On June 15, 2011, Nine-Banded Books will release Ann Sterzinger's NVSQVAM (nowhere), a jaundice-eyed yet disarmingly elegiac novel of Diogenesian despair and dreams deferred. Ann is a helluva writer, and I don't think it's any exaggeration to say that her comedy cum threnody tempts comparison with the most incisive efforts of Florence King, Patrick Hamilton, and maybe even Ann's own literary hero, Kingsley Amis. You can order her book here, or through Amazon. I hope you will.
Now track back—way back to the year 2009. That's when Nine-Banded Books published Considering Suicide, by Andy Nowicki, a self-described "Catholic reactionary" who has since solidified his reputation as an occasionally polarizing shit-stirrer in the "alternative right" literary scene (such as it is). Andy's latest latest petit roman, The Columbine Pilgrim, is a volatile, though morally centered, cocktail that serves up a psychotic helping of revenge porn within the context of a tenuous redemption narrative. You can order his book here, or through Amazon. I hope you will.
When Nine-Banded newbie Ann sat down for a chat with Nine-Banded alum Andy, they indulged the opportunity to trade positive affirmations over matters literary and sundry. For your voyeuristic pleasure, the only-slightly-edited product of their dueling interview session is transcribed below. Drink it down, ye word nerds. Then buy their fucking books.
ANN STERZINGER: Good evening, and welcome to Happy Bed-time Story Hour with Andy Nowicki and Ann Sterzinger, authors of, respectively, the recently released novella, The Columbine Pilgrim, and the soon-to-be-released novel NVSQVAM (nowhere). (Andy is also the author of the strange hybrid Considering Suicide, a novella spliced with a philosophical treatise, which will also be referenced in this interview.) We are going to ask each other nothing but mushy, idiot softball questions about each other's genius work, and many turds will be dislodged with tongues along the way.
I am Ann, and I am about to toady up to Andy regarding The Columbine Pilgrim, the disturbing (but oft-times wry) tale of Tony Meander, an adult child of abusive playmates who becomes obsessed with the Columbine murders and, at the age of 33, drops out of grad school to belatedly and pathetically commit a copycat crime. No one sees it coming; as an adult Mr. Meander is a quiet, polite weirdo. No one guesses how obsessed he is with his distant past till he finally snaps.
Q: The easiest question that comes to mind is: Why the fuck couldn't Tony get over it? I take it you were bullied in high school, as was I, but neither of us have shot anyone; life has dealt most former nerds either enough adult woes or adult joys to overshadow the fading memories of adolescent gloom. He's arguably as stuck in the past as the overweight former jocks he mocks as they relive their glory days. Does someone need to toss him a grown-up mugging or what?
Andy: There's a line in a song by Bowling for Soup: "High school never ends." On the other hand, Hall and Oats memorably told us, "Believe it or not, there's life after high school." I wonder if any of us really gets over the traumas of our past. Maybe some of us do; I dunno. We grow up, and things get better, and time heals some wounds, but some things stay with us. What I pictured with a character like Tony is someone who takes this bit of arrested development to a grotesque and distasteful extreme. Hence his fascination with the Columbine High School massacre, and hence his horrifying final act.
You're right, though. He's 33 years old. He should be over it, but he's chosen to fixate on it, kind of like someone might choose to scratch a skin rash when leaving it alone would allow it to heal. We do things like that sometimes, even knowing full well that it will ultimately do us no good… Why? Dostoyevsky's character says it's out of sheer existential spite, and I'm prone to agree.
ANDY NOWICKI: Ann Sterzinger's novel NVSQVAM (nowhere) concerns the misadventures of a misanthrope named Lester Reichartson. Lester would seem to have many reasons to count his blessings; he has a beautiful wife and a brilliant son, and a promising career in academia no doubt beckons once he completes his doctoral dissertation. But Lester is deeply, bitterly unhappy. He feels himself marooned in a hick town in rural Illinois, far away from the cosmopolitan delights of Chicago, where he was once an up-and-coming singer in a punk band. He secretly hates his wife for manipulating him into starting a family, something he never wanted. Most strikingly, he is bitterly resentful of the fact that his precocious son will likely be a bigger success than he will ever be.
Q: Let's start with an obvious question: the title. What do the initials mean?
