So What’s New In Litmock Land?
Check out the Steve Hockensmith Interview in the Interviews Section. Here’s a bit of it:
Steve Hockensmith is a great writer. Forget all of the awards he’s been nomiated for or won for his work (the Edgar Award, Shamus Award for Best Short Story, the Anthony and Barry Awards, and the Audie Award), forget all the great reviews and books he’s had published (Holmes On The Range, Black Dove, Naughty and Dawn Of The Dreadfuls, among others), simply read some of his work. He was discovered simultaneously by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (EQMM) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (AHMM) as he developed his voice, a plain-spoken narrative that spins excellent detective fiction. I find him to be a fetching cocktail, made of equal parts Vonnegut, Twain and some hidden ingredient that is uniquely fresh. All together, drinking down Hockensmith’s writing is a delectable, enjoyable, and it’s an excellent way to expand your mind, without the hangover.
Today he’s writing scathing symbolic political satire, in the form of a zombie President, in his new e-book, Cadaver In Chief. While American zombie Presidents are no stretch of the imagination, we’ve had them for years, this creative story takes the concept a bit farther, as the President, you know, may or may not be chomping living flesh of donors and voters. I won’t spoil the book, but I’ll say it’s well worth the read. Now let’s catch up with Steve and pick his brain on writing, on the industry, on where it’s headed and what he’s doing, before one of his zombie characters comes to life and devours his gray matter with some favre beans and a nice Chianti!
Litmocracy: I guess we’ll start with the boring questions, the ones that you’ve been asked a thousand times, and then we’ll get to the good ones.
Steve: Actually, I don’t think there’s a question I’ve ever answered a thousand times, except maybe ‘which way to the bathroom?’
Litmocracy: Have a lot of bathrooms in your house? Okay, How did you get your start?
Steve: Well, that’s a good question. When I get asked that question I’m always wondering how far back I have to go to give an answer. Do I start at the beginning, give a life journey, or cut to the chase?
Litmocracy: We can skip the fingerpaintings if that makes it easier.
Steve: Okay then, I guess I’ll start when I was in my twenties and I decided I wanted to be a writer of fiction. I always knew that writing was something that I enjoyed. When it came time to choose a career path, I chose journalism. After a while, I found that my job did not allow me to be as creative in my writing as I wanted to be, and then I thought, well, what else is there, aside from journalism? So I started to write fiction. At first I was afraid to try, afraid of failure. I got over my fear of failure by deciding to start small, starting with science fiction. My thought was, that by writing short stories, for which there was a market, I would be able to gauge my progress. If your story is accepted in a magazine like, say, Asimov’s, that’s a good indication that you can write. So after two or three years of submitting and not getting the response I was expecting (I sold a few stories, but not many), I started to think to myself ‘well, here’s something I suck at. I can’t write’. I didn’t even really ask myself why I had picked science fiction, or if there was anything else out there I could try my hand at.
Litmocracy: What did you think of that? I mean, this wasn’t exactly a failure because you sold a few stories, but how did you react? Did you take a step back?
Steve: Well, I got very lucky. Just when I had almost decided that I wasn’t very good at this, I stumbled upon something that opened a whole new door for me. It was ‘The Big Sleep’, by Raymond Chandler. I had never been a big mystery fan, had never read it. I liked old mystery movies, I liked Sherlock Holmes, my dad was a big Sherlock Holmes fan. I will never forget the impact the first paragraph of ‘The Big Sleep’ had on me. The voice got to me. And I realized that as much as I enjoy science fiction fantasy, the style of most science fiction is not a style that appeals to me creatively. What I realized reading Chandler is that his style was something that I could see myself writing in the informal voice, the irony and the humor, that appealed to me immediately.
My favorite writer, as a kid and today, is Kurt Vonnegut, and if you look at science fiction, no one writes like him. In retrospect, I wasn’t using my own voice and you can’t do that. But here I found that I could bring my voice into the mystery genre, because in mysteries you’re in the real world, describing real things. So long story short, once I read ‘The Big Sleep’, I read everything else Chandler wrote and started looking at the mystery fiction market. So I started looking at Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and instead of toiling away for two or three years, I wrote three or four really bad stories before they started getting good. I sold a good one to Alfred Hitchcock, and then I sold one to Ellery Queen, and then another to EQ and another to AH. The first story I sold to AHMM was called ‘Erie’s Last Day’ and it won the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Derringer Award. My first story to EQMM was ‘I Killed Santa Claus’, which was the debut of my Christmas Mystery collection for them. Not only did this give me external validation, but it also told me that I had found my genre home. To my surprise, that genre was mystery. From there, my plan was to continue writing short fiction until I felt ready to write a novel. I still very much had a fear of failure and I didn’t want to jump into a novel before I felt I was ready to take that on. Eventually I wrote my first novel – this was before I had kids, and my wife was working, so it was the perfect set up. So I wrote my first novel, which did not sell or land me an agent or anything.
Litmocracy: Which novel was that?
Steve: That was a novel called ‘King of the Jungle’, which has never been published, and which I still need to pull out and rewrite some day because I love the concept of it. With hindsight, I can clearly see everything I did wrong with it. So I really want to eventually go back to it and rewrite that sucker and do it right. I was lucky that this first unpublished book did not lead to a second and third unpublished book. The second book I wrote was ‘Holmes On The Range’.
Litmocracy: So how did the Amlingmeier stories start? How did Old Red and Big Red come to life?
Steve: Well, I started selling to EQMM and AHMM on a regular basis. The one thing that was nice about Alfred Hitchcock was that I was writing a series for them, about this guy Erie, and what I wanted to do was establish a series in Ellery Queen. So I was trying to be clever (occasionally that works out well for me), and I knew that EQMM ran theme issues, one of which was Sherlock Holmes. Being a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, I thought, okay, well, I can do this. What I really did not want to do was write an Arthur Conan Doyle story. I didn’t want to try and copy someone else’s style, I wanted to write in my style. My very ‘loosy-goosy American’ voice, so I had to find characters that would tie in to Sherlock Holmes. I wanted an American narrator for whom Sherlock Holmes was a novelty, so I started thinking about what was going on in the late 19th century in America. And I realized, wow, well there we go, the days of the Wild West were going on right at the same time so conceivably you could have cowboys reading Sherlock Holmes stories. So I thought up cowboy characters and wrote about them, and set up their story, and it sold. I wrote another one about Old Red and Big Red and that one also sold. So after I had written three Amlingmeier stories and was starting to think about writing a second novel, I thought I’d take it easy on myself and make my short stories grow into a novel. And as it turns out, I think I did pretty well with the brothers in my novels.
