Article first published as My Interview With Josh Bazell About His New Novel Wild Thing on Blogcritics.
Josh Bazell blew me away with his debut novel, and while I usually stick to simple headlines when doing author interviews this time it was more extravagant, reflecting my reaction to it, namely this headline: "My Interview with Josh Bazell, Author of Beat the Reaper, the Funniest, Weirdest Book I've Read In Five Years."
The sequel, Wild Thing, which came out last month with a bright red cover, is also funny and weird (in good ways, of course). The novel has more footnotes and source material than many non-fiction books.
His debut novel was about a young doctor, Pietro Brown, who was a hitman for the mafia in New Jersey before entering a witness relocation program. His already crazy life gets more crazy when he has a patient who recognizes him and calls the mafia.
Wild Thing, in which Pietro is hired to look into reports of a lake monster, contains a blurb from another author I love and interview regularly, Lisa Lutz:
"I didn't want to like it. I mean, a doctor writing a novel is kind of obnoxious. What, you don't have enough to do already? But maybe that's me. Anyway, I didn't want to like Beat the Reaper, but I did; I loved it. It is completely original, an utter page-turner, bold, shocking, hilarious, complex, and even educational. It's that book you wish you had with you when you were trapped in an airport during a three-hour flight delay. My only complaint is that I've already read it."
Since both Lisa and Josh write unorthodox comic crime novels with lots of footnotes I thought I'd do something appropriately unorthodox. So this time, as I was choosing questions to ask Josh, I asked Lisa if she had any she wanted to pose to him through me. She did and so the last few questions of my interview were chosen by her.
I let him have his revenge, though: I sent her questions this week for an email interview about her new book and they contain questions Josh asked Lisa. If you like Lisa's books you'll love Josh's and vice versa, I think. That said, if you don't like one that doesn't necessarily follow that you won't like the other since they are quite different in style.
Both authors are hilarious and bring to mind the late great Donald Westlake. Speaking of Westlake, I'll publish an interview next week with an editor who put together a "new" novel by Westlake discovered after his death.
Josh was on the NBC's Today show recently talking about this book with Al Roker — you can watch it here -- and the exchange sparked one of Lisa's questions for Josh. Incidentally, Josh's dad is Robert Bazell, NBC News' chief science and health correspondent.
I should warn you the material in Josh's books can be racy at times so if you're a prude expect to be disturbed. That said, it's wild and fun.
I can go on and on about how much I love both of Bazell's books but let me instead give you a few excerpts from the new one so you get an idea of what I am talking about and then I'll cut to the interview. Here's a sample footnote about life as a doctor on a cruise ship: "Treating sexually transmitted diseases on a cruise ship is mind-blowing. It's like an episode of Iron Chef, where the special ingredient is genitals."
And this is one I ask him about in the interview, from page 11:
"Cruise ships have, on average, crew members from sixty different countries. The cruise lines like to sell this as a happy byproduct of Let's Watch World Cup globalism, but in reality the practice dates back to a 1981 sit-in by the predominantly Honduran and Jamaican crews of two Carnival Lines ships that were docked in Miami. Standard practice now is to not allow any single nationality to make up more than 5 percent of a crew, and to have as many officers as possible be of the same nationality — ideally one that speaks a language that most crew members don't understand, like Greek."
I also wanted to give an example of how the footnotes and story work well together. Early on we met a character he refers to as Rec Bill. Footnote 1, "I don't actually say 'Rec Bill.' 'Rec Bill' is just a nickname I've started using because I keep hearing him referred to as a 'reclusive billionaire.''' Then when another character calls him Rec Bill, a footnote notes, "Violet Hurst obviously doesn't say 'Rec Bill' either."
Not only does Bazell have footnotes but there's even a "guest footnote" at one point, penned by Violet, one of the characters of the book — a novel idea.
Now let's get to the interview.
How did you come up with this story? And just how WOULD you summarize what this is about because I am struggling to do so but I blame that on allergy meds.
It’s about a physician who takes a job investigating rumors of a carnivorous lake monster in Minnesota while on the run from the mafia because he used to be a hitman. That’s obviously a pretty classic noir setup, but I think my approach to it is new enough to keep things interesting.
