Josh Emmons interview

If you spent much time in Iowa City in certain years immediately straddling the millenium, it's likely you had the good fortune to knock back a few while standing around on someone's porch engaged in a hilarious conversation with with that chill-yet-dashing gadabout, Josh Emmons. The author of The Loss of Leon Meed is out with his second novel, Prescription For a Superior Existence, a thinking person's adventure story of a man ensnared in the machinations of a fictional California suicide cult. The book is a delicious read, an un-put-downable Bay Area philosophical thriller that rockets to its satisfying finish all too quickly. We caught up with Josh on the Internets, and the results are available now for you to savor:

EG: What was the genesis of this character Jack Smith and his story? He is a man of extreme appetites and multiple addictions. Is there something in you that can relate to him?

JE: It's tempting to repeat Flaubert's line about Emma Bovary ("C'est moi") when discussing Jack Smith, so I'll do it. He's me. Or: he's a version of me if I'd continued a druggy through line I began in high school, and if I'd leaned toward business instead of English classes in college. His compulsions toward sex, alcohol, food, work, pills, and television are different from mine in degree but not in kind, which made it easy for me to write him in first-person. As a teenager, for example, I loved getting high and was drunk and stoned for two years solid, until I had a minor breakdown and joined Narcotics Anonymous and thought that I was, as Elvis Costello put it, "living a life that is almost like suicide." Some of the despair of that period shows up in Jack in a stylized, fantastical way.

EG: Is it your sense that the world is careening toward unavoidable disaster, and is this book your way of dealing with conflicting impulses in your own life? Was it hard to write about this feeling that the world is going to hell without ending up sounding cliché or trite? Did you read other end-of-times/cult fiction as research? For example, I wonder if you read The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq?

JE: I'm pretty convinced we're headed toward disaster, and PASE is a product of that (dark, destructive) thinking, which began around the time I had to evacuate from New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina. A few months ago I diagnosed myself with what some psychiatrists are calling "eco-anxiety," wherein fears about global warming have become all-consuming, so since then I've tried to think about it less. Not because there's less reason to worry, but because besides recycling and taking public transportation and eating/shopping organically/locally, I'm not taking any radical steps like getting off the electricity grid or becoming an activist, and don't think that ringing my hands and rending my garments and whatever are helpful.

While writing PASE, though, I was totally eco-anxious and seized on the idea of weaving the most sensationalistic part of climate change projections—the end-of-the-world scenario—into the religion's doomsday prophecy. Unlike real historical millennial movements, which have used the Book of Revelations and other arbitrary systems for determining the world's end, PASE's environmental forecast was believable to me (and continues to be, sadly), so I was able to write
about it credulously. I'm glad this part of the book doesn't come across as too cliché or trite; I worried that it could with a plot as over-the-top as PASE's. I haven't read Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island (though I love his Elementary Particles) and wasn't reading other apocalyptic cult fiction at the time, but I thought about The Matrix (Jack's possible messianic role is distantly related to Neo's) and A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker. And Cat's Cradle was rattling around in the back of my head.

EG: How did you go about creating Montgomery Shoales and his new religion? Did you take any real-life movements as a starting point? Have you ever been involved with a fringe religion?

JE: PASE is basically a Buddhism/Scientology/Christian-Science mashup. One of Buddhism's core philosophies, that desire (or attachment) is the root of all suffering, runs through most religions in some fashion or other and seemed like a good sound baseline for PASE, both because there's an element of truth in it and because the world's in a materialist place right now. Of course human life has always been about getting and retaining things, from food and water to shelter to gaming consoles to stock options, but given the volumes we're working with these days, as Americans' credit problems attest, the situation seems extreme. I thought that a religion like PASE, while unattractive to most people, could find followers in a climate like ours.

I haven't been involved in any fringe religions or cults—my own spiritual journey has been from atheist to agnostic, where it's forever ended—though I'm interested in them. My parents grew up in a conservative Christian sect, the Church of Christ (there are two groups with this name, and they were in the more mainstream one), but had converted to Buddhism (my dad) and a kind of open-air Catholic mysticism (my mom) by the time I was born, so I grew up exposed to a couple of traditions that I found equally attractive and untrue. The idea for PASE came to me one afternoon when I visited the Scientology Center at the corner of Sunset and L. Ron Hubbard Blvds. in Los Angeles. I was given a private showing of an introductory film that was so cult-like and off-putting that by its end I had a moment's panic I wouldn't be allowed to leave. Jack's story gradually developed from there.

