The award-winning writer, Ron Tanner, has a new graphic novel out called KISS ME, STRANGER.  If my life were one long vacation and I didn’t have anything else to do, I would have read this book twice in a row.  It’s that great.

Your new graphic novel, KISS ME, STRANGER, is so wonderful, strange and original, that more than any other book it reminds me of Lewis Carroll’s ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND.  Did you intend to write something so magical, in a sense?

I greatly appreciate that you see my book that way. Yes, I wanted to create something otherworldly – mostly because that’s how children see the world. I guess you could call this is a children’s book for adults.

There are so many horrors in the book (deaths, starvations, eating pets, burying people in tin cars, sucking on kerosene-soaked socks, hangings!) and yet, there is this lovely whimsicalness to the story.  I think that’s because of the wonderful narrator, Penelope, mother of fourteen starving, flea-bitten children.

I’m fond of strong female characters, kind of the way I’m fond of strong women in life. Jill, my wife, came home from work late one night, her hands blackened, her hair fly-away.  When she wasn’t home on time, I figured she’d been caught in rush hour traffic.  But now I saw that something else had happened.  She’d had a flat tire on the interstate. Instead of calling Triple-A and waiting hours for rescue, she had just gotten out the jack and changed the tire herself.  I love that about her.

I seek that kind of tenacity in my heroines.  Penelope is the kind of woman I’d fall in love with because she can take care of business but also because she has a sense of humor (again like my wife). You’ve got to tuck and roll when the bombs fall – and she’s good at that.  No matter how bad it gets, Penelope is going to make it work.

Hermes, the Metal Man, is one of my favorite characters and I love that he’s sort of lobotomized in the end, rather than killed.  Did you keep him around because you loved him?

Yes, I do love the man because, ultimately, he’s a petty, feckless fuck.  And, in the end, he gets his just desserts.  I try never to kill a character if I can help it. Keeping characters around makes life messier and more interesting.

And, of course, there are so many delightful details, like the fact that when the baby, Miramar, starts speaking, his first word is FUCK.  And when Oyster, the guy who’s named after his murky eye that resembles an oyster says of Santa Claus, “He was an asshole.”  It is all so tragic, and yet really funny.

In a book like this, I get to make life the way I’d like life to be, which is to say that, no matter how bad things get, I’d like us to keep our sense of humor and irreverence and tease each other and celebrate our little joys with bursts of profanity.

This is clearly an adult novel, one all grown people will thoroughly enjoy.  But I can also see reading it aloud to an eight-year-old (if you don’t mind your eight-year-old hearing an infant say fuck).  Did you have any particular audience in mind when you were writing this?

Let me confess that I wrote the first draft of this book when I was getting a divorce (now over ten years ago).  At bottom, Kiss Me, Stranger is about holding things together when the world is falling apart.  Although I have no children, I love children and believe that they are a significant center of gravity when things fall apart – because children are always looking for magic and finding it. Even when bombs are falling, you can induce them to sing a silly song and they’re willing to listen to the most outlandish stories, no matter what’s happening.  So, when I wrote the book and especially when I revised it, I wanted to capture something of that childishness that would buoy me in very bad times.  That’s a long way of saying, yes, I think children could hear this story and it wouldn’t frighten them too much because, in the end, Penelope’s children triumph, don’t they?

What was more difficult, the writing or the illustrations?

I love doing both, but I’m not an accomplished illustrator, so serious drawings – like the two-page town-square drawing of Marcel looking up at the cathedral —  those take me a long time to do.

When I was in grade school, I was delighted that teachers let me accompany my compositions with drawings. I remember spending much more time on the drawings than the writing.  As a child, I never spent much time agonizing over my writing.   In fifth grade, we were no longer allowed to put drawings in our compositions. I thought this wholly unfair.  Ever since then, I’ve been longing to put drawings back into my writing.  I absolutely love doing this, so I was amazed and delighted when the publishers at IG said they liked it as much as I.

One last question: The writer, James Magruder, heard I was interviewing you and wanted me to ask you something about your hands.  Or point out the fact that when you spread your fingers, it looks like you’re holding out an array of cigars.  Big cigars.  Do you have anything to say about this?

I never paid much attention to my hands – that is I never made comparisons between mine and others, not until people like Jim Magruder made comments and, then, well, I must admit that my hands are fairly broad and I don’t know that this is something to be proud of, though Jim insists the my hands – because they are broad – are sexy. If they are sexy, then we can thank the genetic pool from which they, and I, sprang.  I do work a lot with my hands – carpentry, drumming, writing, painting – and my fingers, as a result, have gotten broader. Eventually, I suppose, my hands will be as big as dinner plates, then I can join a geek show and tour the old south, or South America, and maybe make enough money to write another book.

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JESSICA ANYA BLAU's third novel, THE WONDER BREAD SUMMER, was selected as a Summer Read on NPR's All Things Considered, CNN's Book Chat, and Oprah's Book Club. She is also the author of DRINKING CLOSER TO HOME, and THE SUMMER OF NAKED SWIM PARTIES. For more information go to www.jessicaanyablau.com.

