Tag Archives: belligerent q&a

Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XVII: Pop culture journalist Will Harris


As the journalist Will Harris so bitterly learned during a brief partnership, Elmo's one-two punch of icily avoiding pronouns and the rope-a-dope lovability ploy does not always translate into total supremacy in the blood-spattered arenas of the North American Chicken Fighting Association. Courtesy photo.

NORFOLK, Va. – Will Harris is a pop culture journalist, a splendid form of the muckraking arts that often dispenses with the muck by subbing in stuff that people enjoy reading.

Harris is a senior editor and TV columnist for Bullz-Eye, and he’s become a regular contributor to one of my favorite online destinations, The AV Club, a pop culture and criticism site that is a sister publication to The Onion.

Harris has written for a number of publications over the years. Additionally, and clearly most importantly, he was the runner-up in last year’s Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest here at the blog.

He keeps a blog called News, Reviews and Interviews at this link. I recommend the Larry the Cable Guy interview, in which the subject opens up about a beef with comedian David Cross, as well as perceptions of him. There’s also an interesting discussion in the comments.

Harris can turn a phrase. He can write funny. One of the big things I enjoy about Harris’ work is that his writing often comes from a place of respect and appreciation for the possibilities of the various forms – movies, TV, music, etc. The best critics have this; the rest are just passing through.

And how much juice does this guy have now? When Morgan Freeman wants to drop the f-bomb, he asks Harris for permission.

This Belligerent Q&A was conducted via email. There is some brief potty mouthery below.

I hope to speak with Harris at a later date about freelancing, navigating conferences and junkets, and how he landed at The AV Club.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

  1. I’m a street-walking cheetah with…no, wait, sorry, that’s not me, that’s Iggy Pop. (You can understand how people would get the two of us confused, I’m sure.)
  2. I’m a guy who got his journalism degree in ’92, worked a variety of retail, telemarketing, and I.T. jobs for more than a decade while continuing to do freelance writing and look for the elusive full-time gig in my field, and, after finally getting my foot in the door with Bullz-Eye.com as an associate editor, finally found the career I’d been seeking and have done everything in my power to make the most of it.
  3. I’m just this guy, you know?

Q: What is pop culture?

It’s the viewing, listening, and reading material that defines a generation even as it dates it.

Q: When pop culture gets on you, how do you get it off?

You don’t. Either it falls by the wayside because it isn’t worthy of permanence, or it sticks with you forever.

Q: Where do you, as a pop culture journalist and critic, place yourself in the pantheon of those engaged in the practice of assessing and, to some extent, propagating the entirety of thought and cultural reflections that represent the often media-driven, social collective of an increasingly globalized consciousness, which in turn could be said to reinforce culturally-dominant entertainments and artistic (and less artistic) works at the expense of marginalized perspectives? What are you truly assessing when you examine what is considered popular? What we value compared to what we should value? Also, what do they mean, the things I just typed?

I don’t think those things mean what you think they mean. But they might. I’m just a pop culture journalist and critic, so my knowledge and opinions – like those of my peers – shouldn’t be trusted any farther than you can throw them. They’re only ours. Yours are probably just as worthy. Well, almost, anyway.

Will Harris and the stars of Breaking Bad. Courtesy photo.

Q: You have interviewed Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad on various occasions, and even visited the set. How did this develop? If, after the next three interviews, the two of you join consciousnesses, how will your mental energy orb maintain dominance over the mental energy orb formerly known as Bryan Cranston?

The first time I met Mr. Cranston was at the Television Critics Association Awards in Pasadena, I believe, and I was subsequently part of the group of TCA members who was invited out to the Breaking Bad set the following winter while they were filming Season 3, which resulted in the greatest dinner conversation I’ve ever had. Subsequently, between in-person encounters and phone interviews, I have now interacted with Mr. Cranston more times than any other celebrity. In fact, I see and/or talk to him more regularly than some of the people who were in my wedding party. (Dammit, I knew I should’ve asked him to be a groomsman … ) But while he is one of the nicest and most genuine guys I’ve ever come across, someone whose head is on straight – he’s been happily married for two decades now, with a daughter who’s now in college – and whose many years in the acting trenches have enabled him to truly appreciate his success and not get an ego about it, I do not believe Mr. Cranston and I will ever join consciousnesses, as I invariably ask him about some obscure project on his resume which he hasn’t been asked about in ages, thereby breaking his concentration and preventing any such melding.

Q: What do you think of that show? Seems awfully fixated on meth.

A bit, perhaps. But no more so than Weeds is on marijuana. Hand on heart, I think Breaking Bad is the best show on television. Period.

Q: Your career field enables you to interview people such as Isabella Rossellini by asking her questions to which she responds in the actual voice of Isabella Rossellini. I suspect this is better than the Isabella Rossellini imitation I do after I ask Pretend Isabella Rossellini “Am I handsome?” And Pretend Isabella Rossellini replies, “Naturalmente – but only in the right light.” Emboldened, I then say, “Now witness the power of this fully armed and operational battle station.” But she spurns me. What am I doing wrong?

You’ve got to know when to walk away, man. Or when to stop talking. Or, in this particular case, when to seek out a licensed therapist.

Q: When Morgan Freeman asked you “can I say [f-bomb]?” during a recent interview, how did it make you feel that he phrased the question in such a way that he had dropped the f-bomb before securing your approval to do so?

If you were to go back and listen to the recording, you can hear the pride and amusement in my voice that he bothered to ask at all. But I like to think that, had I said, ‘No, I’m afraid you can’t,’ he would’ve offered an even more offensive word in its place, then upturned the table and said, ‘Morgan Freeman says [f-bomb] whenever the [f-bomb] Morgan Freeman wants. Now you get the [f-bomb] out … and when you hit the hallway, tell Michael Ausiello to get his ass in here!’

Q: Did you ask him “What’s in the box?” I assumed that question was edited out.

Actually, I asked him, ‘Do you still feel that ‘that reading stuff’ is out of sight?’ (He does, but he doesn’t like to take a public stance on it anymore. Too many publishing companies looking for endorsements, apparently.)

Q: Did Isabella Rossellini happen to mention whether she’s down with men of the, let’s say, “husky” persuasion? Please answer this one.

When I brought it up, her mind immediately went to thoughts of seduction. She even made a video about it.

Q: You have bravely waded into The AV Club comments section. For readers who do not know this online oasis of advanced thought and emotional consideration, please describe the sensation. What protective gear do you wear? Is there a ritual cleansing later?

Actually, I have been very, very lucky for the most part, as far more of my work for the AV Club has been in the field of interviewing rather than criticism, which limits the amount of vitriol spewed in my general direction. In fact, after my first interview (“Random Roles with Peter Gallagher“), one of the commenters wrote, ‘The comments above are all, like, sincere and shit. What’s going on here today?’ I’m as surprised as anyone that the readership has embraced me as quickly as they have, but I’m confident that I will somehow cause them to turn on me before long.

Q: What can we as a culture do to fight the spread of memes?

Stop being so damned creative. Creativity has always been humanity’s downfall.

Q: You sometimes string for our local newspaper, The Virginian-Pilot. When you force The Pilot to pay a fee to purchase the supple fruit of your freelance journalism, do you ever feel guilty for reducing the available pot of money for executive bonuses?

In my scrapbook, I still keep a letter I received from E.F. Rogers, Jr., The Virginian-Pilot’s Assistant Managing Editor, Recruiting/Personnel, dated December 31, 1990. ‘This is to acknowledge receipt of your application for a summer internship on The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star,’ wrote Rogers. ‘Interns will be selected in January. If you are selected, we will be back in touch.’ The fact that Rogers did not, in fact, get back in touch with me handily assuages any guilt I may feel about reducing the available pot of money for executive bonuses. If they’d only brought me into the fold as a full-timer when they had the chance, they certainly could’ve cut me by now, thereby adding more funds to the coffers.

Q: Did you happen to get Isabella Rossellini’s phone number? For the purposes of fact-checking, I mean.

Sadly, we were connected by a publicist, so she herself did not call in. I say ‘sadly,’ but for Ms. Rossellini, this is probably a blessing.

Q: When you ask a subject such as Larry the Cable Guy whether they appeal to the lowest common denominator, do you have to define the word denominator?

It’s so tempting to mock ol’ Larry, but the truth of the matter is that he was an incredibly nice guy, and he liked me enough to discuss something he’d never been of a mind to talk about in the press before. I mean, it’s a shame he went and wasted such great material on a little ol’ blog like mine, but I still feel a certain allegiance to him for having done so, especially given that I once completely tore Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector a new one. (Funny how it never occurred to me to bring that up during our conversation … )

Q: When you use the word denominator in front of subject such as David Cross, do you look up what it means before hand, just in case he wants to challenge your understanding of the word’s meanings?

I always have Dictionary.com at the ready, just to be on the safe side.

Q: Mad Men has returned. It is quite popular. Why are they still so mad?

Oh, that’s just the lung cancer and liver damage talking. They’re really a swell bunch of fellas.

Q: If you did indeed write down Isabella Rossellini’s phone number, where do you keep it? I’m thinking an address book in the center desk drawer. Of course, that might be the decoy address book. You’re a clever one, Will Harris.

If you truly believe that I have the budget to afford a desk with drawers, John-Henry Doucette, then I don’t think you really know me at all.

Q: Has a certain series of questions in this Q&A effectively furthered the popular notion that a certain actress is a desirable person or merely slapped around a dead horse through repetition? How do both of those techniques – identifying a referent of a cultural perception and engaging in reaffirmation of the referent – fit into writing about pop culture?

Fact: Isabella Rossellini is endlessly charming … or, at least, she was during the 15 minutes she was chatting with me. But, then, she is an outstanding actress. As for repetition in the field of pop culture, I always return to the Simpsons scene where Sideshow Bob steps on a seemingly endless number of rakes, each one smacking him in the face, each time instigating a low grumble. It’s funny at first, then it isn’t anymore, and then all of a sudden it gets funny again. This doesn’t translate to everything in pop culture, of course, but it works on a surprising number of things. Like, say, this Isabelli Rossellini gag.