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Andrew Vachss Interview: Andrew Vachss is probably best known for his dark, gritty, best-selling crime-fiction series that centered around an underground icon, his career criminal, anti-hero Burke. This series includes extremely compelling, albeit extremely violent classics such as Blue Belle, Blossom, Flood, Strega, Hard Candy, Safe House and others. The Burke Series culminated in 2008 with the fittingly titled Another Life. This series, along with most of Mr. Vachss’ gripping, exquisitely descriptive work, offers rather disturbing doses of reality from people who claim the streets and gutters as their home.
The main character, Burke, and his offbeat, self-chosen family of shadow dwellers fight the criminals that most need to be fought, child molesters, perverts, pimps and flesh peddlers, human monsters that are all too prevalent in the real world. Vachss’ “heroes”, however, utilize tactics that anyone would describe as criminal themselves. In an interview with Bryant Gumble on The Early Show on CBS, Mr. Vachss described his main character and why he made Burke the criminal that he is:
“I wanted to show people what hell looked like, and I didn’t think an angel would be the right guide. You know, the standard protagonist in detective fiction is sort of better than everything — kind of looks at it, comments on it, but is detached from it. I wanted no membrane between the reader and the material.”
The main characters in the Burke Series feast on sick, depraved criminals. They are characters who use the power of evil to do some good in an otherwise hellish existence. Robin Hood and his not-so-merry-band, but with Uzi’s and attack Dobermans, and a propensity to exterminate their foes with extreme vengeance. This series has brought Mr. Vachss great acclaim for his skill. Publisher’s Weekly described the Burke books as a series of “urban nightmares”, an apt description, but they are a compelling, entertaining series of nightmares. They are also nightmares that serve to do the world some good, enlightening those who are thankfully unaware that these types of people do exist, and purging some of the pain from those of us who have been on the receiving end of torments such as predatory child abuse and sexual abuse.
Even though The Burke Series, part of over 2 dozen novels that Mr. Vachss has had published, has brought the man fame and the ability and means to take the time to simply enjoy life, he has accomplished and still strives to accomplish much more than being one of the greatest crime/thriller novelists of all time.
Mr. Vachss (pronounced Vax) is an extremely driven man. When I mangled the pronunciation of his name, though I’ve read him for over 20 years, he informed me that it was neither Vachez or Vachess or anything else. It was Vax like tax, but he told me it wasn’t that important in the grand scheme of things. It was made up anyway, because his people in generations past had been forced to sneak in this country. They had to do what they had to do to make a better life. I told him I’d leave that out and he asked me why? Did I have a problem with it. Anything he said, he meant for anybody to hear. I told him I though immigration laws were silly at this point in our history, a farce, and that we were supposed to be the melting pot anyway. He asked me if I’d heard of the favelas in Brazil. I hadn’t. He had me look it up. It’s a massive junk pile wall, look for yourself, and he informed me that kids live there. They climb four and five stories of this dangerous man-made mountain, living with no heat or electricity atop it, just to carry water to their tin shack, a garbage can really. He asked me what I’d do if I lived there and I told him point blank I’d leave. Fuck the borders and fuck the laws, no kid should ever have to endure that, to start a life that way. How do you think a life that begins in a garbage can is likely to end? It made me sick, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. In the interview, which was supposed to be 15 minutes, as he is quite a busy man, he spent an extra 45 minutes explaining things like this to me. It told me that this was a genuine man, not a writer who escapes through his work or hides in it, but a man who really gives a damn and wants to make a difference. He has his priorities straight and sharp, like a silent dagger one of his characters might use to snuff out a predatory child abuser. I hope this interview and his work affects you the way that it has affected me.
Mr. Vachss is one of the World’s leading children’s rights activists and child protection consultants. He’s an acclaimed, successful attorney who only represents children in the fight against predatory abuse of all types. He was a founder and is a board member of PROTECT, The National Association To Protect Children. He has a unique website, The Zero, one of the best child protection and children’s rights resources to be found on the Internet. Oh, and as if that weren’t enough, he’s still writing, releasing That’s How I Roll and Blackjack: A Cross Novel, as well as collaborating on a number of graphic novels over the past decade. Now let’s meet the man who never stops fighting for the rights of children.
Litmock: I’d like to start at the beginning, touching on The Burke Series. I found Hard Candy in a book store and it sucked me in from page 1. I couldn’t put it down, then I read everything I could find, Strega, Flood, Blue Belle, you name it. You have a unique ability to make inherently rough, bad characters people that you root for.
Andrew Vachss: Not everybody roots for him.
Litmock: True I suppose, but many of your characters possess realistic, tragic qualities and flaws, flaws they often use as strengths, such as Burke’s ability to understand the mind of pedophiles and pimps. How did you devise that world?
Andrew Vachss: I didn’t devise that world. It exists. It’s real. It’s out there, but most of the planet ignores it because it’s convenient. News stories come on every day about kids meeting horrible fates in Africa, in Somalia, in inner cities here, and people just turn the channel. I guess they think that’s what God made remotes for. That’s a large part of the problem. Like it or not, that world exists and has for centuries. Burke doesn’t seek out pedophiles, he seeks out predatory pedophiles and child abusers. There’s a big difference. Predatory pedophiles, by definition, have sexual urges they act upon towards children, emotional urges some [argue], but ones they act upon in a physical way. By force. By trickery. By any and all kinds of means. Burke found them and he killed them. I wanted to expose readers to a dark part of the world that exists, and I didn’t want them to be introduced to it by an angelic figure.
