Absurdist writer, technologist, and obsessive book hoarder Jon Konrath is the author of titles such as The Earworm Inception, Thunderbird, Summer Rain, and Rumored to Exist. He has been blogging at rumored.com since 1997.
"Clever, humorous and extraordinarily weird. . ."
". . .some damn impressive writing."
I recently got a chance to interview probably one of the best contemporary absurdist writers today, Jon Konrath.
My thoughts were that Jon and I would keep a single Google Doc and basically riff off of questions and answers as much as possible, trying to keep the interview style in a somewhat similar vein to his writing. I love free associations so, admittedly, I just tried to keep up. I definitely tried to ask specific things about his books that I wanted to know for my own edification, and I figured the readers would want to know, too, by-proxy, etc. but the conversation tended toward the strange more often than not. In the best possible ways.
Buckle up, because the entire behemoth, unabridged interview follows!
Joe M. Owens: I’m really digging Thunderbird so far. I honestly think it’s as good as anything else I’ve read of yours. Given that all your books ultimately have an overarching theme that knits them together, what do you feel Thunderbird’s is and was the spark that ignited the project?
Jon Konrath: The big spark this time around was watching the Louie show all in one clip on Netflix. I like how he creates these almost plotless episodes that explore some point by showing it in an overblown, absurdist fashion. One of the things he constantly shows is the general absurdity about how the social contract of our society has completely disintegrated.
Like there’s an example in one of his episodes where he’s babysitting this completely undisciplined kid of his neighbor’s — one of these “I let him be free to do whatever he wants” juvenile delinquents — and the kid immediately rolls up Louie’s rug and throws it out of the apartment window.
I wanted to create this world in the book that depicted this exaggerated “I’m the center of the universe, and I’m going to get mine” mentality that you see all around us right now. The book is set a couple of years in the future, so for all I know, my absurdity in 2013 could become commonplace in 2015.
Like, it’s probably a little over the top to write about running into someone at Wal-Mart that’s masturbating to amputee porn in the computer section. (Then again, people are getting caught making meth inside Wal-Mart all the time, so who knows.)
JMO: Louis C.K. is great! I’ve held the belief for a few years now that he’s one of the best comics and social critics alive today.
Jon Konrath: He’s definitely up there on my list. There are a couple of things that I like about him. One is how he’s a monster writing – he pretty much writes a new hour of material a year, then does a special to capture it and retires it. That’s on top of everything he does with his TV show, which even included all of the editing in addition to acting, writing, and production. And he’s also writing another chunk of stand-up that’s getting used in the show, the beginnings and bumpers of him doing comedy within each episode. That is a phenomenal work ethic.
The other thing I really admire about him is how he completely changed the delivery model of comedy videos. Instead of going to HBO or whoever to produce a special, he completely cut out the middleman, paid to produce it himself, set up his own web site, and then sold it for five bucks. The site was easy to use and he was very cool about piracy and just wanted to get the work out there as painlessly as possible, and try to recoup enough so he could buy a house and not have to worry about bills and do more work. And then when the special blew up and went viral, he made over a million dollars and gave away half of it, both in bonuses to his crew and to charities. And now that direct, $5 model is the standard, and other comedians are doing the same. It’s a lot like the self-publishing world, and it’s made good work a lot more accessible to people. I’m not going to subscribe to HBO to see a Jim Gaffigan special, but I’ll gladly give him five bucks to download it.
JMO: It seems like there’s a certain type of person, particularly/possibly one with a significant case of ADD (like me) that your writing particularly appeals to because there is so many things going on and so many trains of thought and ideas. A lot of your work reminds me of having a random thought and just taking it to its logical-but-extreme conclusion, which feels cathartic when you read someone else doing it.
Does this almost “stream of consciousness” type of writing just happen for you spur-of-the-moment, or do you map out the way your characters’ zaniness progresses in advance?
