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I've devoted a pretty significant part of my adult life to working for social justice. I'm not going to slap a label on it, but I believe that everybody deserves to be treated fairly and compassionately, and I believe factors you can't control should not determine your destiny.
So I'm sad because of all the ways that social justice is losing the internet.
1. Recto-crainial inversion, or thinking justice means never getting your feelings hurt.
This is the most common failing of "social justice" activism on the internet.
In a time when economic inequality is increasing and the very rich are looting the country, people spend a lot of time on the internet complaining about jokes they don't like.
People should not say dumb shit that hurts your feelings. But you shouldn't confuse getting your feelings hurt with being oppressed.
Here's an example: when I was young and broke, (well, I should probably say "even more broke") I looked into sperm bank donation as a possible supplement to my income. I did not get very far because I am 5'5". Sperm banks deem my height to be a defect so significant as to render my DNA worthless. This is dumb, and even a little hurtful, but as a straight, white, college-educated cisgender man, it would also be dumb for me to make a career complaining about how society is out to get me because I'm short. I have plenty of other advantages.
Similarly, if you, no matter how you identify, are an adult in the US with a bachelor's degree, congratulations: more than two-thirds of Americans do not have one. Given how strongly education correlates to income, and given that our economic system is built on oppressing the poor, if you have a bachelor's degree, you are the oppressor in this country.
And I suspect that a lot of the "activism" coming from people in the oppressor class stems from a desire to avoid confronting your complicity in oppression. If you keep pointing at other people as the ones who create problems, you don't have to look at the problems you are creating, or at the systems of oppression you are benefiting from.
Everyone deserves physical safety, but the fact that somebody hurt your feelings by saying something stupid to you at Harvard doesn't really count as a social justice issue, because you go to Harvard and will for the rest of your life be complicit in oppressing the poor of the United States and possibly the world.
Rainbow Rowell recently tweeted this: "You're sick of "feminism"? Well, I'm sick of making less money, feeling like my body is community property, and feeling shamed & harassed."
Rainbow Rowell has two bestselling novels and a movie deal. She makes a lot of money. More money than at least 99% of people in this, the richest nation on earth. Her complaint about making less money is so out of touch as to be actually offensive.
As for the rest of it--I think her choice of words is telling. Feminism isn't about women having the same chance as men to control their own bodies and destinies--nope. It's about feelings.
So let's not talk about how the apparel industry is built on the exploitation of poor women (but actually read this, because it's awesome); let's not talk about the choices that low-wage single mothers have to make between being physically present for their children and making enough money to actually feed them; hell, let's not even talk about some poor girl in a rural county who's pregnant and can't afford the five-hour bus ride to a place where she can get an abortion. Because what's really important is a rich woman's feelings.
Is your vision of a just society one in which nobody gets their feelings hurt? Because mine is more about people having enough to eat and a roof over their head and physical safety.
Not at all coincidentally, if your feelings being hurt is the same as being oppressed, everyone is always oppressed and nobody has to admit that they're part of the problem.
Next time: being an asshole to everybody online!
As promised, I'm going to look through my YA offerings and see how I've done, diversity-wise.
Well, it's a story about a girl whose two moms die, and the family she had with her two moms is definitely the normal, healthy family that she misses. So good on me for that.
Having said that, this book does kind of suffer from "white is the default person" syndrome. Everybody in the book is white and middle class.
How Ya Like Me Now:
Probably the most diverse cast of any of my books, and the one where issues of race and class are foregrounded. Since part of the plot deals with Eddie, a suburban white kid, coming to live with his city mouse cousin, a lot of the book deals with Eddie getting over his preconceptions about urban life and urban residents. The secondary characters are black, white, Vietnamese, and Cape Verdean. All of the characters present as straight, though Alex is shown to know a gay couple.
I wrote the main characters as white primarily because I was going to be spending a lot of time inside their heads, and I wasn't yet confident enough to spend time in the heads of characters who aren't white. But overall I think I did a decent job with diversity on this one.
It's also my worst-selling YA novel, for what it's worth.
Everyone is white and heterosexual in this book. I did, though, make a conscious effort to include class in this book. So Brianna's dad has a horrible job he hates as an assistant manager at Megamart, but he has to keep the job because of the health insurance. Brianna's family doesn't have a lot of money, and many characters refer to the class divide between West Blackpool and East Blackpool.
