I had my first two readings of Mr. Neutron at King’s Books in Tacoma and Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island. As part of the second reading, my former MFA adviser, Kathleen Alcalá, interviewed me about the content and genesis of the book. I had prepared some answers ahead of time (although I didn’t use them verbatim during the Q & A), and thought they might be of interest. The book has a few dimensions that are deeper and more nuanced than the marketing (and certainly some reviewers) may indicate.
KA: Advice to writers: “Don’t force the funny stuff.” Would you explain what that means to a writer?
JP: The humor must come organically. If you try to be funny, you won’t be. What you need to do is be aware of the absurdity of daily life, or what you might call the paradoxes—where contradictory ideas both seem true. Then withhold it until the moment is right, when there’s a natural bridge between the absurdity and the humor that makes it accessible and understandable. Plus, one of the most important aspects of humor is the element of surprise. Comedy is largely timing.
KA: In a long list of writers who made you laugh, which pretty much encompasses the history of American laughter in the 20th Century, you quoted George Gobel as saying, “Did you ever get the feeling that the world is a tuxedo and you’re a pair of brown shoes?” How does that pair of brown shoes relate, specifically to your novel?
JP: A little background first. George Gobel was a relatively minor comedian who would occasionally make appearances on the old Johnny Carson show. He was always totally deadpan, this little guy with a crew cut, who made a career out of being the odd man out. Johnny loved him. One show he was booked to follow Bob Hope and Dean Martin, two comedy giants. They and Johnny and Ed McMahon were already on the couches, and the jokes were coming left and right—Dean is surreptitiously flicking cigarette ashes into Bob Hope’s drink—and the audience is having a great time. And then they bring out George, and there’s a pregnant silence while he comes over and sits down. And he looks around and says that line and the studio just busts up, and Johnny practically falls out of his chair. It was the perfect line for the moment, which is what I mean about humor being organic, growing out of situations. And it took a couple of minutes for everyone to calm down. The joke was a perfect metaphor to the book and the protagonist, Gray Davenport, in particular. It’s just an admonition that for some people, no matter how hard you try you will never fit in. And you can find a clip of this on YouTube.
KA: I don’t think I give anything away to say that the theme of Frankenstein’s monster is prominent in this book. What made you decide to meld political comedy with the idea in Mary Shelley’s novel?
JP: It was a long evolution. The published version of Mr. N is the tenth total rewrite. At first the book was a gentle rehash of my years in business and politics, embellished a little for fiction. In other words it was pabulum. I had an eccentric character running for mayor based on someone I had covered when I was a journalist. Just a minor guy, not intrinsic to the plot at all. This is where writers’ groups are helpful. No one cared. With each iteration of the book I made the guy weirder, until one day it clicked—why not just go full on crazy and make him resuscitated life? I thought of this: If someone created a Frankenstein’s monster today, it would probably be to pose as a political candidate—the posturing, the meaningless utterances, the dim-wittedness—who could tell the difference? It seemed to work. But I had never read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I happened to be going on a writing retreat, so I brought a copy with me. There’s so much more in that incredible novel than could ever be brought to the screen (but if you ever want a real taste of the book, watch the Kenneth Branagh version, with Robert De Niro as the monster). That’s not to say I simply copied the plot, far from it. The story is still mine. But the insights that Shelley gives her readers into the nature of life and the possibilities of creation truly inspired me. My story became something more than humor and science, as those underlying themes slowly built to make the climax of the story an event that even now I can hardly believe was my invention. It’s what eventually got it published. And for those who are familiar with Shelley’s book, there are little nods to her genius embedded in a few chapters.
KA: You have written some very serious books, including a [self-published] historical novel on the outbreak of World War I. Why did you keep working on Mr. Neutron all these years? Did you feel it offered something your other books did not?
JP: I have passions for certain things. World War I history is one of them—if you know the history of the time then you know that a vast majority of our political, technological, social, scientific, artistic, etc. systems of thought had their origins in the decades bracketing the turn of the 20th century. Humor is another. This may not seem consistent, but way, way down in the core of my thinking there is a connection. It’s along the lines of “what makes us, as human beings, tick?” I try to look past the phoniness of image, official statements, marketing copy, and get right down to what’s honest. What is the real? You can understand a lot about our world today if you know what happened through the centuries. You can also understand a lot about our world if you know where humor really comes from. It’s a tenuous connection, maybe, but it works for me. The message of the two books is not that different—perseverance in the face of injustice. Only the delivery systems are different. The two interests also connect through something Jim Valvano said before he died of cancer in 1993: “If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.” Man, if you want to get right down to the core of things, there it is.
KA: Your publisher, Leland Cheuk, is pretty funny himself. Will you tell the writers in the audience a little about 7.13 Books?
JP: I’ve read a couple of his books—his humor is far more subtle than mine. Leland is a great story himself. The company is called 7.13 because July 13 was the date he learned that his first book was accepted for publication, and it was the date the doctors told him his cancer was in remission. Like a lot of writers, myself included, he has endured years and years of rejection at the hands of literary agents and publishers. He did some research on who gets a book deal and discovered that it has less to do with writing talent than with cronyism. Something like 30 percent of all book deals made with NY publishers are for writers living in NY, or having gone to school in NY, or just knowing someone from the business. Maybe that’s why he moved from the west coast to Brooklyn. I, of course, have moved from New York to here. Anyway, he wanted to do something for the writers who have tried and failed to obtain an agent. He likes to know that you’ve been rejected by more than 100 agents, and I had no trouble qualifying there. Since he started the company a couple of years ago he’s signed an incredible group of authors. (And I’m not just saying that because I’m one of them.)
KA: Is this book a comedy or a tragedy?
JP: Both, perhaps. There’s often a thin line between the two. Comedy, obviously, in the rather absurdist view of the way things work in life. And most of the comedy in the book is rooted in personal experience from my years in politics. But tragedy also in a couple of ways: first that life really works in those absurd and self-defeating ways. And second, that it doesn’t have to. As humans we generally want our lives to be straightforward and understandable. But instead of living straightforward and understandable lives, we connive, we cheat, we’re duplicitous, we lie, we hate, we commit violence. And worst of all we try to justify those things. The foundation for that is fear. We may not want to admit it to ourselves but we’re basically afraid of anything we don’t understand. That ties into the Valvano quote, because what he was really saying was to get rid of the fear, cast it out of your life and embrace the things that are truly important. And I’m glad he included “think” as one of them. Eventually, and without saying it, Gray Davenport realizes this. He finds a way to defeat his fear.
Kathleen Alcalá is the author of six books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently, “The Deepest Roots: Find Food and Community on a Pacific Northwest Island.” Kathleen was one of Joe’s instructors when he competed a Master of Fine Arts degree at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts on Whidbey Island. A member of the Seattle 7 Writers, she currently teaches speculative fiction at the BARN on Bainbridge Island.