Q: Seriously, you find that number, I’m sure she’ll be cool with you passing it along.

See, now the joke isn’t funny anymore. Remember what I said about knowing when to walk away? This would’ve been one of those occasions.

Q: We’ve covered so much ground. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Did I mention that I once interviewed Isabella Rossellini?  (I’m not sure, but I think the fact that I’m bringing it up this time makes it funny again. If so, you’re welcome.)

Beyond that, I’ll just say that I appreciate your appreciation of my work, and I hope that my ridiculous obsession with doing research in advance of my interviews continues to pay off both for myself and the people who seem to like the pieces that result from these conversations.

To read more Belligerent Q&As, click on this link.

The Stooges plays us out. Sometimes we’re all just the world’s forgotten boy.

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The year in review, such as it was


PORTSMOUTH, Va. — This blog is a year old.

I’ve enjoyed writing it. Enjoyed interviewing folks for it. Learned about writing and art and some other stuff too while doing it.

Et cetera.

So thanks for reading, especially those of you who stuck with it from early on — and even those who just check in for a particular writer or two. Glad to have you, either through your comments, clicks, subscriptions, or just eyeballs.

This past year, I think I’ve figured out a mix that seems to work for this blog. So here’s what I’ve got planned (loosely, oh so loosely) for the year ahead:

  1. The (and this is so very relatively speaking) popular features — the Belligerent Q&As and Craft Q&As — will remain, especially since that’s why I started the blog in the first place. I’ll try to do Craft Q&As, as time allows, though they generally take a long time to transcribe and edit. I have a couple of people in mind, though.
  2. There will be a second fortune cookie fortune writing contest, most likely to be announced in the very near future and judged in the summertime. I’ll make more of an effort to include visual artists, a shortcoming of last year’s event. There will be prizes to be determined, and a display of winner at a Hampton Roads area venue to be determined. Kerouac Cafe. as locals know, is out.
  3. The HR Arts Events page will stay, and I’ll try to be better about updating it. If you want to post an event, email jhdouc@verizon.net. I’d like to reflect more events at Norfolk State University, Virginia Wesleyan College, and Tidewater Community College. I realize I’ve been a bit Old Dominion University-centric.
  4. I’m full of good intentions, but follow through sometimes eludes me.

Thank you again for reading this blog. I’ve learned a lot about writing through the conversations I’ve transcribed here and you emails and comments. I look forward to the year ahead — and maybe even past the terrible twos.

Here’s a look back at the most popular posts, not counting those involving the contest, including a few you might have missed. The blog had more than 10,000 hits (including oddball WordPressy spam!) this past year. These posts had the biggest share:

  1. Belligerent Q&A, Vol. VIII: Earl Swift, author of The Big Roads
  2. Twelve Journalism Truths by William Ruehlmann
  3. Belligerent Q&A, Vol. V: Three people who have not seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail + one who has
  4. Belligerent Q&A, Vol. VI: Columnist Mike Gruss of The Virginian-Pilot
  5. Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XV: C0mmentator and opinion writer Brian Kirwin
  6. Selective Facts in the NPD version of John Kohn’s death
  7. Journalism: Q&A with Frank Batten Sr. biographer Connie Sage
  8. Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XVI: Hairspray author and scholar Dana Heller
  9. Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XI: Writer and editor Tom Robotham
  10. Belligerent Q&A, Vol. IX: Wanderlust playwrights Jeremiah Albers and Brad McMurran

So the focus here is local arts, but if anybody knows of a writer who might be good for a feature here, please email jhdouc@verizon.net.

Thanks for reading. Happy holidays. See you soon.

Closing this post, a special shout out to director Peter Jackson, because this exists at my local drug store:

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John McManus’ “Mr. Gas” is on AltDaily, which is more awesome than John McManus is letting on


NORFOLK, Va. — Geez, I step away from my computer for a few days and miss something cool. That’ll learn me. It’s you and me from now on, computer.

You see, Norfolk writer John McManus, featured here in a very funny Belligerent Q&A and a Craft Talk earlier in the year, published his fine story “Mr Gas” this past Friday at AltDaily in place of his normal edition of If Your Read the Paper, which I have praised on the pages of the Interweb.

Additionally, it just happens that “Mr. Gas” is the very story I choose to ask him about when we did our craft talk, because I love it, though McManus opens the AltDaily post with a humble “editor’s note” he actually wrote himself:

Because John is en route to South Africa today, he can’t write If You Read the Paper. He left yesterday and lands in Cape Town tonight, where he’ll spend ten days visiting a friend and researching a novel. During his layover in Amsterdam he sent us one of his old short stories instead, as we urged him to consider doing. It’s called “Mr. Gas,” from his 2003 collection Born on a Train. He wrote “Mr. Gas” when he was twenty-two and knew virtually nothing, so he prefers that you not read beyond the end of this editorial note, which he also wrote. He doesn’t usually talk about himself in the third person. He is probably jetlagged and confused.

This is called underselling, you see. There’s a lot in it for writers and readers to discover. Please visit AltDaily and enjoy.

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XVI: Hairspray author and scholar Dana Heller


Hi John: Look, when you take out this placeholder text and put in the real cutline in don’t forget to make it extra funny. For Pete’s sake, Dana Heller is chair of the English Department at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., where you are a student. And she’s the author of a book about the John Waters film Hairspray, and Waters totally is coming to ODU on Thursday. Don’t phone this one in. Bring the funny. Your pal, John. PS: Courtesy photo.

NORFOLK, Va. — Dana Heller is chair of the Old Dominion University English department and a professor whose scholarly work has tackled a wide range of subjects. Her most recent book is Hairspray, which discusses the significance of the 1988 film by John Waters. She considers it his most subversive movie.

Also, she is awesome.

Waters, as you should know, is a noted filmmaker, writer, visual artist, and, according to the good people who put such things on Wikipedia, one of the “notable persons who have worn pencil mustaches.”

Additionally, Waters remains the longest-serving Secretary of the U.S. Department of Not Quirky or Cute Camp But the Awesome Kind that Scares You Way Deep Down Where Your Real Dreams Are, also known as HUD. Okay, that last bit is not true but someone please get on that.

Say, maybe you should run it by him yourself. Waters will give a lecture called “This Filthy World” as part of the ODU Presents series at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 10, at Webb University Center, 1301 49th Street, Norfolk. Admission is free but there’s limited seating, so RSVP via (757) 683-3116 or visit the University Events page via this link.

I recently finished Heller’s book, which is terrific. Highly recommended. As always, I should disclose that I am a graduate student at ODU. In addition to being a beautiful, beautiful man.

Heller engaged in this Belligerent Q&A via email. There is some brief adult language below. Which probably is why you’re here.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

Me? Well, if you must know, I am ODU’s resident champion of all things considered ‘bad taste.’ I’m not sure how it came to this, but I probably have only myself to blame for writing about cultural phenomena such as:

  1. Russian pop music
  2. Reality TV
  3. John Waters movies

There are worse ways to make a living.

Q: Your most recent book is an examination of Hairspray, the Waters film in which “the PG family movie meets the midnight cult film.” You note that Waters “made a PG-rated teenpic that encourages interracial dating and champions a family in which both parents are men.” Why did you omit the awesome part where Debby Harry pops Colleen Fitzpatrick’s zit? Does it blow apart your thesis?

No, in fact the zit-popping scene unequivocally proves my thesis that Hairspray is a teenpic posing as a civil rights comedy. I had an entire chapter on the zit scene but my editor cut it. Wait a minute. Were you making a pun?

Q: You’ve called John Waters a National Treasure. How will Nicholas Cage, reprising his role as Ben Gates, go about trying to rescue Waters from the clutches of the Illuminati while dispensing justice, thrills, and exposition?

By becoming a drag queen (code name: Bertha Venation), who bears an uncanny resemblance to Michaele Salahi, Cage will manage to penetrate into the darkest recesses of the Illuminati’s base station, located inside a Starbucks in a mall in East Baltimore.

Q: You edited the book Makeover Television: Realities Remodeled. It’s always fascinated me that people are willing to expose their insecurities and pain so publicly, however superficial the consumerist, conformist “solutions” offered by makeovers that, like Debby Harry snapping on a rubber glove to pop her daughter’s zit, seem to say, “Lie down. Mother is here.” I thought about that kind of superficial transformative process of such shows while I read Hairspray, because there are transformations represented in Waters’ films but also his films, generally speaking, seem to have transformed over his career from work that has a kind of mission to shock into work that, as in the film Hairspray, shows both communal and individual transformation toward acceptance and power. Indeed, his film creates its subversion by recreating and altering a television program and later adaptations seem to pander to “makeover” culture. What do I mean by the things I just typed?

It means the drugs are kicking in. Relax. Go with it.

Q: You write compellingly about how Hairspray “is the most subversive film that John Waters ever made, and possibly one of the most subversive popular comedy comedies ever made by an American filmmaker,” in part, because of Waters’ “representation of the unruly body.” And you mean subversive in the sense that it “transforms the cultural codes to which it ostensibly adheres.” When we think about the adaptation of the musical to film, does putting a straight actor (and one of a faith whose founder viewed being gay as a perversion) in a role created and recreated by gay men diminish some of force of the subversion Waters achieves in his film? A bit more widely, have the adaptations changed the legacy of the original film?

Every adaptation of an art work changes the meaning of the original in some way. But if I’m reading you right, you are referring here to John Travolta’s casting as Edna Turnblad and his affiliation with the Church of Scientology. That was a controversial decision, no doubt. And the director of the film, Adam Shankman (who is gay himself), got slammed in the LGBTQ press for casting Travolta, who persistently denied that Hairspray was a ‘gay’ film. What Travolta and Shankman failed to recognize is that LGBTQ audiences tend to feel and project a strong sense of ownership over certain cultural properties, and Hairspray is one of them, not simply because Waters is gay but because Edna had (until Travolta) always been played by openly gay performers (Divine and Harvey Fierstein). But I think that Travolta’s casting was a brilliant marketing strategy that helped rebrand Hairspray as a family-friendly film that could appeal to kids (Zack Effron) and their parents, who would have remembered Travolta from an earlier dance film, Saturday Night Fever.

