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Living in Stereo: An Interview with Alex Green

by Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons

 

Writer Alex Green.

Four years ago I found a Facebook message in my inbox. The sender liked an essay I had written and wanted to read more of my work. His name was Alex Green. Me being me, I Googled him to make sure he wasn’t a stalker. He wasn’t. I soon found out who he was, though.

Green is the author of The Stone Roses, a book about the influential British band of the same name, published as part of Bloomsbury’s acclaimed 33 1/3 series. He’s also the editor of Stereo Embers, a music and entertainment e-zine. When he asked me to write for the site, I told him that if he was looking for someone to say that One Direction was nifty keen, I wasn’t his girl. He didn’t, and we’ve been working together ever since.

Since then Green has released two more books: Emergency Anthems, a collection of poetry and short fiction; and his debut novel, The Heart Goes Boom (published last year by Wrecking Ball Press). The Heart Goes Boom details the journey of Kieran Falcon, a C-list actor who is told he must find true love in a matter of weeks. Falcon enlists the services of a writer, a magician, and a wise man to help him along the way.

When he’s not writing, Green is busy interviewing authors at Kathleen Caldwell’s A Great Good Place for Books (located in the Oakland’s Montclair district), teaching English at St. Mary’s College, and hosting a top-ten radio show on Primal Radio called … what else? The Heart Goes Boom. He also still produces Stereo Embers, which recently received a fan letter from Amy Winehouse’s mother, Janis.

Somehow in the midst of everything, Green managed to have time to answer some of my burning questions.

JKG: The Bay Area has been home to many writers, including Anne Lamott, Michael Chabon, Jessica Mitford, and YA novelist Yvonne Prinz. How has the Bay Area affected your writing?
Green: It’s affected it a great deal; I’m a bit obsessed with Northern California. It’s fertile ground for artists. It’s always been a community that’s alive with theater, music, bookstores, and indie movie theaters. Plus, the terrain is so redolent with promise, beauty, and heartbreak, it’s an irresistible thing to not write about.

California itself has appeared almost as a singular character throughout my writing, kind of like the hotel in The Shining, but less creepy — or more creepy, depending on how you view my work.

JKG: We share an appreciation of the absurdities of pop culture. Tell me about your first pop culture love.
Green: The movie version of Hair rocked my fourth-grade world: the hirsute bravado, the shaggy rebellion, the unexpected tragedy. Then MTV sucked me in back in 1981, and nothing was ever the same. Bowie, The Specials, Talking Heads … maybe even that J. Geils Band video, “Centerfold” — a portal opened that knocked me out.

JKG: Music is woven in all your work, be it Stereo Embers or your books. What was your first record? What are you listening to right now?
Green: My first album was The Police’s Ghost In The Machine. Now I’m listening to The Vaccines, The Paper Kites, Modern Space, Golden Curtain, and for some weird reason The Babys.

JKG: Would you describe Emergency Anthems as poetry, short fiction or both?
Green: Short fiction disguised as poetry that’s disguised as an 85-page homage to the Twilight series.

JKG: The Heart Goes Boom starts off with an emergency when the protagonist, Kieran Falcon, is pushed through a psychic’s window. What attracts you to writing about emergencies and calamities?
Green: My therapist might answer that question better than I can, but what’s always interested me about emergencies is what comes after. The emergency itself is largely uninteresting.

What’s compelling to me is how people assemble in the aftermath of a seismic event. They can grow cold or warm — it can go a number of ways, but you see who people really are when the struggle is over and the dust is settling.

JKG: Kieran Falcon has a Lorenzo Lamas vibe about him. Did you base him on Lamas, or on any other 1980s heartthrob?
Green: I based him on every ‘80s heartthrob; he’s a composite of them all. He’s also based on a character from a 2006 film called The Big Bad Swim. Originally he was based on a guy I taught tennis with back in the early ‘90s, who was such a tennis pro cliché that he literally slept with every woman in a 438-mile radius of the club. He may or may not have had a new strain of chlamydia named after him. Worth Googling.

JKG: Falcon also has a Ted Baxter/Derek Zoolander quality. Were you scared he could fall into the himbo stereotype?
Green: I was scared that people might not like him and that they wouldn’t hang in there to see if he could be redeemed. He’s a sweet guy who hasn’t grown up, so his teenage obsession with sexual triumph is a skin he’s never shed and he absolutely needs to. The book kind of suggests that that mentality will prevent you from experiencing real love and will guide you smoothly down a long and lonely path to oblivion. So it was a risk because his behavior is awful, but I thought people would take a chance on seeing if someone who’s so lost can ever be found. By the way, that last part may or may not be stolen from an Ed Sheeran song.

