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The Boy Writer Succeeds!
By John Vogel February 7, 2011

When Joe Meno’s Hairstyles of the Damned (Akashic) came out in 2004, I was the Books Editor for Rockpile Magazine and I took interest in the title and cover, but someone else had pitched it and I didn’t actually end up reading it until preparing for this interview. Although Meno had two books out before that, Tender as Hellfire (St. Martin’s Press, 1999) and How the Hula Girl Sings (Regan Books, 2001), Hairstyles I feel really made a splash in terms of starting to cultivate an audience, although that could just be my perception since it was the first one I heard of. When his next book, The Boy Detective Fails (Akashic, 2006), came out a few years later, I recognized the name and was thoroughly pleased by the dark, weird, surreal world that he’d created, one that seemed to reflect the real world more than something trying to actually recreate reality. I got the same feeling reading his newest, The Great Perhaps (W.W. Norton, 2009). A kind of mixture between his two previous books, it’s set in Chicago and generally realistic in style like Hairstyles, but then ventures into abstraction similar to Boy Detective. The main themes of this book, however, are more world-conscious than his previous themes. The characters wrestle with the issues surrounding politics and war during the 2004 presidential election campaigns. And appropriately enough, our interview took place in Chicago during these most recent midterm elections.

Skyscraper: So with the last three books you’ve written about different time periods like adolescence, early adulthood and now parenthood. How for you is writing for those different time periods of your life?

Joe Meno: Well, I wrote my first book when I was twenty-two, it came out when I was twenty-four, and it was about kids who were like twelve or thirteen years old. Hairstyles of the Damned I wrote when I was twenty-eight, I think, and those were about sixteen-year-olds. There’s like a ten year gap. The Boy Detective I actually wrote as I was turning thirty; I think I was thirty as I wrote it.

So everything you write, even if it’s kind of surreal or absurd like The Boy Detective or even parts of The Great Perhaps, it’s still based on your life or everything ends up being a self-portrait even if you don’t intend it to. And so those books have kind of been the ways I’ve documented the most important things in my life at the time, intentionally or not, you know. So it’s almost like you can go back and look at those books the way you look at a yearbook photo and you’re kind of grossed out and in awe and you have these mixed feelings about them at the same time.

Skyscraper: And do you feel like subconsciously when you’re in the writing zone that that stuff comes out and later you realize it?

JM: A lot of times it does. Like definitely with The Great Perhaps I had written a lot about young people either in different novels or a lot of short stories had been about young people, so I wanted to write a book more about family so instead of just talking about one character for 200 pages, writing about five characters for like 400 pages. I knew it was going to be a big book and that was kind of the goal, and that the characters would all have different ages instead of just like The Boy Detective who’s thirty or the kid from Hairstyles who’s like sixteen. So that was kind of a challenge that I’m going to write about all these different characters at different ages and see how they work together.

Skyscraper: I noticed with The Great Perhaps a lot times they’ve mentioned Hairstyles of the Damned over Boy Detective Fails. How do you feel about that?

JM: It’s really interesting because both of those books came out on a small press, Akashic, which you know, amazing amazing press. So I’m just happy people know about the books and that they’re out there in the world. It’s really interesting that the response to all of my books has been very different and there are very different tones to each book, so the way I approach each of those books is almost like the way I approach different kinds of music.

You know Hairstyles of the Damned is clearly responding to like punk music of the eighties and nineties, Black Flag, Minor Threat, and The Misfits and I wanted to write a book that had that kind of raw unabashedly male quality to it. And then with The Boy Detective there were bands like Chicago’s The Coctails which featured Archer Prewitt and those guys who are now in The Sea and Cake and also Belle and Sebastian and kind of the softer, more orchestral, weird, even cartoony-sounding music. And then with The Great Perhaps I knew right away as soon as I started writing it that the music or the mood was going to be The White Album by The Beatles and I wanted to have this huge almost ridiculously ambitious scope to it you know the way The Beatles did; they cover all of twentieth century pop music pretty much in this double record and so that’s how I wanted the book to feel. The Beatles, you know they have four different voices, four different singers, and so this family has five very distinctly different characters, different chapters, and that expands on this history and time and there’s moments that are really funny and ridiculous and then there’s like these serious social moments about war.

