I first met Ross Angelella (I just can’t call him by his official author name – J.R. Angelella – because, well, I’ve never called him J.R. and I don’t know anyone else who has, either, but he has good reasons to be called J.R. on his books, reasons which are not revealed in the interview below, but which exist somewhere on the internet and I trust that if you search long enough, you’ll find the story and you will be justifiably moved) in 2007. I’d made the fateful decision to attend Bennington for graduate school and Ross was assigned to be my student mentor. That he was ten years younger than me and was just starting out and I was heading towards the middle of my career and was already running an MFA program seemed a little weird to me (I’d Googled the hell out him, too, so I’d read his LiveJournal and was, well, somewhat concerned that he was a serial killer, but that’s another issue all together). His job was simple: to prepare me for the harsh world of low residency graduate education…which, in this case, consisted of him calling me one evening and telling me to buy one of those foam mattress tops if I wanted to be able to sleep on the prison beds Bennington uses in their dorm rooms. That seemed like an extremely solid and learned piece of advice, so from there we went on to talk about a series of mundane things for about an hour. There were lots of giggles. I think I may have rolled out the word “fucktard” early on, just to make sure he wasn’t one of those people easily offended by my common vernacular. He showed no ill effects, so we pressed on. And we’ve kept pressing on for five years.
In that time, I’ve seen my mentor go from a young writer with great promise to a young writer who has not only found his voice, but also found a storytelling niche that seems perfect for his particular obsessions, which tend to hue towards the dark. His first novel, Zombie, is a coming-of-age novel in the way “Taxi Driver” was a film about the transit system. Ross’ twisted teenage narrator, Jeremy Barker, sees his world through eyes seemingly implanted from George A. Romero’s own head: every dark corner potentially contains a flesh-eating monster, even the corners of his childhood home, where the monsters go by the more common names Mom and Dad. Ross is also an exceptionally adroit social satirist, able at once to skewer popular culture while also embracing the truth of the moment: weird, awful things happen every day and sometimes you have to laugh at them or they just might destroy you. You’ll see what I’m talking about when you read the excerpt of his work in this issue of The Nervous Breakdown and perhaps from his answers to the questions I posed him via email recently.
Writers are, by nature, completely fucked up human beings that are impossible to ever truly know. Well, at least that’s what we’re told. In order for the world to get to know the real J.R. Angelella, we need to know the contents of your refrigerator. Spare us no pertinent food item or condiment and give us a bit of insight on said items if you feel so inclined.
I think the near vacancy of my refrigerator says more about me than I’d care to admit. Since I signed the book contract for ZOMBIE and a YA series that I’m co-writing with my wife, I have lived quite the Spartan existence, which means I never cook anymore. The crazy thing is that I love to cook and am actually pretty good at it. Oddly enough, I find cooking as well as cleaning dirty dishes both very calming and cathartic activities. (Some people do yoga, I wash dishes. What?) But being VP of Operations of an office drone job and contracted to write a few novels will make you give up quite a bit of your life in order to find time to write or, you know, sleep, maybe a shower. I view Twitter as my electronic smoke signals, letting people know I’m actually still alive. Having given up cooking, definitely accounts for my fridge looking an awful lot like it did back in college. Although I should note that the major difference is that everything in my refrigerator is still well within the limits of expiration, whereas this would not be the case in college.
Top shelf: unopened jar of Maraschino cherries, unopened jar of Vlasic spear pickles, unopened jar of Old El Paso salsa, and then there is a deep and wide Tupperware plastic tub centered on the shelf to catch the occasional mysterious geyser of water that gushes down at random.
Middle shelf: Brita water filter pitcher (always with the tiniest bit of filtered water at the bottom); an unopened package of sliced Velveeta cheese, an unopened package of shredded mozzarella cheese, three half gallon cartons of 1% milk (2 unopened, 1 opened).
Bottom shelf: carton of cold noodles with sesame sauce, carton of chicken with broccoli in garlic sauce, a Tupperware container of homemade marinara sauce and Tropicana OJ (some pulp).
In the door of the refrigerator, an assortment of fancy jams and marmalades that were purchased as Christmas gifts a few months ago, but never made it our the door due to novel writing, so instead have been enjoyed thoroughly; three official Baltimore Oriole Opening Day National Bohemian tallboy cans of beer, otherwise known to Ballmer locals as Natty Boh’s; three bottles of Grolsh; and a multitude of canned sodas.
We love those author bios that say things like, “Bill Jones was a shrimp boat captain, sous chef, garbage collector and Green Beret prior to getting his MFA in painting from Mt. Something Pretentious University, before finally deciding novels were his passion.” So, tell us a few of your jobs. And, most importantly, tell us about that time you got fired. You must have been fired from something, right?
