Camera-eye in the future ruin, “freedom” prison, and cutting up the news.
One of the most frightening and brilliant aspects of David Ohle’s futuristic novels is how eerily they parallel our own landscape. Motorman (1972), The Age of Sinatra (2004), The Pisstown Chaos (2008), and Boons and The Camp (2009) all share the same backdrop, a realm not explicitly said to be post-apocalyptic, but certainly one where the workings of the world have been inhumanely redefined and most of its inhabitants struggle for life and scrap for sustenance—physically, emotionally, and psychologically.
Ohle’s latest foray into this world is The Blast (Calamari Press, 2014), which centers on Wencel, a teenager at St. Cuthbert’s Boys Academy, a school unafraid to torture and maim students for their grooming habits; and Wencel’s mother, whose daily combat is to make what little they have count, braving the “souk” market and the threat of wild and vicious poodles, all the while attempting to instill her own slim virtues on her son as best she can. Wencel’s father reappears mid-novel too, having been arrested for stealing a radio, then released from his sentence as another victim of an awful and rampant illness—one that turns people into husks of their former selves, with bodies that no longer require food or sleep, but tooth pullings and odor shellac instead.
As far-reaching and distant as all of this may seem, in The Blast, as in his previous novels, Ohle masterfully shows us how his world is so very sadly and frighteningly like our own. Parents battle to teach their children what they believe is right and good, the top tier of wealth and power dominate the rest, the government is degenerate at best, and there is an unchecked spread of disease. Wencel is really just like our teenagers, even if his studies include “Pop History” and “Emoticonics”. His young brawl to make a life in Ohle’s brutal setting is more like a mirror than we might want to admit, and more rewarding than we might expect, too.
JA Tyler Since Motorman was first published by Knopf in 1972, you've written two more novels and two novellas based on the world of the character Moldenke, and this year, we'll see another two: The Blast in July and The Old Reactor in late 2014. Why are you so drawn to this landscape—this future ruin of flood and famine and oppression?
David Ohle What draws me to this landscape/dreamscape again and again is probably very much like what attracts a gamer to his game world. It's a gnarly place where anything can happen, but you're in control of what does. Getting there for me as a writer and reporting about it is accomplished with a simple formula: take current trends and add time. The more time I add, the more ruin I see. But it isn't total ruin in my novels. Transportation is available in one form or another. There's food, drugs, and beverages around, however crappy they may be. People don't starve. And they get high on williwhack, stonepicks, and maximine to ease oppression in general, whether religious (Reverend Hooker in Pisstown Chaos) or governmental (President Michael Ratt in The Age of Sinatra). Once I venture to these landscapes, I become a documentarian, recording what I see. My narrative style is camera-eye, almost entirely visual. I “see” what goes on in these bleak places and times, and I like being there just long enough to write it down.
JT This idea of a documentarian is really interesting to me, especially since the world you’ve created in The Blast and its predecessors is so thrumming with life and detail, so well-crafted the reader feels as if they are there with you. How long does this process take you, from seeing it to the final manuscript draft?
DO The time it takes is variable. My approach is not that different from a film director's. I call for live action and my characters enter the set, a set already designed and waiting for them to play out their roles. I often cut, rethink, or re-see a given scene many times, until I'm satisfied with it. In the case of The Blast, my characters were quite good at their roles and there weren’t a lot of cuts or re-thinking needed. The novel took ten months to write and another month or two of tinkering for me to feel it was ready to send out. The process took about three years for The Old Reactor, forthcoming in September, and about thirty years for The Age of Sinatra, which features a larger cast and a vast, complex set.
A friend and I had a discussion about my way of composing, and his. He was a journalist who wrote non-fiction exclusively. He found it strange that my way was to see the people, places, and events as I wrote about them. He said he always saw only the words on paper—screen now—with no visual equivalent. This is perhaps why the reader feels there—because of this approach, the reader is not so much looking at words but moving pictures.
JT Much like your previous books, The Blast is so visceral, and the visual approach is most likely the reason readers often feel this way about your work. It also makes me wonder if there has ever been film interest in your novels. I can see how your works would be both extremely tempting for a production company, with their clearly resonant narratives, but also daunting, given the complexity of the landscape.
DO On two occasions individuals produced screenplays for Motorman. No production companies were interested, however, and no interest has been shown for any of the other novels. I did publish a book of three “stories for the screen,” (The Devil in Kansas, Lazy Fascist Press, 2012) all based on screenplays I'd written. No interest there, either. I doubt the complexity of the landscape is the issue. Filmmakers seem capable of bringing remarkably complex landscapes to the screen. It's more likely they don't see widespread interest or profit in it.
