Nerd Camp

By Irene Zion

Humor

As a kid, Victor had glorious times at summer camp. He claims his best childhood memories to this very day are from summer camp. He still talks about it. Marilyn Monroe came up to his camp with her husband Arthur Miller to visit his kids one year on parents’ weekend.  Since Victor and his friends were just dense little kids, they treated her just like any old mother.

He claims his very best year was the year that polio was rampant in the United States and there wasn’t a parents’ weekend for fear of spreading the poliovirus. This was before the Salk vaccine. All you could do was try to avoid getting infected. It was really serious; kids were getting really sick and ending up in iron lung machines. Kids were being crippled and dying. Even today, I don’t think anyone knows why it hit kids so much harder than it did adults. The campers were mercifully oblivious and loved being free of their parents for the whole summer long.

Victor began going to camp when he was five years old and continued for nine years. He keeps in touch with campmates he met when he was five years old. That’s sixty years! He wanted our kids to have the same wonderful experience that he had.

Benjamin at first went to a regular sports-type camp. He went for three summers until he, himself, researched other alternatives. He hated sports camp. He said it was dirty there. Of course, camp was outside in the woods and there is undoubtedly dirt there. He was in a bunk, not a tent, but he found that to be too dirty also. He told us he would rather be doing math and science. So, the next year he went to science camp.

He preferred science camp, but it turned out that science camp was also outdoors in the woods. He wasn’t happy there, either. “It isn’t rigorous enough for me. It’s too easy and it’s too dirty,” he said. So he only went to science camp for one summer.

Then I did some research. He needed a camp sort of environment that was indoors, clean and let him do science or math all day. I found out that Northwestern University had a summer program for kids who could pass the required tests. Benjamin always passed any tests he ever took. So the summer of his 8th grade year he started taking college-level math at Northwestern every summer. He was besotted. He proudly called it “Nerd Camp.” He was in his element. He went to “Nerd Camp” again after his 9th grade year. Loved every minute. Made life-long friends there. Ben wanted to go again after his 10th grade year also. We gave him the application to fill out.

Understand, the only reason that I read through the application was to fix spelling errors. Ben can’t spell. Seriously, he can’t spell at all. He’s entirely missing the spelling section of his brain. Mind you, he always aced his spelling tests in elementary school, but the moment the test was over, the correct spelling was lost in the ether. He could only learn short-term spelling.

So. (Pay attention, here.) I’m proofreading his application. I get to the part where he had to fill in whom to call in an emergency. Ben wrote in his roommate, “Will.” I read on. Then the application asked the relation of the emergency contact to the applicant. Ben wrote: “Lover.”

Huh.

I explained to Ben that the emergency contact had to be the people who were responsible for his medical care, which would be his parents. He acquiesced without a word and erased “Will” and “Lover” and replaced it with Victor and me and “Parents.”

But then we were in a pickle. We agonized over how to best explain to him that his gayness did not matter to us. We loved him just exactly as he was. We told him as much. But we hadn’t encountered anything like this before, so I read up on being a good parent to a gay son. I read everything available at the time.

We questioned all his siblings. They all knew that Ben was unusual, but they were all surprised to hear that Ben was Gay. We instructed them on the importance of validating him, reassuring him and encouraging him. We spoke about how best to comfort him when he came across teasing or worse. We spent weeks preparing the family to make Ben feel good about himself, no matter what might come his way.

Each of his siblings came to us at different times and expressed doubt. No one was sure, but they just didn’t see Ben as being Gay. Finally, after tiptoeing around Ben for all this time, the kids just asked him outright if he were Gay. He laughed. He said he only wrote that as an experiment. He wanted to see how we would react and was very pleased with how effective his ploy was. He was delighted with the outcome.

So. If anyone needs to know what to do when they first discover that their son is Gay, ask us. We already did all the research. It turns out that we just don’t personally need it after all.

1.  The King of Wishful Thinking
is thinking a lot about patterns
and gluing together his busted crown.
Yes, the word open is scratched over his heart.
Yesterday he smoked a cigarette for the first time in twelve years.
He is chips of shale today.
Auditioning for the Pagliacci Parade.
Don’t judge him.

He’s gonna go down swinging, this kid.
He’s checking the weather report and it looks like
the cold ain’t gonna snap much longer.
Still, he is debating growing a beard.
He wants to be a mountain man for awhile.
Or maybe he just wants to be a mountain.
He is afraid of becoming an avalanche.

2.  The Lady of the Lighthouse always knows
which window to put the candle in.
She is never a wall.
She went to door school
and teaches people how to open.