Amanda lives in a blended family, and this is not the issue of the book; it's just the way things are in her family. No discussion of anybody being anything other than straight, which, let's face it, is probably an oversight in a book about girls' athletics. Amanda makes friends with a black student, and their dads bond over a shared love of comic books.
The Half-Life of Planets
Hank is diagnosed with Aspergers' syndrome, and much of the book deals with the particular challenges someone who can't read social cues faces when falling in love. So that's cool. But everyone is white and straight and middle class.
Notes from the Blender
Neilly's dad is marrying a dude, and Neilly is completely accepting and unfazed. (This was Trish's part, so I can't really take credit for it.) Declan is a metalhead who goes vegan. I think both of those subcultures get a bad rap, and I'm pleased with how I presented him. He asks out a black girl, Chantelle, who drops him like a hot potato when she sees him get violent with someone else. Actually pretty proud of that, though I think I probably leaned a little heavy on the "oh, you're black, so you're an outcast in suburbia too" element. To be honest, I did that a little bit in Shutout too.
Jenna and Jonah's Fauxmance
Aaron is part of a posse of male actors that serves as cover for a gay male actor pretending to be straight. The scenes in the theater company involve a pretty diverse company, racially, sexual orientationally, and age-wise, and one of them checks Aaron about his class privilege. The hardass director is a little person. Not too bad.
Tessa Masterson Will Go to Prom
More good stuff about class in this one, as Lucas has no money and lives in a tiny apartment above an abandoned drug store. And Tessa, of course, is a lesbian. And everybody is white, which is what the Indiana town I was basing Brookfield on was like.
A Really Awesome Mess
A decently diverse cast, though I guess there's really no diversity of sexuality presented, now that I think of it. All the characters suffer from some sort of mood disorder or other mental illness, and I think we handled that well. Pretty much no class diversity at all.
I've got some stuff I'm proud of here, but all of my protagonists are white and straight and able-bodied. (Well, I think Rosalind's probably bisexual, but I chickened out on that in the way I wrote about it.) There's essentially no representation of disability in my YA fiction. (I don't consider Asperger's a disability, and I don't think CF is classified that way either, though I'm not sure.)
I've done a decent job with portraying diversity of sexual orientation, and I don't feel that my characters who aren't white are too stereotypical, though I suppose I'm not the best judge of this. Asians are kinda underrepresented in my work. I think Hanh from How Ya Like Me Now is the only Asian character I've ever written. (Well, the only one I've written that's been published up to now.)
I'm proud of my work with social class because I think that gets neglected a lot, but I'm a little surprised and chagrined at how few of my characters live in cities. I've lived in cities my whole life, and yet only one of my YA novels is set in the city. What the hell's up with that?
Well, I think I may be guilty of thinking, at least on a subconscious level, of diversity as a "problem." What I mean is this: urban life necessarily involves confronting many facets of diversity, and I think in some cases I may have ducked this because I was writing about something else: grief, or death, or soccer, or whatever. And so I'm wondering if I just figured it simplified things to set my stories in a virtually all-white milieu so that they can be about only one "problem" at a time and they won't have "too much going on." Obviously this is dumb. I'm not crazy about how my black characters show up in these stories. I'm glad they are there, and they're not there only to teach the white characters a lesson, but there's something about the "one black kid in an all-white environment" that doesn't sit well with me, though I'm not sure exactly what it is.
Overall, I guess I'm doing better than a lot of people, but not as well as I'd like.
If you follow anything having to do with books for young people, you're doubtless aware of the We Need Diverse Books phenomenon. What began as a hashtag has now turned into a full-blown Indiegogo campaign aiming to do something I'm not exactly clear on.
I wish the campaign well, but I'm skeptical of its ability to do much of anything, largely because of the tone of the whole thing, which is overwhelmingly self-congratulatory. Not that I'm against a little self-congratulation, but let's be clear: the lack of diversity in literature for young people isn't some agenda pushed on us by some evil other entity; it's something all of us involved in this field did.
When the hashtag was just about some dumb panel at a dumb convention, you could realistically say okay, we're demanding of the convention organizers that they use their heads. But now that it's about literature in general, we're never going to get more diversity in young people's literature unless we examine our parts in creating the current situation.
I'm not optimistic. The indiegogo page features a video from John Green, a white guy, who mouths some platitudes about "the other" or something rather than saying, "wow, maybe I should stop writing about the same white boy over and over."