It’s just natural. I think people read a book first and they get excited about it and they feel like, “Ah, I haven’t read something like this before,” and so they make an initial connection with it, the way I do with music. Like the first time you hear a band you feel like this whole possibility opens up and that almost everything that comes after it is somehow a disappointment because you don’t have that first moment of falling in love again, you know. It’s very hard to find a band that outdoes themselves and there are a few, but most of the times there are these bands that put out this one record and kind of go on replicating it.

So what I tried to do is just very different kinds of books one after the other so people are either going to love that book or feel like it’s so different from the last one they’re almost betrayed by it. And that’s the risk that you run when you switch styles book to book, but the writers I love are the writers that do that. You know, there’s writers like Jonathan Lethem, who moves between very different styles book to book or even someone like Richard Brautigan or Murakami, guys who aren’t afraid to say, “All right, this book is going to be very realistic, this one’s going to be completely surreal, this next book’s going to be non-fiction.” But to me I still feel like I’m a young writer and I have a lot to learn and that’s the best way I can continue to learn is, “Okay I did this, try this thing.” I’ll probably never write another book about a kid in high school listening to music; I feel like I did that you know.

Skyscraper: Right. Do you feel like with writers that it has anything to do with success? Like for example recently I was reading letters by Charles Bukowski and he talks a lot about not finding success until he’s old which he considers a really good thing, and not spoiling it. Do you feel like that happens with both writers and bands?

JM: Yeah, and I think the trajectory of my career is one which hopefully when I’m sixty I’ll write the best book or the best received book. Because you see it with writers who are incredibly talented whose first book makes a name for them on such a broad or even international scale and I think it’s almost inescapable, like how do you capture that again?

Because a lot of writers and bands don’t like to admit this, but success has as much to do with luck and timing as it does with like intelligence and talent, and not to discredit somebody, but that hundreds of great books get put out every year, hundreds of great records do, but it takes all these different things to fall in place for it to capture culture, popular imagination. I think it’s really hard to do that more than once or twice in a career and I’ve seen that with friends whose first books were huge and then the second and third books are nowhere near as successful and I think it sets you up for this crazy expectation, you know, this idea that all of your books are going to have the same level of success.

And I feel like for someone like Cormac McCarthy, who wrote The Road which is this incredible, incandescent, amazing novel, I think he wrote it when he was like 79. I love that idea that everything you’re writing you’re kind of practicing and you write this brilliant thing, like when you’re 80. And not that the other things aren’t important or interesting along the way, but I feel like as soon as you have this success on a huge, broad scale like that it almost freezes you in time and it’s hard to move forward. I’ve seen it with bands and writers; you feel like you have to repeat this thing because it’s what everyone expects of you.

So I’ve been lucky that I’ve had enough success where I’ve been able to keep putting books out and have an audience, but not enough where the expectations are so great where I’m afraid, “Oh I can only write this kind of book” or “I need to write a sequel to The Boy Detective.” I think people have been real supportive of my willingness to try something new and then people seem interested about kind of going along for the ride. And this book is this kind of book and this book is this next book.

Skyscraper: And as far as going on independent publishers first, now The Great Perhaps is on a more major –-

JM: Well actually Norton is the oldest independent publisher. I think they started in 1917, so it’s like the independent publisher. There’s only a few big ones like that. Grove/Atlantic is still independent and then there’s a lot of smaller, you know, Akashic or Counterpoint or Grey Wolf, these really cutting edge, really interesting ones.

And you know I started off actually my first book was on St. Martins and my second book was on Harper Collins, which is like the biggest commercial publisher and I was really just disillusioned and disappointed with my experience working with Harper Collins where they didn’t allow me to get involved with the cover design, they didn’t allow me to get involved with the marketing or the publicity. It was almost like they were a printer you send your manuscript to and they put it out and you’re completely divorced from this thing you spent all this time working on. And I felt like, “Who knows the book better than the person who wrote it, you know?”

And then I went with Akashic for my third book, for Hairstyles, and I just felt so gratified and it just was a much more enjoyable, interesting experience being involved with the cover design and the marketing and the publicity and going on tour.

