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PK Interview: Trevor Richardson

For the past few weeks, we've been having an ongoing conversation with Trevor Richardson, artist, script-writer and, now, author. American Bastards, a layered and slightly trippy journey through the American cultural subconsious, is one of the most exotic books we've read this year. We had to meet the man behind it - and he didn't disappoint.


American BastardsPK: I’ve now spent 48 hours in Texas - most of which was spent circling the 10,000 highways strangling Houston. From the car window, I didn’t see a lot of culture. But if American Bastards is to be believed, the cowboy state is one of the creative centers of America... what did I miss?

TR: First up, the South at large is one of the biggest creative contributors to American culture. There’s a kind of art that comes out of the cities that is powerful, relevant and cool, sure. But there’s another kind of art that comes from the bottom rung, the poorest of the poor, the uneducated voicing their desires, losses and pain.

Music is a clear indicator. Without the darkness of the South so many musical forms would have turned out very different. Jazz, country, bluegrass, even rock and roll, all of it found its sea legs in the South, and Texas is part of that. And like so much of the art world, where there’s a musical form there’s a literary form to match it, or a visual form, or a backyard trailer junk poet. The point is, creativity is not strictly reserved for NYU students or crazies in the South of France.

Moreover, you saw what Texas is in many ways, but you missed the big connection and, coincidentally, one of the major themes of this novel. The pressures of dictatorial religion, tradition, narrow thinking, fundamentalism or conservative “good ol’ boy” behaviors alienates a percentage of the Texas population. The people that feel like they don’t fit in with all that will search for refuge and they find it with the people that came before them that felt the same way. They connect to Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash and this world brings with it some Dylan, Hendrix, Beatles, and a want for more that is fueled by the lack of feeling a sense of belonging anywhere else. There aren’t many artists, but the ones you find are usually committed with finely honed craft. They don’t fit into their little Podunk worlds so they escape to art and come out sharpened on the other side.

PK: Much of American Bastards is set in Subterranea, a landscape composed of the American cultural subconsciousness. One of the major landmarks is the Hotel California. What does it take to qualify for residence?

TR: Whenever I have to answer questions like this I always try to remind myself that this is a very cerebral novel. At face value it’s pretty colorful, maybe even a little melodramatic, but behind the veil of allegory and cool characters there’s the fact that this is a story about the Id rescuing the Ego from itself.

I wrote most of this book in the bleary state that comes after waking from a particularly powerful dream. I slept with a notebook beside my bed and would often wake up to find text haphazardly scrawled that I didn’t remember writing. The goal was to try to tap into something unconscious and figure myself out along the way. The story of Jack and Tom was the result of that effort but it should be made clear that the only reason one person is in the story and another isn’t is just that I didn’t dream them in. I feel like this book was given to me by someone else. Americana is just Jack’s experience of how he himself sees his own culture. In the book we create them but they also create us. Standard god and man relationship, in a way. The version of Americana that Jack creates might be very different from the version George Bush or Liza Manelli or Tom Waits might encounter.

That’s the best way I know to answer it. The qualification was this: these are the people that showed up to help me along the way. And they paid...oh, God, did they pay.

PK: The residents of Americana are a mix of the fictional (Tom Sawyer, Jumpin’ Jack Flash) and the real (Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Cobain, Ben Franklin) - and drawn very heavily from music. What about other forms of art - especially film and comics?

TR: The characters are all fictional. They aren’t the real people. They aren’t even their ghosts. All of them are based on our cliched views of who these people are or were. They’re their legends, not their true selves. There was an early draft where Van Gogh was at the table with Thompson and the gang, but I had to let him go because he never said anything useful and he wasn’t remotely from Americana.

More than that, Van Gogh wasn’t there when I had the first dream with these characters all sitting behind a conference table judging if I was fit to be a part of their uprising. He only showed up in one dream. I think the people that made the cut just has a lot to do with what I was thinking about and putting in my head at the time this book was written. I do want to add, however, that there is more to this story, in the event that I write a continuation other forms will likely rear their proverbial heads. I’m older and a little more well rounded, going back to Americana now will be a totally different trip. But, in defense of my first baby, we do see a little Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Sam Spade/Bogart, zombies attacking New York and, fun fact, the town Subterranea where this all goes down is a very subtle tribute to an obscure world from Marvel Comics of that same name.

PK: If you wrote American Bastards ten years from now, who else would be in residence in the Hotel California?