Now yes, John Green's a big star and the leader of a creepy cult of personality, so I understand why you'd use him to try to squeeze some cash out of people.
But come on.
People who are not straight white men and women didn't just start writing books. So who are we making this demand of? Publishers? Fair enough, but riddle me this: publishers gave you great stuff by Coe Booth, Mitali Perkins, and Padma Venkatraman, just to name three off the top of my head that I read and liked, and you didn't make them big hits. Why is that? Publishers' number one agenda is to make money, and I guarantee if a book like Coe Booth's Tyrell had made stacks of cash, you'd see at least twelve books featuring guys with braids on the cover on the shelves at your local bookstore.
So here we go with some questions for lots of people:
1.) Agents and Publishers: Do you use unpaid internships? These ensure that the young people who get to build networks in publishing are the kind of people who have enough money that they can afford to work, even part-time, for free. To give you an idea of how limiting this is, I am a white guy who attended an Ivy League university and at no point did I have the option to work for free, especially in a city as expensive as New York. You'll get a better mix of perspectives if you find other ways to get young people into the industry.
2.) Middle- and upper-class white authors: Are your white characters aware of being white, or do they think of themselves as "just people?" Do you know that only white people get to think like that? Similarly, do your characters or anyone in their families ever worry about money? Did you know only people with lots of money get to think like that? Do you have any characters in your books who are different from you in some significant way? (Hint: you're going to have to meet and hang out with some people from different backgrounds and experiences if you're going to be able to write them credibly.)
3.)Librarians, booksellers, readers, bloggers, buyers, etc.: Are you considering diversity in your buying, reading, and reviewing decisions? Are you actively trying to get books about people who are not middle class white, straight, neurotypical able-bodied people into the hands of your readers, patrons, and friends?Would you consider a book with a gay protagonist "A good LBTQ book" or just "a good book?" (Substitute any other group for gay in there too.)
Also: Are you helping to create the climate of fear that keeps many writers from even attempting to write about people who are not them? There's a particularly pernicious idea afoot that artists only have permission to write about things they've experienced personally, and that it's a terrible affront if they do otherwise. I guess the people who propagate this philosophy might mean well, but they are really stifling diversity in literature even as they seek to promote it. Something to think about. A lot of writers just stay away from writing about anyone who isn't them for fear of mobs of angry commenters. I'm not saying you shouldn't challenge people who do things badly or who reinforce bad ideas, but maybe dial back the vitriol a little bit so that people will feel more free to take chances.
If you are a person involved in literature for young people and you have been asking yourself some tough questions about your part in making things the way they are, then good for you. And, I mean, throw some money at the crowdfunding campaign, I guess, but please recognize that the solution to this problem won't come from a campaign or a hashtag: it's got to come from you.
Next time: I'll examine my own YA books under this lens and share the results with you.
The other day, someone wrote a bad review of one of my books. Not the first time. Won't be the last. I saw it because I have a tweetdeck column devoted to searching for my name. Because I'm brand conscious, okay? Not because I'm vain and insecure! Jeez!
So, okay, this lady tweets the bad review of The Half-Life of Planets. No big deal.
But then the retweets start piling up. This seems to be a little bit odd for a review of a four-year-old book that's out of print. (but soon coming back as an ebook!)
As of this writing, a day and change after the original review was posted, the tweet with the link to the review has been retweeted forty-six times.
I'll bet this looks awesome on Twitter analytics. But here's the thing. I looked at the accounts retweeting the review. And they're all the same: indie authors tweeting nothing but hashtag-stuffed tweets with links.
Not one of the accounts that has retweeted Susan Helene Gottfried's review of The Half Life of Planets has a single interaction when you click on "Tweets and replies." Nobody's replying to their tweets, and they are not replying to anybody's tweets.
This, I suspect, is because the authors whose names are on these accounts are paying someone real money to "maintain their social media presence" or "build their brand" or "engage in effective book promotion" or some shit.
But here's the thing. All these accounts are so similar that they are clearly being maintained by the same entity. I haven't investigated all the followers, but I would not be at all surprised if these sock puppet accounts are all being followed only by other sock puppet accounts.