Jon Konrath: I have written linear, plotted stuff that followed an outline, and I don’t do it as much anymore. Part of it is that I’m not as interested in strongly plot-driven novels anymore, and part of it really kills my ability to create. Like if I had the wise idea to start writing a novel and said “okay, three-acts, and it’s Apocalypse Now but about a garbage collector, and it’s in space,” I would spend all of my time thinking about if my writing was too much like the movie, but also obsessing about if it would work if it was too dissimilar, and I wouldn’t actually write. I think most creation is the ability to shut off your conscious mind and channel your subconscious to the page, and the battle is that you need enough of your conscious mind to be able to work a keyboard and write in complete coherent sentences.
There are two parallel things going on as far as the writing process. One is that I need to diligently take notes on everything around me. So when I’m watching TV, reading a book, or poking around the web, anything that sticks out as a potential idea gets written down, as do any phrases or quotes or word combinations or recollections of bits of the past that could evolve into a story. [ed. note: I also do this, especially with documentaries!] This used to involve a lot of post-its and legal pads and backs of receipts and whatnot, but the iPhone’s notes app has streamlined this. The other part is that I free-write religiously, daily, just dumping whatever riffs into a buffer. The output from both of these goes into a giant Scrivener project, and slowly gets picked at and sorted, until logical chunks start to form. Here are some Scrivener tips for you.
The last few books have been more like story collections, although there are usually cohesive threads through the whole book, and the pieces will start to arrange themselves until they have a structure. It’s more like songwriting, and I’ll sometimes think something is a good “chorus” and it just needs a couple of “verses” around it to frame it. And then these loose little riffs get dropped into place between those. Or I have these huge buckets full of people, places, and things, and I start swapping objects out, like I’ll decide the guy at the porn shop should be Konstanin Chernenko, after pulling his name from a huge list.
The thing that always burns me on this approach is coming up with the overall “container” that holds this mess, and keeps a reader moving forward through the pages. Sometimes, that happens before anything else, but a lot of times, I’ll be 90% done with a book and have no idea what it will be, and I’ll drive myself mad thinking I have to solve the problem before I’m done, and maybe I should just tear the whole thing apart and start over, write new stories with all of the pieces.
JMO: You were born in North Dakota and raised in a small town in Michigan. How do you think that affected the development of your writing style?
Jon Konrath: I actually left North Dakota when I was six months old, so that probably didn’t do much, except it sort of broke the curse of being born in my hometown. And I was born on an air force base in the middle of nowhere, with a lot of weird cold war goings-on, which may have left the seed for some of my obsessions for strange military technology. This was Grand Forks AFB, which was the home of some fifty megatons of Minuteman II missiles aimed at the Soviets, and my dad used to work on the B-52 nuclear bombers that would take off in sixty below zero weather and fly giant loops over Canada and the arctic circle, waiting to get the phone call from Nixon to make the Dr. Strangelove run into Russia. There’s also a huge ABM facility they built a few miles from there that has a radar tower that looks like a giant Egyptian pyramid in the middle of nowhere. They spent half a billion dollars building this massive system and then it was only operational for a few months. The buildings are still there.
I obsess about this stuff, and spend far too much time reading about it, looking for these things on Google Maps, and so it ends up in my writing. (It also means Google Maps is in my blacklist. You really need to go to http://selfcontrolapp.com and get a free copy of their timed internet blocking software.) I haven’t even been back to North Dakota since 1971, but I probably should visit again and see what’s left. I know they imploded all of the missiles and moved all of the B-52s from Grand Forks, but I’ve gotta find that giant pyramid.
JMO: I’ve either lived in Omaha, NE or Ames, IA my entire life. A mutual friend of ours — and Lit Pub contributor — David Atkinson, is also from Omaha and now lives in Denver. Is there something about growing up on/in the Plains that causes one’s writing to tend toward the strange or bizarre?