JKG: There are many current pop culture references in The Heart Goes Boom. How did you choose which ones to use?
Green: 
I picked ones that are absurdly famous and I picked them to poke fun at the extremity of celebrity culture. I also picked ones that used to be absurdly famous because they’re where the currently absurdly famous are headed.

JKG: Aren’t you worried those references might date your book?
Green: A little worried, but I thought I could change it every year and swap out [Canadian pop star] Justin Bieber for [Canadian Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau.

JKG:  What are you working on right now?
Green: I’m working on a YA detective novel about a black market organ ring that’s set against the backdrop the thrash metal scene. It’s a Christmas novel.

Humor is how I’ve always shielded myself from the world; there’s no lock that humor can’t pick.

JKG: When you interview authors for A Great Good Place for Books, do you ever get nervous about asking questions that sound great on paper, but possibly goofy aloud?
Green: I never bring questions. I have no idea what I’m going to say until the interview starts. A risky move, but it just feels better that way.

JKG: Does that means that your interviews turn out to be more conversational and free-flowing?
Green: Conversational, free-flowing and I’ve been told, utterly devoid of thought or meaning.

JKG: Recently Stereo Embers heard from Amy Winehouse’s mom, Janis, about an essay you ran on the site about the late British singer. Can you say more about that letter?
Green: She wrote it to the author of the piece, Paul Gleason. Paul’s a lovely guy. He was very moved. It was a brilliant piece and her mother quite liked it. I was happy to see that our little magazine is reaching a bigger audience and that sometimes that audience is related to the subjects we write about. That’s a very cool thing.

JKG: You’re a funny guy. How do you incorporate humor into your writing?
Green: Humor is how I’ve always shielded myself from the world; there’s no lock that humor can’t pick. It has an instantaneous way of making the terrifying seem silly.

JKG: Who are your comedic influences?
Green: Woody Allen. George Carlin. David Letterman. Without them, I’d be glumly selling real estate in Oregon.

JKG: Do you think you can sustain that sense of humor in the Trump era, or is it gone with the wind?
Green: It’ll never be gone. It’s the only way I can make sense of the world.Sportswear Design | Men's Sneakers

How Not to Not Be Funny

Ryan Kriger

You can’t teach funny.

I wish I could. But humor is such an intuitive thing, so reliant on an appreciation of language, on lyricism, on timing, observation, and drawing abstract connections. You’re either funny or you’re not.

This is an essay on incorporating humor into writing. Not writing comedy or comedic pieces – that’s a whole different animal. I’m talking about straight prose, whether it’s genre fiction, literary, memoir – hell, it could be a cookbook – and making people chuckle while they read it. Making your reader sit back and say, “Oh, I see what she did there. That was good.”

This is not quite a how to, because see point one. It’s more a meditation on what works and what doesn’t. Except it’s less pompous than that (a meditation? Seriously. What? No.)

The first question the writer must ask herself then, is,

“Am I funny?”

If the answer is “No,” then maybe stop reading this. I’m not sure what you’ll get out of it. Go read about use of metaphor or deduplication or alliteration or something.

If you’re not sure whether or not you’re funny, here’s a quick test: Has anyone ever described you as “funny?” It likely would have happened shortly after you did something which caused someone else to laugh, to which that person said words to the effect of, “You’re funny.”[1]

If they did say that, were they being sarcastic?  If you’re not sure, they probably were. And if they weren’t, congratulations, you’re funny.

Because the thing about funny is, it really is entirely reliant on the opinion of a third-person. Inner strength is valuable but on this issue we really are seeking external validation. Maybe you make yourself laugh, and that’s great. Life is absurd and cruel and in the end we’re all dead, and if you can’t laugh at that it’s a sad, sad existence just floating through space on this wet little ball, waiting for the sun to go out. So, I hope you can find some iota of humor in it.

But if you can’t make other people find humor in it, you’re not funny.

So, you’re funny! Congratulations.

Maybe you’re ugly, maybe you’re lonely, maybe you’re sick, but at least you can make people laugh. That’s something. Right?

Right?

Right. Yes, take solace in the fact that you are able to find the right combination of words and you can present them in such a way that the listener must, involuntarily, unexpectedly, laugh. It’s like crafting a magic spell.  Words are uttered. Result: laughter. Existence altered.

And that is the key to humor: it’s unexpected. You cannot have humor without surprise.

Is it possible to categorize the different types of humor?  I suppose so, but it sounds like a dreary and humorless task. A time waster. Pointless.

Let us consider a few categories of humor – ones you are likely to run into in prose. At least, the ones I can think of.

There’s the unexpected twist; the misdirect. Where the passage zigs when it should have zagged.  AKA, the joke.  There’s a setup – a building narrative that leads the reader in a certain direction, and a punchline: the unexpected conclusion.