TR: Ten years from now a lot would be the same, but a lot wouldn’t because new people would be dead. The idea of the story is that these figures are not ghosts, they aren’t the souls of the actual figures we encounter. They are the personification of a legend, and most legends aren’t born until the real individual gets out of the way, i.e. dies. I hesitate to name names for fear that I might limit someone’s life expectancy dramatically, but some people that have already passed on that have held my interest of late would be Buster Keaton, Buckminster Fuller, Amelia Earhart and/or Charles Lindberg, and Thomas Edison. Maybe Jackson Pollack to get the fine art chair filled.

PK: Normally I loathe the influences question, but it feels like American Bastards is all about influences. What literary/artistic works had an impact on your novel?

TR: You’re right in saying so. This entire book is a two-faced monster. Simultaneously a love letter to the art, philosophy and lives of some of my heroes and a snarky biting of the thumb at all of the wayward habits, uncertainty and stagnation of my people. The good in this book is a thank you to those who helped me find the shape of my own mind, and discover a side of myself that was worth trying to share with the world. The bad in it is a desire to change things into something better than the obvious cliches about the down side of American life. It’s a patriotic nod to what we were and what we could be, and a hopeful flipping of the bird at all the stuff we are that I hat.

So...that rant aside, influences were mainly musical. I’m a rock star at heart but I can’t play a lick of guitar. This was my solution. I’d say it would be a runoff between Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. They both have this way of using words like they’re painting. People often miss the point: it’s not what it means, it’s about how these words look side by side. Text can be visual art. Remove context and just look at the words “hydrogen jukebox” graphically. It’s awesome. That said, othr influences would have to be Hunter S. Thompson and William Burroughs. They had a way of tying philosophy, imagery and testosterone into one toke. I envy that. Finally, it might come as a shock... I don't know, maybe it isn't, maybe you expect it -- maybe you expect me to tell you to sew a rubber spatula to your head.

PK: Crap. We shouldn't?

TR: Anyway, finally, a friend of mine that influenced a lot of the dialogue in this book played me "Back of a Truck" by Regina Spektor. This was 2006, I think, before I wrote a line of American Bastards and when I heard the absurdist color and story of that song I thought, "I'd like to write something like that." So the first thing I wrote for this book was just an experiment with that kind of randomness. I sat on a Texas porch drinking Tennessee whiskey trying to honor Regina like she was some kind of Dulcinea on my newborn quixotic journey.

PK: American Bastards also has an autobiographical feel. In an earlier interview, you’ve described your own life as a “search for illumination”, beginning with religion and continuing through art. Your protagonist, Jack, also begins his journey as a youth pastor. Do you see any other connections between yourself and your main character?

TR: I don't want to give away too much. James Joyce said the only way to create an immortal work was to leave behind some mystery. That said, I don't mind admitting that this book is my story. I wrote this as a way to purge a lot of frustrations and questions. I mean, it kind of goes without saying when you tell someone that you wrote your book in a series of dreams, but this is a very subconscious work. I was trying to unpack my mind after a bad divorce. Jack gets married young because he thought God wanted him to. I did the same. It quickly went sideways and the experience rattled me in a profound way. I questioned everything about my choices, that led to questioning God and wondering what I had missed out on. I had abstained from everything, gotten married young, and never dared to make any big mistakes.

I decided to mess up on purpose. To do what King Solomon called "testing the pleasures of the world." I moved to Denton, Texas, and stayed with my friend Ben Cartright, a Texas folk-punk musician who was kind enough to show me what I had been missing. And that's where the absurdity, uncertainty, and weirdness of my book started. You could say this all happened to me. It's just half of it happened in an unconscious plane. Still, a different philosopher might suggest that the dream experience is no less valid or "real."

PK: At the start of the book, Tom explains his story with “Jim Morrison told me to keep a record.... and when Jim Morrison tells you to write some stuff down, you don’t waste time wondering what the critics might think.” Is that how writing works? A command or drive, rather than a want or hobby? Is that what separates capital-A-Art from Business?

TR: It's time for one of my favorite axioms. I say this all the time these days. It's weird, you spend years telling people you're a writer and no one cares about your ideas. Then you actually publish and you're immediately an expert. Suddenly everyone is asking about your process. Anyway, when asked this question I always say the same thing. Forget everything people say about needing to get inspired, or what method people use to get into the right "space." Whatever. "Writing is a muscle." It takes commitment, strain, and repetition. After enough repetition the muscle develops and once it develops it learns. When it learns it remembers. It's muscle memory. You train your brain in the same way. With enough repetition neural pathways develop and grow. As the nerves get stronger the action becomes more natural. That's it. To me anyway.