What this means for too-trusting indie authors is that they are giving someone their money to do absolutely nothing for them. So you've got an account you don't maintain that broadcasts your tweets to other lights-are-on-but-nobody's-home accounts who automatically retweet your tweets, and if you look at the twitter analytics, it probably looks like your content is reaching a lot of people. (Leaving aside the question of whether all the retweets are coming from accounts that touch any part of your audience: the review of my young adult novel was retweeted by accounts purporting to represent authors of adult erotic spanking fiction,(which is evidently a thing) for example.) But you are actually paying someone money for nothing.
Whoever is getting your social media cash is essentially taking your money to have bots talk to other bots, and whatever part of your twitter feed consists of actual stuff you wrote that you hope will reach other people is just being retweeted by bots followed by bots in some kind of Twitter inception thing.
The downside of the awesome independent publishing boom is that it has been a boon not only for writers, but also for unscrupulous assholes trying to prey on people's dreams by taking their money and giving them nothing in return.
If your name is attached to an account that tweeted yesterday's review of The Half-Life of Planets, I'd like to suggest that you end your agreement with whatever huckster is taking your cash right away.
I use four modes of transportation to get around town, but I commute to work on my bike for about eight months of the year. I see a lot of anti-bike hate on the internet and a little bit on the street, so here is my urban cyclist manifesto. Enjoy!
I have a right to the road. I will ride on any road where it is legal for me to do so.
I have a right to an entire lane, and I will ride in the middle of the lane at will without apology or explanation.
I will not do stupid shit that forces drivers to make sudden, unusual, and dangerous moves to avoid hitting me.
I will treat buses and trucks with extreme deference, giving them more space and time than necessary and remembering in every encounter that being alive is more important than being right.
I will pull over for emergency vehicles and stop for school buses picking up and dropping off passengers.
I will stop for pedestrians in crosswalks.
Recognizing that a significant number of drivers are operating their vehicles in states of distraction, intoxication, emotional instability, or native idiocy that render them unable to share the road well, I will advocate for more bicycle infrastructure, especially cycletracks and bike paths.
Adrian Gonzalez was murdered on Friday night. (Well, Saturday morning just after midnight.)
He was shot to death outside his home. He was seventeen years old.
Adrian attended the same elementary school as my children. He was friends with my son from kindergarten through fifth grade. He came over to my house a few times. I met his family. He and my son broke a light playing football in our living room.
And then they were in different classes, and then different schools, and they fell out of touch.
And Friday night, Adrian was shot to death.
I am worried about how my son is going to handle adulthood and whether he'll find the right path for him. Adrian's mother Jaqueline doesn't get to have those worries about him anymore and is probably deep in funeral arrangements today.
I want to assert two things because I feel like our culture continually asserts the opposite.
The first is that Adrian did not deserve to die and is not responsible for his own murder. Adrian was outside of his own house just after midnight on a Friday night, which is a thing everyone should be able to do. You can't blame his family either: his parents are kind, loving, people who supported him and had high expectations for him. Even when he used to come over here in the third grade, Adrian used to talk about where he was going to go to college.
I know people usually like to blame the victims of violent crimes in order to convince themselves that the violence couldn't happen to them, but in murders like this, people do it to hide the truth about this country from themselves. What happened to Adrian and his family will not happen to you or to your son if you are white. It's also very unlikely to happen to you or your family, no matter what your race, if you have money.
Adrian was killed not because of something he did but because of who he was: a Hispanic kid in a low-income neighborhood.
My second assertion is simply that Adrian's life mattered. And that his death mattered. He is being mourned by brothers, sisters, parents, friends, family members, teachers and classmates. Many of these people have also lost other loved ones to violence. Adrian's was the thirty-ninth murder in Boston this year.
Our culture asserts that young men with little money are disposable--we can watch them destroy their bodies for our amusement on the football field, we can send them overseas to die so that we might not have to pay five dollars a gallon for gas, or we can just leave them to the neighborhoods where "those people" live and do nothing to provide the kind of opportunities for them that young men and women who live in more moneyed areas enjoy as their birthright.
The hell with that. Adrian was a person who mattered. His death is a tragedy, and the fact that it happens so often should make us outraged, not inured.
How do you feel about living in a country where stuff like this happens? What are you doing to try to stop it?
What I ask of you is to think of Adrian Gonzalez not as a statistic or as a representative of his ethnicity or his neighborood. Think of him as an individual: a son, a brother, a friend, or as I do, as a cute, energetic, kindhearted third grader who never got the chance to grow up.