Contrary to popular opinion, I am not (too much of) a fuck-up, which I realize might go against the image projected as the writer of my nefarious little stories and novels. I have never been fired from a job, but I suppose the possibility of that still exists. I have come close a few times, but I am generally a very careful and diligent worker. My job list has been pretty varied over the years and certainly exposed me to experiences that have found their way into my work on occasion.
I have been an video store clerk, an college campus truck driver/mailman, an on-air personality/disc jockey, a law office real estate clerk, an assistant teacher in a Montessori classroom (3 – 6 years old), and currently VP of Operations and account manager of a promotional staffing company.
The video store job was my first real job and I just loved it. All my other friends had crap jobs with crap hours, and I just loved mine so much. The store was Video Americain and thankfully is still around–this hipster, indie-owned, well-stocked video store. I was a teenager and worked there for about 4 years along side a team of filmgeeks, filmmakers, writers, actors, musicians and various artists. A lot of really talented people making money, talking about movies, watching movies, renting free movies, discussing their projects–it was awesome. I know my parents were happy too because it meant that as long as I worked there they got free rentals. That perk no longer exists as far as I know. Hoepfully, VA can find a way to survive amidst the streaming videos, and internet downloads, and Netflix era we seem to be in now. I refuse to imagine a world in which video stores and bookstores and music stores are obsolete.
The mail job was fun because I got to drive a huge truck around my college campus and had access to buildings and departments that no other students were allowed to enter. I never did anything with this power. I guess i really just liked to drive the truck, that and I got to know all of the support staff across campus on a first name basis which served to be beneficial during the school year. Generally, the support staff despised the students, and were resistant/hesitant to bend any rules or go above-and-beyond the bare minimum in assisting students with any problems . . . unless you’re me and I’m their mail truck driver, then you’re treated like a king.
My DJ handle at the radio station was Johnny Rico after the character in Paul Verhooven’s film Starship Troopers. This was a bizarre job for me because I’m not typically very extroverted, but radio really helped me with that fear. It was mainly college/alternative/rock format, but I also had my own specialty show–Folk Revolution–where I played a lot of modern folk, folk rock, folk-inspired music. It was were my inner music nerd blossomed into a raging music addict.
Being a real estate clerk is exactly as it sounds to be.
My favorite job though was working at the Montessori school. Like my real estate gig, this was not typically a profession you find a lot of dudes, so a lot of parents were pretty skeptical of me when I started. Best advice I ever received early on was to always be aware of my actions and words once I am on school grounds because I am dinner conversation every night, meaning when parents ask their kids about their day I am what they talk about. I was such an anomaly too that kids in other classes were apparently talking about me. The kids were amazing and being able to work with them at such an impressionable age was incredible. I played guitar in the classroom too, which the kids largely had never seen before. After my first year at the school, three-quarters of the kids in my class had been given tiny guitars by their parents. I’ve never felt better about being a human being than when I was working there and miss it everyday. It takes a certain type of person to work with young kids in that environment. It takes extreme patience and coffee-for-blood. If it paid more, I would drop everything and go back in a heartbeat.
I was once asked this question and it has frankly haunted me ever since, so I pay it forward by asking you the same question: What’s the best thing that someone you dislike has ever turned you onto? How do you rationalize not hating it, too?
God, that is a good question.
The only thing that really comes to mind are books. I have been given a lot of recommendations of books to read by people who don’t realize that I despise them, but I have gone on to actually read and like said recommended books. For me, I look at it as liking something in spite of the idiot person who recommended it. Like it’s a challenge. A dare. Or that me liking the book actually is a good deed that I am giving back to the world as some form of cosmic counterbalance and intergalactic public service.
Now the opposite is much more difficult for me, which is when I love a book and then someone I dislike also loves that same book. In this situation, I find that the book in question is ruined for me and often winds up piled into a box and dragged to the Brooklyn street corner where it will be picked up by some unknowing passerby, who will hopefully also love the book and cleanse the book of its demons.
Let’s hear about your first kiss. We need all the details. Photos, too, if you have them.
I think I was in sixth grade and in the after-school program. So was she. Her name was Rachel, but I can’t remember her last name to save my life. She was a seventh grader, and was pretty mean, if memory serves correct. She refused to acknowledge me during the day when we passed each other in the halls, but in the after-school program we hung out.
One day, the director asked me to go to the lunchroom and pick up snack and milk for everyone. Rachel tagged along to help. We got to the lunchroom and before I had a chance to pick up the milk, she was kissing me. She had her hands on my shoulders to pull me in. I had no idea what was happening. As far as I knew, Rachel tolerated me after school and hated me during the day. The last thing I expected was her to kiss me. The kiss didn’t last long and was sweet–no tongue or anything sloppy, just somewhere between a peck and an embrace. Afterwards, I just looked at her, absolutely speechless, until she finally said, “shut up and grab the milk.”
