This interview was done for the UCLA newspaper.
1. What kinds of literature did you enjoy reading as a child?
My favorites were the Jules Verne books when I was ten to twelve; the Ian Fleming’s James Bond books in junior high. The Verne books were so big and thick, I remember having to renew them at the school library about a dozen times each to get through them, but it was exquisite torture.
2. You’ve mentioned that John Steinbeck influences your writing style but do/did you have any mentors other than him?
Influences? Well, there are a lot of funny writers who sort of proved that you could get away with humorous fiction. Vonnegut, Tom Robbins, and Douglas Adams come to mind immediately. When I was a kid I read a lot of Mad Magazine. I think I learned what satire was from them.
3. You are a wonderful storyteller. How did you develop and polish your skill?
I think I learned my storytelling by osmosis — that is, by tons and tons of reading and movies. When I started my first book I already had a sense of what it took to make a story. In fact, even back in high school, my stuff always had a beginning, a middle, and an end. I suppose I learned the basic structure from reading great short story writers: Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Saki, Harlan Ellison, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Shirley Jackson — yes, mostly creepy stuff. I didn’t find Saki’s funny stuff until I was well into my twenties. Short story writers, I think, especially horror story writers, have a great sense of pace, suspense, and payoff.
4. What about school was beneficial to your career as a writer (we are looking for vindication)? What do you consider your education?
College teaches you how to learn. You know where to look for things, and if you’re lucky, you’re culturally literate enough to know what you’re looking for. The classes that benefited my writing, however, weren’t writing classes. I was an anthropology major at Ohio State (dropped out), and I took some philosophy classes too. Those subjects jump out as the best thing that college offered to my writing. I went back to school and took some writing courses later in life (twenty-five or six) but these classes were taught at a very high level — that is, they were geared for people who wanted to make a living writing. I’m a little leery about literature classes as they apply to writing. I watched a lot of talented writers I went to school with killed off by the burden of literature. The necessary deconstruction and analysis that one does in literature classes makes writing appear more complicated than it needs to be. I makes a young writer consider too many elements when he or she should be channeling the raw enthusiasm that one gets from being young and fresh to the craft. I learned mainly from pulp fiction writers who were most concerned with telling a story. If I’d been weighed down by symbolism and allegory and heavy themes, I may not have lasted long enough to learn how to tell a story. So, yes, college can be very good for your writing — just avoid classes that dissect writing. You can do that later, when you have a little personal history to help interpret the poetry.
Most of my education came by way of reading on my own.
5. If you were on a desert island and could take only 3 books, which would you choose and why?
Very tough question. I’d probably take stuff that I’ve had a very hard time getting through without the motivation of being stuck on an island. Moby Dick, Remembrance of Things Past, and The Iliad.
6. The main characters in all of your novels (excluding Love Nun‘s talking fruit bat) have all been mythological creatures from various cultures. Do you do much research in that area or are you inspired by something else?
I do a great deal of research into the mythical background of my books, but sometimes I just see something that I just think would be cool to put in a book (like a talking fruit bat. I saw a flying fox in a cage in Yap, and I thought, “he looks like a lap dog with wings”.) I usually go to the place I’m going to be writing about for a few weeks and hang out watching people, but I typically spend six months researching a book. Most of that time is spent with academic research.
7. Your human characters all seem genuinely human (only wittier). How much of yourself and people you know do you use in developing their personalities?
There’s a lot of my personality in my characters. I think that’s why smart-asses are over-represented. I do base some of my characters on people I know, but almost always the personalities are composites of several people, and they’re kicked up a little bit. People, even really stupid people, are very complex. If you try to make a character as complex as a real person then that’s all your book will be about. They call that literary fiction. Hardly anything gets blowed up in literary fiction, so I don’t write it.
8. My father, a psychologist, wants to know if you have any character(s) that you consider your shadow.
I’m not sure what that means. If it means a version of me who is darker, then I would say that my demon Catch qualifies. He’s sort of an agent of chaos. Then again, the trickster, Coyote, would qualify as well. He’s more of an avatar of irony. I live a very circumspect life, but there’s a part of me that really wants to raise hell. I guess I channel that into my characters. (So tell me Doc, am I nuts, or what?)
9. What made you decide to become a writer? If you weren’t a writer would you be an idea guy?
I like making up stories. That’s why I became a writer. I had a very active imagination early on, and because I read a lot I think I picked up some language skills, so I’ve always been pretty good at writing relative to my peers, going back to sixth grade or so. The “adult” decision to try to write professionally hit me when I was twenty-five, selling insurance, and hating it. I went to a writer’s conference in Santa Barbara with some stories I’d written and I found that people really liked reading my stuff. From there it was an eight year process before my first book sold.
