Over the years, I’ve mentioned my friend Jeff Kay here a few times. He and I got to know one another, trading our zines through the mail in the mid-90′s, and, then, at some point later in the decade, we met up in LA and became friends. He was married, with two kids, and working in the music industry. I was working for a startup company and living in Burbank. We started hanging out, laughing our fat asses off at each other’s stupid jokes, inhaling onion rings in the historic North Hollywood Big Boy’s Beatles booth, and plotting our takeover of the entertainment indusry from the lobby of the building where Marie Prevost was eaten by her dog. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. Within a few months, the company I’d been working for would be out of business, and I’d be moving back to Michigan to marry Linette. And, as it would turn out, Jeff would be losing his job not too much later, and relocating to the entertainment mecca which is the great Scranton area.
The night before I left LA for good, Jeff came over to my apartment to say goodbye. We had some beers, I gave him a table and a chair that wouldn’t fit in my car, and, then I started blubbering like what my friend Jennifer would call a “little titty baby”. Other than Linette, Jeff was the closest thing I’d ever had to a collaborator – we’d actually shot some film and started on a rough draft of a book – and it broke my black, cannonball-sized heart to be leaving him. That was over ten years ago now. And, while I’ve gotten sucked into local Michigan politics and the like, Jeff has stayed focused on his creative endeavors. He not only operates one of America’s most ripped-off comedy sites, but he’s now a published author. What follows is our conversation about his first novel, Crossroads Road, which was just released this week.
Jeff: That’s right. It’s a novel of sorts, called Crossroads Road. I started writing it after I was laid-off from my job of seventeen years, and finished a couple of years later. I worked on it, off and on, for a long time. It’s a comic novel, for entertainment purposes only.
Mark: What’s it about? Is there a main character? Does he face a crisis of some kind? Is anyone’s life in peril? Does anyone shit their pants?
Jeff: Jovis McIntire is a standard-issue suburban dad, living in Pennsylvania with his family. His mother-in-law, a woman he calls Sunshine, hits a multi-state lottery and wins $234 million. She makes an identical offer to all her children and their families: a large, custom-built home and two million dollars cash. However, there’s a catch. If they take the deal they’ll be required to live together on a newly-created cul-de-sac in southern California. Jovis views his extended family as a gaggle of kooks, and he and his wife quickly reject the offer. Then Jovis returns to his job, and realizes he’s now there by choice.
That’s the general premise. And I can’t remember anyone shitting their pants in the book. However, Jovis does have an encounter with a special toilet manufactured for the morbidly obese.
Mark: Given that the locations – Pennsylvania and California – are both places that you’ve lived with your family, and the fact that you too refer to your mother-in-law as Sunshine, would I be correct in assuming that Jovis is somewhat autobiographical, at least with regard to the way he views the world around him?
Jeff: Yes, but Jovis isn’t exactly like me. I think it’s safe to say he’s a ratcheted-up version. I’m fairly laid-back in real life, and keep my feelings of exasperation bottled up. At least until I can write my next Surf Report post… Jovis wears it all on his sleeve.
Mark: So, what made you decide to go the self-publishing route?
Jeff: My agent was unable to find a buyer for the novel. To be fair, he had warned me up-front that a comic novel by a newcomer is an uphill battle, even during the best of times. But these aren’t the best of times, the publishing industry is struggling, and nobody was willing to take a chance.
Someone suggested I self-publish and it made me really angry. I had a negative view of self-publishing, and thought of it as the last refuge for desperate hacks. I was pretty disgusted by the whole experience, but didn’t want to give up on the book.
Begrudgingly, I started reading a little about self-publishing — or indie publishing as some people are now calling it — and it’s come a long way since the days of vanity presses, and that sort of thing. The Kindle Store and NOOKBooks are paying really high royalties to authors, and operations like Amazon’s CreateSpace make it easy to publish a high-quality trade paperback on demand.
I decided to take the plunge, but wanted the final product to be as professional as possible. My agent had put me through two re-writes, so the plotting was pretty tight, I thought. But I had a couple of editors read it for grammar, punctuation, and spelling. I hired a formatter, who got it ready for print, and also Kindle and ePub, the two main electronic formats. And I asked the Evil Twin, a talented artist and friend I’ve known for many years, to do the cover.
If nothing else, the book looks freaking fantastic.
Mark: And, judging from the updates you’ve been sending out to the readers of your site, it sounds as though the response has been incredible… Didn’t you just have to to stop offering signed copies because there was too much demand?
Jeff: Yeah, I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me. It’s one of those good problems to have, I know. But I had to cut off orders, because it was getting out of hand. I’m going to have to set up a distribution center in my living room.
Mark: How many are we talking about?
Jeff: 200 or 225, somewhere in that neighborhood. I know it’s not a huge number, in the grand scheme of things, but I was expecting 50 or 60. And I’m certainly not complaining. I’m excited by the positive response. It’s been great so far. And, of course, the book remains available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and I was just approved to sell it at iTunes, too. It took a while for Apple to come around, but they finally did.