Jon Konrath: I think there’s two parts two it. The first was that I spent a lot of my childhood isolated. I lived in a village (Edwardsburg, Michigan) that had one stoplight when I was there, and it was a flashing warning light. One of our neighbors had kids in high school when I was in preschool, so playing with other kids my age involved parental chauffeuring. I learned to read before Kindergarten, and spent a lot of time in my own head, reading everything possible. I spent hours going through a kiddie encyclopedia I got at a garage sale, and then we got a real encyclopedia — I think it was a Funk and Wagnall’s — that you bought book-by-book at the Kroger grocery store. I think getting lost in reading at an early age instead of football or Donny and Marie or whatever probably got me started on the journey.
The other thing is that there was a lot of absurdity in general in the Midwest. I moved to Indiana in the first grade – right across the state line, really – and this was a state that tried to set the value of Pi to 3.2 in legislation. It was the home of Michael Jackson, Charles Manson, Jim Jones, Dan Quayle. . . . There were always small-town absurdities and contradictions that, as I got older, seemed to get more insane. Like until very recently, the state refused to acknowledge daylight savings time, and pretty much every phone interstate phone conversation I had started with a twenty-minute explanation of what time it was in Indiana. It’s the last state to ban alcohol sales on Sundays, but up until recently, there was no open container law, so you could drive around with a beer in your hand, as long as you weren’t drunk. The combination of fundamentalist religion, small-town politics, and an economy almost entirely based on manufacturing created a bizarre place to grow up, and it got worse as all of the jobs vanished to China and retail got shuttered and replaced by Wal-Marts. It’s a completely post-apocalyptic environment now, so it’s easy to tap into that for weird writing.
JMO: For what it’s worth, I think The Earworm Inception might’ve ruined Mongolian grills for me, i.e. specifically, “The Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test Manifesto,” ruined them for me. Shit, man. . . why’d you do it? I mean, the Human Asian BBQ cannibalism . . . but then it probably smells incredible and you eat it [if you haven’t been told – e.g. just savoring every chewy “Jeff McNugget,” sampling him in the varieties of sauces like black Thai peanut, Burn-Your-Village Barbeque®, Five Village Fire Szechuan™, et al. laid upon a bed of sticky rice noodles.
Jon Konrath: The cannibalism bit comes from two things. One is a conversation I was having with another writer a while ago, about how he had some relatives that latched onto every crazy new-age food trend, and were talking about raising chickens in their apartment. He postulated that the next big trend, after raw milk and placenta eating, would probably be cannibalism. And I think when that happens, there’s going to be food trucks involved, or maybe Guy Fieri going to all of these diners across the country where if you eat an entire human head in 20 minutes, you get your picture on the wall and a free T-shirt.
I was also obsessed with cannibalism about twenty years ago when that Alive movie came out, about the soccer players in the plane crash that ate their friends’ dead bodies to survive. I remember killing time in a K-Mart in Indiana and reading the entire straight-to-paperback true-crime book about the crash in the store, poring over the grainy black-and-white photos. The summer before, the fascination was the Dahmer trial, and it was similar – I’d go to the newsstand at the Osco drug store and read every magazine about the grisly scene at his apartment. It’s very easy for me to lock into fascinations like that, which means I pretty much have to block Wikipedia to get any writing done, or I’ll go to look up what year Leon Czolgosz was executed, and two hours later, I’m reading about Soviet rail disasters in the 19th century.
I don’t know where I got the Mongolian connection, although I used to go to this place in Denver – I think it’s part of that BD’s chain – and every time I left, my coat would smell like charred flesh for a week. I think if you were going to eat human flesh, there would be a certain allure to scooping out pieces in little bowls and then watching a guy stir it on the open grill, as opposed to just ordering a #3 and having a clerk hand over a cardboard box filled with nuked nuggets that had been breaded, fried, and flash-frozen in a giant factory in Arkansas.
JMO: Also, for what it’s worth, that question was written under the influence of Ambien — I nodded off 45 seconds or so later.
