Interview: Will Christopher Baer, Author
To cap off our coverage this week of the Phineas Poe omnibus release, Zack Wentz steps up to pinch hit for me by conducting a great interview with Will Christopher Baer. Wentz is the author of the forthcoming The Garbageman & The Prostitute (published by Chiasmus Press) and a drummer and vocalist for Kill Me Tomorrow, a San Diego-based punk band. So I owe a hefty handshake of gratitude to Zack for conducting this great interview, to Topbunknoose for coordinating and connecting the dots, and of course to Will Christopher Baer for such fantastic books. So now, I’ll hand it off to Zack…
Maybe I saw one of those Phineas Poe stickers around somewhere recommending I call the police if I wanted to live. I don’t know. I honestly can’t remember exactly how I first heard about Baer’s work, but after I read a few snippets and some reviews at Amazon I decided it was worth a shot and picked up his first two books, Kiss Me, Judas and Penny Dreadful. I was far from disappointed. The world of Phineas Poe is a manic, first person, present tense (emphasis on tense) tumble through a gothic inner America so vivid and bizarre—as if David Lynch took a whack at filming a Jim Thompson novel. The third and final book in the Poe series, Hell’s Half Acre (called a 300-page suicide note by his previous publisher) drifted around in limbo until the marvelous indie press MacAdam/ Cage stepped to the plate and took it on; while they were at it, they reissued the first two books, making for a handsome hardcover set. And while Baer moved on to other projects—Godspeed is due next fall, the Butterfly Plague soon after—Phineas Poe held true to form and refused to die in the bathtub. Kiss Me, Judas was recently published to much acclaim in France and Italy; a screenplay version was optioned last year; a graphic novel is rumored to be in the works; and the three books were released this week in a hefty omnibus edition.
Slushpile: How the did the idea of re-releasing all the Poe books as an omnibus come about? That’s going to be one beefy tome.
Baer: I always said I wanted to put out a book with some real heft to it, that could double as a weapon. I was raised on books like Dune, Watership Down, The Stand—all those big epic journey books that were just getting warmed up around the five-hundred page mark. And for some reason my folks’ house was heavily stocked with Greek mythology. I read The Iliad and The Odyssey before I read the Bible, or the Lord of the Rings. And I was always a big believer in the trilogy as an art form, Return of the Jedi be damned, so I’ve no doubt it was my subconscious plan since I was a kid, to be in exactly this position one day. So, I heard a church choir in the distance when I first lifted the omnibus out of the box. It’s an awfully good-looking book. The Cage [editor’s note: MacAdam/Cage] did me right. And weighing in at eight hundred fifty pages, three pounds six ounces, and seven years of my life—if you’ve got the Poe omnibus on your bedside table, you’ve got yourself a weapon.
Slushpile: Now that you’ve gotten some distance from the long strange journey of Phineas to hell and back, how do you feel about it? Obviously you’re moving on to other things, but this character and the series keeps returning.
Baer: I was sure that it would be a relief to move on, to start fresh with a different narrator and another universe of characters after the Phineas books were done. And in a lot of ways that’s been the case, but the truth is I miss the bastard. Somewhere along the way, when I was deep into Penny Dreadful, my voice and his really merged. For good or ill, the separation that I had on Kiss Me, Judas was lost. By the time I finished Hell’s Half Acre—any time I sat down at the keyboard, I was already in his head. And because the familiar always feels safe, it was tempting to just keep writing Phineas books and find out where he ends up, answer the questions that keep coming. He’s on his way to Amsterdam to meet Jude and his kid, but what’s he going to do when he gets there—get a job, join a health club? And is it really his kid? And is Jude finally going exercise her spider tendency to the fullest and kill him in his sleep? Tempting, yeah.
But I am pretty sure that unless you go the Travis McGee route, where your narrator essentially doesn’t age and each book is independent of the others aside from a few recurring characters, if you try to go to far with it and age your character in real time, and write each new book as if the events of the previous ones are present in his head, the whole thing will inevitably break down under its own weight—even midway through the third book, it felt like the memories of the first two were too much to bear, too much to contain in his skull. This line of thought spawned the title, obviously.
Slushpile: Around this time last year, I heard about the kid in Littleton, CO—nicknamed Joey Colorado—who got busted at his high school for giving copies of your books to other students, and actually had his own personal copies confiscated. What did you think about that whole thing?