Litmock: What inspired Burke and his crew in your books, and how did you go about constructing those stories?
Andrew Vachss: Burke is really a play on words. Burke was one of the original serial killers, back in the 1800’s. [EDITORS NOTE: He and his partner Hare suffocated or strangled people and sold their corpses for medical research, back when that was allowed.] But as you can imagine, you couldn’t sell a cadaver with bruises and marks all over the body. So they came up with a way to kill people without leaving marks. [EDITORS NOTE:The definition of ‘burke’ actually means to suffocate or smother.] No refrigeration existed back then, and medical schools were desperate for cadavers. Burke and Hare were grave robbers who emptied the cemetery *before* they turned to running their ‘hotel.’.
Litmock: But what about the humanity of Burke and his crew.
Andrew Vachss: Well, part of it is that Burke has developed or collected a family of his own choosing. There’s something important about that, choosing people you would give your life for.
Andrew Vachss: Yes, but there’s more to it. Loyalty to the chosen family first, not duty or any other prescribed notion.
Litmock: What about the story of the men who died protecting their girlfriends in that horrible shooting in Aurora last week, do you mean loyalty along those lines?
Andrew Vachss: That’s instinct. It’s human nature. The nature to preserve. I’ve seen it myself in Africa, in a nation that used to be known as Biafra [EDITOR’S NOTE: Located in Nigeria today]. A woman running away under heavy gunfire, stopping to grab an infant on the ground while bullets splatter around them in the dirt. That’s the maternal or paternal instinct. The desire to protect and preserve humankind. It’s really in your own self interest as well as in the interest of others. If more people realized protecting children everywhere under any circumstance was in their own self interest and did more to protect them, there wouldn’t be so much of a problem.
Litmock: So Burke chose people he could relate to as family?
Andrew Vachss: No, not as simple as that. He chose a real family, a family that wasn’t forced on him. One that would take a bullet for you, or that you might take for them. That’s real love. Sacrifice. The ability, desire, or choice to sacrifice yourself for your family or someone you love because you choose to. What most people call love is a joke. You go out and buy a Hallmark card and write I love you or whatever. What is that? It’s convenience maybe, it’s not true love of another or even the self. True love means you’d give your life to protect another. We’re all in a losing cause, we’re all going to die some day, so all we can do is fight on. We’re never going to win this thing. All I can do, all anyone can do, is swim further, fight the waters and the overwhelming tide, maybe crest a wave and hand the fight off to other people who can swim further. Fighting [predatory child abuse and sexual predators] is an endless fight.
Litmock: A war of attrition?
Andrew Vachss: Yes, exactly, but one we must always continue.
Litmock: Let’s backtrack just a second, as we are speaking to many writers in this interview. How did you get your start as a writer? Unlike many authors, you seem to have had a purpose from the outset, to expose predatory child abuse and sexual abuse for what it is, an abomination, but an abomination that is perpetuated by sick, yet obviously clever demons. Otherwise they wouldn’t get away with what they do. Your whole life is a determined effort to expose and fight predatory child abuse, and your writing appears to be an extension of that.
Andrew Vachss: I’ve tried to disseminate information the best way I can. The crime fiction audience is huge. By writing in that genre I can inform people and educate people about important things in a medium that is large and more accessible. I wrote a textbook once on juvenile criminology. It was a good textbook too, conveying this same, important message, but only a few thousand people read it. Writing crime fiction gives me a large enough forum to reach people.
Litmock: To hide an important message about this dark, sick world that exists?
Andrew Vachss: To convey it. People reading my books might not even know that they’re getting the message. They might walk through life and then one day maybe they’ll catch a news story they might otherwise ignore, but because they recognize it they pay attention. That’s a start. I’ve worked my whole life here, in Africa, you name it, dealing with that world. Representing criminals. Fighting them. I’ve never represented anyone charged with sex crimes or pedophilia or narcotics but I’ve seen and been involved in most everything else in one way or another. I’ve been a director of youth services, worked as a case worker in social services, I was sent on special assignment to a war zone in Biafra, I was warden of a maximum security prison for juvenile offenders…
Litmock: So you’ve worked both sides of the fence?
Andrew Vachss: What fence? It’s all one big, dark polluted system. I think anyone in the system would say I’m on the opposite side of the fence of them at any given time. It’s all a matter of perspective. There’s no oversight. Some child gets beat and people in Social Services say that’s just family discipline and they move on. Who helps or hears the child? Who stops the next beating?
Litmock: But drawing from your experience, you utilized schemes that real pedophiles and monsters use in real life. How do you have such insight into the criminal mind, yet maintain your perspective AND your sanity?
Andrew Vachss: Oh no, you’re not giving me the Nietzsche ‘stare into the abyss’ garbage are you?
Litmock: No, I’m asking how you develop that insight. You accurately describe their behavior, and how they go about fooling and luring their victims, even how they fool society. Take Hard Candy for example, pedophiles taking testosterone to suppress their sick urges so they can go back about their business when the heat’s off of them.You’ve even predicted criminal behavior, a lot of it, over the years. You predicted Columbine a decade or so before it happened.
Andrew Vachss: A decade??? I saw that coming and wrote something like it over 30 years ago. I wrote A Bomb Built In Hell in the early 70’s in fact. It wasn’t published then but it will be available this Fall.
Litmock: That was the first novel you wrote?
Andrew Vachss: Yes. It wasn’t my first published.
Litmock: You mentioned that the system is polluted. Has there been any change in your view of authority and its role in the prevalence of abuse? Burke, for example, preyed on criminals and sought justice where the system fails abysmally.
Andrew Vachss: What system? There is no system really because there’s no oversight.
Litmock: Well, what about when judges hear these cases and listen to psychiatrists explain why this nightmarish stuff happens? They just seem to want to assign blame and wipe it under the rug.