It’s your run-of-the-mill, elementary, after-school first kiss story, really. She never kissed me again, and went on hating me during the day and tolerating me after school. Until she graduated from eighth grade that next year, I was always on the defense when she was around. Who knew what the hell that crazy girl was capable of!
Top 5 favorite guilty pleasures.
Can we specify this? Guilty pleasures are wonderful, but there are just so many possibilities. For example, I occasionally love going to the movies by myself and eating dinner alone–it’s not for any reason other than making that movie and that meal that unique an experience.
Another and recent guilty pleasure of mine has been watching the Danny McBride movie Your Highness. It’s just awful on so many levels and I don’t care, I just love it so much, and there was a week where I would run it on loop in the background as I would write at night.
I mostly enjoy quality beer, but every so often I break routine and buy really, really cheap beer for no real good reason other than to do it–Schlitz, Natty Boh, PBR–but is this really a guilty pleasure?
I like getting on a crowded subway and winding up stuck behind some suited-up alpha dog losing his mind because he is running late or the train is slow, and ever so lightly blowing on the back of his neck, so that he twitches and slaps his neck and turns around to see who is behind him and it’s just little old harmless me, listening to music on my fancy headphones. I eventually see him looking at me and knock my headphones down around my neck and say, “I’m sorry, did you ask me a question?” But that doesn’t seem like a guilty pleasure either.
Do you have any special — or secret — talents? For instance, I am able to moonwalk reasonably well (and by “reasonably well” I mean: I’d never do it in public, but I do it in my house pretty much all the time). I suspect you’re excellent with a cross-bow or you’re a fluent speaker of Catalan or something.
I do a pretty great impersonation of Ben Affleck’s character Doug MacRay from the movie The Town, complete with a Catholic saint medallion necklace, bold-colored tracksuit and shoddy Boston accent. In fact, when I first saw The Town I fell head-over-heals in love with the Boston Gangster Couture (BGC) represented int he film that I dully-embraced it as my own leisure-wear. I know what you’re thinking–well, what’s your tracksuit of choice? I’m glad you asked. I prefer Puma and have sets of blue, black, candy apple red, and, of course, what BGC collection would complete without an Irish green.
My only other talent would be that I have been known to deliver an electric, show-stopping, some might say controversial performance of Beck’s song “Debra.” This was something that my college roommate and I began performing at parties around 1999 when the album Midnight Vultures came out. Our performances were legendary. After college, I continued to perform “Debra” at parties until retiring it back in 2009. It was a great 10 year run, and was time to put it to bed. It’s one thing to be an energetic 20-something delivery a sexually-charged performance at a party where people are drinking Long Island Iced Tea out of Solo cups, and quite another thing to be a slower, less agile 30-something wheezing through the once well-timed choreography at a party where people are drinking Chardonnay out of glassware from their wedding registry. I will say this though, if I ever do bring my “Debra” performance out of retirement, it won’t be me out there killing it, but rather it’ll be Doug MacRay in his BGC.
Being a debut novelist is so different now — or at least more different than it was when my first book came out 12 years ago, anyway — to the point that your book hasn’t even been released yet and you’re already getting hate mail. What’s that like?
Well, Tod, it’s not normal. It’s not normal at all. It has taken some getting used to on my part, but thankfully I have seen what NOT to do as an author when publicly critiqued, like publishing a rebuttal in the comments section to an online review. I have always known ZOMBIE was going to polarize its audience, for the simple fact that the book steals from a number of genres and mashes them up into its own unique thing, which just makes it more difficult to categorize and digest, i think. Well, that and the ending–I always knew that the ending was going to be tough for some people to wrap their head around. The few responses I’ve received have been critical, sure, but also very honest and passionate. I love that! The mere fact that someone takes the time to sit down, find my contact info and write me an impassioned email is an indication that I have done something right in the book. If you love ZOMBIE or hate ZOMBIE, I have done my job as a writer.
Most profound celebrity sighting in your life. If you ended up getting detained because of it, even better.
