Tell us about yourself.

I was born in a little log cabin in Kentucky in 1822.

You’re often described as “unknown,” “someone you’ve probably never heard of,” and “obscure.”

As long as I’m “often described.”

You’ve published four books with Hawthorne Books in Portland, Oregon.

Yes, two true-story collections and two novels. Things I Like About America was my first and most popular non-fiction work. It addresses among many other things, losing my virginity with a psychopath, wrestling on a porch in the rain with a junkie, battling crack addiction, and finding a friend of mine in Mexico who’s been dead two days. God Clobbers Us All was my second book with Hawthorne: it’s a death, surfing and LSD novel. Then came Decline of the Lawrence Welk Empire, a tropical island love triangle with obeah damnation and a sexy but sometimes headless jumbie. My last book was 501 Minutes to Christ, where I hop a freight train to France, try to kick meth, and talk about what it was like to lose a multiple book contract with Houghton Mifflin, though I never actually use the words Houghton or Mifflin. My Dutch isn’t that good and it gives me the hiccups.

Tell us about your upcoming book, Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere.

Basically it goes like this: the newly arrived math professor from our state college in Chadron, Nebraska, a terribly nice fellow who lived two blocks away from my family, disappeared one day without a trace. Ninety-five days later he was found burned and bound to a tree in the remote hills about a mile south of campus in what was then an incinerated prairie forest. A number of news teams, law enforcement officers, and bloggers, including psychics and ghosthunters, exhausted themselves in the so-called investigation, but this case remains unsolved, a profound mystery. Since I knew almost all the players, the police, the Sheriff, the math professor and many of his colleagues and friends, and every last one of the “suspects,” I became the natural repository for this story. Love and Terror is also about my quaint High Plains small town, its eccentric residents, my rocky marriage to a beautiful Mexican woman, and my exceptional, purportedly autistic son, who was four years old at the time.

What do you think happened up there, I mean with the math professor?

“Twilight Zone Shit,” is what my friend Sheriff Karl Dailey calls it, and though I don’t pretend to know, I do include the body of forensic evidence and the full spectrum of possible scenarios, including prairie dragons and space aliens.

Did you work with the math prof at the college?

I don’t even have a degree. I was cleaning floors at Safeway at the time.

Tell the two or three readers who haven’t put this interview aside a little about your writing routine.

I try to write four hours every day, mornings if I can. Most of what I write is discarded. Jack London used to set a goal of a thousand words a day before he gave in to the first of his twenty-six drinks. I might get down six thousand words, I might record twenty-two. I don’t force things because the next day I know I’ll just have to throw it away, and I’m not pressed by the need for a drink, wealth, or legitimacy. Production in writing is often about the acceptance of moving backwards. I am developmentally slow and usually have to go through at least ten major versions of whatever I’m working on before I start to see the gleam. I’ve been working on Love and Terror now for five years, and I thought it was done three years ago. One thing I’ve learned through the “creative process” is that most of the time you don’t get a say.

Do you use notebooks?

Extensively. I have about a hundred notebooks arranged in such a manner that I can never find what I’m looking for.

Do you have a method for beating that little voice that snags and blocks the whispers of the muse?

I write as fast as I can, which is why I like a computer.

But when you started writing, personal computers didn’t exist.

No, ink pens had just been invented and most people were switching over from papyrus. I teethed on a Royal manual typewriter, then moved to an electric Smith-Corona, followed by an IBM Selectric (also an electric typewriter), then it was a 286 clone (a computer I bought in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1989). I had a ThinkPad for a time. For many years I composed whole pieces including novels in longhand, but I can’t write fast enough to do that anymore.

Who are some of your influences?

My earliest influences were John Steinbeck and Pauline Kael.

Pauline Kael?

Yes, I learned a good deal about structure and atmosphere from her movie reviews.

Name some books worth reading twice.

Raintree County by Ross Lockridge, All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, Mockingbird Wish Me Luck by Charles Bukowski, Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West, The High Window by Raymond Chandler, Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy, The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham, Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson.

Those are all old books.

Yes, I don’t read a lot of new books. I don’t have the time to sort them out.

Can a secret about the vital inspirational force be divulged?

Don’t just watch the river, jump in.

Why did you travel for nearly three decades, living on four hundred dollars a month without seeing a dentist for sixteen years, when you could’ve gotten yourself a comfy job teaching?

I am easily bored and not much of a joiner. In Mexico, by the way, I lived on three hundred a month.

Your work is often compared with Bukowski’s.