Baer: The Joey incident pissed me off at first, because you knew that school principal who banned the book never bothered to read the books; she scanned the back jacket at most, and absorbed that they involved organ-jacking, snuff films and morphine addicts. And because here was a kid growing up in Columbine country who was excited about reading—not building a bomb in his closet. He was into the book and was passing out the street team copies to other kids, trying to get them to read. This is the sort of thing a parent should be proud of, right? I realize my books have some pretty dark pages, but they’re generally less graphic than a lot of video games and they do contain a moral compass and a sense of spiritual reckoning, which video games do not. But that whole thing was like five months ago, ancient history, just a little Phineas folklore. But it’s funny that the whole thing went down in a Denver suburb, and two of the Phineas books are set in Denver. And my favorite thing about it is that Joey himself became a minor urban legend.
Slushpile: Being a father now, are your views different about what’s “appropriate” for young people to take in? When do you think you’d want your own kids to read your books?
Baer: I read a lot of dark and violent stuff when I was fairly young, and prefer to think it didn’t damage me. I read everything Stephen King had out there when I was in the seventh grade—which 1979—those early King books like Carrie and Salem’s Lot were pretty hardcore when you go back and look at them. At least with books, a kid has to think, and work a little bit. But if we’re talking about a movie, Requiem for a Dream, a thirteen-year-old kid watches that movie and the images just wash over him, he doesn’t have to think about what he’s seeing. My own son, who’s ten, is already a heavy reader, and he’s pretty voracious. He consumes books in a way that signals a lifetime addiction. If I had to pick a number today, I’d tell him to wait until he’s seventeen before he dips into his Dad’s stuff. If you’re responsible enough to drive a car, and you’re about to register for the draft—I say read whatever the hell you want. But if he reads Kiss Me, Judas when he’s thirteen, I would probably not freak out. There’s always something a lot more dangerous a thirteen-year-old can get his hands on than a book. I’d be glad to see him reading, period.
The real test will be my daughter, who’s now eleven months old. I’ve a feeling I will be more protective of her. I realize that sounds like unfair discrimination, and I apologize to the girls out there because I know that most thirteen-year-old girls are light years more mature, generally, than boys. But my wife might have something to say about it, too. And while Jude is a strong female character, confident and self-assured, sexy, cool, fearless and everything, with elite skills and good work ethic—she’s not necessarily a role model.
Slushpile: Despite some of the rather extreme subject matter in your published work so far, your books still strike me as far from nihilistic. They always somehow point in an uplifting direction without pandering to any traditional idea of a “happy ending.” Would I be wrong in saying there’s a peculiar brand of spirituality running through there?
Baer: Various reviewers have called Phineas a nihilist, an antihero. But that’s surface shit, having to do with his personal habits. I tend to see him as a tragic hero in the classical sense, except he doesn’t have just one tragic flaw—he has a whole catalogue. He’s got a lot of residual rage and despair, and outwardly he kind of despises the human race. But he’s also a romantic, and he’s on a quest for redemption. He wants to save the people around him and subconsciously he’s hoping that he might save himself in the process. Phineas wants to believe in forgiveness—beyond apology accepted—and he’s conflicted about vengeance. He thinks about the consequences of his actions, and while a lot of the time he may say “Fuck it” and follow his animal urges, he generally devotes a lot of rambling contemplation to the big picture meaning of things.
Slushpile: Speaking of which, there’s a lot of biblical symbolism in the Poe books. Are you religious in any way, or were you brought up in a certain faith that’s had a big effect on your writing?
Baer: I grew up in the South, so the religious imagery and symbolism come naturally. And I have read the Bible countless times. I’ve studied the Bible mainly because it is the source material for pretty much every piece of Western art and culture—seriously, everybody from Shakespeare to Picasso to Raymond Chandler to Metallica can be traced back to the Bible—so if you’re a writer or artist and you disregard Christianity, you’re not doing yourself any favors and your work will suffer, and you just pissed away an arsenal of killer metaphors and shared consciousness.
On a personal level, I generally tell people I have a healthy relationship with God, as I understand him. And all of this filters through Phineas because he’s become my default voice. On the other hand, I’m a writer and part of my job as I see it is being able to transform myself into any character imaginable, to literally inhabit them. On the page I can become a Baptist soccer mom, a white boy from the suburbs gone Muslim, a junkie schoolgirl, a racist skinhead, or a Deadhead who believes in dolphins. That’s the point, in the end—my own beliefs should remain secondary to the character’s beliefs.
