March 01, 2012
A Very Minor Prophet, James Bernard Frost’s second novel, succeeds at many things. It renders a sense of contemporary Portland at a time when the public at large seems genuinely interested in our bike-riding, rain-and-coffee soaked, Voodoo Doughnut milieu. It’s both literary and illustrated, and somehow this offers no contradiction. It’s the first novel I’ve read that takes the reader back to 2004, addressing the political and religious divides of a time when most liberals were choking on their tofu at the thought of four more years of George W. Bush. Most importantly, AVMP is its own thing, which is the first requirement any reader can ask of a writer’s work. I got a chance to chat with Frost about AVMP, and how he feels about bringing Portland to life in such a, well, Portland-y way.
AE: Considering the unique character of this novel–8 ½” x 11”, with lots of zine-like illustrations–can you take us back to the moment when you realized it was going to take this form?
JBF: You’re really asking two questions here: When did I decide to fill the book with zine pages, and when did my publisher decide to print it in an 8.5″ X 11″ format. The answer to the first is that the minute I started the book and chose to have a zinester as a main character, I knew that I would have to show his zines somehow in the book. I’m not in the least bit artistically-inclined (or so I thought), and I wrote several drafts of the book without the zines, procrastinating the central problem of illustrations for years. Eventually I came upon the idea of hiring someone to do the illustrations for me, only to discover that no one could get their head around my vision for the massively text-heavy zine pages you see in AVMP. So after years of procrastination, I finally submitted to the self-evident conclusion that in order to write an authentic novel about zinesters I had to do zines myself. Once I took that step, the actual process of doing the illustrations was exhilarating—I sort of invented my own process of creating zines using my extremely minimal drawing skills, also minimal Photoshop skills, a ridiculously expensive amount of photocopying, a good eye, clip art, a 1940s Underwood typewriter, and a strong opinion about what I wanted the images to look like. I’m actually fascinated at how good the illustrations are—and how uniquely perfect for the book.
The format of the book was a decision Hawthorne Books made, with me nodding my head in total agreement. Because of the way I had “hard-coded” typewritten text into the illustrations, any resizing would have made them impossible to read. Meanwhile, Hawthorne came up with the brilliant idea of double-columning the text in the book, which served a dual purpose of making the copy more readable, and giving the book a biblical feel—completely appropriate for a book subtitled, “The Gospel according to Joseph Patrick Booker, as interpreted by his faithful scribe, Barth Flynn.”
Your book takes place in 2004, with the presidential election of that year as a backdrop. That’s eight years ago, which seems to put your book in a nebulous area of not quite being contemporary and not quite set far enough in the past to be considered nostalgic. I know you submitted this book to agents and publishers for a long while before finding a happy home with Hawthorne Books. Did you find publishers wary of your book for the period in which it’s set?
The publication history of the novel was so roundabout. I actually submitted the book first to Hawthorne Books and a few other top-notch independent presses because I thought the book belonged there. Unfortunately, Hawthorne was undergoing a transition, and wasn’t reading at the time, so I ended up submitting the book to agents instead. The biggest stumbling block, which says a lot about the current state of publishing, was that a lot of agents weren’t willing to download the 52 megabyte file that the book, with its illustrations, came packaged in. I literally had agents decide not to read it because it wouldn’t fit on their eReaders, and others who simply thought me too complicated when I sent them to a download site rather than emailing them the book. When Hawthorne’s submissions opened again, I resubmitted the book and they fell in love with it—it’s really been a perfect match.
AVMP is a lot of fun to read. I remember when you were promoting your more conventional first novel, World Leader Pretend, and you seemed to be having trouble getting folks to understand the whole point of these events and promotions–and the book–was to have fun. Was that experience in the back of your mind as you created AVMP?
Tom Robbins’ blurb about my book leads with “Bucking a headwind of despair.” I thought this was a brilliant way of describing my difficulties in keeping this book fun while writing about religion and politics. I was writing about a time in American history that for intellectuals and lovers of our country’s legal system was extremely distressing. Early versions of this novel were filled with unpublishable rants about the sins of the Bush Administration. My task with this novel was to write a book that captured this depressing time, while inhabiting it with characters who found bizarre ways of entertaining themselves to numb themselves from the pain they felt. As the drafting progressed, and those characters became more vivid, I took out more and more of that despair, and added more and more entertainment value for the reader—while staying true to my original vision. It was kind of a bitch but I’m happy with the results.
So much in the novel brings me back to my days of reading Kurt Vonnegut. Can you talk a little about your relationship to Vonnegut’s work and how you think it might have influenced AVMP?