Q: You note that Waters, as he said in a TV interview, makes comedies that “wink” at the audience. When art winks at us, how do you suggest consumers of such art – including those of us who want to make some of our own – return the favor and wink back?

By rewriting the comedies we love in our own creative idioms. We wink back by imitating (or stealing, if you will) from the artists who inspire us to make our own art.

Q: What is camp? If I was camp would I know it, or would I just want other people to know it with me?

Camp is ‘the lie that tells the truth’ (Philip Core). It ‘sees everything in quotation marks’ (Susan Sontag). And if ‘you’ were ‘camp,’ you really would not give a ‘crap’ what ‘other people’ ‘know’ or ‘don’t know.’

Q: Growing up, camp was where I learned exciting truths to hide from my parents. Am I on the right track?

If one of those truths has to do with popping zits so that they make a loud, splooshy sound, yes, you are on the right track.

Q: Does Nicholas Cage know what camp is?

Does the Pope?

Q: In your book Hairspray, you address racial representation as an area in which the film might rightfully be criticized. As in other Hollywood films, this is a Civil Rights movement story told through the eyes of and, in part, resolved through the agency of white characters. Did you ask him about that issue? What are your thoughts?

I did ask Waters about this, and he was quick to say that Hairspray is ‘a white man’s memory of civil rights.’ Waters admitted that he was worried about the racial politics of the film before it was released because he wasn’t sure if audiences were ready for it. But they were, they embraced it.  And I think that’s because the film creates a coalition of outsiders who band together to fight for a common freedom — to be part of the great television dance show that is American history.

There is no question that Hairspray romanticizes white people’s fantasies of blackness and racial otherness. But the film simultaneously pokes fun at those fantasies.  At one point, Tracy wishes that she and her boyfriend, Link, had dark skin.  They long to be part of a culture that they see as sexy and much cooler than white culture, and their wish is genuine yet at the same time satirical. The critic, bell hooks, sums this up nicely when she argues that ‘Hairspray is nearly unique in its attempt to construct a fictive universe where white working class ‘undesirables’ are in solidarity with black people. When Traci [sic] says she wants to be black, blackness becomes a metaphor for freedom, an end to boundaries.’

Q: In one of the most compelling passages in the book, you assert: “(W)e live in a culture of powerlessness.” I want to disagree, but what gives me the right? Discuss.

You have the right, but you refuse to take it. In my book, I explain this through an anecdote: A teacher once asked his students to form a line, beginning with the most powerful student in the class and ending with the least powerful. The teacher was then surprised to see that rather than arguing over who would be first in line, the students all ran to the back of the line. None of them, apparently, either felt they had power or were willing to admit it. A struggle for power occurred over the question of who would get to occupy the position of least powerful.

The anecdote affirms something that is admittedly tough to prove or disprove. But it is something that I have long suspected, although I acknowledge the tentative nature of my suspicion: we live in a culture of powerlessness. We believe in our powerlessness, and we reiterate this belief in the countless ways that we submit ourselves to state agencies, religious institutions, medical experts, advice and lifestyle gurus, intellectual authorities, and consumer appeals. No matter what our personal politics, no matter what our profession, social class, race, religion, sexuality, ability, age, ethnicity, or gender, we live in a culture that thrives — economically and ideologically — on the sublime fantasy of righteous disenfranchisement.

In this fantasy, those who possess and exercise power are evil and corrupt. Those who stand outside of it are morally and spiritually superior. The conventional narrative form this fantasy takes, or variations of it can be found in all arenas of cultural production, but nowhere is it portioned out more generously and reliably than in the realm we know as popular culture.

Q: When Waters comes to Norfolk, will you take him to Harbor Park and say, “See, it’s like our own little Camden Yards,” and then sigh, look down at the ground, and become lost in a moment of reflection before so recovering: “And over there is the highway to the Beach, see?”

I don’t see this happening, although it’s a sweet scene in someone else’s movie.

Rather, I picture us at lunch, No Frill Grill, perhaps. He orders the Reuben, me the Spotswood Salad.

‘I’d like a Diet Coke,’ he tells the waiter.

There’s a moment as we both silently wonder whether or not the waiter recognizes him. But there’s something weightier on our minds, something we must talk about, although neither of us wants to be the first to bring it up.

‘I don’t know how to ask this,” I begin, tentatively.

‘Go ahead,’ he encourages.

‘Ok, do you think Rikki Lake stands a chance of beating JR on Dancing With the Stars?’

And then we talk, and talk, and talk for hours.

Q: Could you talk briefly about how this project came together? Would you have written this without the opportunity to interview Waters?

A few years back, Diane Negra launched a new series at Wiley-Blackwell on popular films and television series that don’t get taken very seriously by the academy. This was a book series custom-made for someone like me. She cornered me at a conference and asked me to write something. So I decided to test her by proposing a book on a film that most would consider wholly unsuitable for scholarly purposes. And she loved it. So then I had to write it. But the fact is that  I would have written it anyway, eventually, even if Mr. Waters had not responded to my interview request. Because as difficult as it is to believe, nobody has ever written a scholarly book on ANY of John Waters’ films. And somebody had to do it. Why not me?

Q: We’ve covered so much ground. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

One of my favorite Waters quotes: ‘We need to make books sexy again. If you go home with someone and they don’t have any books, don’t fuck them.’

Roger that.

Playing us out is Debby Harry. Poor lip-synching is a must for any respectable Blondie video, but this is some unusually poor drum-synching. But that’s okay. We are not here to judge, but to enjoy. Please put on your beret before viewing, and remember to arbitrarily remove it before the second verse.

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XV: Commentator and opinion writer Brian Kirwin


Sometimes a cutline is just a cutline. Sometimes it sets up a really obscure callback. Put the glasses on, Brian Kirwin! Put 'em on! Courtesy photo.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Beach-based opinion writer Brian Kirwin contributes to Bearing Drift and The Daily Press newspaper. He’s worked extensively as a political consultant. He often comments on public affairs matters through various forms of media. He works in public relations. He serves on the Beach’s Arts and Humanities Commission, too. And the man acts.

So he’s a sextuple threat — at least, he is if you only count things listed in the preceding sentences. There may be more, but that’s okay. As you will see, sometimes in America we make our own math.

By the way, Kirwin is a conservative. Who knows? Maybe that will come up.

Any more of an introduction to this Belligerent Q&A will only delay the pleasure.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

I used to be that kid in the classroom who never got in trouble, but instigated everything. I’d talk to my ‘neighbor’ in class, then as soon as the teacher looked my way, I’d have this studious look on my face and another kid was talking back to me or laughing. Being that the teacher was usually a nun, the kid got his lights knocked out.

Today, I try my very best to be the same instigator I was when I was six. I’ll be on a conference call with several vaunted Republican leaders, and say the one thing that they usually don’t want to admit. I’ll meet with my Democrat friends, who invariably tell me how every time they say they know me, their friends get either sickened or angry.

I also do a fair amount of acting, and my agent usually books roles for me where I, with a fair amount of snark, tick off the whole audience. Life imitates art, ya know.

Q: You suggested that former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine run for the U.S. Senate on the slogan “A Do-nothing Governor for the Do-nothing Senate.” This recommendation seems insincere. Discuss.

Anytime I say something nice about a Democrat, it’s insincere. Democrats have ruined the country. They can’t have a decent talk radio show. Their newspapers are so ineffectual I think birds will start boycotting them soon, which could get messy. Democrats are the party of failure. They assume nothing good can happen in America unless dictated by government. Kaine failed at all his attempts to do stupid things as Governor, and the Senate has accomplished a big fat zero, so they do seem to have a lot in common. I do think the EPA may issue a mandate to Kaine to trim his eyebrows, though. The courts might just uphold that.

Q: Of the various kinds of opinion you write, I most enjoy the “round up” style “Kirwin’s Commentaries,” which give you a chance to riff on everything from the lack of conservative voices on public affairs programming (back when we had such things) to the flawed restaurant math of a half-pound containing 15 shrimp and a pound containing 25. Could you talk about that form and how it’s a different writing process that with longer opinion columns, if so?

Admit it – you love everything I write. It’s OK. My stuff is legendary and fun. Longer opinion columns are a like writing a symphony. You have to have several movements which build along the way to the finale. I write columns that way, usually in sections. Then tie some thematic threads through it and punch it up with a healthy dose of sarcasm.

Commentaries are like writing a song. All I need is a catchy hook, like a healthy dose of sarcasm. I look at something – a story, an experience, another column – and zing. The commentaries are a collection of ironic zings – a hat tip to Andy Rooney, if you will.

Q: When you’ve had 15 shrimp, are you really sitting there going, “You know what would hit the spot — maybe, 15 more shrimp?” Wouldn’t 10 cover it?

I think it’s pretty ironic to have a large number of something called a ‘shrimp.’ Besides, I’m a Republican. A Democrat would sit there and decide what a ‘fair share’ of shrimp I should have. How dare I have 15 shrimp when they think 10 should be all I’d really need. There are some homeless people in Chicago who don’t have any shrimp at all, probably because that deep dish pizza is all the rage. Anyway, I don’t need Obama’s socialist dictates about how many shrimp I should eat, or anyone else’s for that matter. This is America. If I want to eat 100 shrimp and go to bed smelling like Old Bay, I dare someone to tell me I shouldn’t. They’d probably accuse me of clinging to my shrimp.

Q: Do you have any thoughts about the apparent deep political polarity in America? Are we turning into the last two sections of The Stand?