'Despite the title of this post, I actually don't feel strongly about the serial comma. Though I do suspect if we all agree to call it the serial comma, it will lose some of its appeal to Anglophilic Americans and we'll see less rancor about it.
I actually usually use the serial comma because it's a habit I got into very young.
But what I object to are the stupid examples people give to show why the serial comma is always necessary. These are supposed to show how the serial comma is a magic bullet against ambiguity. Let's look at some of the favorites, shall we?
"I have 100 pounds of steel, 50 pounds of iron and coal." Vampire Weekend refuted this nicely, but also it's a weird and bad sentence. Why the hell would you be so specific about the amounts of steel and iron and then just leave coal hanging out there? It's bad writing that a comma can't fix.
"I'd like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God." I've seen this with Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey too. In order for this to appear ambiguous, you have to deliberately misunderstand what's being said. I guess you could say a serial comma here prevents annoying people from deliberately misconstruing your words in order to be pedantic about punctuation, but haters gonna hate and pedants gonna ped. Also, you could fix the sentence by putting God first. Or, you could honor your parents in the same way you've honored the celebrities and fictional character by actually calling them by name. Even with a serial comma, it's a weird and dumb sentence.
"Peter Ustinov visits Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector." Again, misunderstanding this sentence requires you to be one of the few people in the world who doesn't know who Nelson Mandela was. But okay, let's say you don't know who Mandela was. Then surely you'd know if you wanted to assert that he was an 800 year old demigod and dildo collector, you probably wouldn't use that last "a." It would look like this: "I saw Brendan Halpin, a writer and curmudgeon."
Again, I kind of love the fact that the serial comma is optional, so you can use it or not AND you can use it sometimes and not others. No problem! Your choice! I just can't stand the idea that torturing the language to produce not-actually-ambiguous sentences means you always have to use it.
Here's a genuinely ambiguous sentence for you, inspired by a commercial that aired in my youth: "Billy played soccer while his younger brother held his Orange Crush." There really is no way to tell whose Orange Crush the younger brother is holding. Oh My God! Ambiguity! We must ban pronouns!
Or, maybe, we should just reword the sentence a little so it's clear whose Crush is in the little brother's hands.
So, yeah. Use the serial comma if you like it. Don't if you don't. Mix and match. But stop acting like your preference on this trivial issue is demanded by the language.
Or, anyway, that's the face of crime when crime just woke up and its hair looks more than usually ridiculous.
But my point is this: if we define a criminal as one who commits crimes, I certainly fit the bill.
Here's a partial list of my crimes:
I bought and consumed alcohol before my 21st birthday on many occasions. I hosted parties in my dorm room at which alcohol was provided to minors.
In 1990, I bought a bag of marijuana and consumed it on several occasions thereafter.
When I was 17, I had a 15-year-old girlfriend. This was before Ohio adopted its "Romeo and Juliet" law. During this year, I also trespassed criminally and put my life at risk by running across I-471 and climbing on the catwalks under the Dan Beard bridge over the Ohio River.
I am, in fact, an international criminal, as I spent six months in 1990 working in Taiwan in violation of that country's work and immigration laws.
I have been pulled over 6 times for traffic offenses. I was guilty in each case, though I only received a ticket twice. Once was for going 40 in a 25 MPH zone (in West Bridgewater, VT, where, I learned, there is always a police officer sitting in the half mile zone where the speed limit drops to 25). The second was for failing to stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk. In this case, the officer who issued the ticket told me to appeal it. Though I was guilty, I did appeal it, and the charge was dismissed. In the other cases, the police officer checked my license, found that I had a clean driving record, and did not issue me a ticket. I have broken speed limit laws on countless occasions and have regularly "squeezed the lemon"--speeding through a yellow light as it turns red.
I have stolen music by downloading it without paying for it.
I'm sure I have commited more crimes, but I think you have the idea.
I consider myself to be a good person. I try to treat people with kindness, and my work involves helping people to build better lives for themselves. And yet, I am a criminal.
You probably are too. I think we all break the laws we feel are stupid or that shouldn't apply to us, or simply the ones that we can get away with breaking. The culture in which we live plays a big part in this. In the middle-class white culture in which I grew up, speeding was no big deal, and people bragged about their speeding tickets. In high school, knew many people with radar detectors in their cars to help them break speed limit laws more efficiently. There was even a hit song in the 80's called "I Can't Drive 55." And the singer was denounced by talking head pundits as a criminal and a bad role model for impressionable youths. Just kidding! He was white! He joined Van Halen and later became a multimillionare when he sold his tequila business to Seagrams.