Jon Konrath: In this giant pile of junk on my desk that will eventually be assimilated into writing, I just found the Zolpidem medication guide, which has an entire page of warnings about stuff you may accidentally do in your sleep without being aware of it, including driving, talking on the phone, eating, and having sex. It does not mention interview questions, though.
JMO: Hunter S. Thompson used to say, “When the going gets tough, the tough get weird.” Your writing shares a lot of the manic energy of HST’s as well as style that would appeal to fans of Mark Leyner (The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, The Tetherballs of Bougainville). Can you talk about your writing influences at all?
Jon Konrath: Leyner was a huge influence. Before him, I got started on Henry Miller, Bukowski, and Orwell. Vonnegut and Heller cracked open the door to the absurd world, but Leyner really broke it open for me. That brief window of postmodernist rockstar writing happened in the mid-90s, right around when I started writing, and it majorly influenced me, stuff like Leyner’s core works Et Tu, Babe and The Tetherballs of Bougainville, and David Foster Wallace with Infinite Jest. That movement quickly collapsed though, and I spent years digging for interviews so I could trace back their influences and find more. I got turned onto the other FC2 writers that way, like Raymond Federman and Ronald Sukenick.
Leyner really clicked with me because his outrageous sense of humor was close to mine, but also because he’d wander off in random directions with references to pop culture or scientific technology, and then bring it back again. I felt like his hyperactive structure matched the randomness in my head much more than traditional storytellers. When I tried to write “straight” fiction, it felt like I had to confine myself, like I was on a first date or trying to act normal around someone’s parents, and it wasn’t until I recognized the potential to do whatever I wanted that I really started writing. Leyner’s work really encouraged me to follow that path.
Hunter S. Thompson was also a big influence. The energy is certainly a big part of it, but the structure of his essays or articles is something I frequently use, along with the concept of melding fiction and reality, the Gonzo aspect. An example of that is “Ten Reasons Rick Perry Isn’t Getting the New Amazon Tablet.” I started writing a blog post about the downsides of the Kindle Fire, just straight technical observations, but decided it would be more interesting to invent a relationship with some newsworthy figure. I’ve had some weird coincidental connections to a few news stories in the last decade and I thought I’d invent a new one by having Rick Perry, then a Presidential contender, call me up in the middle of the night asking me about tablet computers. And in true HST style, it’s not the real Rick Perry, but this caricature of him that’s into hardcore pornography, snorting crank, and listening to Rebecca Black before executions. I must have been in the middle of a reread of Generation of Swine or Better Than Sex when that came out.
I think my biggest lament about Thompson is that he had so much trouble getting it together to write, that his output dwindled, and he eventually put a gun in his mouth. Like I said, it’s all about that delicate balance between the id and the ego, and I think in his case, he went down this dark path of substance abuse as a shortcut to shut off the ego and let his subconscious run free on the page. It works, but you have the side effects to deal with, and you hear these crazy stories about the insane regimen of various drugs and drinks and foods he needed to get functional, and it seems like that worked less and less over the years.
[Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas], to me, was the pinnacle of his work, in the way it was structured and how he managed to mate the Gonzo element with this overarching mission, to find the American Dream, and he was able to channel this all into a very cohesive book. And if the stories were true, this was largely automatic writing, just typing, Kerouac-style. I think he spent the rest of his life trying to get back into that zone, and you saw fits and spurts of it, but nothing as solid as that. I always wish we could have seen more like Vegas. But then I don’t have any answers on how that is possible; I struggle every day to find the right balance between life and writing to get anything done.
JMO: Let’s go a little further with respect to style — who are some contemporary authors you think are currently writing great stuff?
Jon Konrath: Even though I don’t write “straight” fiction anymore, I still read a lot of it. It’s something I have to time carefully, so I don’t start reading it when I’m looking for a new project, because I’ll start thinking I need to write this coming-of-age novel and I need to avoid that. But I really liked David [Atkinson]’s book Bones Buried in the Dirt, and I’m a big fan of John Sheppard’s stuff, and helped him publish his last book, Alpha Mike Foxtrot, which was excellent. I’m also a fan of Ryan Werner’s stuff, which has an amazing voice, but still works in enough professional wrestling and thrash-metal references for me.
