An Interview with Noah Cicero
Noah Cicero (b. 1980) is the author of six novels: The Insurgent (2010), Treatise (2008), Burning Babies (2006), The Condemned (2006), The Human War (2003), which was made into a feature film last year and is currently in post-production, and Best Behavior (2009), which was published briefly and in entirety on his blog and of which an excerpt can be read here. He is also the author of three e-books, transmissions from noah x to tao x (2006), The Living And The Dead (2006), Nosferatu (2008), which can be read at bear parade. His work has been translated to German and Polish. He lives in Youngstown, Ohio and works in a restaurant. Go here for more information about or to buy The Insurgent.
I first learned of Noah when he emailed me in late 2005 or early 2006 after I blogged about Jean Rhys. He sent me The Human War. I remember reading The Human War around 1:30 a.m. on my bed (on Wall Street at the time). When I finished it I felt very motivated and awake and wanted to go to the library to write. It was around 2:30 a.m. maybe. Something was wrong with the trains and I waited for something like 40 minutes, no train came, and I went back to my apartment and probably slept. I remember reading Burning Babies while walking slowly toward the library, from 28th street to 4th street, in nice weather. I have similar experiences with all of Noah’s books. I seem to clearly remember when/where I read each of them, and I view each of those memories/experiences as ones I’m glad to have, and I look forward to Noah providing me with more of those memories/experiences. I’ve read all of Noah’s books probably an average of three to four times each. I interviewed Noah via e-mail.
What was your life in concrete reality like when you wrote The Insurgent?
It was the spring of 2007... I was sleeping on a couch. Sometimes I still sleep on a couch. My brother killed himself three years earlier and I hadn't seen my parents for three years. I had no parental support. I had a small support network of people not related to me. (Which means they gave me no money, not like parents do.) Worked at a steak house for 7 dollars an hour as a dishwasher. I would wake up around 11 everyday, sit and read Richard Yates, Richard Wright, Erskine Caldwell and Li Po... The structure of the book was very influenced by Yates and Caldwell. People have forgotten Caldwell. Remember Caldwell. He visited the Soviet Union and people forgot him. I would sit and watch Peak Oil videos. I was very paranoid. Had few friends. I'm not sure if I had any besides my roommate. My roommate worked at a strip joint. I would sit there sometimes and give one dollar bills to the girls. The girls were sad and often on coke. I wasn't on coke. I hadn't had sex in a long time... There were no women and I wasn't looking for any. I was scared of everything. I would go to work at the steak house. There I would wash dishes by myself. Sometimes on the weekend a man would work with me that had a colostomy bag. Sometimes he would go outside and let air out of it... It was his method of farting. Several months before I worked at a factory and got bit by a brown recluse spider and almost died, I still have the scars... I had a near death experience to deal with. I would go home from the steak house, my roommate would be fucking in the next room. I didn't want to listen to her fuck. All her sex was violent and loud. I would go to the Waffle House... Sit there for hours reading Richard Wright and drinking coffee. I became friends with the servers... One time one of them made out with me by the dumpsters. There was no money, there were no real friends, there were no women... I was very alone. After writing The Insurgent things picked up. I went back to college and made friends... Now my life is different. I believe I "hit a bottom." I had no reason... When people saw me they knew I had no reason. I wasn't busy. I wasn't being a good American. I had forgotten to be ambitious.
What are some memorable moments from books by Richard Yates for you?
Every time Jim Givings yells stuff about how shitty everyone is. I also like "A Glutton for Punishment," how the guy has no life and resorts to radical politics to feel better about himself.
To me The Insurgent combines intense, sarcastic, self-conscious self-hatred/self-pity; the "road trip" novel; the "plotless" novel; socially relevant themes such as Cho Seung-Hui's killing rampage and the Iraq War and global warming; and an emotional love/appreciation of life in terms of “simply being alive,” enjoying natural phenomenon like trees and rivers and nice weather. How would you describe The Insurgent if you were pitching it to NBC as a TV series?
I found out it is hard to talk seriously about anything to the media. Recently they filmed The Human War to be made into a movie. The movie will be out next year sometime, I don't know when or where it will appear. I had several interviews with major media outlets, like newspapers, college newspapers, and the local news. I got asked for simple, little questions that meant nothing. At one point during the filming, one of the directors asked me to talk to an actor about a character, I mentioned Plato and everyone got weirded out. It is strange, society wants authors, authors who know things, society might even want philosophers, not sure. But they don't want us to know things in public in front of everyone. This is probably what many conservatives dislike, that there are people in society that know things. Most people are scared of people who know things and are also scared of those things they know. I probably wouldn't mention Sartre or Nietzsche or Richard Wright, I wouldn't mention anything. I would say, "ROAD TRIP NOVEL" "MICHAEL CERA" "CHINESE" "LOOKING FOR ONE SELF." They would be attracted to those words. I would be saying those words and phrases, thinking in my head, "These words mean nothing." But they wouldn't, those words would mean a million wonderful money making things.