Andrew Vachss: What judges? Most of these cases are never even heard, they’re ignored. The “system”, for lack of a better word, simply ignores the whole problem. They don’t assign blame, they don’t care, or they don’t do ANYTHING about it. There’s no money for it, there’s no oversight for it, there’s no department or part of the government that effectively pursues it. Some case worker hears 30 or 40 cases and they all sound the same and that’s as far as it goes. All people care about is the lazy, easy road. Turn the channel, pretend it doesn’t exist. Nobody invests in pursuing these problems. They invest in paying a CEO $75 million dollars to steer a bank of of a cliff.
Litmock: …And we all pay for that.
Andrew Vachss: No, we all don’t. The CEO doesn’t nor do the bankers who took all of the bonuses. Ignored and abandoned victims do. The government is worried about the economy and other things that will get them elected, but not the real problem. Look, we’re in an election year, right? We narrow down the 2 candidates and all of the things that go with it, but when the time comes, no one will ask the question, not the important question. Not ‘what are you going to do about child predators, child abuse and the horrible plight of too many children that live here and around this planet?’ If they did, you’d get a blurb or a soundbite or some spun answer. “We’ll do our best to assist child services and let the legal system do its job, so that every American, especially the children, get a fair chance.’
Litmock: Garbage, but typical politico-speak.
Andrew Vachss: Of course. They don’t care. They haven’t dug into it, they certainly won’t invest time, money or effort in it, and Congress only moves when it has to. It’s much easier to pretend that the problem doesn’t exist.
Litmock: So do you think that the legal system or political system or the authorities are partly to blame in the prevalence of abuse?
Andrew Vachss: Absolutely. I’ve never heard of a predatory pedophile seeking counseling or help until after they’re caught. The system is screwed up from the start. It doesn’t seek to fix the problem, just to avoid it and perhaps punish it if forced to.
Litmock: You believe this to be a sociological problem then?
Andrew Vachss: I’ve never heard of or I’ve never seen any evidence that pedophilia is genetic in any way, shape or form. These are sick urges. This is a dark world that exists within society. Abuse is ignored, the cause is ignored, and the problem is ignored due to lack of oversight and a lack of [immediacy].
Litmock: But you’ve dedicated your life as an attorney to fight sex abuse and child abuse as well, and to protect youth wherever and whenever possible. A prime example is your foundation, PROTECT (The National Association To Protect Children). Can you explain a bit about that organization?
Andrew Vachss: It’s not my organization. It is a lobbyist group organized to protect and fight for the rights of children.
Litmock: A lobbyist group. Excellent. Fighting this bureaucratic system with the only weapon that has any effect on it. It’s like climbing into the belly of the beast to kill it from the inside out.
Andrew Vachss: Yes. You’re familiar with the NRA. I’m jealous of the NRA. They’re a very large, powerful and effective lobby, and lobby groups are the only way to get anything done in this legal system, in this government. PROTECT is a lobbyist group that is growing and that uses its influence and its resources to fight the never ending fight against child abuse. It is NOT a Non-Profit or a charity. It’s an actual tool being utilized to make a difference.
Litmock: Ingenious. Has it been effective? Have you successfully lobbied any changes in the law or legislature?
Andrew Vachss: Oh yes. Too many to go into here, but I’ll give you an example. In New York (in 2006), we lobbied the Legislature to change the incest loophole to protect all children. The way the law was written, if a person had sex with a child it was considered Rape in the First Degree. A perpetrator could get 25 years in prison with mandatory incarceration. But, if that victim was a son or daughter or ward, the perpetrator could be charged with incest, no mandatory incarceration, they might hardly receive any penalty at all. Where is the justice for the child there? We successfully pressured the Legislature. Once we got it before them we knew they couldn’t boot it out. PROTECT got the law changed so that any child raped by anybody would be treated the same, and the abusers would be treated the same, governed by the same criminal guidelines and punishment. Read PROTECT‘s website for more cases and efforts, or if you just want to help.
Litmock: And how does your website, the Zero, fit into this endless fight?
Andrew Vachss: It’s an excellent resource for child protection rights. It’s not an author page, per se, and I think that’s why it’s been a success. It was actually started by a fan in Hawaii and the server overloaded because it had too much traffic. It’s a compilation of links, advice and other resources, and people who visit it tend to stay and explore it for a very long time. It gets tons of hits, but that’s not important. What’s important is that people READ what’s on there, they use these important resources. It’s not about me, it’s about the fight against child abuse, and [my work] is just a part of that fight.
Litmock: Okay, let’s discuss what you’re up to now in the writing world. In That’s How I Roll, you return to utilizing the anti-hero as your narrator and protagonist. Again you’re drawn to the dark side, only this time your main character is a death row prisoner, Esau Till. Tell us what inspired you to follow a new character, not through a need to redeem himself, so much as through a need to explain himself. He’s not a vigilante…
Andrew Vachss: No, be careful there. I want to make sure we understand these terms. It’s important to explain things properly so that people understand them. The media, too many people, toss out terms carelessly. Esau only wants to protect his brother. He kills, but not child molesters or for any other “noble” cause. He’s not a vigilante by any means and he’s not Burke.
Litmock: Right, but in Esau Till, you have another deformed, though inherently likeable character. He’s a genius trapped in a mangled body. Here’s another man who started off on the wrong foot and followed it straight down the wrong path, so to speak. Esau himself says, of his beginnings “…when your sister is your mother, too, you know you’re not going to come out right. Not you, not your life, not nothing.” Now that’s a tough hole to start a character off in. And you’re the master at this, stacking the odds against your protagonists, making them villainous but likable at the same time. Is this by design?
Andrew Vachss: I don’t know that he’s likeable. He’s a genius who is mangled by Spina Bifida. Again, though, he only wants to protect his brother, which you see in the story he tells. His sister being his mother, it’s impossible for him to have a normal life, and he follows a path that many people who’ve dealt with similar circumstances have followed, in his own way.
Litmock: In Blackjack: A Cross Novel, you begin a new series, this one about a mercenary, Cross, and HIS chosen renegade band of disenfranchised allies. This is the continuation of the characters you created with James Colbert, no?