If I wasn’t a writer I’d still write, I’d just do something else for a living. As much as I’d love to be an idea guy, it doesn’t pay very well. I’d probably wait tables or some other job that requires honest work but doesn’t steal your soul.
10. What do you enjoy most about being a writer? Least?
I like the freedom the most. I dislike the deadlines and the self-discipline.
11. Which comes first for you: plot or setting?
Setting, I guess, because I pick the subjects I write about based on where I’m able to go, or where I want to go at any given time. When I’ve been short on time or money, I set a book right here in northern California, so I can research quickly and cheaply. Other times I’ll go with what I’m interested in at the time. Island of the Sequined Love Nun started as a book where I would be able to go to a Pacific Island and scuba dive. Sometimes you don’t always end up with what you’d think you would when you started.
12. Who has been your favorite character to write thus far?
Hmmm. I really liked writing Jody in Bloodsucking Fiends. She’s the girl next door turned vampire, and she’s a great smart-ass. One of the reasons she was so fun was that she was a woman who suddenly finds herself with a super powers. I love stories where girls kick butt.
13. What has been your favorite story line thus far?
At the time I was writing them, they were all tough. Now I probably like Love Nun the best because it’s an adventure story. I don’t think it’s my best book, but I like the epic quality to the story. I also like the idea that faith inspires responsibility in the God to whom it’s given. The idea that these island natives believing that their belief in a WWII bomber pilot as a god would actually elevate his spirit to that level was great fun to work with. [You may want to explain the plot to your readers.]
14. You often travel to research setting for your books. I heard a rumor that you went to Jerusalem to do research for an upcoming novel, is that true and can you explain what you were researching (setting, violence, religious struggles, etc)?
Yes, I was in Israel for a couple of weeks. I was researching history and topography. I needed to see what the land looked like. The story I’ve just finished is a historical comedy set in first century Israel. Normally when I do on-site research I’m interested in how people talk and react to one another, but since the people I’m writing about have been dead for 2000 years, I was interested more in how things looked.
15. Your last novel involved a therapist and some of her clients. Have you ever been in therapy?
No. I had a period in my life where I probably should have been. I’m sure now that I was “clinically” depressed and could have used some sort of help, but I didn’t have any money then, so I managed to let my life fall apart and somehow, in the rebuilding, the depression went away.
16. Are you a Harry Potter fan?
I’ve read a couple of the Harry Potter books, and liked them, but I’m not sure I’m a fan. I picked them up this year when I was preoccupied with the book I was working on, so I don’t think I enjoyed them as much as I may have if I hadn’t been battling my own work. I may try them again. I’m really pleased with the success of the Harry Potter books, though. A literary phenomenon among younger readers is a great thing, given the distractions we have now. If I’d had a Play Station when I was a kid I’m not sure I would have read a thing.
17. Why aren’t there as many humorous female writers as there are males? I won’t think you misogynist if you choose to answer this, I am just curious what you think as a humor writer.
Actually, I think there may be more female writers of humorous fiction than male. Many of them are writing about growing up in the South, but there are a bunch of them. Fanny Flagg (Fried Green Tomatoes), Fay Weldon (Confession of a She-Devil), Olivia Goldsmith (First Wives Club), Billie Letts (Where the Heart Is), Lisa Alther (Kinflicks) – Helen Fielding (The Bridgett Jones books) Candace Bushnell (Sex in the City) — there’s no shortage of funny female writers. I’d be hard-pressed to name that many male authors of humorous fiction. There are only a couple of male writers who are household names and write funny stuff, and they’ve been at it for years. Women humor writers tend to write about different subjects, more internal and emotionally based than men humor writers, but they are out there.
18. What steps did you take to get your first novel published?
I just did what all the writers’ magazines said to do. I wrote query letters and sent them out to a ton of agents, then waited. I also had a friend who worked in television and I gave her the manuscript to read, but not to promote. She called me a few months later and said she’d given the book to an agent who liked it. From there I just waited. Something like six months later the film rights sold to Disney, then the publishing rights sold in about ten countries, including the US. The writing is the hard part, the marketing is just busy work.
19. Since becoming published, how have your writing habits/ goals changed?
Actually, my goals are about the same: Total World Domination. I’ve adjusted my writing habits to accommodate that goal, allowing for only six to ten hours of television a day, and fewer than ten hours of video games. I stay on a low-fat diet and maintain a large network of covert operatives in major cities all over the world who sit on buses reading my stuff and laughing uproariously.