Do you have any funny or notable stories about the process of The Human War being made into a movie?
The whole process was funny. First off, who the hell would want to make a movie out of one of my books? I was like, "Are you serious?" They were serious. I didn't believe them at all. I mean, seriously, I was working at a steak house at the time. My life was miserable. Then they came to Youngstown over and over and over again. Pirooz Kalayeh and Thomas Henwood the directors kept coming to Youngstown and taking pictures, talking to people, looking at buildings, all kinds of strange things... One time Thomas Henwood had me ride around in a car with him in the middle of the night talking into a microphone so the actors could hear my accent. One time they came and we kept going to strip joints to see which local strip joint would be the best. We ended up at this really horrible one in the country, all these hicks were there and one of them didn't like Pirooz because they thought he was a terrorist.
They brought me to New York City to watch auditions and the night before I was drinking Rum with Our Lady of Literature (many writers know her)... I wasn't paying attention when Thomas Henwood told me the address, I got the numbers backwards. I woke up in the morning and took the L to Manhattan and decided to walk there. But the numbers were wrong so I walked like sixty blocks. It was early and I had nothing to do and didn't care, so I just kept walking and looking around... I kept stopping at Starbucks and shitting and buying more coffee. It was June so the sun was beating down on me, making me sweat horribly. I walked through the Jewish neighborhood then I ended up in Harlem. It was like a different race every five blocks. At one point there were four black trannies standing on a street corner... I eventually called Thomas Henwood and he directed me to the right place. I got there and was all sweaty and feeling completely out of my mind with emotions. All these actors were there repeating lines from The Human War. It was funny as hell, all these random humans I've never met repeating my lines. I felt very arrogant and powerful that morning (as opposed to right now, feeling devastated and small). Pirooz told me to sit in a chair, I sat down and drank orange juice, I remember the room was very hot... I was sweating a lot that morning. The actors came in and did their thing. I watched them reading my lines, I felt strangely powerful at moments and at other moments really embarrassed, all my emotions that morning were very confusing.
They eventually started filming in Youngstown. Pirooz and Thomas got an apartment in Youngstown and all these cameramen, lighting people and actors came and filled it up... I would walk around the apartment completely amazed by all the activity and excitement going on. They would give me a coffee and have me sit in a chair. I would sit there and people would walk up and talk to me. Everyone kept telling me to be happy, I kept responding, "I feel nervous and weird about everything." I did, I felt nervous. It still weirds me out.
The Insurgent features scenes in a restaurant where the main character works as a dishwasher. Have any of your co-workers at the restaurant you work at read The Insurgent?
No one at the restaurant has read it... I will probably give some away when I get a few couples. I do not talk to a lot of people at the restaurant. Everybody likes me though because they say I am funny... They also believe I am moody. I am moody. I don't think I do anything at work. Usually I am tired or hungover and just deal with things. I have two friends at work. We go fishing sometimes, we sit along the Mahoning River and wait for the catfish to come... The one guy tells me about how he watched a show on the Bermuda Triangle. He says, "I watched it, I don't know if I should have watched it, I'm still wondering."
What are some of your favorite things to eat?
I like to eat Chinese food, orange chicken and fried dumplings... Every Friday I go to Main Moon (take out place). I sit there alone and stare out the window eating fried dumplings.
You went back to college, how was that?
I went to college when I was young because my parents told me to... It didn't seem to matter then, I went to class and passed them. Now I see it differently. Now I go to class and pay attention and do my assignments the night the professor assigns them... I think college is about making a good white-collar person. It gives you general information, like the movie Citizen Kane, William Faulkner, how long carp live, and how to speak some Spanish. And the classes of your major teach you generalized information, I'm a political science major so now I know about international relations theory, public administration theory, how to use SPSS, and I've been informed about Plato and his Republic. In America there is a certain intelligence you are supposed to have. It is strange to think that, but there is, a specific American intelligence which involves Antigone, Aristotle, Ernest Hemingway, Freud, Skinner, screwball comedies, Durkheim, foreign language and Algebra. And if you think about it, these aforementioned things are what everyone knows who is a white-collar person, from nurses to lawyers.
I read The Insurgent in book form sitting in Washington Square Park in Manhattan. I felt very calm after finishing, due to things the book does, in terms of its narrative arc, that it has some scenes set in nature, near the end, that contrast nicely with the rest of the book, in my view. What are your favorite things to do in nature, if you're in a forest or on a mountain?