Andrew Vachss: No. Cross started in a few short stories I wrote, then I did the graphic novels.
Litmock: What inspired these characters? What made you decide to want to do another series like this, after killing the Burke series off? Obviously they’re different, but there are some similarities. They’re a fringe band of society, they’re killers and they chose their allies, etc.?
Andrew Vachss: But Cross doesn’t kill for the same reason as Burke, and his associates come and go. There are only 2 characters that go back to the beginning. This band is drawn together for their own reasons, different reasons, which you can see for yourself at the end of Blackjack, where this is going. The second book is finished and will be out next year.
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For more information, please visit The Zero. It will do you and the world some good. Mr. Vachss continues the fight, and I intend to help. I hope you do too.
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Christopher Moore, Interviewed by Don Eminizer: Read on if you want to gain insight into the twisted, hilarious mind of best-selling author Christopher Moore, author of the likes of Bloodsucking Fiends, Bite Me, Coyote Blue, Lamb, You Suck, Sacré Bleu and The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove. He’s working on a new book, a must read for sure. You can learn about his views on writing right here!
For those of you out there unfamiliar with Christopher Moore’s work, and both of you best crawl out from beneath that rock, stop whatever nasty stuff you’re doing down there and join the 21st Century, Chris has authored 11 books, 5 of which have achieved best-seller status. He’s even co-authored a graphic novel in his spare time, The Griff, with Ian Corson.
If you haven’t had a chance to read any of his work, I’d strongly recommend that you do so as soon as possible. Don’t just take my word for it. The Onion has called him “The thinking man’s Dave Barry or the impatient man’s Tom Robbins…” He has been compared to Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams (of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame) by The Denver Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. USA Today has deemed his work to be “Habit-forming zaniness.”
Personally, I’ve read much of Vonnegut and all of Adams’ work, not to mention countless others, and while I think comparisons are nice, I don’t think they do Christopher Moore much justice. He is a unique, accomplished writer who has a very distinguished skill, the ability to make you laugh uproariously on one page, only to introduce you to the depths and nuances of tragedy on the next, then make you spit your drink out your nose as you laugh unexpectedly on the following page.
To put it simply, Christopher Moore is Christopher Moore, there are no others like him. He is a fantastic, distinctly American writer whose characters can be related to by most anyone. Even though he is an American writer, he has quite an International following, not an easy feat in this day and age. On top of that, he is quite gracious, and open to sharing his experiences and views with fledgling writers. To that end, he has granted us an interview here at Litmocracy while working on his latest novel.
Now turn down that Jerry Springer re-run on the boob tube and pay attention!
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Me: With an exceptional, imaginative mind, one that has dared to tackle King Lear (through his Black Fool), Jesus Christ’s imaginary best friend Biff, the (undead) Parrots of Telegraph Hill, talking fruit bats, and a shaved, dastardly vampire cat that you described as perhaps the ungodly coupling of Dobby the House Elf and Gollum from The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, how do you go about getting into the mood to write? I can’t imagine that you simply brew a cup of chamomile and crank up the Wagner to set the mood. What is the writing process of someone who is so creative, they aren’t remotely afraid of tackling Shakespeare and King James? Something you did with exquisite skill and great success. If you had a muse, you’d probably make it dress like a Nun and drink tequila, then make it get up at the crack of dawn and go to work for an accountant for your own enjoyment. So what drives you and how do you tackle the creative process?
Chris Moore: Actually I think your projected answer is probably more interesting than my real one. Although I really like the whole mythology and double-edged quality of a muse (something I wrote a whole book about, basically, in Sacré Bleu), I don’t feel that kind of presence in my own work. I once took a physics course in a photography school that didn’t use any math. But they had to teach us some science if they were going to give us a BA, even though they knew that most of us didn’t know any math except exposure times and film speeds. So it was very abstract physics. Well my work is sort of mathematical in process, but only if you accept that you’re starting with an absurd answer and working your way backward.
Me: Your physics angle is quite intriguing as an approach to writing. Working backwards from a principle or axiom, I mean, and I sense that you delve or get sidetracked into other ideas and potential theorems along the way. Perhaps that is why your stories are so full of life, because you find hidden treasures as you figure out the equation, so working backwards from an incomplete axiom makes total sense. After all, how many places are there to go in the literary castle? They say there are only 7 basic plots, 7 stories or floors to work with, but I suppose they all have hidden closets on each floor which must be explored.
Chris Moore: What I was going for is an analogy for filling in the “unknowns” in a quadratic equation, but in a logical, not a mathematical way. In other words, knowing the answer first, now going back and finding what you need to get there. That is, I’ll start with a nearly impossible or at least absurd premise — “What if Jesus had a best friend who was a smart ass, who witnessed the “training” of a messiah, and thought it was an awesome way to get girls. Go.” (Lamb)
Or, “What if King Lear was told from the point of view of the Fool, the least powerful character on stage, and, in fact, he (the Fool) was pulling all the strings.” (Fool)
It goes on like that. “What if you took a whole village off antidepressants at the same time?” (The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove)
Now, the challenge for me is to make that happen in a context that’s entertaining and believable enough to bring the reader along. So, essentially, much of the comedy and shenanigans are all cobbled together to meet that original challenge, to make that premise work. And believe me, with most of my books, I’m not sure that it WILL work. I approach the task very seriously, and I try to bring all of my skill to solve each problem, even if the problem is simply getting a vampire cat to eat a stoner who works a night crew at a grocery store. So rather than it being a huge inspiration, it usually starts with one huge, goofy thought, then it’s the process of seeing if I can make that work. The idea can come from anywhere. From something I’m interested in, like Post-Impressionist art (Sacré Bleu), to something I want to do, like get in the water with singing whales. (Fluke)
Me: Much like Bukowski, you’re quite prolific and quite easy to read, yet you manage to weave a message through everything you write. You seem to have a much better view of life than Bukowski, though, and your work is quite, quite different. You make your characters learn, as well as suffer, along the way, while pushing them through a cascade of obstacles. I found it interesting that you sent Christ and Biff to the Far East for Buddhist training, for instance, before coming back to face the Crucifixion. What is your general philosophy, and how do you rectify that or utilize that in your work? All of your characters, from Flood and the Animals, angst riddled youth who encounter and become the Undead themselves, to Theophilus Crowe, the hippie, dope smoking constable of Pine Cove, are quirky characters who are still down to Earth, even when facing fantastic circumstances. While Buk wrote about himself, an easy topic to crank out a dozen or so novels on, you create entire universes, or invade existing universes with an entirely unique perspective. Obviously, some of these characters have to represent a part of you. How do you bring these characters to life? How do you keep them down to Earth, even in surreal situations? How do you separate yourself from them so you can put them through things like the Crucifixion, Zombie invasions at Christmas and the threat of a 60 foot horny lizard?
