Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.
Today's guest for the WHAT (What The Hell Are You Thinking?) is Gordon Jack, author of Your Own Worst Enemy. He always wanted to be a writer. In third grade, he put that on his “What I want to be when I grow up” list, just behind astronaut and professional dog walker. While working towards this goal, he had jobs as an advertising copywriter, English teacher, librarian, and semi-professional dog walker. The Boomerang Effect was his first novel. He lives in San Francisco with his family.
Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?
I was inspired to write Your Own Worst Enemy by my editor from Harpers. We were talking about my next book and she said, “Why don’t you write about a high school election?” and I said, “You mean, like the movie Election?” and she said, “Yes, exactly like that.”
I love the movie Election and wasn’t up for writing another bit of fan fiction (My last book The Boomerang Effect is a rip off, I mean homage, to a P.G. Wodehouse Jeeves and Wooster novel.) I decided instead to write a novel about an overweight teen cast on a humiliating sitcom, which my editor hated. Maybe I should write about a high school election? I thought. When I asked my editor about it, she loved the idea and that’s when I started writing Your Own Worst Enemy.
Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?
The reason I didn’t want to write about a high school class election is because they’re kind of boring (at least at my school). Only a few people run and there’s never really much drama. The trick, I found, was to make the teens as competitive and immoral as some of our politicians. So, I modeled the three candidates in my book after Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump. Once I did that, the writing got way more interesting (and therapeutic after the 2016 presidential contest).
In the early drafts, the plot revolved around a love triangle, which I know sounds weird for a political satire. Brian’s dilemma of working for Stacey but being in love with her opponent mirrored my own conflicted feelings of supporting Hillary but secretly loving Bernie. I felt like Hillary had the most experience to be president, but Bernie had all the energy and radical new ideas.
I didn’t introduce my Trump stand in until much later when I realized the book wasn’t as funny as I wanted it to be. Tony became my Trump character and Kyle his Steve Bannon. Tony wants attention but doesn’t really want the responsibility. Kyle helps him tap into the part of the electorate that’s being ignored and weaponizes people’s anger. Hilarious, right?
Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?
That’s what I call writing. Does this not happen to other people?! What’s their secret?
Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?
Well, that depends. Coming up with ideas isn’t too hard, but coming up with good ideas is a challenge. For example, I’m working on a story now tentatively titled, “My Future’s In The Toilet” about a teenage girl who walks into a bathroom stall at prom and comes out at her 20-year-high school reunion. I love the concept, but I’m having a hard time making the story more than a series of brief encounters where the main character learns about her friends’ embarrassing secrets.
First drafts suck. I know they’re supposed to suck, but that doesn’t make them any easier to write. Whenever I’m writing a first draft, I’m reminded about how bad a writer I am and I don’t like being reminded of that. It’s not until the 3rd or 4th draft that I begin to see my genius again, until I show it to someone and they tell me I suck and to keep revising. The story evolves and changes significantly the more I work on it. Who knows, by the time you read this “My Future’s In The Toilet,” could be about a dog that saves a small town from a tornado.
How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?
I usually go with whatever character I want to spend the most time with. I imagine I’m hosting a dinner party with all the people in my head (I never invite Fred though because he drinks too much and chews with his mouth open). The person I want to sit next to is usually the story I want to write because I’m interested in this character and what’s going on in their life right now. If that person turns out to be an insufferable bore, I’ll find an excuse to leave the table and start loading the dishwasher, which is what I usually do when I’m procrastinating with writing.
I have 5 cats and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?
If by writing buddy you mean strong coffee and Pop Tarts, then yes, I have a few writing buddies. I find it hard to compose anything without them.