Ann: It's not actually initials; I'm just being pretentious and spelling the Latin word nusquam—meaning literally nowhere, as in Southern Illinois, or the British Isles back in the days of Hadrian, or whatever island you got stuck on if you were a Roman poet or politician in exile—the way it would be written in Roman times, before U and V became two separate letters. V used to count for either the consonant or the vowel depending on where it was in a word, sort of the way Y does now. God, see how much good a liberal arts education does you? I'm a goddamned freak even when I title things. I knew I should have studied accounting. Lester should have too.
Q: Tony Meander, during his post-high-school life, as he gets weirder and weirder through grad school, also gets deeper and deeper into the sort of self-mythologizing—with a little help from his friends Hitler and Nietzsche—that finally allows him to declare himself a twisted God figure. (He can't be Jesus of course, considering his position regarding the story's version of Mary.) And he is definitely a God of destruction. But he's also an extremely narcissistic God—as both the god of Abraham and the gods of American Idol can be. I can see reading all this as a grim satire of today's self-centered nihilistic culture, but I also can see reading it as a parody of the Biblical god himself. I touched on this when I reviewed the book on my blog, but I was curious as to what, if any, satirical/parodic intent was running through your head when you wrote it… and if none, what do you make of my interpretation?
Andy: I am a committed Catholic, and I deeply love the Church and all of its dogmas and doctrines, but at the same time I struggle with faith. I'll cop to often having a particularly difficult time loving God the Father, because of the things he apparently wills to happen in the world, or at least allows to happen. I do think that Yahweh of the Old Testament often comes across as mean, vengeful, arbitrary. But there's a real appeal in that to someone like Tony, who has long felt so powerless and picked-on and weak. Just as God might wipe out thousands of people in a natural disaster for no apparent reason save that fact that he "can," so Tony views his own eventual murderousness as an expression of his God-like power. And of course, he's nuts, he's around the bend… but a little detail about the way the story ends almost has the reader wondering if he might in fact be in some way right about his claim to a kind of divinity!
Q: You and I have spoken before about the character of Lester, and the stumbling block his at times obnoxious personality presents for the reader. When I read the early draft of your book, I found his wistfulness about his past somewhat endearing, but I just couldn't relate to him hating his own son out of spiteful envy. There are also times in the story when he is needlessly nasty to his wife, etc. When we spoke before, you conceded all of these points, but I got the sense that you still really had an affection for your anti-hero, in spite of his numerous and massive faults. Can you elaborate on this?
Ann: That's funny, I often get such feedback about my characters, when I never mean for them to be anti-heroes at all; I simply mean for them to be fully human. Which, I guess, goes to show just how likable humans are, or at least humans as I experience and/or present them. I don't really think of writing heroes or anti-heroes when I write a character, I write about people who interest me.
But let's be more specific. The secret backbone of this novel is that it was written after I'd spent a summer digesting this enormous thick warts-and-all biography of Kingsley Amis, the great British comic novelist of the 20th century (well, after Wodehouse and maybe Waugh I guess, but Amis will probably always be nearest my heart). The bio truly was warts and all, particularly regarding Amis's relationships with his womenfolk and sons, but my affection for the guy's writing and therefore what was best in him remained unchanged. After reading it I moved back to Carbondale to finish my BA in Classics and the Amis bio began to work on my b
rain as I gathered other ideas for a book to be set in Carbondale’s very dystopian mid-south environment. I hadn't really consciously meant to write a parallel-universe biography of Amis when I began writing about Lester; I simply began wondering just how awful it would be to raise a kid in that town. But then I started thinking more consciously about the bio: asking, "What if
Kingsley Amis had been born at the wrong time, when things were all shitty as he predicted, on the wrong continent, where it's much harder to be a writer… oh, but let's not have him be a writer at all, let's make it even harder for him to have a day job in academia, let's make him a musician by vocation so that writing papers is like sticking needles in his eyes… Oh, let’s just make his entire life into that new Depeche Mode song ‘Wrong,’ not that it sort of wasn’t to begin with." So I guess my affection for Amis, warts and all, transferred in part to Lester, especially since I had set Lester up with extra factors to work against.
But also, I've been turning a new sort of practical literary theory over in my mind; it goes something like this: maybe the harder a character is to like, the more you like him when you finally do get to his heart of gold. Or pewter, or chocolate, or soap, or whatever isn't snarling and rage and sarcasm and self-pity.