EG: It's impressive how you were able to manage to tell Jack's spiritual journey from his point of view, going through so many belief/unbelief flip-flops while maintaining his voice. I mean, he lurches from extreme to extreme fairly rapidly but his voice is somehow the same throughout. Was that hard to do? What inspired you to try that?

JE: I thought that because he's narrating the novel in flashback, it'd be best to keep his voice consistent throughout. He is not the Jack, or Jacks, he was even a week before the book begins, and so describes his former selves and states of mind with a kind of distance and dispassion in order to decide what's ultimately true (he's hoping to will into existence a great clarity of thought). The trick was to make each of his shifts—from doubt about PASE to faith in it to something else, from wariness of Mary to love for her to rejection of her to something else—seem plausible and true while he's presenting it.

EG: There's one scene where a PASE-produced video is being shown. You write:
The screen then sequed into a montage of people representing nearly every race, culture, age, gender, class, and physical condition ... either seated against a solid white backdrop or engaged in charitable activities.A Japanese schoolgirl pushed an elderly Egyptian man in a wheelchair into a PASE station. A Dutch businessman read from The Prescription to barefooted Mayan Indians in a hilltop Guatemalan classroom as an ox stuck his head through the glassless window.
Aside from being hilarious, it really captures the banal, absurdly PC essence of so many religious propaganda efforts. I'm thinking of pamphlet illustrations I once saw, of lions and lambs and attractive children holding apples and learning from wise, smiling leaders. It's always on hills, like the default Windows XP background.

JE: Yeah, for a second I was going to say that new religions, unlike old ones, have to keep going and growing in order to establish their legitimacy in front of a skeptical world, and so try to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. I was thinking of the mandatory mission year that Mormons go on. And the fact that Judaism doesn't lift a finger to attract new followers. But Christianity, a fairly old religion, still wants to convert everyone, so I don't know. Maybe we should remember Tracy Flick's observation in Election that "Coca-Cola is the number one soft drink in the world, and it spends more money on advertising than anyone."

EG: When I got to the end of the book, I could almost see it as a movie. Have you licensed the film rights? Any thoughts about how you'd like the film to be made if it is made? Or would Scientology sense it was hitting a little close to home and use its grip on Hollywood prevent its production?

JE: I have a film agent for PASE, but so far no one has optioned the rights. I suspect this is because its prose is less commercial (or friendly or whatever) than its plot, though it could be because of PASE's resemblance to Scientology, a sensitive subject in Hollywood. Not sure. I'd love Charlie Kaufman to turn it into a film if he were in an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind mood (as opposed to an Adaptation mood), and would only really be disappointed if it became a boilerplate thriller (though it's hard to imagine anyone bothering to do this).

EG: How was writing your second novel different from writing your first? Did you have a two-book deal?

JE: The first book is all about regular people tentatively working out their problems, and I wrote it quickly, a completed draft in a year, whereas the second is more concerned with ideas than characters and required more research and time, about two years to finish, even though it's a hundred pages shorter. They're so different that I can't say one was more enjoyable or satisfying than the other, though The Loss of Leon Meed appears to be more broadly appealing to people. I had a one-book deal for Leon with an editor who then moved from Scribner to Riverhead, so PASE went to another editor at Scribner, the great Nan Graham (who edits Don DeLillo, Annie Proulx and others).

EG: Have you read anything recently that knocked your socks off?

The last few books that blew me away were Stendhal's The Red and the Black (I'd read it in college and found it boring, whereas really it's one of the ten best novels ever), Alan Weisman's The World Without Us (though it aids and abets eco-anxiety), and Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji (damn this is good). Something I'd never heard of but greatly enjoyed recently is John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra.

EG: What are you doing nowadays besides writing? You went to Iowa recently to teach a summer course, but the flooding canceled that.

JE: I'm not doing enough. My Iowa class was canceled due to the flood, but in May I taught a two-week class at Northern Michigan University, where the lovely Rebecca Johns-Trissler works. Right now I'm at Yaddo until the end of August. When I go back to Philadelphia, I'm going to try to get a job at Greenpeace, though I doubt it'll be possible.

EG: What's next on your to-write list?

JE: I'm in the middle of a novel called Ambleside, about a couple that have been married long enough to wonder which is more flawed, them or the institution. At the moment it's a closely contained drama about relationships in the Revolutionary Road and Scenes from a Marriage vein, though it might open up to include more about the town where the couple is staying. I've also started writing a romantic-comedy screenplay that's shamelessly (shamefully?) commercial.

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