This despite the fact that speeding is actually a crime that makes you far more likely to hurt or kill another human being than, say, shoplifting.
This is why I get uncomfortable when we start labeling people as "criminals." I'm talking about Michael Brown, of course, but also about many of the students I work with. Some of them have criminal records, usually for drug offenses.
Drug offenses are ridiculous. I have bought and consumed illegal drugs. I knew who sold illegal drugs at my high school and college. The person who arranged my aforementioned marijuana buy (and who tried to upsell me to ecstasy) now works in law enforcement. The person who sold cocaine in my high school's parking lot is, at least as far as the internet can tell me, a productive member of society who contributes to political campaigns. None of the people I knew who were involved with the drug trade as distributors or consumers are currently incarcerated or, indeed, have criminal records. Only poor people ever get nabbed for drug offenses.
I'm not suggesting that drug use is awesome, but it is a pretty common way in which people of all races and income levels mess up in this country, and most people get to mess up in this way without affecting their job prospects or having anyone suggest that they deserve to be murdered in the street.
I'm also not suggesting that any kind of lawbreaking is awesome; in fact, the more I learn about how traffic works and accident statistics, the more horrified I am at all the speeding I've done. But I am saying that I have broken the law. You too have broken the law. So perhaps let's not be so quick to label people as "criminals."
Calling someone a criminal is suggesting that their lawbreaking activities are the most important part of their identity. I don't feel that my criminal activities define me. Do yours define you? I'd like to suggest, then, that we pause before defining people only by their lawbreaking activities. Some people of course make crime their careers, but most people don't. For most criminals, like me, their lawbreaking activities are part of a much bigger and more complicated story and occur in the context of an entire life that has meaning and value.
So perhaps we can all climb down off that high horse (oh, but it's such a comfy ride and beautiful view from up there!) and show a little bit of empathy and compassion for people who have broken the law but were not lucky enough to get away with it.
Hi everybody! Today I am donating my incredibly valuable blog real estate to a worthy cause: promoting a book I love! One that I didn't actually write! (I know, right?)
I got a free copy of Zeus is Dead: A Monstrously Inconvenient Adventure from Michael's publicist a few months back. I liked it so much I had my pseudonymus friend Seamus write a blurb for it.
Here's the publisher's synopsis:
The gods are back. Did you myth them?
You probably saw the press conference. Nine months ago, Zeus's murder catapulted the Greek gods back into our world. Now they revel in their new temples, casinos, and media empires—well, all except Apollo. A compulsive overachiever with a bursting portfolio of godly duties, the amount of email alone that he receives from rapacious mortals turns each of his days into a living hell.
Yet there may be hope, if only he can return Zeus to life! With the aid of Thalia, the muse of comedy and science fiction, Apollo will risk his very godhood to help sarcastic TV producer Tracy Wallace and a gamer-geek named Leif—two mortals who hold the key to Zeus's resurrection. (Well, probably. Prophecies are tricky buggers.)
Soon an overflowing inbox will be the least of Apollo’s troubles. Whoever murdered Zeus will certainly kill again to prevent his return, and avoiding them would be far easier if Apollo could possibly figure out who they are.
Even worse, the muse is starting to get cranky.
Discover a world where reality TV heroes slay actual monsters and the gods have their own Twitter feeds: Zeus Is Dead: A Monstrously Inconvenient Adventure!
And here's my Goodreads review: I loved this book. The Greek Gods have returned, and a couple of mostly hapless humans are caught up in forces that are mostly beyond their control. It's hilarious throughout: the fourth wall is shattered to dust, and yet the story remains engaging--this is no mean feat, and something I really admired about this book. But all other considerations aside, it's a really fun and funny book that reminded me of the best of Christopher Moore's early work. Highly recommended to fans of fantasy and humor.
Here's Michael's nice headshot:
So, without further ado, here are my questions and Michael's answers!