Figures you’d look to liberal Stephen King for political theory and analysis. I think there are much better Stephen King books to look to for politics. Like The Shining – The ‘Overlook’ Hotel as a metaphor for the federal government, whose boiler explodes because we hired an incompetent caretaker – Hi, Barack! Or Carrie – the liberal’s fantasy about what religious people are really like and that they’re one bad prom from taking out an entire town. The Stand is pretty much junk, although it’s somewhat amusing seeing liberal fantasies play out. Liberals like stories of massive self-imposed destruction. Like Obamacare.

Q: If it comes down to it, where should we head? Boulder, Colo., or Las Vegas? I mean, that Randall Flagg fellow is awfully charismatic.

You lefties fall for charisma too easily. Instead of being a follower, try being a leader for once. You’ll be surprised how much fun it is forging your own future than trying to find the right idiot to tell you what to do.

Q: You are a contributor to Bearing Drift, which recently announced its merger with Virginia Line Media. When I spoke with Jim Hoeft, he suggested some exciting possibilities for expansion and new ventures. What are some things you would like to see Bearing Drift do that it isn’t already doing? And when you guys inevitably do a sitcom, starring you of course, what’s the premise you’ll pitch?

There already are some good political sitcoms now that they stream the Democratic Virginia Senate online. I actually think sitcoms are pretty lackluster lately. It’s a half hour of dramatic standup. If we could do some throwback sitcoms that actually had some storytelling, in the tradition of All in the Family or Good Times, then we’d have something.

Actually, I think Bearing Drift needs a conservative version of Saturday Night Live. Skit comedy is the way to go. Maybe the liberals will pass the fairness doctrine and NBC would have to program us.

Q: Can I play the weird relative who drops in a lot but isn’t allowed to handle sharp things, use the stove, or control the TV remote?

I always pegged you as the guy who needed to include his middle name to make up for some deep-seeded insecurity. You can have the tv remote anyway, since all these networks are showing pretty useless stuff that don’t have much creativity anyway. I’ll pop in a DVD and watch you hopelessly try to change the channel for a few hours. Remember, relatives aren’t weird. Just in-laws.

Q: What do you think it says that we live in a country in which many people who have just eaten 15 shrimp can pretty much go ahead and eat 15 more shrimp? Or at least 10, depending upon the accuracy of the scales/mathematical acumen employed within a given shrimp-dispensing restaurant?

I fear for a world when the person calculating the bill can’t do simple math. I wish we lived in a country that didn’t bother to count your shrimp in the first place. We regulate way too much. We tell fishermen how much to catch. We tell Detroit what a car should weigh, and now we have cars that get totaled if you lean on them with the wrong kind of boots on. We tell toilet makers how much water a flush should be. We have so many regulations that it takes 18 years to build a four-mile road. One-hundred fifty years ago, it only took six years to build a nationwide railroad. Liberals hyper-regulate everything, and I’m pretty sick of it being so much of a pain in the neck to accomplish anything. My dream is to have a country that couldn’t care less how many shrimp I have.

Q: A concern I have from both my brief time as newspaper columnist and in reading some of the opinion voiced via local media is that compromise and the art of finding common ground do not seem to be valued. When you write for Bearing Drift or The Daily Press, do you feel you are preaching to the choir, meaning appealing primarily to conservatives, or do you hope to reach a wider range of people and influence them? Is that why you agreed to do The Daily Press gig?

Now that you mention it, your newspaper column career was pretty brief. I accepted The Daily Press gig because they asked. I love writing. I love entertaining. I couldn’t care less if I influence anyone, although if people are influenced by me, kudos to them. They’ve shown remarkable intellect. As far as preaching to the choir, every choir has its fair share of sinners. I’d write for The Washington Post if it meant I’d have legions of lefties ticked off at my spotlight on their silliness. If The Daily Press was really smart, they’d syndicate me. But some of their own scribes have dreams of being like me, so I doubt they’ll make the good business decision to do that and instead stay up late at night trying to be like me. And they’ll fail again.

Q: This past summer you criticized a fairly low-key editorial by The Virginian-Pilot noting the amount of energy consumed by the boxes people use to record television programs, even when said boxes are supposedly turned off. How do you get from that to “that’s the trouble with these liberal ninnies” and “I’m tired of these effete snobs telling free people what they should and shouldn’t do” and “I’m going to stick my carbon footprint up their tree-hugging butts”? It seems that you’re criticizing an editorial that ultimately suggests not regulation but moderation.

All The Pilot’s editorials are low-key, low-intellect and have low-readership. Criticizing them is like hunting in a private reserve. Easy! To your point, the first step to regulation is whining about moderation. First liberals tell you what they think you should do. Then when you don’t do it, they move to force you to do it anyway. Newspaper folk never criticize people who use tons of paper resulting in the loss of so many trees, do they? But they whine about electricity that powers their media competition. There are so many inconsistencies in the liberal’s management of everyone else’s lives that I think the clearest response is ‘mind your own freakin’ business.’ If I want to eat a cheeseburger while watching three TVs and surfing my laptop, go curl up in a corner with your tofu, bottled water and a book. I won’t bother you. Don’t bother me.

Q: In August you lauded the The Virginian-Pilot editorial page for being three “right three times in a row.” In retrospect, do you feel you should have put a little more backhand into that compliment?

Actually, I graded them on a curve. They were more ‘not wrong’ than they were ‘right,’ but it was so much better than their usual level of ‘so wrong that it’s silly to even address’ that I felt they needed some positive feedback. I am a uniter, ya know.

Q: A bit more seriously, could you talk a little about your day job and your passion for acting? People don’t usually just take up these activities/vocations or enter the political arena accidentally. There’s meaning to it for them. What is it you like about these forms of communication and self-expression? How do they inform your writing?

I love provoking emotional responses. Watch some old promos from Rowdy Roddy Piper and you’ll learn a great deal about me. I was a wrestling geek as a kid, and it amazed me to no end how a person could infuriate thousands of people so well that they’d buy tickets to see them get the tar beat out of them. Acting provides that in a big way, and so does political talk and writing. The real secret is not to act. Just be an amplified version of your reality. People who fake it won’t succeed. This is the real me at a high volume. That’s why it works.

Q: If Kaine continues to avoid your fine slogan, may I incorporate it into my “replacing U.S. Sen. Jim Webb” fan fiction? Still working out the plot, but it will be like a Gogol short story with anthropomorphic disembodied eyebrows battling a walking football metaphor. Working title — The Fourth & Long Follicle.

Just cite your source. But please publish it before my daughter has grandchildren.

Q: A number of interest groups have taken to asking candidates to sign pledges vowing that they will or won’t do this or that should they be elected to office. Is there any value to this? Though you are not running for anything, will you sign my pledge that affirms good government is a practice that is situational and may involve compromise?

Why don’t you say ‘all campaign promises are lies, and once I’m in office, I’ll do whatever the hell I want, and you’ll like it.’ Same thing as calling everything situational and compromising. Your way, we wouldn’t have any need for campaigns at all. Why bother if whatever they say is subject to change based on the situation? Your path would result in the downfall of the nation. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if politicians just told the truth and voters could actually believe them?

Q: How about the pledge to make the laws of math apply to shrimp per pound?

Just don’t tip idiots. Problem solved.

Q: We’ve covered so much ground here. Is there anything else you would like to say?

Just a few Piper quotes:

  • ‘Don’t throw rocks at a guy whose got a machine gun.’
  • ‘When you were young did your mommy and daddy place the swing too close to the wall?’
  • ‘Just when they think they got all the answers, I change the questions.’

Playing us out is Rowdy Roddy Piper, in two parts.

First: A heart to heart with Andre the Giant:

And now, from John Carpenter’s awesome They Live, the greatest cinematic fight ever (with Keith David!). Was Ralph Waldo Emerson predicting this fight scene when he wrote “there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning” in 1841?

Most assuredly.

Also, most assuredly, this is not safe for work due to rough language and just a wee bit of pummeling:

Put ’em on!

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XIV: CORE Theatre Ensemble


NORFOLK, Va. — CORE Theatre Ensemble, founded by alumni of Old Dominion University’s theater department, has a new show, 40 Whacks, opening this coming week at the Little Theatre of Norfolk.

It is, you might say, a family drama.

With axe murdering.

40 Whacks is based on the murders allegedly committed by Lizzie Borden of her stepmother and father in Fall River, Mass. Though she was acquitted, the case continues to remain a part of American folklore. There have been a series of adaptations (including a musical), a museum in Salem, Mass., and a bed and breakfast bearing the Borden family name at the site of the murders.

The B&B gift shop even sells a Lizzie Borden bobble head. So, you know, break out those credit cards.

40Whacks runs for only three performances. Showtimes are at 8 p.m., running from Friday, Oct. 14, to Sunday, Oct. 16, at Little Theatre of Norfolk, 801 Claremont Ave., Norfolk. Tickets are $15 for general admission; $12 for senior citizens, students, and active duty or retired military; and $8 for kids 17 and under. The play contains unsettling images and some sexual content. Reservations are via (757) 627-8551 or at the Little Theatre site.

In an email, CORE offered:

It’s a lot darker than The Yellow Wallpaper and definitely not as light as our last production You Vs.

The company practices the Suzuki Method of Actor Training and the Viewpoints improvisation system. They’ve been involved in traveling shows, workshops and collaboration with college and non-college theater students around the world.

Past shows include The Poe (n. proj-ekt), Duranged (Christopher Durang one-acts), and their excellent adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper. Other productions include Frankenstein, The Threepenny Opera, and You Vs.

The members of CORE are Emel Ertugrul, managing director, artistic associate and actor; Edwin Castillo, Suzuki/Viewpoints training instructor, artistic associate and actor; Laura Agudelo, Suzuki/Viewpoints training assistant, artistic associate and actor; and Nancy Dickerson, artistic associate and actor.