Nothing could make me happier than a comparison to Vonnegut, Art. Like most people, I read Vonnegut when I was in high school, so whatever relationship my current work has to Vonnegut is difficult for me to detail, except that Vonnegut was very much a social novelist and not a personal novelist, and so is my work. I lament that so many of today’s highly regarded literary novels completely overlook the current American societal disaster. I miss social satirists like Kurt.
Also, Vonnegut was such a goof. This book is pretty goofy too.
In AVMP, you mention Portland’s Failing Street. Every time I drive by that street I think, “Why didn’t someone change that name a long time ago?” Then again, it’s oddly apt for our town. Can you imagine buying a house on Failing Street?
Worse than naming a street Failing Street is the Failing Pedestrian Bridge over I-5, which when driven past at 70 miles per hour reads to most motorists: “The Falling Pedestrian Bridge.”
Man, Portland with its lousy employment rates definitely seems to have more than its share of failing going on, doesn’t it? One of the many ironies of living in a town with “The City That Works” plastered all over its government vehicles. I think of Flynn’s “Coffee Break #1,” where he says that Portland is the End of the Earth, encompasses this sentiment: Portland is one of those cities people end up if they’ve failed everywhere else. It’s the dark side of the city that Gus Van Sant used to capture that isn’t talked about as much anymore.
Also in “Coffee Break #1” you write:
I wish that we didn’t go around thinking Jesus, or Mohammad, or Moroni, or any of these other revered religious figures were infallible and all-good and all-knowing and all that other total bullshit, I wish their lives hadn’t been edited; because it seems to me that if our heroes were a little bit more fallible—if they fell off their milk crates and had problems with women and just in general were worshipped for being the comically idealistic human beings they actually were…well, it seems to me we’d be a lot more accepting of the flaws in our fellow man, and a lot more open to the ridiculous wonder that can be created when the bottle-necks of rule-bound religions are tossed at our priests’ heads.
Here and throughout the novel, you expound refreshingly overt philosophical and moral decrees, which strikes me as uncommon in today’s fiction. Can you talk a bit about what made you decide to include them?
You have no idea how many of those I pulled out from earlier drafts so as not to sound moralistic… In the end, the places where these decrees happen are either through the main character’s preaching—Booker, my main character, was naturally inclined to rant when he stood on his milk crates in the church; and then in the zine series “Coffee Break,” in which Flynn waxes philosophical in places in the novel where I want the reader to take a break from the book’s fast action. In other words, I had to fit them naturally into the story. Most writers simply aren’t writing about preachers and zinesters, which is probably why moral rants are uncommon, but I also think there has been a shift away from social novels, which AVMP certainly is.
When reading novels, one of my favorite things is coming across elements that have been present in my life but that I’ve never experienced in a story. How did the beer bong wind up in your book?
The scene your talking about was inspired by a “research” trip I took to watch a C.H.U.N.K. 666 event here in Portland. C.H.U.N.K. 666 is the not-so-veiled inspiration for the fictional bicycle gang C.H.V.C.K. 666 in the novel. I did not actually see a beer bong at this event, but I did witness a person on a twelve-foot-tall bicycle drink an entire six-pack of beer in a single lap around a city block, as well as some extremely ill-advised and likely illegal pyrotechnics. It was one small leap of imagination to beer bongs. Not that I was ever in a fraternity or anything.
In AVMP, I love how you cagily use zine-like comics and humor to sneak in a little history of Christianity. What made you decide to include the Booker sermon about the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D.?
I read a great deal of Christian history while writing this book, and found the politics around the canonizing of the gospels apt when talking about a preacher who had set himself the goal of starting a new religion. I’m always flabbergasted at how few members of the Christian right know the history of their own religion: that in 313 A.D. a Roman Emperor chose what the final versions of the gospel would be in order to suppress the more revolutionary side of Christianity. It was also here that the miracles were essentially invented, in a conscious attempt to indoctrinate followers into an awe of authority that was useful to the Roman state.
Booker talking about this, and his desire to start a no-magic religion that involved truth, honesty, and mild alcoholism, seemed essential to the story.
At AVMP‘s launch party at the Mississippi Pizza Pub in Portland on 3/22 at 7 PM, I’m playing in Foolish Heart, a Heart cover band made up of writers and fronted by your fiance Kerry Cohen. Are you at all intimidated about going on before what’s sure to be an awesome rock and roll onslaught?
You guys are going to kick my ass, but I’m just there to party. I’ll be the guy in the front row in a bathrobe yelling “Freebird” while lifting up a beer bong.