Author's Answers! 20 Questions for Kevin Kunundrum, author of FOTUS.
1. Who would you say influenced your style as a writer?
In high school, in addition to all the hot babes who were in AP English, I loved Rabelais and Tristram Shandy, and I thought, “Wow! There’s no limit to what a writer can write about!” Years later, I discovered the Czech writer, Milan Kundera, who followed in this tradition. To him, the novel was fertile ground for most anything, including a playful and very modern take on philosophy and sex. And then I found my mentor, the Italian writer, Italo Calvino, who was the Larry Bird of creative writing. What Bird did with a basketball, Calvino did with words (and they both made it look so easy). And when Calvino wrote a wonderful short story about a water faucet, I said to myself, “He da Man!” And as I became a writer myself, I wanted to channel all these visionaries fueled by the God of Imagination. And then Old Ernest, my drinking buddy from another time, taught me to put things in and take things out, and somehow if they were worth a damn, the things taken out would still remain. And that was some Shangri-La Zen-Writing Shit, and I dug that! And of course, Ol’ Bill Shakespeare with his notion of negative capability. There are no blacks and whites, only shades of gray (but not 50). And to understand this is to approach understanding humanity and its marvelous, multitudinous, confounding contradictions.
2. What do you want the reader to get from the novel that they might not pick up on?
Satire is especially fun because on the surface it seems to be about one thing, when it’s really about these other things beneath the surface. FOTUS is actually about what it means to be a human being. Our hero is introduced to us as a fetus on fast-forward. And while Little Alex Rett (the President) is busy doing President stuff, he’s also growing and transforming before our (the readers’) eyes. Everything he does, we see through him, literally, for the first time. These things that take everyone else a lifetime, for him, happen overnight. And through Alex, we see ourselves, our own biographies. Didn’t we all undertake that same struggle to become who we are? That first friend? That first date? That first bold step into the world? And this will be fully realized for Alex over the course of the Trilogy, as each book represents a trimester.
3. Why did you choose to write under a pseudonym?
I prefer nom de guerre: an assumed name under which a person fights, paints, writes. I’ve been doing battle for a long time. It seemed fitting. As my old pal, Vinnie Van Gogh says, “Indeed, life is a battle.”
4. When do you deem a book a success in your eyes?
When you get what you set out to do. There’s a telling story about the great slugger, Albert Belle of the Cleveland Indians. One time he hit a game winning home run. But after the game, instead of celebrating, he took batting practice. When asked why, he replied, “The homer didn’t feel right.”
5. Was it hard balancing political commentary and humor within your novel?
They are inextricably entwined. And on a serious note, how can you get through life without laughing? My only worry was that real life had gone beyond satire and parody. FOTUS proves the case, that satire is alive and well in the 21st century.
6. What was the hardest scene for you to write?
The most difficult scene was the shift within Alex when he realizes his own humanity for the first time. It had to be subtle and seamless. This occurs during the attempted coup, when Alex is holed up in the Oval Office with his faithful bartender, Manolo Vargas. And as he gets drunker, the barriers within fall away and he starts to become what they used to say was a Mensch—a human being. From this point on, he’s a different person. And while two divergent lines may be close at their source, as the lines go off in different directions they become further and further apart. By the end of the book, Alex is fundamentally changed and is a better person—and probably no longer suited for his job.
7. Did publishing your first book affect your writing process?
Monetary success is what affects the writing process. Since I haven’t had that, I have no reason to pander to anyone. I’ve had the freedom of audacity—to write what I damn well please! And I’ve found this method indispensable to finding one’s unique, original voice, especially if there are no more fucks to be given. L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace!
8. If you were able to speak with Alex Rett, what would you say to him?
Technically as the author, I can speak with him! I can say, “Hey Alex, how come you didn’t say those lines I wanted you to say?” And he might respond with, “Who’s the President here, me or you?” And I’d say, “You are.” And he’d reply, “So…” And I’d say, “I’m fucking off now.”
9. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching, before beginning a book?
When I wrote George Washington Werewolf, I read a handful of histories of the Revolutionary War, five or six biographies of George Washington, and books on Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Franklin, and other related topics. It took forever. And then all the notes! As a novelist, I prefer to pick a subject where for the most part I can just make shit up. With FOTUS, the main thing I had to do was read the news and social media every day. More than once, I would discover something outrageous that had just happened in the world, and I would inject it into the narrative without missing a beat. I’m looking forward to finishing the political Trilogy, because then I will get off social media forever!
10. Is there a character within FOTUS that you identify with most?
There is something of me in all my characters, throughout all my books. In FOTUS, Ace Buckland is especially close, since he’s an artist, like me. But I made his artistic life very different from my own, even though certain fundamental themes are part of us both. I love Alex Rett, my hero, because he, like his author, is so flawed, yet full of a kind of innocent hope for things to work out, regardless of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Also, his tendency to go off on four or five tangents at once is a quality I share. We both have Cubist minds and are optimistic pessimists. Oh, and we also drink and swear a lot.