The Yellow Wallpaper is one of the best plays I’ve seen around here, and I greatly enjoyed You Vs. earlier this year. We recently traded email for this Belligerent Q&A.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

We are:

  1. Students. In every production we create, we learn from each other as well as our casts as to what makes good theatre. Theatre that doesn’t bore us or make us wish we were somewhere else. We don’t pretend to know all the answers when we collaborate on new projects. We use our casts to help us understand how each production works. There is always so much to learn from another human being. It’s artistic conversation.
  2. Teachers. What we’ve learned over the years with our actor training and experiencing theatre outside of the U.S. Is that we strive to instill a sense of discipline and commitment in everyone involved with our shows, both onstage and backstage. Sometimes it’s easy to think that acting and theatre is ‘fun.’  Which it is and can be a lot of times — but it’s also hard work. It’s a craft. It’s something that needs to be developed and questioned.
  3. Harsh critics. Of our own works and others’.

Q: Is the Suzuki method the one in which you slap around some smart guy right out of the gate so the rest of the mugs in your crew lay off their damned shenanigans and focus on the one last job you got to do so the Big Man will let you out of the life once and for all and you can finally go straight with your best gal, Sheila, maybe somewhere warm like Costa Rica? Or is that the other Suzuki method with the violins?

Yes it is … the first one. In a weird way, yes, that’s exactly what it is.

The second one is also true, but we don’t know anything about violins.

Q: Castillo, you’re a love struck shoe salesman enamored with a walk-in customer seeking pumps. Agudelo, you’ve seen worse looking men, but you’re really just there for the pumps. Ertugrul, you’re the shoelace supervisor carrying a torch for Castillo, but he hardly seems to notice you – even when you try to lace up Agudelo’s non-lacing pumps. Action, CORE Theatre Ensemble. Action.

Black stage.

A blowtorch is lit by Ertugrul. Its light reveals Agudelo who is holding a broken bicycle pump.  Castillo is revealed, holding a sock and gently weeping.

Ensemble (whispered):  This is not a shoe store.

Blackout.

Q: A life in the theater – why? To very loosely paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, aren’t you really just trying to hurt your parents?

It’s easy to be boring and a lot of other things in life are just that.

Mom and dad didn’t raise boring.

Q: Your new production, 40 Whacks, is based upon the case of Lizzie Borden. After your research, writing and rehearsal, where did you come down on the hot-button issue of axe-murdering?

 Two pro, two con — so you’ve really got a 50/50 chance of knowing what we’re thinking about whilst in conversation.

Q: Often a new work is made by a key line that captures the essence of the greater work, and drives it, oh so fiercely, into the audience’s collective ribcage. Presumably someone in the play has a line such as, “It’s cleavin’ time!” or “I’m gonna axe murder you so fast you won’t know what hit you; at this point you should understand that it will be an axe that hit you.” or “Heeeeeeeere’s Lizzie!” Were there any other lines that didn’t make the cut?

‘You can’t ax in here! This is the sitting room!’

‘Can’t get the candles today, Brendonna.’

‘Poor girl looks as if she’s been raised on promises’

‘That’s gotta hurt.’

‘Are you there god? It’s me Lizzie.’

Q: We’ve covered so much ground here. What else would you like to say?

There’s always more.  No matter what, there’s always more.

In honor of Fall River, the New England setting of the Borden murders, I am proud to present the following video.

There are many things to say about this video.

  1. Due to a very unfortunate editing decision early in the video, it is not safe for work.
  2. It does actually exist.
  3. Somewhere in New England, a place I like to think of as the Greater Rhode Island Metropolitan Environment (GRIME), the people who made this video are probably planning sequels.
  4. The decision to mix social commentary, quasi-sexual patter, and warmed-over Chamber of Commerce messages was somehow brave.

Remember: The city, they’ve been fixing all the cracks in the pavement.

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XIII: Plan B sketch comedy and improv


NORFOLK, Va. — Over the past couple of months, I’ve spent a good bit of time speaking about writing and creating comedy with people who are a lot funnier than me. I have found this process to be both invigorating and humbling — like sex, but with a greater percentage of intentional laughs.

Today a few members of Plan B, a Hampton Roads sketch comedy and improv group, will be represented here in a Belligerent Q&A. I’m not going to lie to you — there is some adult language below, so be warned. Also, whatever they say, I still dig light rail.

Plan B this weekend presents The Big Show, an improv, sketch and multimedia comedy performance. The event is scheduled for 9 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 1, at Naro Expanded Cinema, 1507 Colley Ave., Norfolk.

You can find information at this Facebook link or call (757) 625-6276. Tickets are $10, or $15 for tickets and a shirt. There is surface lot parking behind the Naro between Spotswood and Shirley avenues and some nearby street parking.

Two Plan B members, Jason Kypros and Rob Wilson, also sat down with me recently for a long craft talk, which will run at a later date I totally will figure out like really soon and stuff. It’s quite the well oiled machine around here, let me tell you.

In addition to an upcoming show, the members of Plan B have names, such as Beatty Barnes, Brendan Hoyle, Nikki Hudgins, Garney Johnson, Kypros, Lauren Rodgers, Keven Schreiber, Jim Seward and Wilson.

I hope you’ll check them out.

And remember to take care of your feet. Also, the lower legs and ankles. What do I mean with the random foot care references? I’m setting up what the funny folk call a “call back.” Do you have to ruin everything, Imaginary Mom?

The following answers, unless otherwise noted, came from Kypros.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

  1. The White Buffalo
  2. The fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse
  3. Big Debbie (Little Debbie’s sister – the one that taught her all the recipes)

Q: What was Plan A? (Please don’t all of you say podiatry.)

Sorry to disappoint … Podiatry.

Q: Presumably, you let Hampton Roads Transit take a pass on the scripts for your light rail videos. What were some of their notes?

Rob here.

Of course we talked to HRT and they had some very insightful and funny notes on that script. In fact they actually wrote all of Jason’s dialogue. That’s why in that sketch my character sounds like a sensible human being and Jason’s sounds like a behind-schedule, over-budget murder machine that will never be allowed in Virginia Beach as long as white people with money have anything to say about it.

Q: For the future comedy writers in the readership, will you please enumerate a few of the catch phrases and setups to avoid?

Jim Seward here.

What are you kidding? Never avoid catchphrases and common setups! Look, the average audience member doesn’t understand intelligent humor. And they don’t know George Carlin from Carrot Top. Be as uncreative as possible so you can relate to as many people as possible. Never try to have an original thought; it’s doomed to fail. People love dick jokes. You can never go wrong with dick jokes. If you’re writing for a black comedian, make sure you talk about how uptight white people are; that always works. If you’re writing for a white comedian, mention how they have good credit, and then make a Hispanic slur and say ‘It doesn’t matter, they can’t hear me, they’re in the kitchen.’ If you’re writing for any other nationality/ethnicity, just have a story about how it was tough for their family to adjust to the United States and then have them talk in a funny accent as they mimic their parents. Gold, I tell you – sure fire gold!  Oh, and puppets. Always have them use puppets. Preferably puppets who can play a musical instrument. Then you can go for minutes and minutes without writing any comedy!

Q: Plan B – there can only be one. How and when will you fight the so-called Plan B Improv of Des Moines, Iowa?

This is Keven.

When? End of the corn harvest season. (Just to be courteous.) How? To the pain. I have a sweet black bandanna I can wear. And a broadsword. And I can speak with either a Scottish or English accent.

Q: Can we do a double bill? I will gladly fight character actor John Doucette, once considered the fastest draw in Hollywood. We’ll see if his reputation holds up, given his 1994 death.

No, we cannot. Although you are a wonderful journalist, I fear that even the cold dead hand of the late great John Doucette may prove to be too swift. (Actually we would love to do the double bill but Legal prevents us from it … we have a non compete clause with the NRA.)

Q: Why aren’t more comedies set at NASA?

Jim Seward here again.

Great question. There should be more comedies set at NASA. You could have the nerdy engineer, the sexy tour guide, the ne’er do well ex-astronaut who hits on all the ladies, the server in the cafeteria who’sa smartass to all the customers. Yep. And then there could be special guests who rotate in and out like the Love Boat – you know, each episode is a different shuttle crew or something. Then when ratings start getting lower, there could be a ‘very special episode’ where the shuttle crew is beloved by everyone and then at the end of the episode they launch and it blows up, and we pan across the faces of all our regular stars as we see the look of shock and horror on each of their faces. Except the smartass waitress. She just exclaims, ‘Eh, they weren’t very good tippers anyway.’ Remember, no tragedy is so bad that you can’t milk it for commercial purposes.

Q: So there’s Plan B and The Pushers and apparently some groups coming out of the classes over at The Muse Writers Center and then other day a guy at the bus station asked me for a topic and gave me two minutes on “directions to the can.” At what point does Hampton Roads reach its improv and sketch comedy saturation point? Should we make a rule – such as saturation is when we have a greater number of improv troupes than we do miles of light rail track?

I know that guy. He kills at The Funny Bone.

Q: When you say this show at the Naro is The Big Show, what are you getting at? How do you think it makes all the other shows feel?

  1. The size of the show.
  2. Skinny and cute.

Q: You comedy style is marked by a give and take between characters in conflict, sometimes portraying a battle between the earnest and the savvy, interlocking sides suddenly joined by circumstance in the congress of verbal and physical structures, mated in a deliriously dirty dance until reversals pile against reversals, recasting perspectives, erupting in a moment of truth, a single comedic beacon illuminating the dim bay of human understanding. What does that mean, what I just typed?

This is Keven.

It means we regularly rock faces off. It also means we should probably take a shower after doing dirty mating dances. Especially me. For obvious reasons.

Q: You are known, in part, for the marketing campaign behind Kypros Ouzo. I often enjoy ouzo in the privacy of a darkened bathroom, drinking it neat until the voices leave me alone with my shame. Do you have any other serving suggestions?

Yes.  Once, on the summit of Everest, after an arduous yet liberating climb.  I enjoyed a refreshing glass of Kypros Ouzo with Vladimir Putin, his mistress, and three of my favorite Sherpas. As we toasted to the success of the Internet, I thought back to my childhood in Cyprus. The look on my face made Vladimir weep.

Q: A bit more seriously – why do this? Why create something when there are so many other ways to spend one’s time? Where do you see the group going down the line?

Be passionate about something.  Always strive to create.  Give and expect nothing in return.

