An Interview with Joey Comeau
Joey Comeau is by no means a traditional storyteller, preferring instead to constantly push the structure of fiction. He's best known for his wildly popular and oft-blogged webcomic, A Softer World, a series of witty photographic triptychs. His first novel, "a genderqueer queer adventure" called Lockpick Pornography, is available for free online. And his latest project, Overqualified, is a novel told through cover letters for job applications, which may sound dull, but manages to be both hilarious and terrifying. I recently got the chance to pick Comeau's brain about the books and writers who influenced him, as well as his own unorthodox fiction.
What's the first book you remember being passionate about?
I guess it depends on the kind of passion you mean. When I was a kid I loved those Gordon Korman books. This Can't be Happening at Macdonald Hall. The War with Mr. Wizzle. I Want to Go Home. They were funny and snarky in a way I definitely wanted to be. It was the Joey I knew I could be, you know? Books like this are where kids get the idea of using humour as a defense mechanism. I bet a funny looking miniature Tina Fey had a copy in her buck-teeth junior high years too. I still sometimes think, I should write a book like I Want to Go Home. That book meant a lot to me. It's about a kid who gets sent off to camp, and he just tries to escape, again and again. Everyone else, even the other kids who don't want to be there, are resigned to what they have to do, but his reaction is just, "forget this." It had this great sense of comic situation, too, of doing and saying the exact wrong thing at the right time. So, that was my favourite book for years.
But when I read Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, it was different. This was a book I read through three times in the first week I owned it. I fell asleep with the book beside me. I always thought that was bullshit, when people said that. The book was with them at all times. But this book just took over my life for weeks. I don't know what it is that clicks when you're reading a biography. Sometimes the life is interesting. But sometimes you get this crazy combination of seeing parts of yourself that you weren't sure anyone else had ever felt, mixed with who you WANT to be.
What's the book you wish you'd written most?
I kind of wish I had written The Fountainhead. I would follow it up with, The Fountainhead 2: Just Kidding.
What's the last terrific book you read?
Sam & Max: Surfin' the Highway by Steve Purcell. This is a comic brought back into print by a video game company. It was the basis for an old PC game I loved as a child, and a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon show. It is gleefully violent, and so silly. The characters forget their own names! ("Let's go, Sam. I mean Max.") and make fun of the author ("Ah here we are in the yawning void of space, drawn without even a grade two understanding of astronomy.") I love it. I just the other day realized it was a play on words that their arch nemesis was Mack Salmon. ("How did he get like that, Sam?" - "A boating mishap, I'm guessing.")
What writers made you want to write yourself?
Morley Callaghan. Hunter S. Thompson. Tupac. These are the writers who made me think that writing could be fun! Now I'm noticing that there are no women on my list. But I was a kid. I just read what people gave me.
Morley Callaghan's a weird example for writing being fun, but he was the first real example I had of a writer just writing. He didn't try to make the writing pretty, or turn it into poetry. He just said things. His short stories just blew me away. They would end with these lines that killed you. And, unlike with Raymond Carver, you knew exactly why they killed you. It was plain as day.
Hunter S. Thompson had such a great sense of anarchic fun. Doing exactly the wrong thing, again. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was the one. When I was a teen I was sort of obsessed with the idea of reprogramming yourself, Timothy Leary style. I did acid, bringing along a pad and pen to take notes. This sounds really lame, writing it now. Research! I ended up with two pages of notes about waiting for it to kick in, and then page after page of indecipherable scribbles. There wasn't much there for me. This wasn't the way to reprogram yourself. But it was around this time that I read HST, for obvious reasons. The drug stuff was fun, but what really interested me was how he told a story. He told stories the way they should have happened. He was rewriting the past to be funnier, sure, but in a way he was recreating himself, too.
Tupac is a bit cheesy, but that was part of what I loved about it. You'd have these angry crazy songs about shooting people and then a dance hit and then crazy paranoid ranting and then a love song to his mom. And you realize, fuck it, you can do whatever you want.
What was your biggest misconception about being a writer? (or maybe, What do you wish you'd known when you first began writing?)
It is all true. Everything I was promised. I don't have to go to work in the mornings. I get recognized in restaurants. I have so much sex. I know one day it will all go wrong, but man. I like being a writer.
When/how did the concept of a novel-in-cover-letters hit you?
It just sort of transformed overnight from a collection of crazy cover letters into having it be this cry for help from one character, who is writing them. I was already trying to write a book about my brother Adrian. From there it was all perfect in my head. It was just a matter of finding a way to assemble the story in the background of crazy letters without losing the power of the letters themselves.
Were there unique challenges to write a story with this kind of structure, as opposed to a conventional novel or collection?
It's fun writing in a really restricted form like cover letters. In a way it makes you more willing to experiment. You want to see just how far you can go without ruining everything and breaking the illusion. You want to digress and have crazy parts, but you don't want an eight page short story, you know? That's not a cover letter, that breaks the form. And then when you do figure out how to get some story in there, it is first in service to that letter itself. What the narrator says in his letters is obviously complete fabrication half the time, so you have to use repetition of small details and names to make things seem true. This is the fun of writing A Softer World, too. I have so few words to tell a story. Limitations can be exciting.
Also, I was constantly terrified that people would compare it to Letters From a Nut and nobody would take it seriously.