Bukowski derived from Henry Miller, who I’m also occasionally compared to, and there are similarities. Both men came from working class backgrounds, both started and published late, both traveled widely and lived lustily among the poor, wrote with humor and heart, worked a number of mundane jobs, were totally ignored for years by the mainstream literati, and both rejected convention and academia. I’m also often compared to Kerouac (another disciple of Miller), I suppose because he traveled.

What do we look forward to seeing from you?

I have two stories upcoming in the Sun magazine, a story in the 2011 Spring edition of Ecotone, Love and Terror is slated for 2012, following that a novel in 2013 called Rodney Kills at Night, about a Lakota Indian boy who accidentally kills his stepfather and flees the reservation to become a standup comedian in Las Vegas. Al Saperstein just finished a great documentary on me, “Poe Ballantine, a Writer in America,” available soon. I’ve also just made a big pan of chicken enchiladas. You’re welcome to as many as you like.

Thanks but I’ve got to catch a plane. One last question before we go: what advice would you give the young would-be writer?

The difference between the writer and the person who wants to write can be reduced to one word: work. The devotees have significantly better odds of success than the dreamers whose mouths never close. Luck, timing, passion, courage, and talent all play a role, too. So does a complete investment in the truth. I wouldn’t for a moment recommend that you pursue literature, since it’s been replaced for the most part by visual media, but if you learn to trust your instincts, if you give everything you’ve got, if you don’t quit, if you really love what you do, if you’re willing to put your ass on the line, you might produce a work of note or at the very least learn something valuable about yourself. Good luck, however, avoiding the nervous breakdown.

Please explain what just happened.

I’ve been trying to figure that out for years.

 

What is your earliest memory?

Looking at my brother’s tricycle on top of our very steep driveway and thinking, “If he can do it, I can do it.” What I don’t remember, though, is getting on the tricycle, flying down the driveway and ending up in the hospital with a bunch of stitches in my forehead.

 

 

When I first began my screenwriting career, I had high hopes for my female characters. As long as they didn’t do anything like grab their crotch or spit after singing the national anthem, I thought things would be fine.

Clearly, I was wrong.

In Hollywood, you learn fast that women characters, much like women in general, are expected to be above all “likable.” Sure, she is allowed to be a bit wacky, but only if she is also meek. She can have a high-powered job, but only if she still cries in the bathroom during lunch breaks. She may have interests or hobbies, but they should be related to meeting men. Alessandra Stanley put it best in an old New York Times review when she called it the ‘Ally Mcbealing’ of American women.

Though for me, it’s nothing new. In some of my early drafts of How To Lose A Guy the heroine Andie Anderson was caustic, witty and above all else, comfortable with her sexuality. She also realized that her job at a glossy woman’s magazine was somewhat shallow, but at least it paid the rent and that was good enough for her. By the time the studio got done with it, however, Andie was a serious reporter stuck in a vapid magazine job. She was the ‘How To’ girl who dreamed of writing pieces on war torn Bosnia. All sarcasm was erased, and for all intents and purposes she was a virgin (though she had a friend who was a little trampy). These changes ostensibly made her character more likable. Likable trumped real. The movie came out, grossed a fortune, and one could argue, Hollywood was right. But I always wonder how it would have played had we kept her “real.” Would it have tanked? Or played even better?

I ask the question because in reality – at least by Hollywood standards – just about every woman I know is unlikable. Still, this doesn’t stop the movies and TV from perpetuating the myth that women are generally ditzy, clumsy, girl-next-door types whose main goal in life is to find a man (The only exception to this rule being when they are crime solvers, in which case they are consummate loners unable to ever have a real relationship because they are haunted and dark.)

The reality is that women (both fictional and real) are constrained by this nebulous likability factor while male characters can do just about anything. Imagine if Neil Labute’s In the Company of Men, a black comedy that makes fun of a deaf woman – and a movie I quite liked – had been made in reverse. You don’t have to work in the film business to know that The Company of Women would never have even made it past a first draft – if that. Or what about Scent of A Woman, staring Judy Dench as the foul-mouthed, blind ex-army officer? How about Mamet’s 12 Angry Men remade as 12 Angry Women. Or maybe an adaptation of John Dollar – a brilliant novel that is basically Lord of the Flies with girls. The sad truth is, it’s not going to happen.

Of course, film and TV present a fantasy, an escape from everyday life. But do people really not want to see real women? Does the public not want to hear women speak in their true voices, which span the spectrum from prim to irreverent. Are we still living in some sort of backwards world where women can, in theory, be anything they want to be, as long as they adhere to a certain role model?