Chris Moore: I don’t think it’s really a fair comparison, although I can see how you’d get there.
Me: I simply meant in the ability to crank out quality literary material, in quantity, not in content. You’re definitely worlds apart from any other writer I’ve seen in content.
Chris Moore: I like Bukowski’s work a lot, as well as Richard Brautigan’s work, and they were both influences on me, somewhat, but beyond their ambition, which I think was much more pure than my own, they continued to wrap self-destruction and creation up with their work, while I hit a wall around the same time I hit bottom as an alcoholic. I drank a lot, and wrote some self-indulgent stuff, and “suffered for my art”, but by 30, I had a pretty self-destructive drinking habit and I’d never finished a book. I knew I had some talent, but I’m just not smart enough to write and drink, so I stopped drinking and I started writing. When you bottom out, you admit that you’ve more or less been deluding yourself for a long time about your own importance in the scheme of things, you come to the page with a sense of forgiveness and humility, and that allows you, or it allowed me, anyway, to create characters that were flawed, but intelligent, resourceful, and likable. Something I think I learned from John Steinbeck. I also didn’t care about glorifying or dramatizing my own life. I’d been there and I just didn’t think it was that interesting, but I could write some fantastic stories and put guys like me in those stories, maybe show that they could redeem themselves. So it’s not coincidental that Practical Demonkeeping and Island of the Sequined Love Nun have characters who are going off the rails because of alcohol, or that Theo Crowe has a problem with pot and crazy girlfriends, but they do stuff, they are more than those problems. I think comparing and contrasting me to Bukowski is sort of unfair to both of us, and I don’t say that to be mean. I think he lived his life and wrote the best stuff he could in that context. I’m doing the same thing.
Me: Often you cross characters over from book to book. Stephen King is exceptional at interweaving his characters and making it work. You, too, have written a number of exceptional books, such as The Stupidest Angel, A Dirty Job, and You Suck, where characters from different books interact with each other. Do you take joy in the fact that fans pick up on these interactions, or is this as much for your own enjoyment? Is your universe so entertaining for you that you want to see what happens when they meet, or do you enjoy pleasing readers who follow your work by giving them a bonus? It is quite often hilarious and ingenious, but isn’t exactly easy to pull off. I guess the question is, do you do it because it makes you laugh your ass off, because you think your readers will like it, because you like to push yourself and make yourself work harder so you never sleep, or all of the above?
Chris Moore: I definitely do it for the readers who have been with me and have stayed with me. I may have picked that up from Stephen King or maybe Shakespeare, but probably Stephen King. It’s such a cool feeling to be on the inside of one of the crossovers that I like the idea of giving that to the reader. On the other hand, it makes doing movie deals a nightmare, because each company wants exclusive rights to all the characters in a book, and you have to convince them that they can’t have this guy because he walked through another story that you sold twenty years ago to another company. I’ve actually done it by request, too, where it didn’t make any sense. After my book, Island of the Sequined Love Nun, readers kept asking for more Roberto the Fruitbat. I didn’t see myself writing another book set in Micronesia, but I thought, “Hell, I’m writing a Christmas book, nothing says Christmas like a giant Micronesian fruit bat on the coast of California for the holidays,” so he’s in that book. I’ve done that a couple of times.
Me: Do you own stock in Red Bull? If not, perhaps you should think about buying some. Very few authors have ever written this much quality material in such a short period of time as you. Do you ever sleep? How do you GET AWAY from your work?
Chris Moore: I’m actually not that prolific. I write about half the speed of an average (average speed, not quality) thriller writer. That is, on average, I write a book about every 18 months. Most thriller writers write a book every nine months and some, like Michael Connelly and Jodi Picoult are starting to put one out every six months. I’m talking about those who still write their own books. Now those people can’t have that much free time, but me, I have plenty of time to goof off. I can say, “I’m going to sit down and write eight pages a day” and do it. What I can’t do is say, “I’m going to sit down and write eight funny pages today” and do it. I might write eight pages, but if seven of them aren’t funny, then I haven’t done what my readers expect of me. My job, as I see it, is to entertain people, make them laugh, or at least smile, so I’m always working toward that. It really torks me off, too, when I’m posting something funny to Facebook or Twitter and someone tells me to get back to work. What the fuck do you think I’m doing? THIS is my job!
Me: Good answer. Now get back to work. Ahem… so how did you get your start, and I don’t mean, did you pick up a piece of paper and write down some dream you had. How did you get your break? Did you pester literary agents? Were you discovered? Did you get a break from a magazine? Did you hide in Steinbeck’s sons’ closet (and if so, wasn’t that uncomfortable)? What made you think you could make it as a writer, and how did you go about making that idea a reality? You obviously have exceptional skill, but that doesn’t always translate to becoming a best seller, somewhere along the way, you earned a break and you took advantage of it. How did that happen?
Chris Moore: I’d written my first book and I was marketing it the way everyone else does, by sending query letters to agents.
Me: You mean Practical Demonkeeping?