She’s lived on the same shoreline
but never in the same lighthouse for long.
Her dictionary tongue never learned the word
anchor.
She is vagabond kerchief lovely and she is
the romance of car keys and suitcases.

Now here’s where the story swerves for a few blinks.

3.  Where the mountains ease into the sea,
that’s where these two meet.  This stumbling
pile of plaid and this flutter of feathers and circles.
They are orbiting each other, studying
each others’ flight patterns.

So maybe they stumbled into each other’s mouths
a little too soon.  It could be blamed on
the airport bottles filled with courage and release.
It was probably the way they negotiated escape
in the postcards that they loved each other through.
Maybe, someone posits, they are both each other’s doors,
both with open etched all over their frames.

4.   It is difficult for him when they part.
The newspapers are always thick with her life.
The sidewalks whisper, “This is where
she skipped once”.  The walls sigh and say,
“Yes, a boy more sinew than synapse
kissed her here,”
and the floorboards creak trying to mimic
her blooming laughter.

He has started going to Spirits Anonymous to kick
his haunting habit.   She leaves empty boxes
at his doorstep, full of the space that he needs.
It is an awkward waltz at first, as they are prone
to swept-out rugs and intermittent paralysis.
To negotiate this, the King and the Lady
think a lot about patterns.
Small circles, he thinks, watching his feet.
Sets of threes, she thinks, trying to look
forward.



Why another drug memoir?

Well, it wasn’t my idea, really. Other people encouraged me to write it. I’ve never been into memoirs or nonfiction much. I had reservations about memoir, that it was becoming the reality television of literature, that it was losing credibility, becoming not art, not literature, but just schlock. Bullshit. Garbage. But I began the project anyway, in the beginning partly to push back against that, you know? And then I received some encouragement and after a while it acquired a kind of momentum, especially after I figured out what I wanted it to be.


You wanted to prove your book wasn’t bullshit or garbage?

Yeah.


How did that work?

There was a process of elimination. The obvious thing would have been to do a journalistic document of a period in Seattle history, the Grunge thing, or an uplifting memoir of my personal struggle. But that sort of thing has been done before. So those were out. Of course, everything has been done before, but I wanted to find a fresh approach to the subject of drugs, heroin. That took a few years to get sorted out, while I fumbled around, eliminating one idea after another. At first I wanted to call it Dope Dealing for Dummies. I could have gotten away with it too, legally, framing it as an instruction manual on drug dealing, because the story ends badly, but the Dummies title is copyrighted, or trademarked or some such and I wouldn’t have been able to use it. Anyway, after I discovered how to approach the story, that’s when it took off.


It took off?

Yeah, once I began questioning the disease model of addiction and thinking about it as something more inevitable, or fatalistic, thinking about my addiction as a kind of slow death and my recovery as a painful resurrection. That might sound hyperbolic, and people look at me strange when I say it, but I was able to do that, and not deviate from the truth. Of course I wasn’t actually physically dead, but I was as close as one can come. I had totally given up on life, on living. I hadn’t seen that approach to an addiction story before. From the other books about drugs, you still don’t get an idea of how bad heroin addiction can be, the utter despair, how close one can be to death and how a person can welcome that and still go on for years and years. You really don’t. With any of the contemporary drug memoirs, you get the feeling that your reading something written by a person with something going on in their life besides drugs. You get the impression that the authors, the subjects, are and were alive, that they haven’t really, totally, given up. In terms of self-destruction, they were amateurs. David Carr’s book Night of The Gun for example is very interesting, the self-examination, the exploration on the subjectivity of memories, but really it’s about a journalist and family man who takes a little vacation into the drug world. American Junkie is exactly what it says it is, a story about a person who had no identity, who was unable to define himself, who had nothing to lose, a lost soul who made a home in a kind of dead place and stayed there for a long time.


It sounds depressing.

It is. It was. It’s a modern tragedy, more than anything else. It’s the story of all the junkies you don’t hear about, the ones that died alone in some shitty motel room. I certainly didn’t want to do what I call ‘the postmodern memoir,’ where I play the victim, where it’s all about my weird family and how it screwed me up. I didn’t get screwed up so much by any person, I got fucked by something more profound and eternal, my nature, my blood. But look, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. American Junkie isn’t all doom and gloom, there are some funny parts. And there’s some hope, because I survived. It has an element of survival literature to it, like Papillon, who spent twenty something years trying to escape Devil’s Island. The difference is that after a point I gave up and accepted my imprisonment to heroin. I had reached that point where the drugs didn’t work anymore, and found something there. Limbo, purgatory, Hell, call it what you want. The point is I wasn’t actively trying to escape it. That just sort of happened.