Mark: So, what’s next? Will you be doing a book tour, or having public readings around Scranton? Have you started a second book?
Jeff: My job from this point will be promotion. I’m going to appear on the morning show at a local radio station next week, and will hopefully be doing some additional press, as well. I’ve been so busy getting the various formats of the book up and running, I haven’t done much work in that direction yet. But I will. It’s important, and also a little intimidating. It’s easy to get the word out to the regulars at my website, but the trick is going to be to attract readers who are unfamiliar with my work.
I haven’t started a second book yet. I have a new agent, who is fantastic, and she and I have been discussing the possibility of an autobiographical non-fiction project. In fact, the article I wrote for Crimewave, about my days working at a West Virginia convenience store, is the inspiration for it. It could be a lot of fun, and apparently non-fiction is more attractive to publishers. I don’t pretend to understand any of it.
If the novel goes well, I might also write a follow-up to it. I might be able to finish another one before my heart seizes up.
Mark: Are you concerned at all about your online life and your offline life colliding, as you venture out of the bunker to do press? I seem to recall that, at least a few years ago, you dreaded the possibility that people at work, and in your non-immediate family, might find out what you were up to. Have you gotten over that?
Jeff: Yeah, I’m not overly concerned at this point. I don’t write about work anymore, so that’s not a problem. Years ago I would rant and rave online about things that happened in my office, and was always mildly concerned people might find my website and cause me problems. I wasn’t smart enough to stop the ranting, mind you, I’d just walk around with a low-grade worry all the time.
And when I started counting the number of times the word “fuck” was spoken on Deadwood, the old HBO show, I was working for Time-Warner — which owns HBO. That ‘Fucks in Deadwood’ page was linked at the Drudge Report for four or five days in a row, and then every blog on the planet linked to it as well, and it got really crazy. The Los Angeles Times ran an article, and interviewed the creator of Deadwood about it, and it ran on a Sunday. The next day I went to work and had to go on a conference call with… HBO Home Video. I was shitting crystal clear ice water, convinced somebody would reveal my dark secret. But not a word was ever said about it.
Nobody at my current job knows about my website, as far as I know, but it won’t be the end of the world if they find it. I haven’t written about work in years, so I think I’m safe.
Mark: If you don’t mind my asking, what’s your writing process like? Every time I sit down and try to get started on “my book,” I get seduced by something else, like peanut butter crackers, or the immediate gratification of a blog entry. Am I remembering correctly that you spent some time sitting nude behind a typewriter in a yurt?
Jeff: I have a problem with distractions, as well. The internet can suck the life out of a day. For some reason I don’t have much trouble writing Surf Report updates at home, with the stereo blasting and all that, but had to completely leave the house when I was writing the book. Or else I’d piss away two-thirds of the day bouncing between the same ten websites for hours on end.
A big part of the novel was indeed written inside yurts. I recommend it. Several times I rented one in a state park not far from our house, for three days in a row, and knocked out a ton of work in a short period of time. The key is to go during the week, while school is in session. It only costs $33 per day during those parts of the year, and the campground is almost completely empty. Plus, there’s no internet out there. There’s literally no downside to it.
I’ve never been nude inside a yurt, but the night is young.
I also did a lot of writing in a public library near our house, and logged dozens of hours in Panera Bread. Panera isn’t ideal, but it’ll work in a pinch. Plus they have great coffee and sandwiches.
The fact that I wasn’t able to work at home caused the writing of the book to drag out. I need to address that problem, somehow. But that was the process: yurts, libraries, and chain restaurants.
Mark: Yeah, I can’t recall who the author was, but I remember that some famous American author had said that he had himself locked in an empty room each day, nude, and with nothing but pen and paper. I want to say that it was someone like Poe or Hawthorne, but I’m not sure. As far as your process goes, did you have a story arc in mind when you started? Did you have a pretty clear idea as to the journey you wanted Jovis to go on? Or, did you just start kicking out scenes and then worry about pasting them together into some kind of narrative later? Also, I’m curious to know if you had the characters pretty firmly worked out before you started writing, or if they took shape over time, as you brought them into scenes and had them interact.
Jeff: I wrote character biographies in advance, so I knew a little about each of them. A few evolved slightly during the writing process, because I got better ideas as I went along. But I tried to nail down each character in my mind before I started, and had their personal histories written in a notebook so I didn’t get into trouble with continuity and that sort of thing.
I worked with a rolling outline, if you know what I mean. I always had it plotted for the next three chapters, but didn’t know exactly what would happen beyond that. I’m no Cormac McCarthy, and don’t think too many readers are going to find the secrets of the universe in Crossroads Road. But I wanted it to be tightly plotted, and fun to read. So, I spent some time working on the story, and there’s not too much meandering in there. Things happen quickly and logically, I think, and there’s some suspense.
I did have trouble with the ending, though. Every reader of the first draft hated the original ending, and my agent said it needed work, as well. And they were right. It was like National Lampoon’s Vacation, but with some artsy, ambiguous final scene. It was ludicrous. It finally came together in the third draft, and I like the ending now. It’s simple, not ambiguous at all, and hopefully funny. But I had to bash my head against the wall for several months to get there.