Chris Moore: Yes, Practical Demonkeeping.One of my roommates was from Los Angeles, and her best friend worked in TV development for one of the networks. A D-person’s job, basically, is to read scripts, so I asked her if she would read it and just give me her opinion on it, as a professional reader. She had it for months and finally I got a call, and she said she’d given it to a bunch of agents and a number of them wanted to represent me, and oh yeah, she liked it. So I had an agent in Hollywood and I got an agent in New York through the same person, then they sold the book to the movies and all over the world. Interesting thing is, the first agent who agreed to take me on wanted me to do major changes on the book if he was going to rep me and I turned him down. I was waiting tables at the time, so turning down an agent was not the most pro-survival thing I’ve ever done, but I just didn’t think he was right about the book. I was incredibly lucky. If you talk to almost any successful writer, artist, or musician, they’ll tell you that luck plays a huge part in success. You have to work hard and you have to have talent to participate in the luck, but luck is always a huge part of it.
Me: You couldn’t ask for much more as a writer. You’ve had best sellers. You have written books that should and I believe will stand the test of time. Your characters aren’t only real, and they aren’t simply in entertaining stories, they grow within your plots. They adapt. They learn. As you said, they are often average people who redeem themselves. They are real enough to relate to, while at the same time they are larger than life. That’s like the ultimate Jedi mind trick for a writer, to create a character that is funny and endearing, who at the same time gets swallowed by a whale, yet you still buy the story, and you’ve done it numerous times. More importantly, you can go from funny to tragic to scary to funny again in a few pages. That is a serious, and I’m sure, a hard earned skill. Since it’s impossible to teach other writers how to do that, can you tell them what you would accomplish, as an author, that you haven’t accomplished yet? What goals haven’t you reached. What advice do you have for those looking to at least come near the success you’ve gained?
Chris Moore: You just have to keep getting better, trying to get better anyway. I know what it’s like to not know how good you are, to need affirmation, and writers’ conferences are good for that, were good for me that way, but you have to have some sense of where you stand, where you have to go. Since so, so much of success as far as popularity or fame is concerned depends on luck, it’s not really realistic to have goals in that realm. Initially my goal, from the start, was to be able to make a living as a writer of fiction. Well, once you quit your day job, you have to keep making a living as a writer of fiction. If you can raise the stakes, you do, but getting paid to do something you like to do, and you’re pretty good at, that’s an admirable goal, and frankly, I can’t talk to writing students who don’t have that goal. I don’t think I have anything to teach them. I’ve had them, too. I was teaching a masters’ seminar in fiction at a writers’ conference, and one of my students said, “I love Marcel Proust. I want to write like Proust.” And I said, “That’s an admirable goal, but I don’t know if I can help you. You already know how to write like Proust, you have Proust to look at as a model, but I don’t know if you can sell a book that is written like Proust.” I wasn’t being mean. I think that’s a very pure goal, like being a poet, but I don’t understand it. If you want to write, write. If you want to write well, get better, learn to recognize what you admire and strive to write that well, but if you’re writing, you’re there. You win. Game over. And there’s an enormous gratification in writing something that you know just rings. The best moments in my career haven’t been professional moments, but pushing back from the page and going, “nailed it.” Knowing you nailed it. Nothing is better. It doesn’t happen often. In fact, it happens so seldom that I can’t see enduring the difficulty of learning your craft if you don’t have a “what now” to follow it with– thus, the professional thing, the making a living thing. But speaking of professional goals, I mean, I’ve had five NY Times best-sellers, but I haven’t had a number one. I’d like to have a number one. It really means nothing. I might release a book when there’s a weak list, or some book in a series that has been really hot might come out at the same time and foil my hopes, so really, it’s a silly goal. I want to just keep writing interesting and fun books. Each challenge is something I want to try to do as a writer, not as a writer of best-sellers. That is, set a goal like, “I want to see if I can write a book about the color blue, and in the process tell the story of the Impressionist movement. And oh yeah, it has to be funny.” That’s a hard thing to do, I know, I’ve done it, but it’s not a boring thing to do. It’s exciting and crazy-making and there were a dozen times, more than a dozen times, when I was writing Sacré Bleu, that I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. I used to want one of my books to get made into a movie but I’m less and less interested in that as time goes on because it occurred to me that someone could make one of my stories into a really bad movie, and then it would slam the door on a lot of new readers.
Me: I sense a taste of the Beats in your work, and not because Flood visits City Lights, along with some Steinbeck, some Fitzgerald, and perhaps a touch of South Park in your wicked sense of humor. Who are your influences? Who do you tip your cap to? If you had one chance to go sit down and have a drink with one author, discuss literature with one writer, who would it be and what would you ask them?
Chris Moore: The Beats are something you get over, I think. I like Ginsberg more than the others, but I’m not a scholar of them. With Kerouac you have that roman à clef bit, with all the drama and suffering of life on the edge, but then what? I’ve read them. And Hunter Thompson, and Tom Wolfe, and so on and so on. Southpark came along a little late to be an influence on me and I haven’t seen many of them, although I think those guys are terribly talented. Same with the Simpsons. I recognize the talent, but it’s not influential. Definitely Steinbeck, stylistically, more than any other writer. That great sense of forgiveness toward flawed characters he has. Tom Robbins for the playfulness, Kurt Vonnegut for the ideas, the straightforwardness of the wit, Douglas Adams for the over the top silliness along with the constant state of emergency that pervades most of the Hitchhikers’ Guide. Shakespeare, strangely enough, for the turn of phrase, the diction somewhat. He just said things more succinctly and lyrically than anyone else. Not always. There are some plays where the characters are just running off at the mouth — Will enjoying the sound of the words in his head, the feel of the quill on the paper, like Rosalind in As You Like It, but often he distills an amazing amount of human emotion and experience into a phrase. The speeches in Romeo and Juliet made to and about one another are stunning in their grandeur, in the absolute giantness of the love in a fourteen-year old’s heart.
Me: I see the Vonnegut influence, and understand the late nature of South Park and The Simpson’s, so that they weren’t an influence, perhaps more of a kindred spirit. But what of Monty Python? Hell, the 3 Stooges?? Bobcat Goldthwait??? Some entity, other than literature, must have sharpened that acerbic, dead on wit? Yes, The Taming Of The Shrew and Voltaire and Ben Franklin were humorous, and even Kafka (I’m sorry, turning into a bug and facing your boss, a jury and family is downright funny to me) had his moments, but you have uncanny, pound the fist with the Ninja Granny LOL moments.