“He’s stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?” He turned back to Venkat. “I wonder what he’s thinking right now.”

LOG ENTRY: SOL 61 How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.

― Andy Weir, The Martian

There’s absurdity. A situation, an image, a moment that is so strange that it elicits a laugh.

It was a bright, defrosted, pussy willow day at the onset of spring, and the newlyweds were driving cross-country in a large roast turkey.

― Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume

There’s the clever observation – the connection that you never thought of before. The conclusion that is obvious in hindsight but shocking when first encountered.

Vietnam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes.

― Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

Similarly, there’s the witty aside. The transposition.

I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.

― Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Some words are just funny. The old vaudeville trope is that words with a hard “K” are inherently funny.

Rancho Cucamonga.

Albuquerque.

Lake Titicaca.

Kalamazoo.

Guam.

Names and places that defy expectations fall into this category as well. The cutesy name for the nasty beast. Basing a post-apocalyptic zombie horror story in Lake Placid or Carmel-by-the-Sea, or Shelburne.

They were looking straight into the eyes of a monstrous dog, a dog that filled the whole space between ceiling and floor. It had three heads. Three pairs of rolling, mad eyes; three noses, twitching and quivering in their direction; three drooling mouths, saliva hanging in slippery ropes from yellowish fangs.

[…] Hagrid dropped the teapot

“How do you know about Fluffy?” he said.

― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone[2]

There’s the sentence that starts out seriously enough, but just kind of spins off in a weird direction by degrees and finds itself taking the reader down the garden path until the original thought is lost and at some point you start to wonder if it’s going to wrap up but you’ve traveled this far and now you’re kind of curious to see how it’s going to end, whether there will be a payoff or if it will just trickle off, until you find yourself looking at your watch and remembering that you really have things to do, errands to run, and when’s the last time you spoke to your oldest friend from High School, seems like it’s been a while hasn’t it…

Yes, it has.

[Rambling sentence removed for length, but it really was a funny one let me tell you as it had this really interesting bit in the middle where it, wait… you know what? No.]

  • [Well Known Author], [Also Well Known Work of Literature] 

Pig in a Blanket by Camden Yandel

Then, there are things that are not funny.

Explaining the joke is never funny. If the reader did not laugh, no amount of exposition is going to bring them around. Then again, it’s hard to know during the writing process that the reader isn’t going to laugh, so maybe that’s not one to worry about.

Trying too hard is not funny. If it’s an explicitly humorous piece, the funny bits will either land or they won’t. And if it’s not explicitly humorous, and the writer is clearly trying to make the reader laugh, it will seem desperate. And desperation is not funny.

Unless that’s your schtick. In which case it might be. Because there really are no clearly defined rules.

Doing something humorous, and then standing aside and going, “Eh? Eh? That was pretty funny right?” Is not funny. You should never try to draw attention to the humor.

The great thing about humorous writing is, if you play it deadpan, if you just leave the joke there without drawing too much attention to it, then it’s a win-win.  If the joke lands, the reader thinks you’re funny.  If the reader never notices the joke, then they don’t think you’re unfunny, they simply didn’t realize you were going for humor.

It is only when you explicitly try to be funny, and fail, that you find yourself out on a proverbial limb without a paddle.

As it happens, some of the same rules that apply to writing, generally also apply to humor. For example, avoid excess verbiage. Get the funny across with the minimal amount of words to get at the funny. Some folks believe that a good joke is one that’s drawn out as much as possible, so when the punchline finally arrives, it feels earned.

It’s not. That’s stupid.

Callbacks are funny. But in literature that’s simply called a recurring theme.

Recurring themes are funny.

If you can take the funny bits and make them relevant to the theme of the book, such that you wend the humor, the subtext, the symbolism and all the other elements together into a luxuriant pastiche that blends together like a lovingly made lasagna after it’s been reheated three days later, then you have achieved your goal.

Because remember, the goal was never simply to be funny. Humor is just one of many tools in the writer’s toolbox, and funny for funny’s sake is nice, but if it doesn’t contribute to what you’re trying to accomplish with your writing, then you have just incorporated a distraction, not a contribution.

Now, go forth, and reheat that lasagna.

[1] If these words were uttered shortly after a pratfall, or a successful impersonation of Robert DeNiro, or perhaps you attempted to sip from a rum and coke but got the straw lodged in your nostril and then in attempting to remove the straw from your nostril you somehow got the lime wedge wedged in your ear, then yes you may be funny. But you are not the type of funny that is relevant to this essay. We are specifically, explicitly talking about word funny here. A predilection for a clever turn of phrase, and that sort of thing.
[2] Or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, if you want to be all British about it, or snooty, or both.

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