Slushpile: It seems like there’s a new crop of pulp-influenced authors who are more literary and experimental in their approaches. Even some distinctly highbrow authors like Ben Marcus and David Foster Wallace have incorporated bits of sci-fi and other genres into their work. You’ve done the MFA thing and have even thrown Joycean tropes in some of your novels, but you always keep things grounded in what seems to be your own sense of pulp. Smart pulp. Do you think there’s something interesting going on right now that’s leaning toward warping those borders in new ways? Literary writing getting out of the academic cul-de-sac it seems to have been stuck in for a while?
Baer: I’m not sure what constitutes literary fiction anymore, beyond the insultingly maddening phrase “quality paperback.” But nobody wants the label “academic,” and I agree that sci-fi and noir and comic books and so-called serious literature and old-school pulp are fast becoming integrated. The distinction between high and low art is pretty blurred. Two of the better movies I’ve seen this year—Sin City and History of Violence—were based on graphic novels. And every now and then you have some reality TV moment that people find more moving than your average drama. And with the huge success of guys like Dave Eggers and web journals written by avatars, the line between fiction and nonfiction is disappearing. There was a book out this fall, The Traveler, whose author was apparently a fictional character. And the notion of different genres has gotten fairly meaningless. The only purpose for genres anymore is they help you navigate your way around Borders.
Slushpile: Your approach to capturing a narrative voice sounds almost like a kind of ritual channeling. You’ve described it as “going under” and “bingeing”— holing up in some rented room for a stretch of time and really letting characters possess you. Considering how you’ve taken that kind of approach with Phineas Poe, it seems a lot of autobiographical elements must have filtered through. How much do you feel the character is you, or a version of you?
Baer: The best writing often does feel like a sort of channeling, when the rest of the world ceases to exist. You forget that you’re typing, you don’t know if it’s day or night, you don’t hear the phone ring and you don’t feel the passage of time. You light a cigarette and put it down and it burns down to nothing before you ever take a second drag. Call it what you will, a state of grace, the loneliness of long distance runners. You hear athletes and actors and heroin addicts talk about this feeling, and it’s a great feeling. And I have in the past gone there with extreme isolation, sleep deprivation, drugs, starvation. But it’s not always convenient to lock yourself in a motel room for ten days, and if you want to be a professional, working writer, and pay the rent by stringing words together, then you have to be able to turn it on and off like a faucet. I don’t care if you had a shitty day and you’ve got a hangover and a rash on your ass and your life is crashing down around you—you better start typing. If you wait around for that state of grace, you’re fucked.
Slushpile: How else does autobiography slip in? I noticed a comment in Hell’s Half Acre along the lines of “like cab drivers who want to be writers, lawyers who want to be filmmakers are dangerous assholes” and I laughed, thinking you must’ve been poking a bit of fun at your past self.
Baer: Definitely a poke at myself. I throw that stuff in whenever I can, mainly to amuse myself.
Slushpile: I know you work as a newspaper editor now, but you’ve had a lot of crazy jobs. Cabbie, homeless counselor, janitor in a mental facility. Not your typical kind of grad student stuff or jobs where the prospective employer said, “Ah, so you’re a writer. Good, you know how to type…” and sat you down in a cubicle for some invigorating data entry. Were you deliberately avoiding the latter kinds of jobs to get into stuff that gave you more material-the grittier experiences?
Baer: Not really. I worked a lot of jobs that involved graveyard shifts and bodily fluids and cash under the table, partly because they were interesting and because the irregular schedule appealed to me, but mainly because I am a complete nightmare at a job interview. I’m a terrible liar, for one thing. I can never convince anybody that actually I want the job, whatever the hell it is, because I don’t. My attitude is: I’m willing to do the job, and I’m qualified to do it, but I never actually want the job… My wife tends to think my real problem is that if I think the interviewer is a jackass, I am incapable of hiding it. But after hundreds of busted interviews, I’ve learned a few things. If your prospective employer asks do you hear voices, don’t say yes. If he asks, is that your blood, don’t say “some of it.”
Slushpile: You were originally published by Viking Penguin, now you’re with Macadam/Cage, so you’ve seen the major publishing behemoth and now the small house. Any particular pros and cons, preferences? Do you think you’d do a book with a major publishing house again after your experiences with them?