As far as stuff like mine, Leyner finally came out with another book, Sugar Frosted Nutsack, and I hope that means he’ll do more in the future. I’ve been on a big Sam Pink kick lately, and read almost all of his stuff back-to-back. He’s an incredible observationalist, and can write a book like Rontel, which is basically a guy doing nothing all day, but still make it a page-turner. And although I can’t keep up with his critical and nonfiction writing, I really like what Jonathan Lethem’s done, especially his last one, Chronic City. He’s basically doing a realistic science fiction by depicting a New York that’s just a couple of years from now, a lot like the near-future predicted in Infinite Jest.
JMO: Is there ultimately any one or two specific reason(s) you tend not to write “straight fiction” like Summer Rain much/at all anymore?
Jon Konrath: It’s hard for me to write straight fiction that isn’t somehow based on my life, and my life is terminally boring at this point. I think I’ve cherry-picked a lot of good stuff from college when I wrote Summer Rain, and everything since then is getting squeezed through this distortion filter to become more absurd fiction. It’s also hard for me to be funny when I’m writing straight-up Raymond Carver fiction.
It’s something I always struggle with, because sometimes I’ll read a really good piece of straight fiction, like I’ll do my annual reading of Richard Russo’s The Risk Pool and I’ll think it would be no problem to belt out some nice linear autobiographical fiction like that. It’s not that easy, although someone like Russo does it so well that it might look easy, and I’ll often get stuck in a project and then realize I’m burning too many cycles writing something that’s not funny and not in my voice and is pretty much the same thing that the other twelve million people currently in MFA programs are banging out, except probably not as good. So I try to stay clear of that whenever possible.
JMO: You’ve mentioned MFA programs before. What are your thoughts on them, generally? Specifically, do you think they are better or worse for the current writing landscape? Or do you think the good writers will churn out good material regardless of an MFA?
Jon Konrath: I don’t know. I oscillate between wanting to finish an MFA, and shitting on them, and neither of those is the correct opinion. I think there’s value in what you learn in an MFA, but there’s also a worry that true art gets killed by committees. And the sheer number of people in MFA programs, when coupled with the rapid demise of publishers and markets is disconcerting, along with the general cost of tuition these days. I think the real value of an MFA (and this is a grass-is-greener observation) is that for non-genre writers, the academic world offers a huge networking opportunity for writers, especially if you teach. I never interact with writers except when I actively seek it out. If you’re teaching, you’re interacting with twenty, thirty people, times however many classes you teach, times a couple of semesters a year. It seems like the people I know who have gone to grad school have a better network of readers than I do. I didn’t even get an undergraduate degree in English – I took a few classes, but I can’t think of a single person from them who has actually read any of my stuff since then.
As far as whether or not good writers need an MFA, I think that it might provide a good writer the time to write, and some input that might help speed up their process, but good writers will write regardless. I mean, Salman Rushdie didn’t have to finish an MFA to turn out great work.
JMO: I basically agree with most of what you say there, though my mood vacillates from tepid ambivalence (toward traditional MFAs) to gushing adoration for my alma mater’s low-residency program (University of Nebraska Omaha!). They basically said to me, “Hey, this is what you seem best at:____________; let’s just work on making you even better at it. Pick your own reading lists too!” I met some of my best friends of all time there. [Low residency programs are like (insert your happiest place on earth here:_______________) for writers.]
But to move backward a little, before reading Earworm, I’d never heard the word “ileostomy” used before. I applaud your ability to use it in reference to Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller and speed metal. My hat is off, sir!
Jon Konrath: A note to readers: DO NOT go to the Wikipedia page of ileostomy if you are eating.