We are going to 7-Eleven to get a Big Bite and a Slurpee. Wanna join us?

Q: I hope you enjoyed that softball because here we go. Hoyle, you’re a maverick astronaut with daddy issues, a secret past as a Spaniard, and a love of the slow bolero. Wilson, you’re Hoyle’s much older copilot, but you haven’t cut a rug since that tragic night your old running buddy, Skinny Pete, bought it in a Wichita dance hall. Rodgers is the NASA administrator whose job is on the line unless this mission goes off. Kypros is the engineer who realizes that there’s only one way to get the Lazy Arabesque Rocket Program off the ground – and it doesn’t involve the traditional kind of exothermic chemical reactions he learned about in aerospace engineering school, but ballet d’action. Beatty Barnes Jr. is the skeptical congressman and Kypros’ former Harvard roommate who invented the Internet, thus inspiring Love Story. Everybody else is a space pirate. Let’s do this:

Rob Wilson will take this one. Yes, I am speaking in the third person. Yes, that IS a little pretentious. Okay here we go…

We open on a shot of Brendan doing the Macarena by himself in a dance studio with moody black and white, film noir style lighting a la  Robert Alton (look him up). He begins to do a Patrick Swayze (God rest his soul), slowly winding his hips as we do an extreme close up of his crotch.

FLASH and we are in a pool hall. Rob ‘mother[appreciating]’ Wilson (that’s me) rides through the double doors on a badass motorcycle and skids to a stop inches away from three hot ladies. They faint. He (I mean me) revives them and they are ‘appreciative’( they want to do it) ( sex I mean) ( at the same time) (somehow involving the motorcycle). They ask him (me) to dance. He breaks down crying (it’s really cool crying though).

FLASH Lauren is in a kitchen making eggs we pull out to reveal the starship Enterprise through her window. It blows up.

FLASH She wakes up. Rob Wilson is in bed beside her (still crying, but it’s sexy crying this time).

FLASH Jason is doing some smart shit (I only really understood like three words in his description).

FLASH Beatty is … Man I’m tired of this shit. I’m gonna go get a drink.

FLASH We all do a Bollywood dance number … even Rob Wilson but he (me) is crying (this time it’s heartfelt and humble ). Oh and the Space Pirates all have to walk the Space Plank. Rob Wilson doesn’t cry (well, okay, there is one tear like the Indian (feather) in that one recycling commercial).

Q: We’ve covered so much ground. Is there anything else you would like to mention?

Flip-Flop!!!!!!!

Seward now holds this blog’s record for exclamation point deployment, with Kypros a close second on the strength of his last answer alone. Wilson was voted Miss Parenthetical. Schreiber, for using The Princess Bride as a referent, wins one free resuscitation from Billy Crystal and Carol Kane.

They already are working out their wordplay about how he spells his first name.

Thanks to all.

Again, Plan B is at the Naro Expanded Cinema this weekend.

A video for the road. The music will win you over:

Bonus fun fact: More than 4.1 million people “like” Slurpee’s Facebook page; in comparison, roughly 8,800 people “like” the National Endowment for the Arts. Sleep tight, my babies.

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XII: Comedy writer and actor Sean Devereux of The Pushers


At left is Sean Devereux, producer and co-head writer of the Hampton Roads improv and sketch comedy group The Pushers. In the foreground at right is a custom Ed Carden-shaped Chia pencil holder. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. – During a recent rehearsal for The Pushers’ upcoming show at The NorVa, members of the improv and sketch comedy group ran lines and worked out blocking in Sean Devereux’s Colonial Place condo.

A duo worked on a musical number on the patio. Several other cast members practiced a sketch in the living room. One ducked into the kitchen to seek out a prop magic wand for her role as (spoiler omitted) in a sketch about (spoiler omitted) in which a (subject noun) thoroughly (verbs) an (object).

I can’t reveal the details of these sketches in progress before the show, because (a) that would involve translating the strange marks on a notepad into real words and (b) The Pushers might retaliate by coming to my kids’ school and working blue. My family gets enough of that at home.

Through the rehearsal, Devereux worked on sketches, handled scripts and coordinated with colleagues. Numerous sketches were in play for the show of all new material. The group is meeting throughout the week to get ready. Several guests and some surprises are promised.

The Pushers has a rep for pushing the envelope, as the name suggests, but in a recent talk here at the blog founding member Brad McMurran discussed the work the group has done to hone its craft as an improv group and a collective of comedic actors.

Devereux, also a founding member, wears a number of hats, including as the group’s co-producer, manager and co-head writer. He happens to have written one of my favorite sketches, which I’ll discuss in another post soon, if my planned schedule of posts holds up for once. And he’s even bylined an interview with himself.

More on that in a moment.

The show is at 9 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 10, at The NorVa, 317 Monticello Ave., Norfolk. Tickets are $15 ($21 via Ticketmaster).

FYI, this Belligerent Q&A includes brief adult language.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

Not to sound pretentious or anything, but I see myself as true, modern-day renaissance man. Aside from being one of the stars of The Pushers, I am a multi-Emmy Award winning writer-producer. I have inadvertently amassed the largest collection of Wonder Woman memorabilia in Colonial Place … if not all of Norfolk. And I can also name all eight of the Bradford kids on Eight is Enough.

Q: In an interview last summer, you said The Pushers instituted a “no repeats” rule. Please describe the reasoning behind the no repeats rule. Is it still in effect?

I felt The Pushers had started to rely too much on old sketches instead of generating new material. In the summer of 2009, I instituted the ‘no repeat rule.’ It is still in effect with a few notable exceptions. When former Pushers return for a show, we will resurrect an old sketch or character. We also try to perform one or two ‘Best Of’ shows a year.

Q: In addition to being the producer and co-head writer for The Pushers, you teach young people how to express themselves through improvisation and sketch comedy. Why not teach them to turn that music down, cut that long hair, and get a job already?

Children respond to kindness. One of my goals in life is to become a modern day Fagin. I have found that by training kids in improv and sketch writing they are much more likely to join my roving band of pick-pocketing street urchins.

Q: You effectively are the manager of The Pushers. How much of your time is spent getting McMurran out of scrapes and/or solving mysteries?

Ah. You are obviously referring to our latest adventure, ‘Brad and Sean and The Case of Bluebeard’s Treasure.’  That one was a little scary, until we realized the real culprit was Old Man McGillicutty. Brad and I are very much like the Hardy Boys … only older, fatter and drunker.

Q: One of the things I’ve admired about some of the sketches you have written is the clear patterns of reversals – both of the expectations of characters within the scene and also of those that seem to be held by audience members who then find themselves experiencing the unfolding of not just a mere joke but a fuller story of such a specific design that it energetically unfolds from the stage into the audience and back upon itself, compounding all that has come before into all that will come, until the laughs emerge from character and dramatic action and a purer place, a special place, and it’s a place we can only get to if we work together. What does that mean, this thing I just typed up here?

It was my understanding there would be no math … during these debates.

Q: In an interview last summer, you said The Pushers instituted a “no repeats” rule. Please describe the reasoning behind the no repeats rule. Is it still in effect?

By eliminating our ability to repeat sketches, we eliminate our safety net. Now, no matter what, we are forced to write 90 minutes of pure comedy gold every show.

Q: The Pushers seem to revel in Star Wars and superhero references. If Star Wars and superheroes were to be referenced within the same sketch, would something cataclysmic happen — like when the guys in Ghostbusters cross their proton streams?

Two forces of awesomeness coming together like that could only lead to one thing … me ascending to nerd nirvana where I would be heralded as a geek god. The only reason it hasn’t happened is because I’m not quite ready to leave this mortal realm.

Q: In an interview last summer, you said The Pushers instituted a “no repeats” rule. Please describe the reasoning behind the no repeats rule. Is it still in effect?

The Pushers had fallen prey to what I like to call ‘Fat Cat Syndrome.’ By going back to the well too many times we had gotten stale and lazy. We were one repeat away from being found dead on a toilet. I feel the ‘no repeat rule’ has invigorated us comedically and sexually.

Q: Roughly a year ago, Splash Magazine contacted you about an interview, and then asked you to interview yourself. Is journalism more effective now that Splash has removed reporters from the equation?

At times I can be a very self-centered, vain egomaniac. I applaud Splash Magazine for realizing the only person truly qualified, truly worthy enough to interview me and The Pushers was … me.

(Present interview excluded of course.)

Q: I mean, did they even send any questions? Not even a few questions? Even one question asked over and over again, so it at least looked a little bit, if only initially, like they were sincere in their efforts to interview you?

See, that’s where the interview went off the rails. While Splash Magazine clearly had the vision and insight to realize I was the only one who could interview myself … they failed to realize I am a lazy schlub with a tendency to drink too much. My brief stab at journalism was not a pleasurable one.

Q: In an interview last summer, you said The Pushers instituted a “no repeats” rule. Please describe the reasoning behind the no repeats rule. Is it still in effect?

No comment.

Q: In one interview you described The Pushers as like Saturday Night Live, but funnier. Why the faint self praise?

I grew up with Saturday Night Live, I know Saturday Night Live, I’m friends with Saturday Night Live … and Saturday Night Live, you’re no Saturday Night Live.

If Lorne Michaels is reading this interview … just kidding. 🙂

Q: In an interview last summer, you said The Pushers instituted a “no repeats” rule. Please describe the reasoning behind the no repeats rule. Is it still in effect?

Since instituting the ‘no repeat rule’ we have written close to 600 sketches. We have at least five seasons worth of material and are just waiting for some eager TV executive to sign us. I have come to realize that I have a face and body for television. I mean let’s face it — nothing says ratings bonanza like me, Brad and Ed in high-def.

Q: When is repetition funny?

Only when it is done in threes.

Q: A bit more seriously, there are so many other things to do in this world besides create something. Why do you bother? What do you want to get out of this?

I honestly don’t know. There’s just something in my gut that compels me to do this.