11. Why did you decide to use multiple writing formats within the novel?
I have written a lot of books, some of them quite experimental. Stream of consciousness, colloquialisms, different styles of dialogue, plays, poetry, reportage, anagrams, secret codes, footnotes, illustrations, photographs, advertisements, the layout itself, all within the purview of
the novel. I try to pick styles that work for the book at hand. Since FOTUS is mainstream fiction, nothing too avant-garde. But since it’s high satire, well, some corners can be cut, some straight lines bent.
12. What book, if any, made you think differently about fiction writing or writing as a whole?
Calvino’s, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller. The book is a tour de force. Each chapter is written in a different style as if from a different author. Yet it flows. It’s a mystery. It’s a love story. It’s a love affair with the written word. And it all works. And as the kicker, the first lines of each chapter are assembled, one after the next, to become the final chapter—the answer to the mystery, and the culmination of the love story. THAT is some serious shit, what Calvino brings!
13. Your novel is very dialogue-focused. Was that a conscious choice?
Everything in a novel is a conscious choice. That’s what writers do. We make choices. For me, dialogue is indispensable. Poetic verse and expository prose are great, but novels are about people, and people talk. And often, what they say is counter to who they are, and what they don’t say, reveals what they really mean. When I’m at a coffee shop, it’s the conversations that intrigue me. Unless they’re dull. Then I go and get another double espresso.
14. What makes a satirical piece successful?
In all great satire—Voltaire, Rabelais, Swift, Heller’s Catch-22—there is a triumph of synthesis. Take a political satire: there are Democrats and Republicans, Left and Right. To ally yourself with one side at the expense of the other is not good satire. It’s thesis vs antithesis. Left/right, good/bad, us/them. Great satire shows us the flaws and goodness of both sides and then takes us upwards, to the synthesis, this mystical mythical place where things are different, and perhaps even better. And while not always arriving at its destination, great satire points us in the right direction.
15. Since you also run a cocktail blog, what is your “go-to” drink?
If I have a well-stocked bar at my disposal, then I would be hard-pressed to choose just one thing. If, however, I have a limited supply, then you can’t beat a well-made dry martini (Hendrick’s and Dolin) or a Perfect Manhattan (bourbon, sweet and dry Vermouth, bitters, cherry). And as a writer, I also love “The Last Word”.
16. You want FOTUS to be the inaugural novel of a trilogy. Can you give us any hints on what the next novels will involve?
The second part of the political Trilogy, Buy This Book or You’re a Dick, continues the growth of President Alexander Jackson Rett, both spiritually and physically, as he aspires to be a full-sized human being. In the process, he dates Siri (you know, “Siri, what’s the capital of Norway?” Yes, she is a real person.). He also deals with Fat Terrorists, Neo-Nazis, growing unrest between North and South Urea, and Egad Mollusk, the world’s first zillionaire, whose doomsday device may be Alex Rett’s savior or his undoing.
The third book, I Punch Angels, is under construction.
17. How would you respond to criticism over how you portray women in your novel?
A novel is a true dictatorship. The only thing I bow to is the novel’s verisimilitude. If the narrative calls for this or that character, then that’s what I’ll put in. If someone outside of the world of the novel doesn’t like it, then they can write their own damn novel and kiss my arse!
18. As a white man, did you ever consider that your characterization of Black people as well as your use of the N-word might be seen as offensive?
There are quite a few Black people in FOTUS, from many walks of life, each with their own way of being and expressing themselves. What my characters say is their business. Many times, I’ve tried to get them to say certain things and insert my own personal opinions. But more often than not, as their conversations develop before my eyes, they say things that are completely different, and usually better than what I originally intended. What they say is true to themselves. They speak to each other un-self-consciously, and are unconcerned with how their words might sound to someone outside their world; someone with their own agenda or axe to grind. And if one blames the author for such things, then they don’t understand the role of the artist in society, which in itself is another question.
19. What sets your work apart from other political satires?
The thing that sets my book apart from other political satires, and in fact, from every book that has ever been written is that my hero is a self-aware fetus who becomes President of the United States. Case closed.
20. Although social media can be toxic, do you believe that its positives outweigh its drawbacks?
I love seeing pics of everyone’s lunch. That could never be possible before social media. On the downside, I believe it has given birth to the Solipsist in everyone, not to mention the Narcissist, as every moment of our lives, no matter how prosaic or mundane, must be documented for posterity, with a nice self-portrait for good measure. I think Rembrandt would have embraced the Selfie.