Funny, this reminds me of a question I wanted to ask you, so here's your next…
Q: Is Tony Meander meant to be at all likable? I mean, sure, you can sort of understand where his rage comes from, but, jeez, what an angree bastiidddd… maybe he could be heroic in a sense, but he's more of a hero-follower if you scrape his God complex to find the prophets Vodka and Reb [the Columbine killers' nicknames for each other].
Andy: I do rather sympathize with Tony Meander. Of course, he's un-admirable in many, many ways, and he ultimately becomes a monster, so I certainly don't blame anyone for disliking him. I'm drawn to writing about people like him, people who have a lot of the same kind of "issues" as myself, the same neuroses, the same fears and hatreds, only more so. I won't lie; there is something very liberating about creating a character who says many of the things you only dream of saying, and who does things that you'd never do (since you are possessed of sanity and a conscience) but may fantasize about doing when you're enduring your dark night of the soul.
Ann: Your answer reminds me of a review of Considering Suicide which I read on a site called Shotgun Barrel Straight: I didn't quite follow some of the reviewer's rhapsodizing about Hamlet (though the big “to be” soliloquy is obviously germane to your book), but I found his summary of the philosophical treatise to be concise and also ironic if applied to Tony Meander. He says you hold that without God we are "doomed to the twin evils of totalitarianism and anarchy." I presume he means "doomed to choose between," but in fact in the case of Tony's murderous rampage we are doomed to both at once. Comedy gold!
Q: Do you think there's any third choice for a godless world? Do you think Tony ever saw such an option?
Andy: I tend to hold, with Dostoyevsky's character in The Brothers Karamazov, that without belief in a transcendent law (and thus, law-giver), things fall apart very quickly in very many ways. No, I don't think Tony ever saw a third option, and honestly, neither do I.
Q: Regarding your last answer: Does Lester ever get to his heart of gold? If so, can you explain the moment without givng away the ending?
Ann: I had a friend, Carlos Yu was his name, whose favorite saying—and I don't know whether this was his saying or whether he was quoting someone, but it's stuck with me—was: "A cynic is just a disappointed idealist." I think NVSQVAM maps the part of Lester's life during which his behavior is the ugliest it's ever been, and probably ever will be, but in his very grumblings and rages I see the disappointed hopes he had for a better world. He used to be dedicated to his art, for lack of a better word—to his music, which was the center of his identity, and that's been taken away bit by bit, leaving a hole where he thought the beauty in his personality, the best part of him, had been. He rages against thoughtless idiots driving around, because he wants to see a world that's more beautiful than a car-centric mall-and-tin-shack hell.
And the moment I think you're talking about—the moment where he finally realizes that he can actually find the desire to sacrifice his life for his son, but only if he literally sacrifices his life—is the moment where he scrabbles up to find the closest thing he can find to correct parental sentiment. Of course, a lot of the book is meant to question the cult of the baby, of the mini-me, of … well, I guess I question the cult of life-that-came-out-of-moi the same way you question the culture of death in your essays and elsewhere. But Lester, despite his rejection of the idea of parenthood, still makes an effort to find something in himself that can put aside his dreams and even his beliefs for a moment for the sake of the child whose existence can't be wished or theorized away. I think that's something that is very sympathetic about him. He never wanted any part of the cult of parenthood, he doesn't want to find his own self-worth by forcing his expectations on a little person; he didn't even want to drag that little person into this ugly world in the first place. But in the very end he realizes that since the damn kid is there, maybe he should give what he can to make his life better. Unfortunately, he realizes this too late.
Andy: You have written elsewhere, in describing the type of stuff you like to write as, and I paraphrase, having a hilarious beginning and middle and a horrifying ending. In the structure of its plot, NVSQVAM reminds me a bit of Flannery O'Connor's great short short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Most of the book is, if painful and bitter, still basically funny. But the ending is absolutely brutal. The tone shift is striking. Why did you feel compelled to take the story in such a direction?
