Thursday, August 21, 2008

Interview with novelist Josh Emmons

A couple of years ago, I came across a very strange, interesting and well-written debut novel - The Loss of Leon Meed by Josh Emmons. I was so inspired, I wrote to the author about how he queried agents and publishers on his unusual story. He was kind enough to respond to me and we've stayed in touch since then.

So I was excited when his next novel, Prescription For Superior Existence, came out earlier this year. I wrote to him and asked him a few writer-to-writer questions about his work.

Tell us a bit about your latest book, Prescription for Superior Existence, and what inspired you to write this story.

The book is about a secular-leaning, pleasure-addicted workaholic named Jack Smith who falls in love with the daughter of an anti-desire religion, PASE, and is then kidnapped and installed in a building compound devoted to its study. Various things happen to him—it’s a plot-heavy novel—but most importantly his assumptions about what constitutes a rich and meaningful life are challenged in ways that alter him profoundly. Really “PASE” is a meditation on loneliness, God, love, conformity, and the attractions and perils of our 21st century world, with all of its culture clashes and environmental problems.

I’ve read both of your books and enjoyed them immensely. Writer-to-writer, Prescription was especially engaging because of the very believable cult-like world you created. Did you research many cults before creating PASE?

I read about the many indigenous American religions that have sprouted up since the country’s inception (Mormonism, Scientology, Christian Science, etc.), the Hinduism-tweaking gurus who began coming to the United States in the 1920s and gained a certain notoriety in the 1960s when the Beatles and Mia Farrow and others took them on, and the various messianic types who occasionally pop up in Christian communities (David Koresh, Jim Jones, the Reverend Moon). It’s interesting to consider how wildly we as a country vacillate between openness and hostility to new religions.

You’ve probably seen or heard about the now infamous Matt Lauer/Tom Cruise interview about Scientology? If you had been the interviewer, what one question would you have liked to pose about Scientology?

There are bitter ex-Scientology members who can’t heap enough scorn and opprobrium on the religion, as well as millions of people who think it’s ridiculous (mainstream America) and/or dangerous (Germany), but in fact it’s a legitimate, boring belief system, inferior to many others only because it sprang from the mind of only one person (L. Ron Hubbard), as opposed to the Torah and New Testament, which had multiple authors and benefited from lots of intelligent revision. Anyway, I would’ve had a hard time interviewing Tom Cruise, because he’s duty-bound not to say anything interesting about Scientology (meaning the gossip and rumors surrounding it, which are fascinating in a Ripley’s Believe it or Not way)—there is no dissension in the ranks—and because he’s a robot (with apologies to the infinitely more sympathetic Wall-E).

At first blush, your two novels appear very different in theme. But I find that most writers have a certain “country” in which they like to roam. How would you say your two works are similar?

You’re right that they don’t appear to have much in common: one is straightforward and character-driven, and the other is a serio-comic thriller. At their core, though, they’re both preoccupied with whether life is ultimately material or spiritual. It’s odd, because I’ve long believed that God and the eternal Buddhist life pool and every other explanation for how we came to be sentient animals on this planet are fictions, and yet I spent a great deal of energy in two books considering the question.

I don’t know about you, but I’m a fan of the James Lipton Proust-like 10 questions he likes to ask guests of the Actors’ Studio. So I like to do my own version with writers.

I’ve never seen him on “Inside the Actors’ Studio, though I naturally love him as the warden on “Arrested Development.”

1. What is your favorite book?
Middlemarch, by George Eliot. This is my bible, the book that accounts for and explains what it means to be human with inexhaustible wit, wisdom and mystery. She’s the greatest novelist ever.

2. What is your least favorite book?
At the moment, Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, because I just finished it and have a clear memory of its repellant characters and narrative laziness and my when-will-this-be-over? feeling while reading. Was like a case of the shingles. There are worse books out there—The Bridges of Madison County, the Left Behind series, anything by Cormac McCarthy—but this annoying and sensationalistic book enjoys a grand cult reputation, undeservedly.

3. What piece(s) of fiction gave you that “Ah Ha, I know this is what I want to do” realization?
When I was 18 or so, Fyodor Dostoevski’s “The Idiot,” Samuel Beckett’s “Molloy” trilogy, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise,” and Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s “Journey to the End of the Night” lit, stoked and tended that flame. Further fuel from that period in my life: Italo Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” and Haruki Murakami’s “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.”

4. What are you reading now?
A couple of epics, Lady Murasaki’s “The Tale of Genji” and Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” as well as James McPherson’s “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” and a soon-to-be-published Swedish thriller by the late Stieg Larsson called “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” I highly recommend the Murasaki for her layered insights into how society operates (she’s nearly as big on that score as Proust).

5. What is your biggest reader pet peeve? (stock characters, unresolved endings, predictability, everything wrapped up hurriedly in the end, etc.)
Bad prose. Cliched characters and language. Didacticism (or any case in which an author assumes that the reader is too stupid to recognize the truth without being bludgeoned by it).

6. What is your biggest writing pet peeve? (overuse of exclaimation points, adverbs, bad guys named Wayne, etc.)
Do you mean things I do but shouldn’t? I like to pretend these don’t exist, though I certainly use more adverbs than Thoreau would recommend (“When in doubt, leave them out.”).

7. What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?
Read everything and think deeply about why people behave as they do.

8. What writing tool can you not live without?
These days I like writing longhand, to both slow down my sentence construction and not be tempted to roam stupidly around the Internet.

9. Many writers I know say that until they decided they didn’t care what their mommas would think, they held back. And when they let go of that concern, they felt free to write. Did this ever apply to you?
Actually, embarrassingly, my first efforts were full of things my mom probably didn’t like, though she was too politic to say so. Lots of irreverent sex and death.

10. Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work? has some basic information.

Karen Harrington
author, Janeology

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