I really like nature... I have this pipe dream of becoming a national park ranger. I would really like to wear that outfit and walk around being a national park ranger. I believe that if got to wake up everyday as a national park ranger I would be happy. I would wake up in the morning and look at myself in the mirror before and feel really good about my life. I wouldn't even care if I was one of those rangers that collect money at the entrance... I would be fine with that. I would work all day and then change my clothes and walk around the park. I like walking. I walk alone even though I don't live in nature but some ghetto hellhole of a city. I grew up somewhat in nature. I grew up in a smaller town called Vienna. My parents owned five acres and behind our yard were miles and miles of broadleaf forest. To escape my parents and their stupidity I would walk in the forest by myself talking to myself, imaging things... I think this started when I was like 8 or 9. My parents didn't care where I was, they knew I would come back for food and shelter. I would walk several miles to a lake and sit by it. I believe this is where I became a writer. I would walk and think of stories and tell the stories to myself. Nietzsche said in 508 of Human, All Too Human, "We like to be out in nature so much because it has no opinion about us." This is why I think I like nature. There are no opinions of you, you don't have to respect anything in nature but nature. As long as you don't litter and shoot at the animals nature doesn't seem to be bothered. But it must be added, you don't have to judge nature. The Grand Canyon doesn't say, "Look at me, what do you think?” As opposed to the human world, everything in the human world asks for judgment and judges you because every object in modern society is a symbol of economic class. Canyons and clear water creeks care nothing for class distinctions. I think after I would be done working as a park ranger, I would write short stories about bull moose or deer or maybe certain types of trees. I would read the stories to the animals. The animals wouldn't care, but I would be having fun and then I would drink water from a canteen and feel good about everything.
Would you get lonely at some point and want to go back into society, do you think?
I don't know if I would ever become a park ranger... It is probably just a pipe dream. I don't think it is a question of being lonely. I'm very co-dependent upon women for my self-esteem. As all true assholes say, "My mother never loved me." I can't live without a woman being in the same house with me... I don't even care if I'm having sex with them. That doesn't matter at all, just as long as there is one there. So the course of my life always depends on women and them being there. I am not truly a loner. I could never live alone. If I lived alone I would for sure kill myself. I feel safer when a woman is there and I constantly have to ask the woman if she thinks I'm doing the right thing. It is a horrible fault of mine but I'm afraid in my 29th year of human life that I cannot escape it. I would like to become a park ranger but it would only happen if a woman went with me... I could never do such a thing by myself. I'm not strong enough. I'm really not that strong of a person at all. I have lived in Youngstown all my life basically driving the same streets, working in the same mall parking lot, working restaurant jobs, never attending a management position, never never never... My whole life revolves around getting home and going on the internet or reading books and escaping. I'm a really scared person. I finally went back to school when I was 28, I'm going to graduate next year. And it all terrifies me, the tests, the papers, the professors, the other students, all of it scares me, and just hurts me, I feel so hurt so much in school... I've cried after classes from fear. I've vomited before tests. I keep thinking, "Will I be like this my whole life, will my whole life just be me being scared of living an adult life." This is my fear really, I'm afraid of adulthood. I'm really just a child, I'm at adult height and my face is the face of an adult but I'm not really that mature... I can't really handle adult situations. To be an adult you have to show up and be serious. I'm never serious, I just want to play around, make jokes and go home and check my Gmail, Facebook and read a goofy ass book like the The Twelve Caesars... What kind of human reads ancient Roman histories in 2010. I should be reading new books of literature to be a better writer. I should move to New York City and do readings and read normal modern books and sit with interns from The New Yorker but instead I'm in Youngstown reading spaced out on a lawn chair reading Antigone... I'm so much like a child, my world is just imagination and a complete lack of seriousness. Seriousness hurts me. I have to be serious though: I have to start taking things seriously and embrace the seriousness of adulthood. I don't know how I will be able to do this.
What kind of books do you think you're going to write when you're 50 or 60?
I think I will write long books on culture. I would like to have money and this money would be able to buy tickets to places... I would go places and sit there and talk about other cultures. The books would not be popular... No one would want to read them but college graduates. If I had no money I would endlessly write about everything that happened before I was 60, those books wouldn't be popular either. They would only be read by people who read too much and can't other things to read.
How long do you think you're going to live (based on your diet, exercise regiment, and lifestyle)?
All four of my grandparents are still alive, they are all in their 80s... None of them have had cancer or heart disease. I took a class on Gerontology, the professor said that you can calculate how long you will live by your grandparents. I will never die.