You got fucked by your blood?

One of my guiding lights when I write anything is what Nelson Algren said in the 50’s, “a writers duty is to give voice to the voiceless.” I mean, who’s more voiceless than the dead, right? All the real junkies are dead, the “people who died” as Jim Carroll would say. I was one of them. Somehow I didn’t go through that last door.


Have you had any response from readers?

Riveting, heartbreaking, devastating, those are words I’ve heard to describe it. Girls read it and cry and wanna give me a hug. And I’ve been told that the book is addictive, people open it and then they’re hooked. They can’t stop. That was unintentional. But I’m glad people are affected by it, ordinary people. That was intended. I definitely wanted to avoid it becoming pigeonholed as ‘outlaw literature’ so to speak. A book that simply ‘preaches to the choir,’ a book by a junkie for junkies, serves no real purpose. So far, it’s looking like I achieved that goal, men and women like it, as do booky people and non-booky people, forty-somethings and teenagers, people who have done drugs and those who haven’t.


Some famous Seattle rock stars are in your book. Why are their passages so brief?

Again, it has to do with the kind of non-existence I was experiencing. I didn’t really know them. I didn’t really know anyone, and no one knew me. I sold drugs. That was all. I had customers, not friends. I saw them for a few minutes at a time, they gave me money, I gave them drugs, we mumbled a few words, slurred, and that was it. To have those people take up a larger portion of the book would have been untrue in the broader context and on top of that sensational and exploitative. But I included those parts because they contributed to the story, because it highlighted a theme of the book, my lack of identity, and despite them being like me they at least were someone, and were able to call themselves something.


Why the flashbacks, the backstory? Why all the childhood stuff?

If you ask any true heroin addict, they’ll tell you that their addiction began long before they stuck that first needle into their arm. That’s what the backstory is all about, a self-examination where I try to find where my addiction began, how my life got so fucked, charting the events that changed my attitudes, the events that led me to the point where a kind of death was preferred over life. Charting the erosion of hope. How living in America and our culture contributed to it. Most addicts are predisposed to drug abuse, but all that means is that they’re on the fence, in the balance. They could go either way. At some point something, or an accumulation of somethings reach a tipping point and sends them down the wrong path. I wanted to explore the forces that pulled me off the fence, and then the wind that blew me over the wrong side of the tracks. It fascinated me because I didn’t have a particularly bad childhood, you know, the usual things, abuse and that shit people often point to as the cause of anti-social behavior. I just always had this immense aloneness that was like a steel bar inside me. And I wanted to see if I could find out why my addiction was so much worse than most.


You can’t possibly be the worst?

I stayed with heroin using and dealing even as my body was completely falling apart, even though I was obviously dying, because unlike most addicts, I wasn’t good at anything except selling dope. I wasn’t a writer, or family man, or father, son, anything, before the drugs. Sure, I was okay at playing music, but I was utterly unsuccessful with it, and a person can’t live in a vacuum. When you don’t have an identity and can’t define yourself by what you do, and you are not strong in yourself, you will cling to that one thing you are good at through Hell and high water, even if it’s destroying you, because otherwise it’s like you don’t even exist. That’s what this story has that other drug memoirs don’t.


Why did you include photocopies of documents, the newspaper articles, medical reports, etc?

I was halfway through the book when the James Frey scandal broke, and I just wanted there to be no question of the book’s truthfulness. So I dug up everything I could. I think some kind of documentation should be a requirement in nonfiction now, actually. Besides people making up these fantastic stories, memories are just so fallible. If a writer’s going to classify their story as nonfiction, as real, they should have to be able to prove it. Otherwise, just say it’s an autobiographical novel. Originally I got the idea from Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted. She used her psych reports as a counterpoint to the narrator, another view to what she saw. But with me it was just about proof. Call me a cynic, but this is one of the problems with memoir in particular, an author is writing about themselves and that makes it highly vulnerable to spin. It’s insidious, omitting certain facts here and there, focusing on one aspect and ignoring another that paints a slightly different picture. It’s like reality TV, the subjects know they’re being filmed. The author is aiming his camera at himself. So I undertook this method where I wrote about myself as if I were writing about a stranger. I disconnected my ego from the process, as much as I could, without making things up.