When The Pushers formed I was just a writer. I love writing. It’s like therapy. If something bothers me at work or at home I can turn it into a funny sketch. Somewhere along the way I became, for lack of a better word, the group’s manager.

Dealing with the individual personalities of The Pushers is pure hell.  Dealing with all the nuts and bolts of putting a show together sucks.  Having to be the somewhat responsible one in a group full of dipshits blows. But for some reason, the 90 minutes we’re on stage — making people laugh — it doesn’t seem so bad.

Q: Does it have something to do with the Wonder Woman poster at your condo?

Okay — let me set the record straight. I’m a comic book nerd. I think Wonder Woman is pretty cool. Lynda Carter was the first woman I had a crush on. Years ago I bought some crazy, psychedelic 1960s Wonder Woman comics at a flea market. I happened to mention my purchase to a couple of friends … and — BAM! — suddenly I’m the Wonder Woman guy. Now when ever a friend or family members comes across something Wonder Woman, they buy it for me. I have an insane amount of Wonder Woman stuff. I like Superman better.

Q: We’ve covered so much ground. Is there anything else you would like to mention?

Come see our show at The NorVa. When The Pushers started we were a bunch of potty-mouthed morons who had no idea what we were doing. Now, six years later, we are a bunch of potty-mouthed morons who know how to put on one spectacle of a show. I think our writing has matured. We really have some clever sketches for this show. That said we also have some really dumb sketches. If you haven’t seen us in a couple of years or if you have some preconceived notion (either good or bad) of what we’re about … check us out at The NorVa. I think you’ll be surprised at what you’ll see.

In closing, here’s are two videos.

The first, a Pushers spot from last year, features Devereux. I hope to have a longer talk with him about comedy writing in the near future.

This next one’s going out to Devereux, a real sport.

Look out, Wonder Woman — dude in the bushes is packing heat — and wicked bad bronchitis:

For more information on the show at the NorVa, click this link.

If you go, there is paid garage parking at Monticello and East Freemason and on the Nordstrom side of MacArthur Center; valet parking on the Monticello side of MacArthur Center; and some metered street parking nearby. The Tide has nearby stations at Monticello or MacArthur Square, though it stops running at midnight.

And please check out the Belligerent Q&A archive.

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XI: Writer and editor Tom Robotham


Writer and editor Tom Robotham did not realize he would be part of a blog post that would unsuccessfully link 1870s British light opera and 1980s American light rap when he agree to be photographed at the Taphouse yesterday in Norfolk, Va. As it turns out, parents just don't understand that I am the captain of the Pinafore. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. – That gentleman, the one always over in the corner writing away at The Taphouse Grill on West 21st Street, well it’s his turn for a Belligerent Q&A.

Tom Robotham began his journalism career as an education reporter and music writer for The Staten Island Advance in New York City and has freelanced for a variety of publications, most recently as a columnist for Veer Magazine and Hampton Roads Magazine.

Most people in Hampton Roads know him as the longtime editor of PortFolio Weekly, the alternative weekly that folded a few years back. He’s also written books and taught at Old Dominion University and The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk.

Furthermore, he is never known to quail at the fury a gale, and he’s never, never sick at sea.

What never? you ask.

No never.

What never?

Hardly ever.

My point is that may come in handy this weekend.

Because, as the cutline above suggests, I bring the Gilbert & Sullivan deep cuts harder than DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s He’s the Librettist, I’m the Composer.

Regular readers (love you, Pretend Mom Who Knows How To Use A Computer) realize I often have conflicts with folks featured here, and Robotham is no exception. He’s been my editor more times than he cares to remember, and yet we’re still friends.

This Belligerent Q&A is some partial get back for all that red pen.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

Well, clearly, I’m a beer drinker. The Taphouse almost went out of business when I left town for two weeks this summer. Seriously, though, that pub is one of the best places I’ve ever been to – anywhere – for music and conversation, not to mention beer.

I’m also a professional arsonist. Before anyone calls the cops on me, let me explain. I figure it’s my job as a teacher (at ODU) and a writer of essays and articles, to try to set minds on fire – to get people thinking, imagining and questioning everything they’ve ever read or been told – including everything I say.

I try to convince my students in particular to question the whole mainstream American fantasy (as opposed to dream), which to my mind is based on a combination of material affluence and flatulence. I’m sure I pissed off at least one set of parents who wanted their daughter to major in something she hated; after she studied Thoreau with me, she decided to march to the beat of her own drummer and become an actress.

Third, I’m a musician – not a very good one, I must say, but my heart and soul are in it. I played a gig earlier this summer, and people didn’t throw empty PBR bottles at me, which was encouraging.

Q: You are know for thoughtful explorations of music, writing, culture, and society in your editorial and essay writing, both in your former role as editor of PortFolio Weekly and presently in work for Veer Magazine and Hampton Roads Magazine. I’d suggest that two themes I’ve seen in your writing are (1) deflation of hypocritical assertions and naysaying by certain political forces and (2) the exposure of shortcomings in our individual and (by extrapolation, perhaps) communal support for arts and culture, as well as civic involvement, namely the core aspects of public life such as government. What does that stuff I just typed mean?

I have no idea what it means. It sounds like a passage from a PhD dissertation. That said, I agree with what I think it means. I’ve written a lot about hypocrisy – including my own – as well as the marginalization of arts and culture, which to me are as important as food. And as you point out, I’ve written about civic apathy. It’s all of a piece, really. Seems to me that our country was founded on a sublime Jeffersonian dream of simplicity, beauty, education, hard work and civic engagement. Therein lies the hypocrisy. We hear a lot of blather about the ‘founding fathers.’ But for decades at least, our schools have virtually ignored arts and culture in favor of curricula that train children to be cogs in a machine. As a result, there’s little public support for the arts and a massive deficit in our capacity for critical thinking. Seems to me that most people have bought into the suburban dream of having a house on a cul de sac with a huge garage, a Ford Gargantuan, and a large backyard with an 8-foot stockade fence where they can hide from their neighbors – that is, when they’re not inside taking perverse pleasure in watching people make fools of themselves on American Idol. Meanwhile there’s a whole world of cultural beauty out there – live music and art, theater and dance – and architecture. If more people cared about beauty and artistic excellence, we wouldn’t live in these hideously ugly suburbanscapes of stripmalls and clogged boulevards. Finally, there’s the disconnect from nature. I heard recently that the average American teenager can identify 1,000 corporate logos but fewer than 10 plants. I suspect it’s not much better with adults. That’s why we have so many environmental problems.

Wow – I covered a lot of ground there and probably sound like a rambling elitist. I’ve been accused of that. So be it.

Q: You’ve written forcefully against those who oppose subsidization of public broadcasting. When did you stop loving God?

There is no doubt in my mind that God listens to NPR – especially On Point and The Jefferson Hour – and that he’s a member of the WHRO Leadership Circle.

Q: You have said that readers don’t need to be pandered to. I want to agree with you, but that sentiment neither exploits my weaknesses nor appeals to my base instincts. Discuss.

You don’t have any weaknesses that I know of. As for your base instincts, I thought we weren’t going to discuss that night of debauchery at the Thirsty Camel. I do think that our community and country would be a lot better off if we got over our anti-elitist tendencies and let experts do their thing – that includes journalists who are professional observers; they need to tell us what they think is important, and we need to listen. The great ones – from Murrow to Nat Hentoff to Bill Moyers – have always done that, and we’re better off for it.

Q: Why did they name our new light rail line after a laundry detergent instead of calling it Hampton Roads: America’s First Region’s First Light Rail System That Goes to Newtown Road In Norfolk For Now?

Because that wouldn’t have fit on the train. But it does have a nice ring to it.

Q: Do you pledge to support my campaign to reunite Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies in Norfolk to play their 1994 modern rock hit “Ride the Tide” aboard a light rail train repeatedly for a half hour or 7.4 miles (whichever comes last)?

I do, indeed. Although I also like the idea of getting Ozzy Osbourne on board to sing ‘Crazy Train’ for 24 hours straight.

Q: Sometimes I think back to the New York days. Like the night in 1979 when Cyrus from the Gramercy Riffs called all us city gangs together at Van Cortland Park and Luther whacked Cyrus and put the whole dirty deed on us and all that heat came down from the airwaves while we headed back to our turf and I never thought we’d make it back to Coney Island in one piece especially after me and my boys ran into the Lizzies and what with what happened to Fox in the subway but at least Luther got what was coming when the Riffs learned it wasn’t us that took out Cyrus at the summit. I take it you and your crew had a better time getting back to Staten Island, yes? What was the name of your gang and what route did you take?

We came up with a name one night but promptly forgot it after smoking a lot of marijuana and eating 17 boxes of Twinkies. Come to think of it, though, there was another night I recall when some friends and I went to a party in the North Bronx, sang Beatles songs all night with two fugitive IRA members (true story), then rode a Manhattan-bound subway through the South Bronx at 3 a.m. (Not something I’d recommend.) We eventually got to the Staten Island Ferry, then caught Staten Island’s lightrail, which actually goes somewhere.

Q: Funnily enough, when we had our local scrape with those local punks in the Downtown Norfolk Crusher OGs the other day, we were only able to flee on The Tide to Newtown Road before we had to rent a car at that Avis on Virginia Beach Boulevard. Maybe light rail could be a little longer, if only to enable the Technicolor flight of nonexistant gangs. What’s the likelihood we go all the way on light rail in Hampton Roads? By “all the way” I mean to Portsmouth.

Ah, fun times.

Right now the only way it can serve local gangs is to take them all to a sit-down at that great sushi restaurant on Newtown Road. Kind of like those old meetings of the heads of the five mafia families in New York, but with California rolls.

That said, I think it’s unlikely that I will see a truly serviceable mass-transit system here in my lifetime. Right now, I figure I’m better off hopping a Norfolk Southern coal car out of West Ghent if I want to commute somewhere without a car.

Q: If the Beach continues to go slow on light rail, will HRT forces take the needed permissions, funding, and land by sword skirmish?