1. Other than Zeus is Dead, what's your favorite appearance of the Greek Gods in popular culture?
This is a tough one, because I honestly haven't seen many appearances of the Greek gods in pop culture. I've avoided reading/seeing the Percy Jackson series (I became aware of it in 2008/2009 midway through writing Zeus Is Dead, and I didn't want it to influence me), and I'm really picky about how the pantheon is portrayed. I suppose that's part of why I wanted to write my own take on them. I wasn't too pleased with the portrayals in the new Clash of the Titans movies. I have a vague recollection of seeing Disney's Hercules and being disappointed with all of the changes made there, and Troy and the just-released Hercules movie with The Rock have stripped away the gods altogether. So it's a toss-up between the original Clash of the Titans (which, while not perfect, an enjoyable tale), and a book by Dan Simmons called Ilium, which is a sci-fi take on the gods that's as intriguing and intricate as those familiar with Simmons would likely expect. But unlike Zeus Is Dead, it's not a comedy.
Wow, I really sound like a myth snob here, huh?
2.What writers did you read as a kid?
On my childhood bookshelf you'd find books by Roald Dahl (Fantastic Mr. Fox was an early favorite), Lloyd Alexander (I loved the Prydain Chronicles, and gave copies to my niece as soon as she was old enough), Beverly Cleary (do kids still read The Mouse and the Motorcycle?) Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes was a late-childhood favorite that continues on into college until the strip ended) and, of course, a number of mythology books by various authors whose names I don't remember. Oh, and Tolkien, of course, once I was old enough. I don't think I'd even heard of The Hobbit until 4th grade. Oh! And, as a teen, Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (and others) as a teen.
3.You're publishing with Booktrope--I'm intrigued by their new publishing model. Can you talk a little about the process, how it works,and what your experience has been?
My experience has been great so far. It was a blast to work with people as excited about the book as I am. When I signed on with them (after the usual query & manuscript review process – which took about 6 or 7 months), a creative team was formed consisting of a book manager, an editor, a proofreader, a cover designer, and a project manager (whose job it is to keep all of us on task and on schedule). None of these people are forced to be a part of the team – if they choose to be on it, it's because they believe in the book, and that makes for a great environment to work in. They also have a share in the royalties, so they have a vested interest in making sure the book does as well as it can.
After self-publishing two other books, it's taken me a little time to adjust to working with a team. I'm still vital to the marketing process, but I no longer have to do everything, and I've got the added confidence of the people on my team backing up my own belief in the book.
4. Are the razorwings the result of a special love or hatred for cats?
Neither – at least not in those extremes. I like cats (and in most cases prefer them to dogs), but I don't have any for pets. When I created razorwings I was trying to think of something that would both be cute and terrifying at the same time in order to maximize the comedic potential. (Wow, that just sounds hilarious when spoken of in such terms, doesn't it? "Yes, you see, the coefficient of comedy is inversely proportional to the…") Kittens are insanely cute, but insanely destructive. So hey, why not make them poisonous, give them bladed wings, and make two of them spring live from the corpse of any one you try to kill?
5. Reality TV figures prominently in Zeus is Dead. What are some of your favorite reality shows?
Ah, you mean Monster Slayer (where Jason Powers travels the country slaying the monsters that returned soon after the gods)? Reality TV itself isn't my thing, but if the Greek gods appeared in our world for real, you can bet there'd be some reality TV about it. That said, I do sometimes enjoy shows like Mythbusters, Junkyard Wars, and Dirty Jobs. (I wrote Jason Powers as a cross between Mike Rowe and Hercules.) I can do without anything where people get voted off or people get attention for being complete ***holes to each other.
6. If the Greek gods did return, to which one would you pledge your fealty?
Tough call. My personal favorite of the pantheon is Apollo, but Dionysus is a fun guy, Hermes has got the sense of humor, and there are surely fringe benefits to serving Aphrodite. I'll have to get back to you on this one…
7. Which Greek god is the biggest douche?
Ares. Easily. Sure, the Romans liked him, but the guy's big on chaos, blood, and war for its own sake. He's also a god that doesn't really get too much coverage in the myths beyond being a personified concept, so I enjoyed filling him out more in Zeus Is Dead.
8. Who would win in a fight, Zeus or Odin?
Zeus. He's got the lightning thing going for him. That's a ranged weapon, and he can stroke at Odin before the old guy can even get close. Even if Odin gets his hands on some ranged weapons of his own, the guy's missing an eye. He's got no depth perception! No contest.
Well, there you have it, folks. Apart from the free book, I haven't gotten any compensation for any of this: I'm really doing it because I love the book. Maybe you will too! Check it out!