Ann: Shew, that's a hard one. Doesn't help that I've never read that story. I guess it's because I didn't see any other way out for Lester. For one thing the book is set in Southern Illinois, and it was also written there. And though I know a lot of people really love that area, and maybe it was my own frame of mind at the time, there was just something about the goddamn place that seemed to speak to me of doom. I really could not imagine a happy ending there for anybody over the age of thirty who didn't already have a PhD, because it literally is a college, and then nothingness, except for the howl of the cicadas and the occasional puma taking a swipe at your pet cat. I'm sure an isolated college town, no matter how grim and glowering the locals, is a wonderful coming-of-age setting for young kids, and a nice place to settle down for college professors, but if you're there during what's supposed to be the prime of your life it's really quite horrifying. Mid-southern gothic. There just didn't seem to be any way to get the characters off that particular stage without dragging out the poisoned chalices and daggers.
Q: Do you mind if I ask you a rape question or is that too much of a spoiler?
Andy: Not at all… rape me.
Ann: Ha ha… OK, I have two of them. The first is shorter.
Q: You've asked me in earlier conversations whether I, as a woman, was freaked out by the rape scene. (I said I wasn't since arguably the victim had assaulted her attacker first, but that takes us down the merry primrose path of arguing what constitutes sexual assault, so I won't go into that.) After the discussion, I was curious… were you hoping to freak people out with that scene? By which I don't mean simple shit-stirring, I mean… did you have any particular thoughts you wanted to provoke in mind? Some sort of self-examination on female readers' parts as to the extent and nature of theparticular powers they may hold as sexual beings? And honestly, how high are your realistic hopes for making people examine their own souls and personalities through fiction? Yes, yes, I know we're all a little bit Don Quixote.
Andy: The rape which happens near the end of the book actually surprised me. I wasn't planning on putting it there, but it just suggested itself, and I went with my proverbial gut. It definitely freaked me out, I can say that. But it also kind of thrilled me, because it worked, thematically speaking.
Your questions are interesting and insightful, and I'm not just kissing your ass when I say that. In my YouTube promo for The Columbine Pilgrim, I talk briefly about the frequent cruelty I've observed of young, pretty girls— girls who are aware of their beauty—toward dorky guys, guys who know these girls are out of their league but still can’t help but gawk. In the early part of the book, Tony gets viciously teased by a really, really mean girl, who pretends to come on to him and then rolls her eyes and basically says "As if!" when he is turned on by her pseudo-advance. There is something there, I think, to be said against some of the more facile claims of certain strains of modern feminism, which always see girls and women as righteous and men as the cruel ones…
But in a larger sense, I see the whole range of ways in which people respond to the horrific violence in the second half of the book as a commentary on the way interest groups can be so willfully myopic, so smitten with their own agendas at the expense of everything else, that they very crassly take a tragedy and try to construe it as exclusively symbolic of their own narrow concerns… What's the response to Columbine? If you're a liberal, it's to argue for gun control. If you're a Christian conservative, it's to blame godless public schools. And so forth. In The Columbine Pilgrim, some crass interest groups take the rape and make it the centerpiece of their tiresomely rehearsed response to the massacre, others take the fact that he used the words "faggot" and "nigger," others the fact that the killer apparently felt motivated by anger at Christianity, etc. I'm trying to make a plea, I suppose, for people to see things in their totality, and not to reduce them to some goddamn political cause or other.
Ann: You could almost say the same thing about 9/11.
Andy: Oh, totally. "9/11 just shows that we need to be more interventionist." "9/11 just shows that we need to be more isolationist." "9/11 just shows that we should be more welcoming of immigrants." "9/11 just shows that we need more border security." "9/11 just shows we need to take more aggressive action as the world's leader." "9/11 just shows we need to welcome a more multilateral approach to world affairs."… You name it, it was said after those towers fell nearly a decade ago. And people are still using an event like 9/11 or Columbine or Waco or Ruby Ridge or the Holocaust or whatever to crassly advance their own agendas, with little or no care for the entirety of the truth.
Ann: Here’s rape question number two.
Q: You and I had a discussion privately a while ago about why it is that people will be less freaked out by a murder in a story like The Columbine Pilgrim than they are by a rape. I couldn’t give you any satisfactory answers; the best I could do was to posit that the victim of a rape has to live with the aftermath, while a murder victim’s problems are blissfully at an end.