You know, I grew up playing in bands and so it seemed elemental to me, like, you make a book, you go out on tour. When my second book came out I said to Harper Collins, “I want to go out on tour.” And they were like, “Well no one really wants you to come.” And I said, “Well I don’t care. Just tell ‘em I’m coming anyway. You know, send them an email, or see who I have to talk to.” Because I wasn’t a big name or I was relatively unknown they just didn’t want to put in the time and energy. And so because of that the book just didn’t get as many reviews or just wasn’t widely received.

And so with Hairstyles I said, “I’m going to go do like a 30-city tour.” And even if that means you go do a reading – I did a reading somewhere in Virginia and like walked in, I was touring with two other writers, and I could tell like the guy behind the counter was like, “Oh, nobody’s here.” And so he calls his friends up real quick and so there’s three of us on tour and four people in the audience or something and I was completely happy because we ended up getting this great review in the local paper, the bookstore ends up putting the book in a certain place like upcoming events and then you kind of build up a great relationship with the bookstore word of mouth.

So as long as you’re not disappointed that only four people show up; it’s just like being on tour. And then over years you start seeing people, some of the same people come and they bring their friends, and that’s what’s kind of happened with my career. But a big house like that, they don’t want to do anything that’s going to make them look silly and they don’t want to put money into anything that’s not a safe bet. So what I really enjoy is working with independent publishers like Akashic and like Norton that are a little more willing to take risks, whether in terms of cover design or in terms of the promotion. You know they realize that it takes a little gamesmanship to get attention for a book. And so anything you can do outside of like, “Let’s put the book out and see what reviews come in,” which was my experience with these corporate houses, feels really gratifying and exciting.

Skyscraper: So how is it now working with Norton? How are they?

JM: Well, they kind of present the best of both worlds. Because they are a bigger house, they have a little more leverage in terms of getting reviews on a national scale. But everything they do is by committee, so everyone on their editorial board has to be on board with the project and they’re way more willing to let me be involved in the cover and publicity. So it was like having the freedom and the input that I had with Akashic but with a publisher that has this great history to it, it’s almost like 90 years old, and that is known for putting out really high-quality literary – I mean they have all these guys who are nominated for the National Book Award or nonfiction writers like Mary Roach. So I felt like just to be in that company was – I felt really lucky and grateful.

Skyscraper: Nice. I know you worked for magazines. I know there was Bail and –

JM: Punk Planet, yeah.

Skyscraper: And Sleepwalk?

JM: Sleepwalk was a small literary magazine. But Punk Planet was a seminal, amazing arts and politics magazine that ran out of Chicago here. So I worked for them for about four or five years, I was a contributing editor. And Bail was a skateboarding magazine for guys who were too old to skateboard anymore. That was a lot of fun and it was another outlet for me to kind of pursue writing. I had done a lot of nonfiction writing as a grad student and when the opportunity came up to write for Bail and Punk Planet it was a chance to interview bands that I loved and get free records and free books. So I kind of jumped at the chance.

Skyscraper: And how do you feel about the decline of the print industry in general.

JM: {Laughs}

Skyscraper: Because I worked for Rockpile Magazine out of Philadelphia for like the last four years of its life and just watched it crumble.

JM: Well, in some ways everything that Punk Planet was able to do was because people wanted to find out about music or find out about art or find out about writing that they couldn’t from other sources and then because of MySpace and the Internet, not only could you find out about it but you could actually like hear the bands and so it felt like these two different media kind of crossing paths and there was a moment when it became clear, this is where the media is going, you know this is where the audience is going.

Now I love print, but I also like to hear bands, and I’m a huge music fan so to be able to have that instant gratification of like, “Oh here’s a band, let’s hear what they sound like,” is really alluring too. And I think now with the iPad and the Kindle and everything like that, I’m not worried about print. I think print, there’ll always be an audience for it, it might be a smaller one, it might not even be a popular one, but it’ll always be there, just the way that bands still put out records on vinyl. There’s even kind of a growing audience for that because people want music they can hold onto.

The Internet is great, but it’s ephemeral and you can’t put it in your house, like on your coffee table. You can’t put it on you bookshelf to try to impress somebody the way you can put like Gravity’s Rainbow and people are like, “Oh, you must be well-read, you did Gravity’s Rainbow.” You can’t really do that with the Internet. People like objects. I feel confident that books will be around. You look at somebody like McSweeney’s and just how sharp and smart they are at trying to keep people engaged with the book as an object. It’s not a decline so much as an opportunity. People enjoy reading, whether it’s on a digital reader or in print form. I just want people to keep on reading you know; as long as they’re doing that, I don’t care what form it takes.