29 responses to “Divorce, Big Fingers, and War: a discussion with Ron Tanner”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    Jessica Anya,

    I am ordering this book right after I hit “comment.”

  2. Irene Zion says:

    Hey!
    FIRST! (and second.)

  3. Irene! I promise you’ll love it! Write me when you’re done so we can talk about it. xxx!

  4. James Magruder says:

    I don’t know that I ever compared Ron’s hands to a plate of cigars, but they are butch and bitable. And I love his writing. And his pizzas.

  5. Yes, yes, true, true. You didn’t say cigars. You said other things and then I used the image of cigars. I should have had you write up that last question so you could have used your own words!

  6. sheree says:

    After reading this: And, of course, there are so many delightful details, like the fact that when the baby, Miramar, starts speaking, his first word is FUCK. And when Oyster, the guy who’s named after his murky eye that resembles an oyster says of Santa Claus, “He was an asshole.” It is all so tragic, and yet really funny.

    I have to buy the book.
    Thanks TNB, Jessica and Ron Tanner for the book I am about to consume!

  7. Jessica Blau says:

    Oh, thanks for reading Sheree! Did you watch the trailer? If you like the trailer you’ll definitely like the book!

  8. This sounds like an intriguing and strange book. Based on the trailer, he seems to have created something truly original. And I like his thoughts on children looking for magic and finding it. They’re always slightly ahead of us on this, aren’t they?

    • Jessica Blau says:

      Thanks for reading! Yes, kids are so ahead of us on everything. They’re genuine, no trying to fake everyone out. They are who they are and we’d all be so much better off if we followed their lead on that.

  9. Lobotomized Hermes? An oyster who thinks Santa was an asshole? Totally my kind of book.

  10. Joe Daly says:

    What a fun interview! Your questions alone had me laughing (eating pets? Say it ain’t so!), but when you hear that a baby’s first word is “FUCK,” you know it’s a keeper. I look forward to checking this out.

    Thanks for bringing such a unique book and author to my attention!

  11. Jessica Blau says:

    Thanks for reading, Joe!

    Yeah, the baby starts out saying FUCK, but then moves on to two word sentences like FUCK IT! It’s always impressive when your child starts using more than one word at a time!

  12. D.R. Haney says:

    I love the trailer.

    It seems to me that I saw something on FB about this book — something posted by someone other than you, I mean.

    I know what he means about not being an accomplished illustrator. I posted something at TNB a few months ago about a faux children’s book series that would have, if they existed, illustrations, and people have been after me to go forward with them. I’m skilled at drawing, but not I’m not a bona-fide illustrator, so that it would take me forever to complete those books — if I were really convinced it was worth it to do, as I’m not.

    • Jessica Blau says:

      What if you did all the drawings first, in your leisure time, like when you’re watching TV or something?

      Come on, Duke, considering ALL THE THINGS you’ve done in your life–you can do a few drawings!

      I’d like to see some D.R.H. drawings!

  13. Lana Fox says:

    Ha, I wish my first word had been FUCK. Thanks for this wonderful interview. I must read the book! And yes, keeping our characters alive can make our worlds messier and more interesting – what a great comment.

    • Jessica Blau says:

      Maybe FUCK was your first word but you mum doesn’t want to tell you!

      My parents don’t remember my first word.

      My first daughter’s first word was BABY. The next baby’s first was MAMA.

      If I have another baby I’ll say FUCK FUCK FUCK over and over again and try to train her so it will be her first word!

  14. Greg Olear says:

    “Babies who say FUCK” is my new favorite tag of all time.

    • Jessica Blau says:

      You know, sometimes I find it harder to write those tags than it is to write the piece! My brain becomes scrambled, I sit there and try to remember words I had just typed. It’s a mystery to me!

      Maybe we should make BABIES WHO SAY FUCK a new category in postings?!

    • Lana Fox says:

      I agree wholeheartedly. As a tag (as an anything!) “Babies who say FUCK” reigns.

  15. J.M. Blaine says:

    Children’s books
    for adults
    always catches my ear.
    I don’t read fiction
    much
    but when I do
    whimsical wins the day

  16. Zara Potts says:

    I love your enthusiasm, Jessica! It is so damn contagious.
    And the ideas in this book sound perfect for my sensibilities. I shall be marching my credit card down to Amazon very shortly..
    Still waiting for your book, incidentally – Amazon is going to get a grumpy letter from me very soon if it doesn’t arrive in my mailbox shortly.. 🙂

    • Jessica Blau says:

      Holy moly, they’re going to get a grumpy letter from ME if you don’t get the book soon! THANKS for ordering it!
      XXXX

  17. I’m so excited to read this one. That book trailer is amazing. Terrific interview, Jessica!

  18. Thanks for reading Cynthia! Yes, he made that trailer himself. It’s amazing to me when people can do SO MANY things well (write, draw, use a computer, play music, etc.). I can do, like, two things well. Maybe just one thing, really.