By chance, I’m helping Chip [Smith, the kind and noble publisher of both NVSQVAM and Considering Suicide] transcribe some old stuff by Peter Sotos, and the intro to the Sotos volume I’m working with consists of Jim Goad, who published the volume, interviewing Sotos, and they ask each other basically the same question. Here’s the very abridged conversation, awaiting your reaction:
Goad: Here’s something that’s puzzled me, particularly with the [ANSWER Me!] rape issue—it was one of the reasons we did it—why do you think that people who don’t blanch at extreme violence or murder suddenly freak out when a sexual component is introduced?
Sotos: You’d probably be a better person to ask, but my own opinion is that people are so close to it. People really—if you watch TV, if you watch what goes on—people, all they want to do is talk or think about fucking … And so whenever this happens, they really have to sort of act as if they have a sort of moral standpoint above and beyond this. That they really are above this sort of thing. And it allows them—I think—that sort of indignation allows them the chance to wallow …
Dunno how much you know about Sotos, so I don’t know what context you have, but it’s an interesting thought… does he mean to imply that people are more interested in sex than in death, perhaps?
Andy: It seems that Sotos is saying that people feel more implicated by hearing about rape, since rape is a sexual crime and people think about sex a lot and thus they have to get righteously indignant in order to separate themselves from that which they feel implicates them. Maybe he's right.
But I think people think about murder a lot, too. So why aren't they as righteously indignant when they hear about a murder? I think that there is something more viscerally humiliating about a rape, because it's a kind of psychological subjugation; someone has his way with you, and sends the message that he "owns" you in some manner. In my book, the rape which takes place is an expression of one character's thirst for revenge against someone who in a way "raped" him, though not literally. We don't normally find rape as a moment of "righteous" comeuppance, the way that we commonly see revenge killings in movies, everywhere from The Princess Bride to Inglourious Basterds. People are so squeamish about the depiction of rape in art that the context doesn't even matter. I'm sure some of this is just conditioning from feminism ("No means NO!!!!"), but there's also a part of it that's just somehow more ingrained in our collective psyche.
Let me add that the rape scene in The Columbine Pilgrim still shocks me today. I'm very uncomfortable with it, but my discomfort is part of what makes it so compelling to me.
[At this point, the interviewers realize it is well past the witching hour, and begin to truly lob mushballs as they nod over their grog.]
Andy: This is your first published novel. Congratulations!
Q: Who do you think will be able to read and appreciate the themes upon which you reflect, so hilariously and so grimly, in NVSQVAM? What would you say is its intended audience, if there is one? And finally, where do you go from here? What do you intend to write about next?
Ann: Thank you! Hm. I guess its intended audience was the ghost of Kingsley Amis. If he thinks it's funny and horrible, then maybe everyone else will too. In my fantasy world it might provide some succour for people who are trapped in hellish domestic situations… or it might be welcomed by depressive comedy fans and, well… anyone who's near enough to the end of their rope to not feel insulted and get snippy over a little harsh light shed on human nature is welcome. Even if you get snippy you're invited to the party, as long as you don't dump over the punch bowl and piss on my floor.
Next up is… well, I'm most of the way through a true crime project, but the upcoming book that's nearest and dearest to me is a dystopian sci-fi project, heavy on the dystopia and not so hard on the science. What if human beings, in the future and on a distant planet of course, discovered the secret of immortality… and then hoarded it from each other like total bastards? It's hard as fuck to create a world from scratch, but lots of fun too.
Q: And what are you going to sink your teeth into next? Something with fuzzy bunnies and
Andy: Well, I go where my Muse directs me. And lately it's taken me some pretty strange places. I've actually written a couple of "erotica" pieces in the last month, which I hope have a literary appeal and aren't just crude jizz-squirters (recall Burt Reynolds's character's hilarious speech in "Boogie Nights"). I've also got another novella that's to be released in the fall called Under the Nihil, which features a character similar to Tony Meander, but in very different circumstances. The premise is, what if you could take a pill that totally took away your inhibitions? How would you behave if you just didn't give a fuck? Once again, a guy gets broken down, and then rages back in a very rage-filled and disturbing, yet entertaining, way.
What can I say? I's got issues. Just ask my shrink…
Ann: Wow. Good luck sleeping for both of us tonight. Time for nightmares!
Yours with love,
Andy Nowicki and Ann Sterzinger