Skyscraper: In terms of magazine writing versus book writing, magazine writing to me is much more collaborative.

JM: Yeah, well when you work with an editor, right. And I like that. I don’t take this so personally, but when you turn in a draft and your thing’s been totally rearranged, like, “Oh that looks better.” I like having an outlet for writing that you don’t feel like you have to pour like all of your heart in, that you work really hard on it but it’s not like, “This is the thing that is going to make me as a human,” you know. This is the thing that you really love and enjoy, you love doing interviews or writing about bands or books, but that there’s some pressure off of it, and because it is collaborative, you don’t feel like this is this thing that’s going to define you or your life’s work. So it feels a little more commercial because you know it pays a lot better than fiction, or it did, and it feels a little more mercenary.

Like I write for Chicago Magazine here and they’ll send me a query and I’ll always say yes because they pay like a dollar a word. I never get paid a dollar a word, man, for any fiction I’ve ever written. So I think it’s good for a writer to exercise both of those skills simply because it helps you pay your rent, as you said it also makes you a little more open to criticism or working with an editor. Even as a fiction writer you’ll find there’s definitely moments where an editor is being raw or looking at your sentence structure and things like that. And so because I did a lot of nonfiction writing it just felt really natural.

Skyscraper: When you’re in the insulated world of your novel do you ever feel like you’re trapped there and you don’t know where you’re going?

JM: Yeah! It sucks! I mean I love it; any time I hear writers complain about like how hard writing is, I mean it’s difficult in that it takes some mental energy, but I’ve worked in a plastics factory and I’ve worked in the line of a restaurant and that’s like real work. Like this is you carrying around make-believe people in your head all day. And there is some anxiety; the anxiety isn’t from you like expending energy for ten hours a day, it’s from doubt. I mean that’s the thing that kills you as a writer and you can see the long list of writers who killed themselves because of that doubt from Virginia Woolf to David Foster Wallace. That’s the thing that’s hard as a writer is you never know if what you’re writing is good and if it is good if people are going to be interested in it and if people are interested in it if they’re interested enough to buy copies. So it’s not that it’s hard it’s just that you never get rid of this sense of doubt. So it’s wonderful to step outside of that and be able to write an article about a band or a book that you really like precisely because the doubt doesn’t seem so pervasive.

Skyscraper: So, Chicago as a backdrop. Have you ever been to Philly?

JM: Yeah, a bunch of times.

Skyscraper: Okay, I see a good connection between Chicago and Philly.

JM: Yeah, I definitely see that. Well, they’re like B cities, you know. They’re not New York or L.A. and I like that; I feel like so many hundreds of thousands of stories and novels have been written about New York, so many films have been made about Los Angeles, it feels picked over a little bit. There’s just so many writers in Brooklyn right now, I’d be afraid to write about that square inch of sidewalk space without someone already standing over writing about it, you know.

Chicago has this wonderful literary history, Nelson Algren, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Sherwood Anderson, these amazing writers, but they’re far enough apart in era and in space that you feel like there’s still a lot of room to write about just neighborhoods. The neighborhood I grew up in that I wrote Hairstyles about no one I felt to my knowledge had really written about so I had all this room to explore and kind of document that. Hyde Park, which is where The Great Perhaps is set, it’s such a bizarre and like terrifying and sad place. This is the place where the first controlled nuclear reaction took place, ever in the world, and it’s bordered by this neighborhood that’s like the most dreary, the saddest, black, blighted neighborhoods, but there’s University of Chicago, which is this Ivy League school.

And so there are all these questions about people and their relationship to each other, how cut off we are from one another and I feel like that no other writer had really documented before, so I wanted try to write – and I felt really lucky. And Philadelphia’s very similar; I don’t know off the top of my head too many writers from the city. And to me that’s like an instant reason to write about that city is because it feels like there’s room. It’s also a kind of working class city, really racially diverse but also kind of – Chicago at least is a very segregated city.

Skyscraper: Yeah, I was actually going to bring up racism as an issue, because it comes through in your books a lot, at least mentioned and not harped on, it’s not like the main focus. And I know This American Life described Chicago as “hyper-segregated”.