Mark: You mention that you also had to hack the hell out of it, cutting away a lot of stuff in order to get it down to a manageable size. Were there things that really hurt to cut? And how contentious was it… Did you fight with your agent over anything, or did you pretty much just accept all the advice that was given to you?
Jeff: Yeah, I basically re-wrote the last quarter of the book. Not a revision, but a complete re-write. And that was because of the feedback I received, and the way I felt about it personally. The agent provided reader’s notes, with suggestions on how to make the book stronger. I tried to address everything he identified, because it all seemed fairly reasonable. But I did get some off-the-wall recommendations from other readers, which I promptly ignored. It never got contentious, because it was always my decision on how to proceed. And nobody tried to insist on turning it into a Lifetime movie script, or anything like that.
Mark: If it ever were adapted for the screen, who would you like to see play Jovis and Sunshine? Are there actors that you envisioned when you were working out scenes in your head?
Jeff: I’m not sure about Jovis, but I think Kathy Bates would be a great Sunshine.
Mark: So, I think you mentioned changing agents. Did that happen in the middle of all of this, and was it related?
Jeff: I was signed by one of several agents working at an agency in New York, and he was great. I could call him for advice, or he’d just check in with me every couple of weeks. We had a solid relationship. He was the one who warned me that comic fiction by a newcomer is a tough sell, but advised me to go where my heart tells me. So, I worked with him on the first few chapters of the book, and it was going well. Then he called one day and told me he was leaving the company. It was never the same after that. I was assigned a new agent, she left too, and then I was shuffled to a third one. By that point I was not a priority and could barely get anyone to return my calls. I was a hand-me-down, twice removed. I decided to stick around until something happened with the novel, and when that didn’t pan out, I asked to be released from the agreement.
I’m now with someone new, and it’s a thousand times better. She has a great sense of humor, is supporting my self-publishing endeavors, and has enthusiasm for my work. That last part was missing from the previous situation, and it’s kind of important. Ya know? We’re getting ready to start on the autobiographical project, and I feel privileged to have her on my side.
Mark: How’d you find her?
And then one question after that….
How has having the blog either helped or hindered your work?
Jeff: She contacted me after reading something I’d written, possibly the Alli side effects article, and asked if I had representation. That’s the only time something like that has happened, and I hated to turn her away. But I was still in the process of writing the book, and had decided to stay the course with the original agency. After that went down the crapper, I emailed her and asked if she was still interested in talking with me. We had a long conversation on the phone, and she eventually took me on as a client.
The Surf Report has made me a better writer, because it requires me to write most days of the week. I’ve undoubtedly strung together millions of words for that website during the ten years it’s been online. All that practice pays off. Plus, I’ve met lots of great people, had interesting opportunities and experiences, and laughed my big ass off. It’s been nothing but positive.
Take the book, for instance. If I’d tried to write it before the website, I would have lacked discipline and the skills I’ve learned by cranking out all those Surf Report updates. I wouldn’t have an audience, or a platform as they call it, and no literary agent would have given me the time of day. So, I’m fairly confident that the book would have never happened, if not for the website. Heck, you knew me back then. Do you think I could have written a novel? I was so distracted and crazed, I could barely READ a novel.
Mark: Yeah, our early endeavors writing together weren’t terribly productive as I recall. They were fun, though, and I think the stuff we sketched out for Billy White Eggs might still be worth pursuing… I don’t know know that I’d say the same of our sitcom idea (The Dukes of Clairmont), though. (Although, I do think the crease-cleaning monkey, if cast correctly, could have a show of his own.) One day I want to go back and watch those video tapes we made.
Speaking of the original Surf Report, I can’t remember if you agreed to put out another issue as part of the Atomic Books Revenge of Print campaign. Did you?
Jeff: I haven’t committed to Revenge of Print, but I want to do it. I think it would be fun, and it’s exciting to see all the old zinesters in action again. I’m hesitating in putting my name on the list, because I’m afraid it’ll feel like one more obligation hanging over my head. But I intend to publish a new issue of the Surf Report zine in 2011.
And yeah, we had an agent asking for a book proposal from us, and we couldn’t get the thing completed. Just a proposal. But we walked up and down the sidewalk in front of NBC wearing sandwich boards covered with insulting statements. And we drank a lot of beer. I think our priorities might have been a bit out of whack.
I’d forgotten about the crease-cleaning monkey. He was a monkey trained to clean the fat folds of a bedridden obese man, if I recall correctly. A service animal. He ran around the apartment with a sponge on a stick, right? I still like it!
And I remember us brainstorming ideas for TV shows we could create, and one of us said, “How about this… A show very much like Party of Five, except it takes place in a slaughterhouse.”
Mark: Yup, those were the days. Thanks for the interview. I can’t wait to read the book. I’m ordering it tonight… Good luck with it.
Those of you who are interested can purchase Crossroads Road electronically today through the Amazon Kindle store, or the Barnes and Noble Nook page. Hard copies should be available soon through Amazon.