Besides all that, I just thought people aren’t going to believe some of this unless I have some documented proof. You say you have a huge open wound on your leg and you’re pulling fragments of bone out of it and making them into a necklace–I’m just not gonna believe that unless I see something. Plus, the documents were necessary for me to reconstruct the story. There were 276 pages of hospital records, daily doctors’ notes, etc. I was in such a fog in the hospital that I never would have been able to recreate the timeline of events without them. Just like I had to interview dozens of people to reconstruct the other storyline, of my addiction and drug dealing. It was nonfiction, so I had to be accurate and truthful.


The ending is kind of ambiguous. Why did you decide to end the book there?

I have never really been into nonfiction. My influences, as far as style and theme came from novels, most of which were based for the most part on the author’s experiences, most of them more concerned with creating understanding for their characters rather than sympathy, most pretty bleak with depressing and/or ambiguous endings. I asked myself “Why can’t I do that? Do I have to follow this drug memoir formula?” I encountered some resistance about this, actually. When the big publishers in NY looked at American Junkie they loved it, but thought it was too bleak, too grim. They wanted the happy ending, they wanted me to find some redemption. I understand why. It has to do with a kind of escapism and simplicity that the public wants. Well you know what? It’s not that simple, it’s not black and white, drugs bad, recovery good. There is always the grey. I was a heroin addict and dealer for a long time. I found a degree of success doing it, money, status, stability, security. I found peace. That was the truth. And when I quit, it wasn’t like the sun came out for the first time in twenty years. I was in the hospital for six fucking months and came out a broken man, physically and emotionally, to an extent. There was no saccharine happy ending. I did permanent damage. There were lasting consequences. Besides being the truth, I felt it was the responsible thing to do. Apparently it wasn’t as uplifting as some people wanted, but they seem to have forgotten that the ending of nonfiction doesn’t have to be that way any more than a novel’s does. The catharsis a reader experiences when they finish a book, even nonfiction, doesn’t have to be all ‘happy shiny time,’ all it has to show is that the protagonist has turned a corner. Which I did.



First things first:  Are you really trying to grow a beard?  It’s looked like a five o’clock shadow for, like, two weeks now.

I have faith it will beard up in due time. And I thought it a cool thing to do: to tell myself that I am settling down for a few. I give big props to poets who spend nine months on the road, just hustling and doing college shows and whatnot. I’m still pretty underground. Three months doing features at all the big slams across the country is a hell of a fun way to hone your skills on the road. Before the tour, I had fallen in love with writing again. On the tour, I fell in love with performing.


That’s a little pretentious, dude. Do you think you’re an indie rock singer-songwriter or something?

Well, you know, no, I don’t, first of all. But what I will say is why not go for that level of recognition as poets? Watch the documentary The Comedians of Comedy, and you’ll see Patton Oswalt and Brian Posehn and Maria Bamford and Zach Galifinakis tear up rock clubs with words. I’ve been to some pretty rock and roll slams, man. Boston Cantab is pure rock ‘n’ roll. The Green Mill was rock and roll.


People are constantly, like at the supermarket and everything, asking you what it’s like to be a Write Bloody author. Give us some insight.

Okay, first of all, and if this leaks, you heard it from tmz.com and not me, Write Bloody authors are given a special key when we are chosen. I can’t tell you what it’s for. We also have to give Derrick Brown a vial of our blood. It was never specified why. Then, after what Derrick calls “a ritual sacrifice dance party,” we drink wine and listen to Cold War Kids until everyone’s uncomfortable.

Um, I dunno. It’s a great group of people to be associated with. I mean, it’s like a record label and I’m labelmates with you know, Andrea Gibson. Buddy Wakefield. Robbie Q. Telfer. I’m honored. There’s a lot of firepower in these pens. It’s the dysfunctional family I never had.


How’d you put together your book, Miles of Hallelujah?  And what’s up with that creepy bleeding hand on the cover?

Miles of Hallelujah the manuscript was about one-fourth of what ended up in the book. I think I went into it wanting to have a magical fantastic arc, full of jetpacks and dinosaurs, but then real life became a lot more interesting to write about. And I had four editors help pound me into shape, which can be a brutal thing to take. Ultimately, I’m incredibly proud of what ended up in the book. I worked hard on those suckers. The hand? I dunno. It’s the work of the amazing Paul Smith, who is one of the Write Bloody artist hook-ups. Derrick sent it to me as a possible cover and I dug it. It seemed to fit the title somewhat, too, more so than the rejected titles …


Rejected titles? What didn’t make the cut?