JM: Yeah, they had to invent a new sociological term to define Chicago, which is – I mean it’s terrible but also fascinating and it’s what kind of marks the city. And I’ve never, whether Los Angeles or somewhere like Philadelphia, you know these American cities that have a history of maybe some racial tension, the difference is that people live with it here, and not necessarily in a good way, you know. It’s a quiet kind of simmering tension, but it’s there and it’s real. And again it’s part of daily life so it’s probably worth writing about.

But I notice it in Philadelphia too, there’s definitely like, here’s the white part of town, here’s this part of town. I have buddies who lived in Philadelphia for a while and it has that similar quality where like you’re not supposed to go past this street if you’re this kind of person or that person, which is again really fascinating and sad at the same time.

It’s just hard; it seems like there was this moment where everybody held their breath like two years ago when Obama got elected. It was like, “Oh, is this going to be the thing that solves this huge problem that’s haunted America for centuries? Like this one thing, is this the silver bullet that will resolve this?” And of course you can’t resolve it with just one election. No matter how wonderful Obama is or was, there’s just no way. It’s such a huge, complex issue and it’s intertwined in all these different facets of American life.

And so really quickly, I think within a couple months, you realize, “Oh, this is not only not going to solve the problem, this is actually going to exacerbate or bring a lot of things to the surface that probably would’ve been quietly simmering now.” The Congressman from South Carolina who stood up and called the president a liar to his face is a pretty great example of a moment that probably would not have occurred if it was a white president standing there. So it’s really fascinating to see the country have these fits and spasms.

To my mind the Tea Party, it seems like a direct reaction to the election of Obama, you know. There’s a sense that, “We need to get things under control and get things back to the way they were,” and they don’t really have a platform of policies; the idea of low taxes is ridiculous because taxes are the lowest they’ve been in fifty years right now. I mean what are these people really charged up about? And it’s a really human emotion that they’re suffering from and that’s fear, you know this idea that the country they’re living in now is not the country they recognize from ten years ago, maybe even from some of them like three years ago.

And so America’s having this enormous anxiety attack, which is like kind of pleasing to watch right now, because I don’t know how else you move forward on some of these issues without like forcing people to confront this. We’ll see. I’m endlessly fascinated by it and we’ll see how it plays out with the midterm. You know, if the people are willing to elect a witch as a way to resolve their questions about race and identity, I think that says a lot about what kind of people we are, you know.

Skyscraper: To me the lines of segregation in a city, the more blurry they are, that’s better. But in like D.C. you see the hardest line of just yuppie, ghetto.

JM: Well, that’s how Chicago is too. Yeah, it’s better that there isn’t those distinct borders, it means there’s like a softening somewhat, whether you want it or not, of some of those tensions, but if there’s those hard borders in a place, there’s this unspoken threat. You’re really making kind of a violent threat, that if you cross this street or you come in this neighborhood then you’re going to find violence. And that’s much more I think dangerous. I mean but it’s also part of the American landscape, it’s part of living in an American city and the next four presidents could be well-spoken black men and I don’t think that’ll change. It’s so dug in right now to the way American cities are built, have been built and it’s not going to get resolved, no matter how wonderful Oba- – like that speech, man, that was in Philadelphia, right?

Skyscraper: He gave a really famous one in Philadelphia, the racism speech.

JM: It was amazing, right? I mean, that speech, I felt like my head opened up, it was just this incredible moment. I can’t remember as an adult having that same feeling, someone speaking directly about this huge problem that everyone knows exists but no one wants to talk about, and he’s like talking on T.V. about it. And then knowing at the same time he’s kind of preaching to the choir in some ways or that, what will this change? I mean it definitely deflected some of the criticisms people had about him or were bringing up at the time, but in terms of long-standing change, it’s such at the heart.

You know America, it’s a puritanical country and it was started by Puritans, we call them pilgrims, which is a cute way of saying religious zealots. I mean those guys came over here because they were religious zealots and that zealotry as Americans migrated west and south, it spread and it’s at the heart, the root of this country. And I forget that a lot, like I forget my America was the America I grew up in in the seventies and eighties and nineties which is a lot more complex, but really though you strip away television and pop music and you look at the heart of who we are and there’s a lot of fundamentalist beliefs that I just think it’s going to take a long time. I mean Obama’s election and his policies I think are all a step in the right direction, but I just think it’s going to take a lot more work to try to even begin to resolve some of these questions.

