I think I need to slam-dunk this next book before chasing that dragon. It has a dragon.
What are you working on next?
A novel, and a hazy list of ideas for shorts. I’m confident in the novel, and my fingers are crossed on the shorts. If you’re a fan of my dumb pranks, I have two ideas on that front. A fun parody of The Babylon Bee should drop in the near future. My second, better idea toys with the NYPD, so I should probably find a way out of town before I pursue it. We’ll see how things go.
[Update: Now my next pranks are riffs on a certain stage show, literary journals, and the NYPD. Probably out in that order.]