RE: Abraham Lincoln, I got this book over Christmas called The Physical Lincoln that was written by a pathologist named Dr. John Sotos. I got horribly sick while away on vacation, and had to fly from Milwaukee to Oakland with a 105-degree fever, and read this book while completely delusional. Sotos tried to reverse-engineer Lincoln’s medical history based on third-hand accounts and grainy photos, and came to the conclusion that he had a rare genetic cancer condition (not Marfan’s syndrome, as often speculated) and that he probably would have died in office even if he wasn’t shot. I’d recommend the book, but not the fever or the cross-country flying.
JMO: David Foster Wallace is probably my favorite author of all time. I use footnotes sometimes and occasionally people think it’s a DFW ripoff, but it was actually Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine that introduced me to using footnotes in fiction. Are there any stylistic devices you’ve either adopted or appropriated from other authors in an attempt to make it/them your own?
Jon Konrath: I’m a big fan of footnotes and endnotes too, although I haven’t fully used them yet in a book. I read an essay somewhere about DFW and footnotes and how it’s almost a form of hypertext, where you can drill away on a tangent and keep it away from the actual body of the work. I did an annotated version of Rumored to Exist a while ago, a reissue that had 500-some footnotes explaining where a lot of the references came from, but the footnotes weren’t part of the work itself. I think I first got that from Nabokov’s Pale Fire and hope to someday do that in a book. [ed. note: I’d read that!]
I think one of the stylistic devices I use a lot is conglomeration of completely different pieces of work, but I picked that up from Kentucky Fried Movie and other Zucker Abrams Zucker comedy. I’m really big on having characters turn on a TV and then dumping into a completely different level, going into the show for a bit, changing channels, and so on. I’m big on books within books; characters reading emails or warning labels or movie reviews that are their own story.
The titular story of The Earworm Inception was an attempt at doing a fully recursive story, something I would want to do with an entire book. (A good example, and another author worth mentioning, would be Arthur Graham’s Editorial.)
Back in a previous life as a computer science student, I was in a program that was mostly taught in Scheme, which is a really theoretical programming language like Lisp, used for AI and teaching algorithms. [Side note not to put in: Scheme’s a “real” language, but it’s a really minimalist one primarily used for teaching or theory. It’s great for education, but you wouldn’t want to sit down and write an iPhone game with it.] Scheme is really heavy into recursion, which always turned my brain inside-out then, and I’ve always wanted to structure a book like that. Instead of having a linear A-to-B-to-C-to-D plot, you’d have plot A really be A plus plot B, which would be B plus plot C, etc. and then you’d reach a crucial point where the plots would then pop back through all of these layers of stacks.
JMO: Tangentially, ultimately, etc. anyway, &c. Seriously: Why the Fuck are We Back on the Planet of the Apes?
Jon Konrath: I really thought that Marky Mark version with the love story between him and Helena Bonham Carter was going to be the big icebreaker on a new trend toward bestiality in big Hollywood films, but I think everyone collectively forgot every detail of that movie. It’s sort of amazing how that works – 2001 seems like it was about 15 minutes ago, but Hollywood has rebooted the Spiderman franchise at least nine times since then, because they can count on us completely forgetting everything about it in three months. If I told ten people that the 2002 Spiderman had a scene in it where Tobey Maguire killed Santa Claus with a machete, five of them would say they sort of remembered that, and the other five would have to go check Wikipedia. (Actually, I had to go check Wikipedia just now.)
JMO: I’ve heard there are some weird coincidental connections to a few news stories in the last decade. Care to share any?
Jon Konrath: In general, there have been some weird instances where I’ve written about something absurd and it has later happened. One of the worst ones was that as I was writing Rumored, one of the first bits in it involved lower Manhattan getting destroyed, and then after watching all of 9/11 happen from a few blocks away and walking home five miles, there was a moment a few hours later when I thought, “Oh shit, I need to rewrite the beginning of the book now. . .”