Skyscraper: I feel like it’s almost like therapy in a certain way.

JM: It is! And that’s why I’m not freaked out about like the Tea Party or even when [Joe Wilson] stood up and called Obama a liar. When he did it, I was actually in Los Angeles at the time and I was watching the speech live and I was so appalled and upset and freaked out, like, “Oh my gosh that guy just stood up and called the sitting president a liar to his face in front of not only like the whole Congress but the nation.”

Skyscraper: Televised.

JM: On tele- — {laugh}. I’m like, “What does that mean?” So I was like horrified and then immediately relieved because it had been there and everyone had been too cowardly to say it or you knew this was a problem that was still there, that was not going away and it felt like it was a release valve in some way, like at least it’s out there now and we can address it and talk about it. Even during Bush’s eight years, it was just fraught with so many out and out lies, like real real lies, out and out duplicity, the Valerie Plame Affair, all these huge issues, no one ever called that guy a liar to his face. That Iraqi gentleman threw a shoe at him, but that’s what’s so shocking about it. And this was about like you know some Health Care question and it turned out it wasn’t actually a lie.

So in some ways I find the moments healthy. It’s like when you have a relationship with somebody, a lot of things go unspoken until someone like pipes up and is like, “Listen, I’m sick of the way you kick me every time we go to sleep,” or something and you’re like, “Okay,” and you can kind of begin resolving the problem. So I don’t think it does anyone any good to have this long-standing, quiet war that’s kind of going on. And even as ridiculous as it is I think it’s wonderful when moments like that happen because then at least you know, here’s the reality of the situation.

Skyscraper: So I also wanted to ask you what are some of your influences both musically and writing-wise? I know you mentioned for The Great Perhaps that Vonnegut was a big influence.

JM: Well there’s two big ones. I’m a huge fan of Thornton Wilder who’s a playwright and novelist who’s actually from Wisconsin, who wrote most famously Our Town. He has this other play which I think it’s pretty well known but it’s faded out of popularity, it’s called The Skin of Our Teeth and it’s three hours long, it’s brilliant.

It’s about this family. The first act is set in the Stone Age, it’s almost like “The Flintstones” and they’re a modern family but it’s during the Stone Age and the family’s all worried because the Ice Age is coming, but they somehow survive it. And then the second act is set during the Great Depression and the third act is set during this huge civil war in which the father and son are on different sides. It’s really about how families survive these enormous catastrophes but it’s done in this absurd kind of ridiculous – you know there’s like talking dinosaurs and things like that. And I love the tone and the questions he was kind of asking about family. So that was a huge influence.

And then Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, the way that he would try to talk about this, to my mind, the most complicated issue a society can try to negotiate, you know the idea of going to war, but he does it with such humor and empathy and it’s constantly surprising as you’re reading the book. And so that’s how I wanted The Great Perhaps to feel like. It could deal with some of these larger questions but didn’t have to feel dogmatic where it’s clear the reader has the answers from the outset and where it also felt inventive and sometimes weird.

I actually tried to write the book from a pretty realistic style and it just didn’t work. It felt like to write about the year 2004, like October 2004, the only way I could really do it fairly was to have these kind of weird things, you know it was such a strange, surreal moment in American history where it’s only a couple years removed from September 11th and the threat of anthrax being sent through the mail and it was like one completely bizarre occurrence after the other. And so I felt like to capture that hysteric kind of tone, the tone of the book had to be a little strange or surreal too. And that was directly borrowed from Kurt Vonnegut, who’d done it in that book and a lot of other books, too.

Skyscraper: It was actually funny to me reading The Great Perhaps because my last video project that I did was called Battling Green Eye Shades and it was putting video editing and music to the 2004 presidential debates, which you actually excerpt. And it was weird to me because I for four years just took this one debate and cut it down and went over it and over it for four years. So for me, reading your book it was like almost an echo of what I was trying to do, but with Battling Green Eye Shades in a much weirder, abstract and dark sort of way.

JM: I’m thirty-six and people who are kind of becoming adults around that era who are politically engaged, asking questions politically, I’ve never been that disappointed or so personally upset by any particular political event or election in my life. And I started writing the book as a way to figure out why I was so disappointed or what was going on in the country at the time.