Baer: I had a fantastic editor at Viking, practically telepathic. She had a lot to do with what Phineas Poe became. The trouble was she had a career of her own to look after, and jumped to a better job at another house soon after Kiss Me, Judas was first released. She was the one who brought me in, she spoke my language—so all of a sudden I was a stray dog. My days were numbered. This kind of thing is less likely at a small house, because they have forty writers on their roster instead of four hundred. I imagine most of the independent houses are cool, but Macadam/Cage is cool like Shaft is cool. Those guys are old world. I go up to San Francisco two or three times a year to meet with my editor, and the publisher, it’s always the kind of scene where you time-travel back to a restaurant that’s dark as hell and the waiters wear bowties, and you have a steak and drink whiskey for a few hours and talk about books. But there are other advantages to the small house that don’t involve whiskey. I’m on a first-name basis with the publisher, marketing crew, the receptionists, the other editors, the interns. Most of them have read my book and genuinely seem to give a shit about my career. They keep your books in print, for instance. But what really sealed the deal for me—when my daughter was born, a giant basket of gourmet cheese and chocolates and muffins and caviar and wine showed up in the hospital room within an hour, with a card from the Cage—they’re a very classy house.
Slushpile: I always have to ask about politics because I think it’s becoming, or at least should be becoming, more apparent to Americans how much politics have to do with every aspect of our daily lives and our culture. Your books pretty directly address the idea that corruption and the most extreme kinds of degeneracy and perversion can, and often do, go hand in hand with power and wealth. Like Chandler meets Burroughs. How much does this reflect your own perspectives on politics? What role does art play in regard to politics, or vice-versa?
Baer: I have a thousand mixed feelings about this, in no particular order. As I said earlier, even if my narrator is a serial killer, there’s a moral compass on the page. But my personal politics are ultimately irrelevant, and I can write from the point of view of a Republican as easily as I can a Democrat. The trouble with liberals in a fictional setting, they’re too passive and disorganized, so they make for dull characters. Radicals and anarchists are much more fun to write. One thing that’s always worrisome, though–a disproportionate number of artists and writers over the years were naturally inclined toward fascism–Hemingway and Ezra Pound come to mind. A lot of the dead white males had a little god complex, and like the founding fathers, they tended to believe that the average humans were too stupid to know what’s good for them. And I don’t always disagree with them, by the way—just look outside. But I tend to lean more toward chaos than fascism, and I’m a southern Democrat like it’s in my blood.
My politics boil down to “Do unto your neighbor…” Be respectful of your elders, be kind to children and dogs, open doors for other people. But who gives a shit? How does any of that make the Phineas Poe books a better read? Maddening because art and politics are impossible to separate, as you say. Every situation big or small is essentially political. If you have three people in a lifeboat, politics come into play because politics are all about power and control. The same can be said of sex and violence—lock two people in a room and sex and violence will ensue, sooner or later. There are political messages running like threads through every book and movie, every song on the radio. Even if the song is about getting high, or the book is about fucking, somebody’s political beliefs are bleeding through.
Slushpile: What’s up next for you, Chris? I’ve been hearing about Godspeed and Butterfly Plague, also a new story about Jude when she was a kid, for San Francisco Noir (Akashic Books).
Baer: Godspeed and Butterfly Plague, the new universes mentioned earlier, are both in varying stages of completion. But the plan is to have Godspeed out next fall, the Plague soon after. Deception of the Thrush is the Jude story—we meet her when she’s seventeen and just getting her wings. It was lot of fun to write. If I can stomach the word “prequel,” there seems to be a novel there. And I promised my son that I would write a kid’s book for him, while he’s still a kid—sort of a James in the Giant Peach goes to the Planet of the Apes and meets Blade Runner kind of thing, if you know what I mean.
Slushpile: Thank you, Chris.
Baer: My pleasure.
This is Scott here, and I’d like to say thanks go out to Zack for conducting this interview.
For more information:
Be sure to check out Baer’s website (damn I wish I could pull off a design like this):
You’ve seen me mention this message board before, but I’ll recommend it again: The Velvet, home to discussions about writing, movies, music, tattoos, book collecting, and of course, authors Will Christopher Baer, Stephen Graham Jones, and Craig Clevenger:
Zack’s book is being published by Chiasmus Press, a company that presents fiction which challenges, deforms, or radicalizes narrative form and content. Check out their website:
And definitely check out the website for Zack’s band for news, tour dates, and merchandise:
Kill Me Tomorrow