I was getting off a plane at LAX a few years back, when my suitcase got wedged in the overhead bin and I couldn’t get it down. I was standing in the aisle, yanking on the damn thing like a madman, trying to pull it free, but it wouldn’t budge. I had been at it for a few solid minutes, and could hear the passengers getting restless behind me. I knew I was holding everyone up, so I turned to the person behind me to apologize, except that the person behind me wasn’t just any person at all. The person behind me was Marlo Stanfield, the Baltimore drug lord from The Wire (played by Jamie Hector). Now I know that actors aren’t their characters and want to be treated like normal human beings, but this was Marlo fucking Stanfield. There was no Jamie Hector in sight. When I saw him standing there, headphones on, chewing gum, holding his luggage, I immediately stepped aside. Marlo didn’t move though, he just stood there. I waved him to play on through, but he just stood there. I thought that maybe he didn’t hear me or see me, so I spoke louder and made larger movements with my arms, waving him through like one of those guys out on the tarmac directing flight traffic. “I’M SORRY, SIR. YOU CAN PASS.” Marlo still didn’t move though. Instead, he kept chomping on that gum and finally said, “Be easy, son. Handle your business.” At that point, I was sure Snoop and Chris were somewhere on the plane too, just waiting to lock me away inside some Los Angeles vacant. Marlo’s words ran around my head like a rabbit on a dog track: “handle your business, handle your business, handle your business, handle your business, handle your business, handle your business.” I stepped back into the aisle, grabbed the handle of my suitcase, and ripped that thing down like my life depended on it. I had my luggage, and got off the plane, and when I turned around to see if Marlo was still on my back, he was gone. I’m sure Mr. Hector is a very nice man, but I’m just glad he didn’t end up next to me for the entire flight from New York to LA. I would say that this is pretty profound.
Tell us five writers we should be reading but probably aren’t.
John Waters. People know him more for his films, but he is a terrific writers too. His off-beat memoir ROLE MODELS was heartfelt and honest and hilarious and horrifying. He’s apparently working on a new top secret book right now, but with the latest Twitter news of him lately, I think I have a good idea what it will be about.
Matt Bell. His work is incredibly original and wholly his own. There are few writers that get me this excited to read their work. I secretly hate him for what he’s able to do with fiction. Go read his work and let’s hate him together. I’ll set-up the Facebook page.
Will Christopher Baer. I discovered his Phineas Poe trilogy at a time when I was thinking about walking away from writing. I had hit so many road blocks that reading was no longer fun for me because I couldn’t figure out a) how to fix the problems in my work, or b) how others were able to make it look so damn easy. I read KISS ME, JUDAS. Then PENNY DREADFUL. And then began again. He was also one of the first authors that I contacted, expressing my joy in reading his work and frustration in my own. We recommended his favorite books to me and gave me some other incredible writing advice. Like: suck it up, and just keep writing. I’m glad I did.
Finally, people should absolutely read Stephen Dau (BOOK OF JONAS) and Megan Mayhew Bergman (BIRDS OF A LESSER PARADISE). Because they are both debut authors, their books are seriously amazing (if you don’t believe me, just read the reviews) and, quite honestly, don’t you want to be the person who recommends an incredible book to your friends, BEFORE that book goes on to win a pantload of awards? Think of the street-cred this would give you.
If you couldn’t be a writer, is there some other art you would have gravitated to? Or have you always been a storyteller?
I was destined to be a writer. The year that the girl Rachel kissed me in after school, sixth grade I think, was also the year that my English class performed a holiday play for our entire school. It was one of those lame, text book plays that no one has ever heard of about a bunch of Christmas toys and decorations that are lost int he wilderness or something and have to find their way home. I wasn’t given a speaking-role (a drum!), which really pissed me off. Not to mention that the story made absolutely no sense. The play began with all of these inanimate object in the wilderness, lost, trying to find their way home. It was like the movie Cube or the recent reboot Predators. How did they get there? Why were they there? Everything about the play really bothered me, so I went home one day and rewrote the first half of the play. I made copies of the original version and stapled my revision to it, before walking up to my teacher and handing it to her. All I said to her was, “Take a look at this and let me know what you think.” After recess, she called me over to her desk, handed me 20 copies of my draft and asked me to hand them out to the class. She had accepted my revision.
My version opened up in a courtroom where the talking holiday objects (a candy cane, Christmas stocking, silver bell, and there were others that I don’t remember) were found guilty of being in contempt of court (I have no idea why they were in court, and, yes, I see the holes quite clearly in my version of the play too, thank you very much!) and sentenced to live the rest of their lives alone in the wilderness, unable to celebrate the one true holiday of Christmas. I played the bailiff, who had more lines than the judge and even got to tackle the candy cane who tried to make a break for it after hearing the harsh sentencing. The play still sucked, but I was happy to just have lines, and answer some of the nagging questions that I had about the play in general.
I, clearly, was destined and doomed to be a writer.
J. R. Angelella is the author of the novel Zombie (Soho Press) as well as a forthcoming, Southern Gothic, supernatural YA series (Sourcebooks/Teen Fire) co-written with his wife, the writer Kate Angelella. His short fiction has appeared in numerous journals, most recently in Fifth Wednesday Journal, Sou’wester, The Coachella Review, JMWW, Plots with Guns and The Collagist. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from Bennington College and teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop in New York City. For more info, check out his website: www.jrangelella.com; or follow him on twitter: @jrangelella.