So it makes complete sense that like this thing happens that you can’t understand and so you try whether through writing or some other art or conversation, you try to figure out like, “What does this mean? Who are we? Why did this happen?” It’s really like, “How did this happen?” I’m trying to figure out. And I kept going back again and again to this question of fear.

And now the CIA’s come out and said that during that election campaign cycle that they were raising the Terror Alert level whenever the President’s poll numbers began to dip a little bit. That’s not surprising, that’s what it felt like at the time where Bush was kind of drumming questions about gay marriage as a way to terrify people. Not of course that that’s something people should be terrified of, but it definitely I think motivated his base.

And Bush was very good at talking in bumper stickers. And when you’re scared and you can’t focus those quick slogans seem wise even though they’re not and they seem comforting. I mean, it was still a pretty close election but I think that’s one of the reasons he won, you know, fear. You see it even now, a lot of the Tea Party’s about fear and there’s an emotional tone to each of those political parties, for good or bad.

Like Republicans are very fierce and dominant and masculine and confident, even when they shouldn’t be, but it’s really attractive to have someone like even if they don’t know what they’re talking about they act like they always do. And then fear seems to be at the heart of their worldview, the way they approach foreign policy, the way they approach abortion and gay marriage, stuff that doesn’t really ever involve you directly but you still have these concerns about. How would it affect you if a woman got an abortion or if a gay couple decided to get married? How does that affect you personally? But you have this growing fear about it.

Whereas the Democrats are so empathetic almost to a fault. Even with Obama, he really wanted to get Republicans on board when anyone else would’ve been like, “These guys are out to ruin me; I don’t want anything to do them.” But that’s his really Democratic sentiment, that you want everyone to hold hands and like each other even though it’s never going to happen. And you see these two parties in this never-ending struggle.

I’ve gotten to the point where I realize whether people want to admit it or not we probably need both. There are probably elements from both of those emotional points of view that you need to draw from or people feel like just naturally, genetically or whatever more inclined towards one or the other. The way you move about the world you’re maybe a little more open or curious or empathetic or the way this person moves about the world is maybe more guarded and that’s why you’re drawn to particular political parties.

Well we’re back. What’s really funny is that it’s 2010 and it’s like the midterms seem so similar to that 2004 again where there’s this question of fear and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, these are the most ridiculous – that people are even debating these things, or like repealing Bush’s tax. Like people, you know this is wrong but because of the way this election cycle works, people feel like they have to cater to their electorate. Yeah, and this Christine O’Donnell seems like a female George Bush except with a little more interesting background.

Skyscraper: Yeah, a little more character.

JM: Yeah, I mean I wouldn’t vote for her or anything but I love the idea of her and the fact that she had any traction at all seems like the craziest – I mean I apparently know less about witches, because I would think they would be more earthy, like pro-masturbation. But she’s not. She’s a complex witch, which is wonderful. Outside of 19-year-old girls who decide they’re Wiccans or whatever I didn’t know that was like a legitimate thing. She has no political agenda really. She’s had a couple debates during the last couple weeks and she really has no platform; she’s not making any strategies or whatever. I mean we’ll see if she gets any traction just based on her weird, wonderful personality, you know. Sarah Palin’s the same way, too.

Skyscraper: I was just going to ask, how do you feel about Sarah Palin?

JM: I mean she’s more Bush than Bush because she like killed a fucking wolf from a helicopter. Bush could wear a cowboy hat and clear brush or whatever, but brush doesn’t move. She’s killing live, predatory animals so to me she’s even more George Bush than George Bush and it’s like, “Why does that keep happening to us?” Again this is part of who we are as Americans, we want someone to give us simple answers, even if they’re totally wrong or the most ridiculous answers like the death panel thing or whatever. We still want someone to say in uncompromising terms, “This is the way it is.” It makes us feel comfortable.

I feel like the older I’ve gotten, in music and books and film, human relationships, the more I’ve come to appreciate ambiguity and being ambivalent where you feel like, “Oh I like this and this,” or even uncertainty seems more interesting. You know the music I listened to when I was 19 and 20, Minor Threat or The Misfits, I love those bands, they have a place in my heart, but I don’t listen to them anymore, precisely because of that. You know the Ramones did kind of one song over and over and I love that song, but the older you get you want to hear moments that are dynamic, moments where you’re kind of surprised. Unfortunately the country has a hard time it seems like living with that uncertainty or sense of surprise.