Chris Moore: Well, definitely Python, the sort of outrageous understatement of a dead parrot shows up in my stuff even before Fool, which, I think, has a lot of Pythonesce moments. And a number of comedians influenced me — their timing — in the cases of Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor, especially Eddie. George Carlin, of course. The first album I owned wasn’t The Who or Led Zeppelin, like most of my contemporaries, it was George Carlin’s Class Clown. Robin Williams’ off the wall stuff was inspiring, although that sort of manic energy is hard to corral in fiction. I tell students, “I can’t teach you to be funny, but you can learn comic timing, and you learn that from comedians.” I often hear comedic timing in my mind’s ear like a stand up comic when I’m writing a comic line.
Me: Last but not least, what are you working on now? We can’t wait! Where and when can we get it? Will it come with a scratch-n-sniff reptile or a shot of some exotic liquor? One can always hope.
Chris Moore: I’m working on another Shakespeare-based book, sending my Fool from Fool to Venice, to interact with the characters from two other Shakespeare plays. Currently, I’d describe it as a Huge Lyrical Clusterfuck of a story that I’ll never find my way out of, but that’s how I usually feel about a book at this point, so I’m probably okay.
Me: Thank you Mr. Moore, very much, for sharing your precious time with us. If you want to purchase any of Christopher Moore’s wonderful books and taste his exotic literary cuisine, please click on any of the links in this article, or click this Amazon link to access any title or foreign translation of his work. I warn you, though, it’s addictive. If you have any further questions you want to ask Mr. Moore himself, he’s been kind enough to include his e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org) and says that he always responds. I’ve also added a link to his website, and his hilarious Facebook and Twitter feeds.
Until next time, Don
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Read Our Most Recent Newsletter: …Yesterday I had an opportunity for the first time in about 12 years, almost to the day, to buy baby formula. I bought it for my youngest son Liam. As luck would have it, Liam eats the exact same formula as his big brother Ray used to. Sadly, the purchase price provided a startling contrast to what this formula cost me just over a decade ago. This got me to thinking about where my country is today and what this world we live in is headed towards in the future.
12 years ago a 23.2 ounce can of this Gerber formula cost me $10.99. Yesterday, the same Gerber formula cost me $24.99, before taxes, which are also higher than they were 12 years ago. Do they put gold in Gerber baby formula these days? Is gold even good for babies? If this is the case, I think I need to start mining in his diapers to cut costs, but I do not think this is the case. Speaking of gold, in April of 2000, gold was about $272 an ounce. Today, gold is being traded at $1573 per ounce as I write this.
When I shopped for formula 12 years ago I filled my car up with gas, which cost me $1.35 per gallon. Today a gallon of gas costs $3.87 at the Rutters near my home. That day when I shopped I also bought milk and bread. The milk cost me $2.65 a gallon. A loaf of bread cost me .69. Yesterday I also bought milk and bread. I could not afford a gallon of milk at $4.19, so I bought a half gallon at $2.29. The bread cost me $1.49. In every instance, except for milk, prices have risen over 100% in 12 years. The cost of milk has risen well over 50%. Gold, a clear indicator of inflation, has risen over 500%. We’re talking since 2000, not since World War II or 1950. Yet the government tells me inflation is holding at 2% or so. By no math I’ve ever seen, can you POSSIBLY get the prices we have today in just 12 years at 2-3% inflation. Now I understand why they’re always teaching “new math” in government run schools. So that when the government tells you that 2+2=entitlements and a welfare state, it makes sense to you, and you say “uhmkay” as drivel drips down your chin while you stand in the bread line waiting for the bread to run out…
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Interview With Actress & Singer Linda Purl: Actress and singer Linda Purl looks fresh as ever. Growing up in Tokyo, Linda started acting at an early age and we best remember her as Charlene Matlock, daughter and assistant of Benjamin Matlock (played by Andy Griffith) in the first season of the famous TV show Matlock (1986). Over the decades, she has claimed prominence in both acting and singing. Today, she is lovingly going about both art forms and adding to her Facebook fans. Following is my brief e-conversation with Linda.
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Interview With Matthew Ward: Matthew (Matt) Ward lives & writes in Newcastle Australia. He has had three books published: Jake – a novella (Australia, 2004); Her Mouth Looked Like a Cat’s Bum – short stories (USA, 2006); and Cats Creep the Fire To Art – poetry (USA, 2008). His short stories have appeared in several magazines, printed as well as online. Ditto, his articles – both serious & satirical. He dreams of writing the great Australian novel; failing that, the great American one. He is also the publisher of Skive Magazine (2003-2009). Following is a brief conversation with Matt on his poetry collection Cats Creep the Fire To Art.
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Excerpt Of Interview With Noam Chomsky:
OKON: While reading one of your many unauthorized biographies, i saw a giant poster of Bertrand Russell, attached to your office door, and was reminded of one of your old statements. Your words were, “I do not believe in the cult of personality.” If this were true, how do you reconcile the poster? Do you not see the conflict?
CHOMSKY: Why Bertrand Russell? A good question. I do respect his work, his activism, and many of the things he’s done in his life, though by no means everything. It’s on the wall, and larger than other pictures, but it’s not the only one, though it’s the only photograph of a person. Another is a painting that depicts the horrifying decade of the 80s in Central America: the angel of death standing over the martyred Archbishop Romero and the six leading Latin American intellectuals, Jesuit priests, whose brains were blown out, their housekeeper and her daughter too, framing the decade: 1980 and 1989. Our victims, along with hundreds of thousands of others. Another is a photo that a friend and I took in Iquique, Chile, a monument to the hundreds, maybe thousands, of men, women and children slaughtered there in December 1907, perhaps the most vicious of many labor massacres, this one at the hands of the Chilean servants of Britain.
(c) chomsky/okon 5/18/2009