I have this friend that always calls me “bong boy,” based on the Upright Citizen’s Brigade character that always appears in the background of disaster footage, sort of a common thread connected to all news stories. The biggest one was that this guy that used to write for my death metal zine ended up joining Al Qaeda and becoming one of the FBI’s most wanted terrorists. [ed. note: That’s F’n intense!] So I spend months getting bombarded by interview requests from pretty much every news organization in the world.
Another weird connection is that I had a really good friend back in high school whose kid crawled into one of those crane vending machines in a Wal-Mart and was all over the news for a second in 2005. I’m waiting for someone from my high school to end up the next News of the Weird headline.
JMO: Because it plays such a large part in what you write, what do you think the function of absurdism in fiction is? David Atkinson’s idea that you can't see the everyday clearly because it is too familiar and have to exaggerate it to be able to see it clearly, and he also sees some of the mixing of absurd cultural elements performing some exploration of how these things take on their own life in our collective unconscious.
Jon Konrath: That’s a pretty good explanation, actually. When you take a step back from it, our world is pretty absurd anyway. So when you write a story where you can buy a time machine at Wal-Mart but the Lite version shows you five minutes of ads for every two years you go back in time, your first reaction is “yeah, that would probably happen that way.”
Another big function of absurdism in my writing is that I always want to capture the randomness of your dream state, how you can dream about fat bearded Jim Morrison working at a car wash, and when you wake, it seems completely plausible. Part of the main device behind Sleep Has No Master was that wandering between life and what happened during REM sleep, and not being able to tell the difference between the two.
Right before I started writing, I worked two full-time jobs for a summer, sleeping in two shifts of two hours a day. Both jobs were mind-numbing menial labor; the day job involved unloading semi trailers at a Montgomery Ward starting at 6:00 AM, and the night job was working a 200-ton press stamping out RV parts. I spent all summer in this bizarre mental state, unable to tell if I was asleep or awake, daydreaming about riding my bike across the country as I drilled holes in the same bracket 900 times a shift, and then riding my bike home from work. I could never remember if I packed my lunch or had a lucid dream about packing my lunch. And then I’d see everything as absurd. I’d buy one of those Lunchables things off of the break truck and stare at it for ten minutes and think: “Holy shit, is this really happening? Why the hell do they have little pieces of ham in a plastic compartment like this?” For years after that summer, I’d enter that state, like when you say the word “orange” a hundred times and then think: “What the fuck is orange?”
I later drove across the country in a U-Haul and after a thousand miles, started wondering if the whole thing was a video game or how the concept of gas stations would look to aliens. At some point, that transferred over into the writing, where I’d look at something like a relationship and try to poke at the edges of it, and it was much easier to deconstruct if I took some absurdist angle, like that instead of some standard trope about her being upset with me because she wanted kids and I didn’t, I made her obsessed with a TV show about competitive grave robbing and took it from there.
JMO: You have some pretty fantastic fans on Goodreads who really just love your work and seem to spread the word via recommendations to any-/everyone who might be interested. What do you think of the Goodreads community? What are your thoughts about it getting bought by Amazon?
Jon Konrath: I really like a lot of the people on Goodreads — the folks I interact with are great, and I’ve had a positive experience with them. I waste a lot of time on Facebook, which is a great way to keep up with friends, but not all of my friends read, so posting stuff there is much more of a crapshoot. People on Goodreads are there to read, talk about what they are reading, and find new books, and that is awesome.
And as a reader, it’s a good tool too, and I burn a lot of cycles on there finding new books. Amazon’s machine-generated recommendations are pretty useful for me, but it’s nice to get human-generated recommendations from friend, and see opinions of actual readers instead of just links produced from sales data.