Skyscraper: As an adult now how do you feel like your tastes are changing in music and writing?

JM: Well, I think on a really basic level I grew up listening to rock ‘n roll and that’s what I love whether it’s something like punk rock or The Beatles or Belle and Sebastian. This band I love now is called The Duchess and the Duke, do you know those guys?

Skyscraper: I’ve heard of them but I haven’t heard them.

JM: They’re so good, man. You should check them out. They’re kind of like mid-sixties Rolling Stones influence, but they’re really a rock band, you know. My tastes haven’t branched too far out from that. You know somewhere in my 20s I started listening to a lot more jazz music and I still really enjoy it because listening to jazz is so much different from listening to rock and it’s way more like abstract painting or non-narrative and I like that feeling. But I have a daughter who’s two-and-a-half and a son who’s two weeks old and I’m like amused and terrified by how little I think people change. From the time my daughter was young to who she is now to what I imagine she’ll be like 20 years from now, I think you kind of are who you are and it takes a huge, almost catastrophic event to change that, you know.

So I guess there’s something pleasing and sad and hopeful about it all at the same time that you are who you are, and the things that you love and the things you’re good at and the things that you’re not good at, maybe you just get better at them over time, but like I said on a really basic level I still love the same kind of bands, the same kind of works that I did ten or 15 years ago.

I feel like for me Faulkner is always the writer I go back to as my idea of the greatest American writer, and I think the reason I liked him in my 20s might be a little different than the reason I like him now because before I think I was really trying to get his incredibly dark, serious tone and somewhat violent and very male, but also a wonderful story teller. But then the older I’ve got the more I’ve come to appreciate these really bizarre moments of ambiguity, you know these stream of consciousness sections. It’s way more for the moments he’s less clear. A writer, someone like Thomas Pynchon or um…

Skyscraper: How do you feel about Henry Miller?

JM: Henry Miller? I haven’t read too much. I think I’ve read Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn in maybe my early 20s I think I did. I love the brashness and the boldness of it. I think when he set out to write Tropic of Cancer he said he was going to write like an anti-novel, right?

Skyscraper: Yeah, that’s in the beginning of the book where he says like, “This is the anti-novel.”

JM: And I love that idea. Like, I don’t know if that actually qualifies – in some ways it is because it’s really not a novel, right. It’s like, “This happened, this happened. Here’s this girl. This happened, this happened.” So there’s not this huge narrative arc, but since then novels have repeated that over and over so it is now what a novel is, whether you see Jack Kerouac doing it or a lot of contemporary writers kind of adapting that, “This happens, this happens” kind of thing. So it has become a novel, but I really like the idea of setting out to write an anti-novel, to say like, “Here’s the way everyone’s doing this thing, and I’m purposefully going to do it the opposite way.” I think that’s wonderful. I mean I think that’s how great art gets made is just to be like, “Here are all these patterns, it’s really safe to do this thing, I’m going to try this thing over here.”

So yeah, I’m not going to lie, I haven’t gone back to those books in a while, but that thing, that idea of writing an anti-novel has lived in my imagination. And something like Hairstyles of the Damned is like that where it’s very episodic. The way it’s written it’s very natural, colloquial, it’s not writerly. I wanted it to feel like a documentary film with just these kids and it’s not like a big story or point that’s kind of happening. And even in The Boy Detective, which is way more mythical, but there were moments where I wanted the text to open up and, “Here’s going to be some white space and here’s going to be some shapes.” And even though I was like, “Oh this is a novel,” still trying to find ways to be inventive on the page. You know if the book is about mystery trying to make the actual text mysterious.

So that idea that you can still break down conventions, that, okay, a novel just doesn’t have to be this one kind of thing. Again even in The Great Perhaps there’s a lot of things I was trying to do where it’s kind of the most conventional story, the story of a family – it’s one of the oldest genres from the Bible, fairy tales, you see all these stories of families, modern literature all these different stories of families – finding ways in the text or the structure to make it feel new or inventive.

Video stills: John Vogel. Other photo: courtesy W.W. Norton.

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