When I sent in my manuscript, I called it “Be Wishful About What You Care For.” Super emo, right? I believe Derrick was hip on “Punch Dagger” or “Get Pretty Soon.” Ultimately, we both liked Miles of Hallelujah and it stuck. And the crazy thing is, when I came through Oklahoma City, I met a singer-songwriter, Tahra Dergee, who wrote a song based on just reading my book title. She sang it at a show we did at the Scissortail Social Space. It was a great feeling.


Last question:  What do you want to be remembered for, you pretentious windbag?

I hope I’m remembered for being a good and honest writer. And that words can be fun. They can be as loud or soft as you want. I hope that occasionally I can surprise you on the page. Or make you laugh (and not at my crazy hat). And that it’s okay to write about stuff like wrestling and not feel like a goofball. Night of the Living Nerd. Y’all ain’t ready.



Do you think interviewing yourself is like talking to yourself? The way your Grandma Stanton mumbled in the kitchen when she made English tea and challah toast?

Maybe.

Before we discuss if we have a “right to be happy” or “how can we be happy,” we must first decide what we mean by ‘happiness.’

The word “happiness,” today, is used too ubiquitously to really mean much.There is a happy life, a happy moment, a happy accident.In etymological terms, the word’s origin is actually more closely related to “happen-stance” or “haphazard” where the root “hap” has to do with something being accidental or as a matter of fortune, rather than a result of purposeful action.  In most European languages, happy meant lucky.  Further, happiness’ connotation, its common usage rather than its definitive definition, has evolved from one of generality over a lifetime to one of one’s current state of being.Saying, “I am happy,” used to mean that your life was going well.Now it means, “This cake in my mouth is really something.”So, what was once a description of goals, direction and prudence, is now a full-mouthed reply to a bit of frosting.

Please explain what just happened.

I just finished making a Thai Butternut Squash Bisque and confirmed that a friend is coming over for dinner to help me eat some of it.

By how many votes did Barack Obama beat John McCain in the 2008 presidential election?  9,522,083.

By how many votes did Hilary Swank beat Annette Bening in the 2000 Oscar race?  That’s top secret information.  We will never know.  Ever.


Over the last bunch of years Craig Nova has been faithfully publishing one novel after the other, each a little different than the last, and every book taking on a different topic. I discovered Mr. Nova with Incandescence, a truly great novel about a man realizing his limitations, and that life is short. Mr. Nova’s writing has expressed wonderful ideas about the human experience and how what we do everyday shapes us as much as it defines us to other people. I was thrilled when Craig agreed to answer a few questions.

JR: I’ve heard that you do a lot of research for each novel, what was involved with a book about Weimar Germany, set in 1930 Berlin? I know you spent time with State Troopers for Cruisers, and some of that novel actually happened. Can you give us a little insight into both books, how you prepared to write them?

CN: When I wrote Cruisers I spent some time with a Vermont State Trooper, that is I rode at night with him. He had been involved in a very bad circumstance as described in the book. One of the most fascinating things for me was to be with someone who had to do it right the first time. Writers, of course, have time for a many drafts, but this man’s work was more intense and immediate than that. He had to go up to a car in the dark. No one knows what is in the car. In fact, I read some martial arts books when I was watching him do this, and he had a wonderful way, almost (almost) spiritual in the way he approached the discipline of being out there and being alone. He was a tremendous inspiration, both for the book and for my own life. He taught me a particular kind of dignity.

For Berlin, well, I went to the city to see what the landscape was like and to look around at was left of the architecture, although most of it had been bombed in the war. But some places were still left. And, of course, the shadows of the dark era were there. For instance, I went to the Lustgarten, which is a sort of grassy green in the city, and then went to a book store where I found a photographic history of Berlin. There, in the middle, was a picture of the Lustgarten filled with a Nazi demonstration. I could feel the shadow.

JR: The Informer tells the story of a several people, but remains in one place, which you and I have talked about, setting and location, how important that is not only for the writer but for the reader. What kind of discipline was needed to keep this story from growing out past your ideas of where you wanted it to go? You’ve talked to me about the Graham Greene novel Brighton Rock as being an important novel for you, and a good example of staying in one place.

CN: I think the key to staying in one place is to remember that the most important things in a novel are story, story, and story. This means that you are stuck with not explaining the action by referring to other places or other times, but seeing what the characters can do, right where they are, to advance a story. For instance, in the Informer, a character has been told to kill a woman, but when he sees her, he falls in love with her, or thinks he does, and so the method of storytelling is to see how this plays out between the two of them. Is he going to kill her, or is she going to sleep with him. She knows he is coming for her, and has always used sex as a weapon. What happens?