JT If we can continue speaking of profit for a moment, Motorman was first published with a large, national press, but since its reprint—first by 3rd Bed, then later Calamari—you have tended to stick with presses like Soft Skull and smaller, more indie-oriented publishers. Is this change out of necessity, or intention? How much or how little is profit a part of the thought process when you are looking to publish your next book?
DO Necessity. No national—American—press has been willing to publish anything of mine since Knopf published Motorman. Even Soft Skull quit publishing my work after they were purchased by Counterpoint because the books weren't making money. No, the idea of profit never occurs to me. The French, Italian, and Spanish publishers did pay me a decent amount for translations of Motorman and The Age of Sinatra. The closest I've come to being published by a national press in recent years was when Grove Press contracted to publish Cursed From Birth: The Short, Unhappy Life of William S, Burroughs Jr., a book I edited. They proceeded to go as far as printing galleys, then backed out of the deal at the last minute. That's when Soft Skull took over the project. So I'm quite used to the idea that the biggies aren't interested. A couple of my novels have shown up online as e-books, but I was never notified or paid anything for that. And I don’t ever expect to be.
JT This kind of treatment of authors and words is always astounding and infuriating to me. Do you ever grow so frustrated or weary from experiences like this that you become reluctant to write?
DO Initially, yes. Frustration, anger, especially after early publications in Esquire and Harper’s and a novel edited by the editor in chief at Knopf, Robert Gottlieb—not Gordon Lish, as rumor has it. After that, it was all indie publishers and literary magazines like The Missouri Review, which published several excerpts from the novel that eventually became The Age of Sinatra. If they hadn't done that, I may well have given up. But I didn't, and years later, Soft Skull, with Richard Nash as editor, brought out Sinatra and then The Pisstown Chaos. In time I did give up any hope of landing a book with a major publisher, or making any money. It was no great loss—perhaps even liberating. I once had a bumper sticker that said: NOW THAT I'VE GIVEN UP HOPE I FEEL MUCH BETTER.
JT Calamari also recently started archiving a previous project of yours, The City Moon. Can you talk to us a little about this?
DO The City Moon was a satirical print “newspaper” that a friend, Roger Martin, and I produced back in the early-to-mid '70s. Other friends became involved from time to time, too. It was mainly a cut-and-paste operation. We had a vast collection of old—and sometimes new—newspapers and magazines from which we mined headlines and stories that we “processed” into better and more interesting stories and headlines. This mix of current and old news gave the paper a steampunk aspect. The University of Kansas libraries at the time were tossing out collections of newspapers dating back to the turn of the century, papers like The New York Herald, which still featured articles about horse and motorcar collisions, The Rock City Daily Rocket, and many foreign papers as well. The library tossed them after they were microfilmed. We harvested them from a dumpster behind the library. We also invented stories and characters, many of which found their way into my later fiction in different form. Not long ago, the University of Kansas's Spencer Research Library undertook to digitize all eighteen issues of the Moon and was generous enough to allow them to be put online where anyone can view them.
JT That is fantastic. It’s great how small presses continue to champion your work. Can you give us a little preview of The Old Reactor?
DO Moldenke returns for a starring role in The Old Reactor, which finds him sentenced to an indefinite stay in the “freedom” prison at Altobello for shitting on a grave. Everything at Altobello is “free,” accessed by a pass card. This includes meals (awful, stomach-turning fare); housing (dilapidated, crumbling old hotels); transportation (noisy streetcars that never run on time). Beyond that, you’re on your own, free—no hospitals, no law, no warm clothing, nothing but freedom. And the place is infested with jellyheads, who’ve lived in the shadow of a nuclear reactor so old no one knows what it is. This has caused some of them to “go critical”—to kill family members and bring their severed heads to the nearest Saposcat’s, a chain of restaurants specializing in the awful fare mentioned above. They eat dinner and leave the heads behind. As always, Moldenke endures it all and remains. If my novels can be said to exist in any linear order, The Old Reactor ends roughly where Motorman begins.
JT If The Old Reactor ends roughly where Motorman begins, does this mean the story has come full cycle, and this is the last we’ll hear of Moldenke?