No. I think we’ll continue to talk about it, just as we talk about ‘regionalism’ and attracting the ‘creative class.’ Reminds me of the characters in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. Just a bunch of people sitting around with their pipe dreams. Or Waiting for Godot. But I do kind of like the idea of taking Mount Trashmore, swords in hand, as we recite ‘Charge of the Lightrail Brigade,’ with apologies to Tennyson.

Q: In recent years you’ve taken up martial arts and songwriting. Where exactly are you going with this?

I’m not a very good musician, as I’ve already noted, but I kind of like my own stuff. I figure I’d better be able to defend myself at gigs because some people do tend to get pissed off when I refuse to play Jimmy Buffet songs.

Q: I understand that you’re heading back to school this fall. Will Sally Kellerman play your love interest? Who will play Lou, your chauffeur?

Lou will be played by my old friend Louie Pisigoni from Staten Island. As for my love interest, I’m holding out for Rachel McAdams. I’ve had a crush on her ever since Wedding Crashers.

As for going back to school, I’m going to give ODU a try while I continue teaching there, but I may transfer to my son’s college, room with him in a customized dorm suite complete with hot tub and hire Kurt Vonnegut to write our papers. Oh wait – he’s dead. Maybe Dave Eggers, then.

Q: We’ve covered so much ground here. Is there anything else you would like to say?

I’d like to say hi to my friends at the Taphouse. It will be at least three hours between the time they read this and the time they see me.

You can learn more about Robotham (and see a photo of him on a horse) at this link to his site.

And thanks to the magic of YouTube, former Screamin Cheetah Wheelies frontman Mike Farris will play us out:

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Writing Craft, Vol. V: Novelist and short fiction writer John McManus


I spoke with Norfolk, Va., fiction writer John McManus earlier this week for a Belligerent Q&A. This is a follow up with some of his responses to questions emailed earlier this summer.

A full disclosure reminder: McManus is one of my professors in the Old Dominion University MFA Creative Writing Program.

In addition to being a wonderfully wise, insightful and encouraging educator, McManus is the author of a novel, Bitter Milk, and the short story collections Born on a Train and Stop Breakin Down. 

McManus is one of the core contributors to “If You Read The Paper,” a terrific feature at AltDaily. Worth checking out, especially on Fridays when McManus is writing the column.

And you can read more by and about McManus at his site via this link.

Without further ado …

Q: I hoped to focus on one story, “Mr. Gas,” before asking some more general questions. Generally speaking, the story deals with a teen’s relationship to his homebound mother and a relationship with a boy who works at the Mr. Gas, where he buys milk for Mama. This originally was to be a larger work. What did you originally envision the story to be?

The story is all that remains of a terrible novel draft I wrote in the winter and spring of 2000.

Q: What led you to reconsider “Mr. Gas” as a short story? How did you refocus the story?

In March 2001, when I sat down to revise the novel, I started deleting the parts that made me cringe to read them. After two weeks I was left with about ten pages. As I recall, I had the Radiohead song ‘Nice Dream’ on repeat during this process, which helped in my effort to refocus, if not to focus.

Q: There are a number of images that strike me in the story, but one of my favorites is Jason’s journeys to get milk for his mother. Given the apparent roles in their relationship, this simple mission, undertaken for various reasons, really resonated with me. Would you talk about how you develop images that are both concrete and how you find them within the story, if that is the case?

I hope you won’t think me disingenuous for saying I can’t talk successfully about how I developed images in ‘Mr. Gas,’ because I don’t seem to have conscious memories of craft choices I made while writing it. In general I’d say I try to enter a meditative state where I can just stare semi-absently at things until the solutions strike me, and then do that again and again until finally, if the story ever comes to feel right, some metaphorical systems will have magically developed that function together properly in a way that makes both literal and figurative sense. Since this lucky process happens once in a while when I write stories, I’ve wasted time in the foolish hope that it might occur in a novel as well. But novels turn out to be a different deal.

Q: There’s a real history to the characters, especially Mama and Jason, that comes across seemingly effortlessly and informs the events and certainly informs the events of the story. Sometimes I struggle with making the past of characters come across. How are some ways you address that issue without engaging in large stretches of backstory?

I think I tried to make the characters’ pasts implicit in what they desired and lacked and yearned for and wished had happened and dreamed.

Q: I’ve struggled with whether to discuss the ending, because I hope people will find the story. Safe to say, there was a bit of surprise to it in how it explores what Jason seems to want or has been programmed by to want and fear – so even that possibility that an object of desire might have feelings back, something that simple becomes a revelation and a source of conflict. When I say “surprise,” that may not be the word, because groundwork is within the narrative, but it was presented in a way I had to think about. It’s not simple, which, of course is a point of literature compared to, say, a potboiler. Do you work toward that kind of complexity going into it? Does it come about naturally?

In general I tend to structure a story somewhat like this: the main character, in this case Jason, wants something, maybe wants it so desperately that it seems downright out of the question. Various types of conflict bear down on him to prevent him from getting the thing he wants. He struggles forward anyway, dealing with more and more kinds of conflict (as well as more and more of those kinds of conflict) until it seems impossible to proceed. At this point the climax has to happen in a manner that answers whatever question the story has been asking (the question typically being ‘will the character get the thing he wants?’). For the climax to be satisfying, it has to seem both surprising and inevitable. One way to do this is for a thing that has seemed inevitable to happen in a surprising way. Another way is to show that the character has been believably blinded to the inevitable until a climactic moment when the thing that has blinded him somehow vanishes like an evanescent fog.

Q: I love the idea of writing down the opposite of what happened in a journal, and the idea of multiple truths, and how this comes back so organically in the story. Did you have that idea early on or was that something you found in the process of writing?

The opening line, about Jason’s mother telling him the way to keep a journal is to write the opposite of everything that happened, sounded good to me at the time, but now I look back and find it cloying and trite. I’m glad you love the idea, but it makes me cry inside to think about it, as it does to look back at almost anything I wrote this long ago. At least you chose a story from Born on a Train. My first story collection, Stop Breakin Down, seems no better than juvenilia to me now, and if you ever read so much as one story from it, there will be no old-timey photo booth and no Dippin’ Dots.

Q: You tell your students to write every day. Why is this so important? How do you make time?

If you’re not currently working on a project, it might not be so important to write every day; you could take six months off and come back and start anew and that would be fine. But if you’re writing a novel or a story, its setting and mood and style and plot are things you’re teaching yourself fluency in, the way you teach yourself fluency in a language. With any language you’re studying now or that you attained post-adolescence, you’ll start to forget it little by little after just a single day of not speaking or thinking or reading it.

Q: Where do you prefer to write? For example, I can write just about anywhere but I despise interruptions and certain kinds of noise. It can be tough for me to focus.

In October I bought a house in Colonial Place, and I use for my office an upstairs spare bedroom through whose windows I can see crepe myrtles, pine trees, the sunrise, the street, Haven Creek. This is far and away where I prefer to write. For two years in Norfolk I lived in houses that for various reasons weren’t conducive to serious creative thought, and so I sought a cafe where I liked to work. Nothing felt right. There are some new coffeeshops that might have served me well in 2008 and 2009, although you’re right that in public noise can always be a problem; these days I like to write in silence.

Q: I tend to play with dialogue, hoping to find characters in exchanges, and I practice writing full paragraphs. Do you still do writing exercises? How do you experiment?

In the early stages of writing a novel there’s plenty of exploratory writing during which I let characters think things or do things that almost certainly won’t wind up in the final draft.

Q: Who are you reading?

Today I finished The Literary Conference by César Aira, an intriguing little novella about a writer and mad scientist whose quest to clone Carlos Fuentes goes desperately wrong and threatens to destroy the city of Mérida, Venezuela, and probably the world. In my backpack is Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron, which I’ll start reading when I finish answering these questions. My favorite new novel so far in 2011 is Open City by Teju Cole.

Q: What are you working on now?

I’m close to finishing a novel that I’ve been rewriting steadily since May of last year, at which time it had lain untouched since 2006 in the form of a sprawling, baroque, and semi-unreadable 700-page draft. Today it’s a svelte 370 pages. When it’s truly done, I’ll turn my full attention to Cooch: The Musical. Also I’ve got about five stories left to write or revise in a new story collection. One of those stories, ‘Blood Brothers,’ will appear this fall in the anthology Surreal South ’11. You can read a slightly different version of it in Rusty Barnes’s excellent Appalachian literature blog “Coffee and Fried Chicken.” Another story called ‘The Ninety-Sixth Percentile’ came out in The Harvard Review this year.

Q: One of the things I’ve enjoyed about the MFA program is reading and critiquing the work of other students. I learn a lot by considering other people’s work, and by hearing their responses to my work, in addition to critiques from professors. Do you share work with peers? What do you look for in criticism? What do you dislike?

It’s been a while since I’ve shared work with peers, but I’m preparing to show my novel to a few friends. I guess at this stage the criticism I’m looking for most would regard what’s missing, unclear, tedious, implausible, lugubrious, or overly obvious.

Q: You are one of the organizers for this year’s literary festival. Is there anything you can tell us about the lineup or the theme at this point?

The theme is ‘The Lie That Tells the Truth.’ The schedule is online. Guests include Megan Stack, Joy Williams, Billy Collins, Naomi Shihab Nye, Young Jean Lee, Porochista Khakpour, Yola Monakhov, and Scott Heim.

Q: I’ve written about my regard for the work you are doing as a contributor to AltDaily. Why do you continue to take the time to contribute? Why does it matter to you?

I appreciate what AltDaily is doing for Norfolk. When they perceive that something’s missing in social or civic life here, they immediately go about filling in the hole. They’ve completed so many successful projects in 2010 and 2011 that I feel exhausted just pondering it. I contribute each week because I want AltDaily to succeed and because they let me write uncensored about whatever I want and because I admire many of their writers and because the weekly column lets me feel like I’m no longer wasting my life by spending hours on end reading political blogs.

Q: Is there anything else I should have asked but didn’t? Or that you’d like to discuss?

I wish that you had asked me who I think you are.

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