It’s sort of depressing if you consider it. That’s why, in addition to writing screenplays, I turned to writing books, believing it would be a creative outlet where I would be allowed to express my worldview without having to give myself over to the bland dictates of being likable. A few years ago, I penned a coming-of-age memoir set in New Jersey. Surely I would have free reign to render the quirky, true-to-life characters that peopled my childhood — my lecherous gym teacher, a vindictive jazz musician who once terrorized me, and even a sexually charged, timbale playing chimpanzee. And while many reviewers embraced my story, there were plenty who didn’t.

But not for the reasons I expected.

Getting critical reviews is never a pleasant experience. As a writer, you simply hope for the best, bracing yourself for the reviewer’s poisoned arrows. But while promoting my memoir, a trend began to emerge. I was compared, with an alarming frequency, to cult author Charles Bukowski, although, frankly, I’m not sure the comparison was positive. More disturbing, though, my work was taken to task for being both profane and vulgar.

Puzzled, I searched for reasons why I was getting this reaction. I thought perhaps it was because my brother cursed a lot, a fact I translated onto the page. But then I recalled David Sedaris’ brother a.k.a “The Rooster” who cursed constantly. And fine, I described how our front yard became a boggy mess after the septic tank exploded, but didn’t Augusten Burroughs discuss his bowel movements without repercussion? No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t come up with any references to support how my memoir, which didn’t include sex, violence, or drugs would deserve such a description. I looked up early reviews of Trainspotting and saw terms like “calculatedly outrageous,” and “winningly sarcastic.” I checked out reviews of Elmore Leonard, a writer I greatly admire, and found several reviews applauding his female characters, in particular his creation of Honey Deal as a “smart, ballsy, sexy, take-no-prisoner female.” Now I consider myself a pretty smart, ballsy, sexy, take-no-prisoner female, yet somehow a 79-year-old man’s creation is more pitch perfect than the real deal?

Finally, while in New Jersey I did an interview for a local paper, and the reporter (male, early 30s) asked me why I was so mean.

I was taken aback by the word. Mean? The word ping-ponged through my brain. I can be dry, even sardonic on occasion. But mean? No. A straight shooter. Yes. I wondered if he was confusing the two.

Later, the reporter’s question started to burn. Why is it when a man describes the world around him in a way that’s scrupulously honest, he is described as brave, groundbreaking even? Yet when a woman writes about her world in a similar way, she is … mean.

The only answer I could come up with was that, as a woman writer, I was expected to be likable.

You see, I didn’t write about any of those safe female topics in my book. I never yearned to be prom queen, or battled with my weight, or suffered an unrequited crush on the quarterback. Instead, I wrote about being abandoned by my father, living in a crumbling house with an assortment of ill and handicapped siblings. I wrote about being perceived as an outsider by everyone around me. I wrote about feeling like a stranger in a strange land. This was my truth and it was through this prism that I saw the world around me. I was an emotional nomad who navigated the landscape of divorce in the 70s. A scrappy survivor of the mean streets of suburbia, who didn’t indulge in self-denigration or self-destruction.

So maybe I do have more in common with Bukowski than Bridget Jones. Driven by a need to find higher meaning in the world around me I took to questioning the world as I saw it. After all, alienation, sarcasm, and cynicism are not the sole domain of men, although sometimes it might seem as if they are. Back in the 50s and 60s, a group of disaffected male writers named themselves the Beat generation, playing with the paradox of the word to mean both “tired” and “upbeat” at the same time; although women were involved in the movement as well, they were often relegated to the sidelines, cast in the role of hostess, girlfriend, muse. The writing style of the beats was chaotic, gritty, and non-conformist, reflecting the burgeoning counterculture movement of the time.

Even though it’s been almost 50 years since the Beat generation, women are slowly breaking into the territory first staked out by Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs. And despite the pressure to conform, to be likable, to break down and pine away and play helpless, we are resisting, enlarging the boundaries of our worldview with our gimlet eyes and bringing in the experiences of our own upbringing: the anomie of suburban life, the possibilities of the internet, the prevalence of divorce, the increasing fungibility of identity.

A growing number of female writers and performers don’t want to toe the line and be likable anymore. As I considered my role in this regard, I remembered a line Jack Kerouac once wrote, “The only people for me are the mad ones … they never yawn or say a commonplace thing.” And that’s when it hit me. Every generation has its movements, and perhaps this is ours. We are Mads. Mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved. We are nomads displaced by cultural circumstances who are now trying to find a place to call home. We are mad to experience life on all levels. Mad to connect all our million little pieces. Mad to find our own truth. We write mad lit — and yes, it’s cynical, unflinching, and irreverent. Our stories are populated by female characters who don’t want to be Meredith Grey or Carrie Bradshaw, created by female authors who don’t want pink covers and cute little cartoons on their books.