JR: Information during the war was very important, and a tool for your heroine Gaelle, what kind of writing and rewriting did you have to do to give that character weight and importance. Nick Laird, an British novelist talks about dialogue being about what’s not said, in a lot of ways Gaelle is telling us a lot, by not telling us anything. Is that accurate?

CN: Yes. I often refer to an essay written by Robert Towne about screen writing in which he says the screenwriter’s job is to stay out of the actor’s way. I think that a writer’s job is to stay out of the reader’s way, that is to let the reader see what is happening. It is what I like to call transparent writing. The reader knows. The character knows what is happening. The writer knows, too, but it is never mentioned.

For instance, in The Great Gatsby, no one ever says, “This is a novel about the brutality of the American class system and how, in a marriage, differences in power can be brutalizing.” But it’s there. Although unsaid.

JR: This isn’t a police procedural in the truest sense, did you fear at times when you were writing this story that people would want that? Did you ever think about the reader while you were working on this book? Do you ever?

CN: No, it isn’t a straight procedural, but it is about people who worked in Inspectorate A, the serious crimes section of the Berlin Police force, and so I always had that to fall back on. Mostly, I was concerned about and am often concerned about in novels the attempt of a character to do the right thing. Usually, I try to find a way to make this difficult, since, of course, in ordinary life, this is what human beings are often up against. How do we know what the right thing is and how do we do it, particularly when it may cost as a lot or everything?

JR: On the other side of things Armina Treffen holds a kind of sensitive power on the story; it was really interesting to watch her progress. Can you tell me how you got to her?

CN: Well, I was interested in an attractive and smart woman who had come into a new job. That is, in the 20s, like today, women came into jobs that they hadn’t had before, and so this is a young woman who was working with a bunch of hardnosed German detectives. So the tension there is that while she is educated and even elegant she still has to deal with these guys. Not easy. And then she is alone and she believes that she is alone because the man that was meant for her was killed in the first World War. Finally, of course, she meets a man, and I wanted to do something that isn’t done much these days in novels.

That is, in novels in the modern era, men and women don’t get along. They have sex, but no romance, and so I thought I would try to be daring and to include romance, too.

And then I wanted to bring a whiff of the erotic to Armina’s work as a cop. She thinks about sex when she is practicing on the pistol range. Or she thinks about being in bed with a man she loves when she is in danger, just to calm down. The idea was to combine the erotic with the dangerous to see what effect could be obtained.

JR: Over the last few years you’ve talked about Cruisers being adapted into a movie, and even The Good Son, (If I’m wrong, please correct me). What’s the status of those projects?

CN: After I did 18 drafts of a script for The Good Son for some Canadian producers, their company merged with one in Los Angeles and that, as far as I know, was the end of that. Still, I learned a lot doing the 18 drafts, and that is very valuable information to have.

Cruisers is being worked on now. One screenwriter has done three drafts and a new one has just been brought in. A young guy in Los Angeles, Jordan Bloch, who seems to have enormous amounts of energy, is behind this, and I am acting as an executive producer. I hope this doesn’t mean that when someone gets hurt on the set, I will be the one to get sued.

Time, as always, will tell. The question is what will it say?

JR: There are scenes of pure beauty in The Informers, and recently I can point to similar moments inCruisers where Russell Boyd, your hero cop, doubles as a kind of wild animal spreading a scent for hunters to follow, can you tell me where you got that idea? I was particularly moved by that and also noticed similar passages in The Universal Donor, and Wetware. Are you consciously trying to build scenes around a profound moment, or does it work the other way around?

CN: I like to bring the natural world into books, if only because in the modern age we seem to forget that it exists, until, of course, we have a hurricane or an earthquake. In Cruisers, I knew a woman who had organized a hunt, and rather than a fox, they used someone to spread a scent over the land where the hunters were allowed to ride. I was instantly fascinated by this person, who has called a fox, and in fact I had planned to write a sort of DH Lawrence novel about the fox, a working class guy, who gets involved with a member of the hunt. Somehow, I didn’t do that, although I might yet, and so I had this notion of writing about the fox, that is the one who spreads the scent, and so it seemed to fit (since pursuit is a part of Cruisers). So I used it. Of course, I also tried to use many, many other things like this (things I had heard or made up) that didn’t fit and so they ended up in the “Previous Drafts Pile.”

Here’s a picture of some of these drafts on the shelf outside my office when I lived in Vermont.

JR: Peter Straub for the Washington Post said “Cruisers demonstrates that the boundary between literature and genre fiction, once fiercely maintained, has grown tissue-thin.” Are you trying to write something within a genre, or would you rather function in a literary world?