Just as a little experiment, I'm going to annotate the first Ramones album in real time while I listen. Perhaps it'll be awesome. Perhaps it'll suck! Let's find out, shall we?
"Blitzkrieg Bop"--Production on this album kinda blows. Bass in my left ear, guitar in my right. Or maybe the other way around. This being 1976, the use of "Blitzkrieg" was still pretty daring. Now it seems pretty tame. Why the hell doesn't Joey aspirate his "h"s on the "Hey, Ho, Let's Go" part?
"Beat on the Brat"-People always talk about the Ramones being this awesome back to basics, no frills band, which they were, but Joey's vocals are double tracked on most songs on this album. Not on the verses here, but still. When I saw them live, Joey wielded a baseball bat during this number. He did not succeed in looking menacing.
"Judy is a Punk"--I saw the Ice Capades when I was a kid. It featured Dorothy Hamill. Not sure if Judy was there or not. You don't think of the Ramones as big heirs of the folk tradition, but that "perhaps they'll die" is right out of "The Old Woman Who Swallowed A Fly."
Not sure where the "second verse, same as the first," originates, but I only know it from Herman's Hermits' "I'm Henry the 8th, I am."
Singing in a joking way about the SLA, the group that kidnapped Patty Hearst, was a pretty badass move in 1976.
"I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend."--Pretty much every Rolling Stone review of a Ramones album when I was growing up had this "OMG! There's a ballad on this album! What a change of pace!" sentence. But this right here is a primo slab of 60's-inspired power pop balladry. And it's the first album.
"Chain Saw" Signals the band's love of horror movies that culminates in "Pet Sematary." I also like the way they say "Massacree," which I can't help but assume is influenced by "Alice's Restaurant."
Taking my baby away from me is a frequent theme for lovelorn Joey for the entire 20 years of the band's existence.
"Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue"--I'm going to go out on a limb and say this is the dumbest song in the entire Ramones catalog. Not the worst, by a long shot, but definitely the dumbest.
"I Don't Wanna Go Down to the Basement"--Here's what amounts to a complete horror movie in just two minutes and forty-one seconds. I think people can go overboard about the Ramones boiling stuff down to its essence, but, man, that's exactly what this is. There's something down there. What is it? We don't know! We just know Joey doesn't want to go down there! And who can blame him? I think he's probably gonna go, though. Especially with that weird, inconclusive ending.
"Loudmouth"--Not my favorite. Kind of a worse version of "Beat on the Brat." Probably could have been left off the album.
"Havana Affair"--This, on the other hand, is freaking brilliant. It's absurd and funny and steeped in cold war politics without evidencing any ideology. What could possibly be going on at a Cuban talent show that's of interest to the CIA? We don't know! But I suppose spying is better than making a living by pickin' the banana! That "hooray for the USA" doesn't sound incredibly sincere. W0nder if Johnny objected.
"Listen to My Heart"--This, my friends, this is the genius of the Ramones. Dee Dee's absurdist tough guy routine balanced out by Joey's heartbreak. Catch the handclaps between the verses! I think that counts as a guitar solo, too, though of course people will insist that the Ramones didn't have any until whenever they notice one.
"53rd & 3rd"--This one's pretty interesting from a sociological and psychological perspective, but I don't think it's really a Ramones song. Turning tricks for drugs is just a little too gritty,and the whole green beret fantasy/ gay bashing killer thing is just a little more of Dee Dee's psyche than I really ever wanted to see. Also our first taste of Dee Dee's lead vocals, which would improve greatly over the decades.
"Let's Dance"--I'm going to say this now, and I will say it again if I do more of these. The Ramones were simply the best cover band of all time. There is no other band that consistently takes songs by other people and makes them sound like they were written for this band. Better than the original.
"I Don't Wanna Walk Around With You"--In which the Ramones explore the tragedy of unrequited love from the other side.
"Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World"--What the hell are they doing here? 3 Jews and one German American singing about being Nazis. In 1976 singing "I'm a Nazi-schatze you know I fight for the fatherland" was probably way more shocking than they realized. I think it's just Dee Dee being dumb, playing with stuff he knows is offensive to bug the squares. Mel Brooks making nazis the butt of jokes was pretty readily accepted, but shit like this probably kept the Ramones from greater commercial success. What I love about it, though, is what I love about the Ramones--the complete irreverence. They stubbornly refuse to take this shit seriously, and by this shit I mean anything but love, and that's an ideology I can totally get behind.