Jeremy P. Bushnell’s brand new book, THE WEIRDNESS, just came out this week, and he was kind enough to let me
interrogate ask him a few questions about the new book, and more!
Congrats on your new book, THE WEIRDNESS! You teach writing, but have you wanted to be a writer from an early age? Will you tell us more about yourself and your background?
Sure! I think, yes, it’s safe to say that I wanted to be a writer from an early age. Somewhere back in my files I have a series of comic books which I can pretty much track back to being my earliest expression of some kind of writerly impulse. They were drawn in crayon, which should tell you something about how young I was. It took me a couple more years to figure out the basics of the form: that, like, there were long fictional works called novels. But pretty much as soon as I understood that I was trying to write them. In junior high I wrote a terrible fantasy manuscript in my school notebooks; I was also writing long, serialized plays at that time, which featured grownup versions of myself and my friends, going on fevered misadventures.
Eventually I got more serious about craft, and decided to try to apply a little more attention and deliberation to my writing—I went and got my MFA, and spent my share of time writing straight-faced “MFA-like” fiction. I think THE WEIRDNESS represents an attempt to reconcile my young self’s impulse to write zany, kinetic stuff with my adult self’s knowledge of how to produce work that is emotionally complex, soundly structured, and well-polished.
What’s one of the first things you remember writing?
I remember writing a fictional geologist’s log. I had somehow acquired a Golden Guide to Rocks and Minerals which stimulated my young mind in some inexplicable way: I pored over that thing, thrilling to its illustrations of precious and semi-precious stones. And I remember deciding that when I grew up I would either be a writer or a geologist, and then I figured that a good compromise solution would be to become a Geologist Who Also Wrote. And I drafted this fake log. It was all full of things like “Today I found three Ruby Quartzes and nine Agates.” I remember counting the words and putting a little word count in the corner of each page, and I remember the sensation of little-kid pride I felt when I cracked 1,000 words. Silly as it might sound, this did teach me a valuable lesson about writing: that persistence matters.
It absolutely does, and it looks like it paid off in the form of The Weirdness! So, Billy Ridgeway makes a deal with the Devil…tell us more!
Well, an important thing about Billy is that, like many of his generation, he’s kind of a skeptical person. So when someone shows up in his apartment claiming to be the Devil, at first he’s totally incredulous–he basically starts off convinced that his roommate is pranking him. Even once he’s convinced that he is, in fact, having a metaphysical experience, this only heightens his sense of caution. I mean, put yourself in his footsteps: you know that when somebody makes a deal with the Devil it never really turns out well for that character. Billy’s smart enough to know this, too, and so his first, best instinct is to refuse the deal and tell the Devil to get lost. Which he does! But Billy nevertheless ends up entangled in a series of problems and before too long the Devil starts looking like the lesser of two evils. So he comes around, although I won’t reveal the precise manner in which the deal is finally struck.
Is Billy based on you, even a little?
Let’s take a look at Billy. He’s absent-minded, and kind of a slob, and he doesn’t have too much common sense, and he drinks too much and smokes too much weed, and he has some pretty stoner-y ideas for pieces of fiction (at one point he writes a short story with no characters that’s told from the perspective of furniture). He does have a redeeming feature, in my opinion, which is that he truly loves the world: he takes real wonder in little things like tiny dogs or YouTube videos of fighting cockroaches. If somebody gave him a Golden Guide to Rocks and Minerals I think he would love it. This is all a long way of saying that I’m pretty sure that anybody who knows me will recognize aspects of me in Billy’s character. Which is not to say that there aren’t important ways that Billy is unlike me.
It’s probably worth mentioning, while we’re on this topic, that even the characters who resemble me less obviously still have some basis in my own lived experience. So, for instance, Billy’s friend Anil, who is probably Billy’s harshest critic, is grounded in the part of myself that gets exasperated with the Billy-like parts of me, the parts that are dreamy and ineffectual. And Timothy Ollard, the necromantic warlock who the book’s primary antagonist, can be read as a way of me giving voice to my own depressive side, the part of me that doesn’t love the world.
I could be wrong on this, but I think that most writers, when beginning to imagine the lives of other people, even people very different from themselves, probably start by looking inside themselves to find some piece of their personality that they can give voice to, that they can channel into a character. Just as a starting point, I mean–at some point you have to do a little observation as to how people unlike yourself actually live, or at least put your imaginative faculties to work, or you run the risk of descending into self-indulgence. Not every human being you’ll want to depict can just be yourself wearing a different hat.