CN: I think that the writers are in a dog fight for readers. And if the use of some suspense, which writers having been using, by the way, since the beginning of writing, why then I am glad to do it. And, of course, when I look at my favorite writers, Graham Greene, JM Coetzee, Albert Camus, they all use it (what is more suspenseful than the onslaught of a plague, as in The Plague?) I think writers need to remember the reader a little more, just as it is pleasurable to have the feeling the story is going forward and that the chances are pretty good that the reader might come along. Actually, this is one of the most profound pleasures of writing a novel.

JR: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me Craig. As always, it’s been a pleasure. (The Informergoes on sale March 16th)

CN: Well, it is my pleasure. Thanks for the chance. And keep me posted on your own work.

Threat Levels

By Ted McCagg

The Feed

Happy is the new skinny. Being happy is cool. Being sad, unsatisfied, depressed, lonely, moody or anxious is totally unattractive. Being bubbly, funny, enthusiastic, imaginative and wild is hot. Everyone wants to be happy, and everyone believes they deserve to be happy. We read books, listen to podcasts and subscribe to blogs all about how to be happy. I’ve listened and re-listened to Gala Darling’s podcast on happiness, and I find it inspiring. I’m even following some of her advice, and I’m starting to believe that it may actually be as simple as choosing to be happy. But it strikes me as odd that as a culture, we Americans claim to believe happiness is a natural right. We even wrote it into the Declaration of Independence. We are pretty dedicated to happiness, and yet, we have an awful time finding it.

Of course, there are the naysayers. There are people who believe we have become happiness addicts. There are people who believe that our obsession with being happy is naive, childish, and a waste of time. I wonder if they are happy.

They have a point, though. Our obsession with being happy can make us unhappy. Perhaps you’ve had a period of depression in which the realization that you are depressed actually makes it worse. It goes from depression to despair. “Oh God,” you find yourself sobbing into your pillow. “I’m a lost cause! I’m a mess. I’m going to end up killing myself one day!” The really nuts thing about it is that you never had any real intention of killing yourself, but the despair over your mental state, and the thought that you might be capable of committing suicide, actually drives you toward it. You start to think things like, “How will I know if I’m really suicidal?” And that thought doesn’t even make any sense. If you actually did want to die, you’d probably know it, Yet, you’ve seen those commercials with people sitting on the couch looking sad as the voice over says, “If you experience sleeplessness, loss of appetite, lack of interest in things you once enjoyed or thoughts of suicide … “

You begin to evaluate yourself as you watch the commercial. You tick off the list: You are, in fact, sitting on the couch looking sad about a sad looking person sitting on a couch. You sometimes have trouble sleeping. You once loved baking, finger painting, paper dolls and anything involving Elmer’s glue, all of which you have lost interest in. Are thoughts of suicide next? And then you realize you’re thinking of suicide right now.

“In fact, I think of suicide all the time: when I’m watching commercials for anti-depressants, when I’m stuck in traffic on a rainy night and no one will let me merge, when I don’t want to pay a bill or when I think about losing all my teeth in old age. Also, sometimes when driving on an empty road late at night, I wonder what would happen if I ran my car off the road. I don’t particularly want to die at that moment, but I’m sort of OK with the fact that it’s possible; so I probe the possibility with my imagination, but I have not yet intentionally swerved off the road. Not even just out of curiosity. So I guess I have no real death drive at the moment. But I could. And for that, I might need Wellbutrin or Lexapro or Zoloft or Prozac. Maybe I should ask my doctor, just in case.”

No one wants to be unhappy. If you’ve ever experienced true unhappiness, you know it’s not only miserable but sometimes terrifying. You feel alienated from yourself and everything that matters to you. Something always seems to be missing. You become insecure. It is not fun times. But the kind of happiness pushed on the public in the form of products, services and medications is not the kind of happiness that treats these wounds. Well, ok, for some, the medications help. But not for everyone. Drug companies know that deep down all of us have a bit of unhappiness, and that’s exactly why they invest in TV commercials. We see the sad person getting happy on TV thanks to some miracle drug, and we identify with that and think “Maybe they can make me happy, too.”

Just like the drug commercials that promise to change you from a sad little blob to a happy little blob (both mostly mindless but one clearly preferable), beauty product manufacturers promise to enrich your life by bringing out your natural beauty. I laugh when they end with faux fierceness: “You’re worth it!” Right. Worth what? An hour and a half of bleaching your scalp, poking yourself in the eye with a stick, and razor burn? Oh, those tricksy advertisers, trying to tell me I am worth the trouble of going out and buying their products and maiming myself with them. Oh yes, that is how I express my value.