DO While the cycle is somewhat serpentine, it is complete. And this is very likely the last we’ll hear of Moldenke as an adult, although his childhood remains an interesting possibility for future subject matter. He served me well as an all-purpose character for a long time. He’s ready for retirement.
JT Sad, but to everything a season, right? And before The Old Reactor brings us full-circle, we have The Blast to digest. The Blast opens with Wencel mightily harassed and eventually physically shamed one morning at St. Cuthbert’s Boys Academy, and I was struck by this opening because some older books—Robert Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists , for instance—and some newer novels, like Adam Levine’s The Instructions, also open on anxious and weakened young men being bullied. What attracted you to this kind of opening, to start with the protagonist in this destabilized state, and what do you hope it does for the overall structure of the novel?
DO I was intrigued with the emphasis and conventions of beard-growth and maintenance in some Middle Eastern cultures. I wanted to apply those notions to American male youth culture and see what came of it. Having attended a Catholic high school, where the Brothers of the Sacred Heart often meted out corporal punishment to the unruly, including yard sticks smashed on the head, sometimes even punches to the face. And, yes, I was an anxious and weakened young man, too. I hope the series of radical changes Wencel and other students are subjected to at St. Cuthbert’s, one after the next, provides forward motion and a “what next?” curiosity in the reader.
JT Also, in the landscape of The Blast, many people, like Wencel’s father, are dying in the same, horrific way—with a lack of hunger or thirst, an indefatigable stink, and the need to have their teeth pulled to quell the grinding. Teeth are meant to last forever, or at least until we are much older, yet these people who are sickened can pull them free without the use of pliers. So in The Blast, it’s not even just that their realm is collapsing, but the people inside it are, too. Do you see a lot of hope in their world, or in ours?
DO For the afflicted in the novel, hope isn’t an issue. They never express pain, sadness, regret, or anything but stoic acceptance of their condition and a sanguine, fearless view of death’s approach. The non-afflicted are also quite satisfied with their lot. Freddy, a student at St. Cuthbert’s, says it plainly: “I can't even imagine anything better than we’ve got right now. Most of the people are gone, we live in these nicely isolated townships, we get everything we need to survive.” This is an end-stage society without war, without strife, and what little there is, is free. As a registered pessimist, I don’t hold out much hope for our world as we’ve come to know it. And I imagine that if we do have a long-term future, it won’t be all that different, generally, than what we see in The Blast.
JT Yet, even without much hope for this world, both the afflicted and non-afflicted are in fairly good spirits, and the book even ends with a kind of “happy” family dinner, where everything is mostly put to a satisfactory end for Wencel and his family. Isn’t this type of ending relatively different from your previous novels set in this landscape?
DO It is different. I didn’t initially plan it to be that way. I’m not a plan-ahead writer. I simply begin with a setting, a character, photograph, a name, almost anything to spin a story around. Motorman, for example, began with just the name Moldenke overheard at a party. I later learned the man’s name was Andrew Moldenke; I never met him. But Moldenke seemed the perfect name for someone in a futuristic setting. The Old Reactor grew out of a caption in an old Life magazine: ATOM PILE MEN. The photo was of men working on the first nuclear reactor in 1942. How any of my novels might end is always something I discover along the way.
JT Even though you aren’t a plan-ahead writer, I bet you still have a new project or two in the works. Can you tell us a little of what you are working on while your fans dive into The Blast and, later this year, The Old Reactor?
DO I have written a few lines of a novel about the nurse/nanny who cared for Moldenke as a child. No idea where it’s going yet. I rarely get much work done during the summer. I have a garden to look after.
David Ohle’s novel, Motorman, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1972 and re-released by 3rd Bed Press in 2004. Its sequel, The Age of Sinatra, was published by Soft Skull in 2004, followed in 2008 by The Pisstown Chaos. In 2009, two novellas, Boons and The Camp, were published by Calamari Press under one cover. He has edited two non-fiction books, Cows are Freaky When They Look at You: An Oral History of the Kaw Valley Hemp Pickers (Watermark Press, 1991) and Cursed From Birth: the Short, Unhappy Life of William S. Burroughs, Jr. (Soft Skull, 2006). The Devil in Kansas: Stories for the Screen was published by Lazy Fascist Press in 2012. His short fiction has appeared in Harper’s, Esquire, The Paris Review, and elsewhere.
JA Tyler’s fictions have been published in Diagram, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Black Warrior Review, and Denver Quarterly among others. His novel The Zoo, a Going is forthcoming from Dzanc Books.