My main complaints about Goodreads were the clunkiness of the site. Sometimes page loads took forever, and the UI was not always intuitive. Maybe the move to Amazon will fix that. The real question is how Goodreads will be integrated into Amazon. Will it somehow replace the review system, or vice-versa, or neither? I like the longer format reviews on Goodreads, and hope those don’t go away. If it’s anything like IMDB’s integration with Amazon, it will just be a bunch of buy-it-now links and ads in the sidebar, and I’m mostly fine with that. I think there were a lot of fears coming from people who are anti-Amazon, or sell more books in other places, that Goodreads would become an entirely Amazon-centric site. Really, 99% of my sales come from Amazon, so I’m not too freaked about that, but I know people who are.
JMO: Jon, on a serious note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about your thoughts on the McDonald’s MCDLT. Do you agree with Jason Alexander? I’ve provided a refresher in case you — or the readers — need it here.
Jon Konrath: There are two things that really piss me off about the McDLT. First, it was discontinued when McDonald’s stopped using polystyrene, which I think was short-sighted and PR-driven. Polystyrene had been made without CFCs for years, and MCD did a lot of test runs of recycling programs that economically converted used PS into other internal products like chair backs and trays. But because polystyrene had a bad rap among armchair environmentalists, and MCD was the big target, they switched to coated paper products, which caused more landfill waste. And the whole issue is as stupid as arguing if the plastic used in your SUV is post-consumer recycled or not. If you care about the environment, don’t buy an SUV or eat at McDonald’s.
The other thing that really pisses me off is that if you look up McDLT on Wikipedia, it’s a page redirect to the Big N’ Tasty, which is a completely unrelated product, and that’s the perfect example of what’s wrong with Wikipedia. It’s like how if you look up the Yugo, it redirects to the Zastava Koral. Why? Just write another article on the American Yugo. And if I asked a hundred people if they knew about the McDLT, a good number of them would probably remember it. I don’t even know what the hell a Big N’ Tasty is.
JMO: Speaking again of writers showcasing absurdity, have you ever read Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America? I think you totally should if not!
Jon Konrath: I’ve got a copy of it staring at me from the to-read pile and I need to get on it. My local bookseller (Spectator Books in Oakland) also forced me to buy this huge, Infinite Jest-sized biography of his, also still on the pile. I’ll get there.
JMO: Now that Thunderbird is out, do you have any inkling where you want to go with your next project, or are you letting your creative juices simmer and marinate for the time being?
Jon Konrath: The worst parts of my life are right after I finish a book, because I go into these huge postpartum depressions and don’t know what to do next. Sometimes I try to find something else creative to do. When I finished Fistful of Pizza, I went out and bought a bunch of iPhone programming books and tried to write a Tetris ripoff for the iPad. After Sleep Has No Master, I went back to playing bass guitar, which I hadn’t done in twenty years. But I lose momentum and it’s hard to get going again. And when I don’t write, the depression gets huge. This time, I forced myself to keep writing, and it’s been better, but it’s still a massive struggle.
It’s also hard for me to start another project without knowing how the last one was received. I feel like I could probably belt out another book similar to Thunderbird in quick order, but I don’t really know how it did. It’s also hard for me to just do another book like the last one. It reminds me of bands like AC/DC – whom I love – but who basically put out the same album every year. I’m my own worst critic, and a glass-half-empty guy, and it takes me a couple of years to go back and look at something I wrote and think it’s good, especially after I read it nineteen times a week for two months during editing. So there’s always a feeling that the last project wasn’t great and I need to do more next time. (Of course, if you haven’t read the book yet, it is awesome, and you should go buy multiple copies.)
My favorite book I’ve written was Rumored to Exist, and I think after every project, the first thing that comes to mind is to write another book like it, only better. But that book was a seven-year process, and when I was well into year six, I still didn’t know where it was heading. I’ve been writing these ultra-short flash sketches, and I’m like 50,000 words into a collection of them, but the whole thing has no form or theme. So one has to emerge, or I need to think of some way to tie it together. Or maybe one of the pieces will slowly expand and become a book. All I know now is that I can’t plan this, and I need to keep moving and not lose momentum, so I’ll keep at it.