To the reporter who asked me why I was so mean, I now have an answer: I’m not mean. I’m mad. And if that makes me unlikable, so be it. Because let’s face it, being mad is a hell of a lot more interesting.

There are two major bookstores in the world, City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco and Shakespeare and Co. in Paris.

Last week I read and discussed my novel at City Lights Bookstore. It was a dream come true. I’m not sure how my literary career can move forward from such an honor. I could die today with bragging rights for my future in the eternal nothingness.

Let me back up…..

***

In 1994 I went to Paris. I was 24 years old. I brought all of my handwritten poetry and expected Shakespeare and Co. to be ecstatic and celebrate an unpublished poet from San Francisco. I had visions that I’d be ushered to an upstairs room and given bottled water while they read over my petit opus, my generous contribution to literature. Bottled water would switch to Absinthe and I’d get a buzz on the smells of the spirits of authors past that also graced Shakespeare and Co. with their greatness.

I had recently discovered Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, Louis Ferdinand-Celine. I knew I was next on the list of these greats. My delusion was squashed when I asked about poetry readings and fumbled my papers onto the counter. I can’t exactly remember the reply of the clerk, but I remember my dreams crushed. Who are you?

Customers breathed down my neck as I picked up my papers from the counter and the few that fell to the floor.

It was 1994 and I went to Paris to stretch out my literary wings that were still soaked and unsuitable for flying even in my hometown of San Francisco. Why would Paris embrace me?

Because my last name is DuShane. I’m one of you.

I walked long hours alone in Paris, with my notepad, and a strict budget since the French Franc was strong against a weak US Dollar. I slept in a closet space of a friend of a friend in the suburb of Nanterre. It was understood as only a crash pad, during the day, I had to be out and about. With no one, going nowhere.

I tried to say hi to women, but I didn’t even get kissed. Four weeks in Paris and my lips touched no one.

…..End flashback interlude of my 20-something naivety.

***

Last week I fulfilled a dream. One of the greatest bookstores in the world actually hosted a night where I was the star. It only took 16 years from my Paris disappointment to spread my dry, literary wings in my hometown of San Francisco.

City Lights. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti.

I feel blessed and lucky. I worked hard on my novel. I wrote it in blood. While loosely based on my fucked up life growing up in a cult, I actually have to acknowledge that without that experience I couldn’t have created the characters or have written that book. My novel, endearing, funny and tragic, is a homage to the human condition. Of people standing by their belief systems and making decisions from hearts they feel are pure. Decisions that might damage themselves and others.

I was able to read at City Lights….to discuss these topics….to read and have the crowd laugh and have them in utter silence when I discussed tragedy. A woman asked me if the world would be a better place without religion. I don’t have the answer. I know some people need religion. I know some exploit religion. I know some people are truly good, whether religious or not. I’m not religious, but if I started a religion, I’d called it, Just Don’t Be A Dick.

Without flaws, our stories, our novels, would suck. Without conflict we can’t embrace our human condition. I used to think I was unique as someone who grew up a Jehovah’s Witness….while there are some things I’ve gone through that 99% of the world didn’t have to go through, I know my story isn’t so unique. Most of us are doing our best. Even the assholes. Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses who have spewed hatred at me and personally attacked me for writing a novel that exposes situations they’d rather not have made public. One such Jehovah’s Witness tried to reason with me the only way he knew how, I know your book is true (regarding doctrine and situations), but why make it harder for us to preach?

Then I heard the same thing again. Why make it harder for us to preach?

They don’t even realize they want recruitment numbers over truth. When my book deal went through, I received vicious phone calls and emails from them. They’re human.

It hurt at the time. It still hurts a bit, but my peace is knowing they’re misguided. My peace is knowing that my novel is out there. They don’t have read it if they choose not to, but they can if they like.

……This is the part where Tony realizes he went from funny to grateful to serious to reflection.

***

….Wait, he doesn’t….

Where would American punk rock be without Reagan? Would Henry Rollins have turned into some type of Gallagher, smashing watermelons into a crowd because America actually decided not to be dicks for oil?

Let’s back up further. Would we have Louis Ferdinand-Celine if he wasn’t injured during World War I? Without Celine, could there be a Kerouac?

What? You would like to go back centuries? What if Cervantes never went to war, was never captured and had a posh life? Would we have Don Quixote?

I really don’t know any writer or humorist or comedian or artist that hasn’t suffered. I read them, I listen to them, and they speak to my soul.

I don’t have the answers. We suffer and we can sometimes laugh about it, at the absurdity of the human condition. At the flaws of ourselves.

Last week I read and discussed my novel at City Lights Bookstore. It was a dream come true.