Well, I’m absent-minded, and a bit of a slob…but I digress. Anyway, what is your writing process like? How long did THE WEIRDNESS take to write, from start to finish?
About a year and a half all together, plus maybe half a year to work out final revisions. Let’s call it two years total.
As for the writing process: Once I have a chapter in draft form, I bring it to a writer’s group that I meet with weekly here in Boston. They’re wonderfully tough-minded and honest and they kick it around pretty intensively while I take frantic notes. Once I gone through this process with maybe six chapters, I pull out the notes, stop moving forward in the book, and go back and revise.
Whatever chapters get major revisions go back to the writing group again– some of them went through that group three or four times, if I recall correctly. Once those chapters are showing signs of improvement, I go ahead and produce some new chapters, and the process repeats itself. Short version is I do a lot of revision with a lot of outside help.
It’s obvious that you have a group that you trust, but was it hard at first to accept criticism on you work, even though it was constructive?
Oh, of course! Every time I was up for critique I would come out of there depressed, despondent, and usually drunk (we meet at a bar). But they were almost always right. I knew that the book would be vastly improved as a result of their input, and that made it easy to accept the help even though I was terrifically thin-skinned about the criticism.
What authors have influenced or inspired you the most?
Before I answer this question, I should probably acknowledge that The Weirdness draws upon all sorts of writing to achieve its effects: classical literary novels form a huge part of its genome but it also borrows DNA from screenwriting and genre trash and comics and blogs and clever tweets and so on. So it’s hard to zero in on what inspired it the “most.” I will say that two books that I kept in mind a lot while writing The Weirdness were William Gibson’s Zero History and Richard Price’s Lush Life. Each of those books adheres to the norms of a popular genre: they build a thrilling genre plot, keep it in motion, and resolve it satisfyingly. But each one also provides all the goods that we associate with “non-genre,” “literary” fiction: insight into character, vivid description, an eye for revealing detail, a willingness to dig into the delightfully crunchy aspects of the human condition. This balance is effectively what I was aspiring towards, and these books encouraged me to realize that it could be done and done well.
What would you like to see readers to take away from The Weirdness?
That’s a tough question. I do feel like the book offers some advice to its readers in a way that could be said to be the book’s “moral,” if you are the kind of person who wants novels to have morals. But my hope is that the book’s story earns it the right to offer its advice, so stating it here to readers who haven’t traversed the story would feel a little strange to me. Let’s just say that I hope people will come away from the book feeling like they experienced a story that was well-told and that upended their expectations in ways that were ultimately pleasurable.
You’re a man of many talents. Not only do you write, but you’re a game designer! I’d love to hear more about your game, Inevitable, and I noticed that you had another game forthcoming?
I guess you could call Inevitable my foray into science fiction, albeit science fiction of a pretty absurdist vintage. It’s a tabletop game of “post-apocalyptic politics” — you play a candidate running for office in a world that’s been rebuilt after an unspecified cataclysm. You’re running both against the players and a malevolent AI which controls an army of shock troops. You do normal political things like run negative campaign ads but you can also do things like attack your opponent with a chainsaw or drive them insane by sending them packages of dead animals. It’s got mayhem, betrayal, laughs–all that good stuff. I was the lead designer and I wrote the (rather lengthy) rulebook and crammed it full of jokes that people who like The Weirdness will probably enjoy. We raised the money for it via Kickstarter back in 2010 and there are still copies for sale– also, there’s a free downloadable demo version for people who just want a taste of what it’s all about.
And yes, around the time I was writing The Weirdness I was developing another game, a horror card game about evil clowns, but that one is stalled in development hell for the foreseeable future.
What’s next for you?
Well, this spring I’ll be promoting The Weirdness, doing a lot of readings all over. I’m also hard at work on a second book, also a “literary fantasy” novel, although one that’s a little darker, more serious in its overall tenor. (There are still jokes in it, though.) The working title is The Insides and with any luck I’ll be wrapping it up around the end of the year.
About THE WEIRDNESS:
What do you do when you wake up hung over and late for work only to find a stranger on your couch? And what if that stranger turns out to be an Adversarial Manifestation—like Satan, say—who has brewed you a fresh cup of fair-trade coffee? And what if he offers you your life’s goal of making the bestseller list if only you find his missing Lucky Cat and, you know, sign over your soul?
If you’re Billy Ridgeway, you take the coffee.