What kind of research did you do for this? Did you ride on a cruise ship to get those parts right or chase after what may be mythical creatures?
Homey don’t cruise, but at the moment I’m in LA trying to find one person in the film industry who doesn’t lie all the time, so I think I can say I’ve got the mythical creatures thing covered. Plus, I always keep up with unexplainedmysteries.com, and not just because they link to my book. Although mostly for that reason.
I love your footnotes. Do you and Lisa Lutz have a contest going to see who can a) help return footnotes to novels and b) who can write funnier ones? But seriously, why do you think you have more footnotes than most authors or is it the other way round and other authors should use them more?
Lisa Lutz uses footnotes?
Speaking of footnotes — last question on this topic, I promise — are all the footnotes accurate and true, particularly the one about cruise ships on page 11?
They pretty much have to be, since unlike with regular text, you can’t just append a footnote to them saying “Not.”
How would you describe your protagonist, Pietro? How are you similar to the protagonist and how are you different?
We don’t have the same name.
I'm very impressed by the amount of sourcing you did for this novel. In fact I think it's fair to say your source section and appendix are
longer than I've seen in some non-fiction books. Why did you decide to go into so much detail – I am not complaining (I especially enjoyed the section on Sarah Palin) — just curious.
Remember how in the last touchdown of the Super Bowl Ahmad Bradshaw tried to stop right at the goal line but kept going past it? Pretty much the same thing.
Did you pick this book's plotline partly because of people's fascination with the unexplained, be it the Loch Ness Monster, Big Foot, etc.? Do you share that fascination and, if so, is this book a way to deal with that?
The cover of the book is a way to deal with that. It’s guaranteed to scare off just about anything, even under water.
As someone who used to live near Harpers Ferry and Antietam and as a newspaper reporter who interviewed more than my share of Civil War reenactors and now lives in Austin and now know my share of people who read Field & Stream and hunt. I particularly enjoyed the following paragraph. Do you laugh as you write gems like this?:
"Violet gets bored of hanging out in McQuillen's waiting room, reading Time from six months ago and Field & Stream from who gives a @!$%#. It's not that she doesn't sympathize with hunters: she understands people's need to pretend the world's still full of resource-intensive animals they can party-kill out of @!$%#ed-up rage, just like she understands people's need to reenact the Civil War because they don't like the way THAT turned out. The problem is that the two groups overlap so heavily.”
Laugh? I thought that was me being sympathetic.
Your first book was the focus of a two-day bidding war and was a hit. Was it difficult writing the follow-up since there might be pressure on you to do another wild tour-de- force with this one?
There was that kind of pressure, and I think I wrote a book that successfully responded to it. But I had a two-book deal in a lot of countries, so I decided to publish Wild Thing instead.
There's a suggestion at one point in the book, by the character, Violet, that being informed is not fun or good. This comes when she's mocking Pietro for being so well informed. I'm guessing, based on your detailed footnotes and sourcing, that you come from the school of thought that knowledge is power — right? Who knew I'd be learning some new background on Jimmy Carter, for example, in the sources section of a thriller?
The actual quote in the book is "You don't just make doing dangerous @!$%# look fun, you make being informed look fun. Which is another thing that's not true."
Every school of thought teaches that knowledge is power. How much of that is just them trying to juice enrollment numbers remains to be seen.
How do you and Lisa Lutz know each other?
Who’s Lisa Lutz?
Questions for Bazell from Lisa Lutz: Other than Al Roker, who are your literary influences?
It’s pretty much just Al and Lisa Lutz.
When's the last time you took a bubble bath?
If you have to ask, I’m guessing it’s pretty obvious.
What took you so long to write this book?
My wrinkled bubble-bath fingers.
Don't you think the excessive use of Purell weakens immune systems?
I like to think that cracked skin from Purell-related drying probably leads to more infections regardless. Sorry you asked.
Would he mind if I ripped off his guest footnote idea? (Frankly, I'm surprised I didn't think of it myself)
No, I wouldn’t mind, and yes I’m happy to do one for you.