We have our suffering and our insecurities, and we keep them quiet so that when advertisers at them, we’re ready to buy whatever they’re selling to medicate or mask our secret shame. No one talks about their weaknesses; that would leave them exposed to scrutiny. You don’t tell your boss, “I don’t feel good about my work, and I’m deeply concerned about the direction of my career.” That doesn’t usually lead to a promotion, and a promotion is what we want, right?

A promotion would make us happy … maybe. It’s the kind of happiness toward which we clamor when we come up short on ways to soothe that deep soul ache. If not a promotion, then at least a good bikini body, and if we can’t have that, then at least we can milk all the pleasure there is to be had from a cupcake. But is there a happiness that lasts longer than a cupcake? Something that can stick with us when we no longer want to be ogled on the beach? Is there anything in the world that, unlike that promotion, will ask nothing in return? I want the kind of happiness that doesn’t cost money, doesn’t go away when I age, and doesn’t require me to be on call to answer to come corporate jerk who cares not a whit for my personal time. And I want the kind of happiness that doesn’t cost sixty bucks a month because the drug is so new that there’s no generic alternative. Where can I find that kind of happiness?

What do I even mean when I say I want to be happy? I want to be healthy. I want to be skinny and pretty and smile a lot. I want to make enough money. I already make enough money, but I would really like to make a little more money. Or a lot more money. Enough money to buy a bigger house and not have to DIY all the renovations. That would be enough. Oh, and enough money for a new car because mine is getting old, and a pair of diamond earrings because every girl needs a pair of those, and one pair of really good expensive shoes. And a job that’s closer to my house so I don’t have to drive so far, but it should still pay me well and involve doing cool stuff with cool people. I want to spend more time with my family and friends, but not too much because most people annoy me after a while. And I want another drink, but I don’t want a hangover, and I don’t want to cross that line into being an alcoholic, although I’m not sure where that line is, and I’m not sure anyone else is either.

We seem to think we can’t live without happiness, but we’re not even sure what it is, so how would we know? Was Mother Theresa happy? What about Michael Jackson? George Washington? Your grandmother? My grandmother was extremely poor. She dropped out of school after the seventh grade, married young, had six children, and raised them all in a house the size of my first apartment with one bathroom. Her husband died 20 years before her, and she never dated again. She didn’t have a dishwasher or an air conditioner. Was she happy? Did anyone ever ask? I think it’s a safe bet that “happiness” was not the priority for her that it is for me, and for this, I feel rather foolish and selfish. Her life is anathema to me — tiny house, no money, no education, a boatload of kids — but perhaps in avoiding what I view as her pitfalls, I am denying myself a certain organic kind of happiness. After all, her kids grew up to be good people, each successful in their own way. All of them married and had children. She became matriarch to an ever-growing family who loved her. But I don’t know what that meant to her or if she was happy.

In a recent interview with Oprah, Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hahn said, “It is possible to live happily in the here and the now. So many conditions of happiness are available—more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don’t have to run into the future in order to get more.” That thought is profound and genius, but a bit over my head. I instinctively reach back to the experience of my day and think, “Is he trying to say I can be happy even with a full time job? Even without my new running shoes? Even stuck in traffic?”

When Oprah asked him to define happiness, he said “Happiness is the cessation of suffering. Well-being. For instance, when I practice this exercise of breathing in, I’m aware of my eyes; breathing out, I smile to my eyes and realize that they are still in good condition. There is a paradise of form and colors in the world. And because you have eyes still in good condition, you can get in touch with the paradise. So when I become aware of my eyes, I touch one of the conditions of happiness. And when I touch it, happiness comes.”

Reading his words stops me in my tracks. It makes me forget what I thought I knew. It pours the thoughts right out of my head and leaves me sitting in my skull like a lightening bug in an empty jar. I’m just blinking around in the emptiness.

And then I remember this: I was searching for happiness, and I was motivated by fear. The fear of unhappiness. The fear of unhappiness causes unhappiness and sends me on a wild search for that which is not my fear, but because I don’t know what it is, I can’t see it even when it surrounds me. The search is dizzying and distracting, fun and frustrating, and thoroughly intoxicating. The search is elating because it sometimes leads us to art and orgasm. Other times, the search is a bad trip and leads to sobbing into pillows, terrified at the thought of what we might do to ourselves if we had the courage (and we are quite glad we don’t have the courage).

Photo Credit: Pink Sherbet on Flickr