After that it just comes down to having the will to act. You ask yourself if you want to write today and sometimes you just don't have the drive. Enough drive can get you moving and sometimes that's all it takes. You just have to start writing. It's like the bike analogy. If you haven't ridden for a while you just have to get on and start moving, your body will remember and the rest takes care of itself. If you start writing, even if it's wobbly at first, muscle memory will kick in.

PK: A few of the characters have been appropriated from other countries’ cultural heritages - especially the British (e.g., Jumpin’ Jack Flash, John Lennon, the Fat Bottom Girls). Is that because of the close connection between our subconsciousnesses? Or have those archetypes been appropriated as part of the American tradition?

TR: I had dreams with these people talking to me or chasing me or whatever. Some of them I chucked because they just weren't from Americana. But others I sort of justified for one reason or another. Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie's early alter ego, for example, is depicted a couple of times. I let him in because of the whole "Living in America" thing. The thing is, like you already indicated, there's a lot of rock and roll influence on this book and the rock culture kind of crosses oceans. The Beatles influenced American rock but American rock influenced the Beatles. More than that, John Lennon said he was a New Yorker. He lived here. He died here. (Sorry for that, by the way).

I don't know, I'm rambling here, but the point is there is a connection between the British culture and the American culture more than some of the other scenes. Drive through the South and listen to a classic rock station. You hear American rock and British rock side by side, but you don't really here any rock and roll from Germany or Finland. To the radio stations down there that wouldn't be "real" rock and roll. But British stuff, that's okay, it makes the cut, because even the most set in his ways backward deer hunter from Texarkana recognizes the relevance of the British Invasion on rock history. My point is, these musical figures get in because they influenced American history.

PK: Besides your work as a novelist, you’ve also written screenplays and comic books. You’re also an accomplished artist - with your artwork addressing many of the same themes as American Bastards. Given this availability of means in which to express yourself, why is American Bastards a novel?

TR: American Bastards actually started as a comic book. I was going to try to work with a friend to have him help me with the work load and so I had to write a script. Some of the stuff I was putting down, around the time I listened to Back of a Truck and the Dulcinea thing and I was still working my writing muscle that was all supposed to get organised into a comic script. My comic script kept getting bigger and bigger. Then I realized that some of the best parts of the text weren't going to make it into the comic because they would become images. So I chucked the comic idea for the time being and wrote my novel.

Anyway, every work of art has an implied form. Ultimately you just know it's the right medium for the idea. That famous cliche about Michelangelo saying he didn't make the Statue of David he just released him from the marble, we all know that one, right? It's because David is supposed to be a marble statue. You can't paint David, it would just look like a sketch of the completed idea. It's the same reason pretty much every comic book movie sucks. The perfect form of that idea was a comic book. You've already honored the idea to its utmost, changing forms is just like a step backward. American Bastards was just meant to be a novel. I am, however, exploring other ideas that will extend the American Bastards mythology and some of those will actually make better sense as a serialized comic strip or a short story or a painting even. It might be worth mentioning that my next project involves a fictional musician and I am collaborating with some musician friends to actually compose the stuff that this character plays. You can't just write lyrics and hope it's a song, you have to make the song.

PK: What’s next?

TR: The project I am working on right now takes place twenty years from now in an America where corporate powers are the new government and the citizenry lives to pay taxes and serve the American corporation. It's neo-feudalism where the middle class is the peasantry. There's a musician that rises to fame and starts a revolution and a lot of stuff about how the American Indians are going to save the day. So there's that. I'm also working on creative ways to promote American Bastards, working on mixed media art events, I'm driving around America and hanging Highway Zero signs for a nationwide scavenger hunt, and tons more. I've recently come around to the idea of expanding the American Bastards universe, that's a new development.

I'm taking up fencing, do you care about that?

PK: All we know is "hit them with the pointy end". Thank you very much for your time and good luck in your next endeavor!


American Bastards is the debut novel by Trevor Richardson, and is available for purchase in all the usual places or directly from the publisher, Inkwater Press. You can find more about the book (including tour information) via Mr. Richardson's blog.