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Interview with Tales of Woe Author John Reed

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“He Said, She Said” is an ongoing domestic dispute between FCEtier and his charming wife, Bob, who aren’t sensitive enough to keep it to themselves. Join them as they discuss, dissect, and generally disrespect movies, books, and music (all in the name of journalism). Being outspoken, opinionated egomaniacs, they tackle nearly any topic, whether they know something about it or not. Pitting a Jersey girl against a Louisiana gentleman may not be fair, but that’s life for you. Here’s your chance to see where you stand in the battle of the sexes (and to finally discover Bob’s gender).

“Every day, tragic things are reported. Those that do get coverage are only a small percentage of the daily heartbreak suffered throughout the lands that comprise our planet.” — that’s how Miss Bob’s review of Tales of Woe begins. Our bargain was that she would read and review the book and I would interview the author, John Reed (although she contributed many of the questions).  I spoke with the Tulane graduate on Labor Day and we managed to keep our rivalries at bay. [I’m a loyal LSU fan.]

Would you care to share a brief bio with our readers?

I live in New York and I went to Tulane, majoring in philosophy.  Then I went to grad school at Columbia University for creative writing.  I was a good student and kept getting scholarships. I’ve published three novels and wrote a new play.  It’s all Shakespeare.  I took all his plays apart, line by line and put them back together into a new tragedy.   I teach creative writing at Columbia.  

Tales of Woe work has been described as “depressing,”, “macabre,” “violent”, “dismal”,”disheartening.” “sad.”  How did you get interested in this type of subject matter? What’s the story behind this book? What motivated you?

In terms of how I got interested, part of what interested me was the story telling that we have in the West, and certainly the United States.  It’s very uniform.  You have this sin, suffering, redemption story, which we think of as the only story.  In fact, it’s not the only story at all. That’s a very narrow model of what story-telling is. In terms of Tales of Woe, people were suffering, they’d sinned, done something wrong, so they felt like they deserved it.  You feel like it’s going to work out in the end. That’s what I feel like the story-telling mechanism is —  you get a powerful story — some dynamite tearjerkers.  My experience in life is that if you go around expecting justice, you know, I get rewarded when I do something well, or people get punished when they do something crappy, then it just leads to a lot of unhappiness. So, that was the idea behind the book.

In terms of the story behind the book, I was pitching it to a publisher at lunch and just as I told him my story, a plate of garlic that he had ordered arrived and he said, “That’s the book!”  [laughing] He had a lot of design ideas so we immediately started talking about the design.

As far as the motivation, I thought it was going to be funny to work on this book. Of course I paid lip service to the idea. Seeing other people suffer would make me feel better about my own life — and for readers as well. And I’ve actually found that is the case. Working on these stories makes it very, very hard to take seriously my own petty concerns. It surprised me that that sort of thing happened.  I just want to hang out with my kids and be nice to them.  Someone told me that the first moral truth in Buddism is “Life is suffering.”  I’ve always thought of Tales of Woe as a retelling of the story of Job over and over again. It always amazed me that they left Job in [the Bible], but you have to leave Job in, because sometimes crappy stuff happens to you — and there is no reason. In the end, Job is standing there cursing the day he was born.

Many of the stories in Tales of Woe are disturbing. Were there stories that you found too disturbing to include?

One, yes.  We swore that we wouldn’t self-censor, but the story about gang-rape and a mother forced to blow her son (and that only the beginning) — well, we couldn’t bring ourselves to do it.  We had art for that story, too.  We changed, revised, or reworked several of the images.  The Palin prison rape was reframed; one of the Father Knows Best images needed a bit of photoshopping. 

How many stories had you collected before you began to narrow your selections down to what would appear in the book? What criteria did you use for inclusion?

We looked for 50 stories, and found them.  The criteria: nothing good comes of this, there’s no upside.  Also, I wanted a twist — that just when you thought the story was terrible, it got much worse.  In the writing, the stories were turning out much longer than I expected, so we cut the number to 25.  

I’d wanted a full range of terrible stories — to represent every type of terrible story.  But I soon realized that wasn’t going to happen.  The best I could do was suggest there were a lot of terrible stories to be told, pin flags all over the map, and pull together a group of tales that held together as a book.

Who is your audience? Was this the group you had in mind when you wrote the book?

I don’t think I’m alone out there.  All the time, I see books that I think would sell well if people knew about them.  In finding a readership, Woe faces the same challenge of many (what to call them?) uncentrist titles face: how do you get bookstore orders for a book that’s outside the range of the highly conservative and monopolistic U.S. model of book distribution?

What is the message/lesson you would most like people to come away with after reading Tales of Woe?

That other people are out there suffering without having done anything wrong; that one’s own suffering is very likely undeserved; and that there’s no reason to assume that any of that is going to get better.

The sin, suffering, redemption story that Western culture tells over and over again is a powerful narrative. It’s appealing to assume that unhappiness is always caused by sin or stupidity, and that, in the end, things will work out for the best.  It’s a controlling narrative, thought up for Rome’s version of Christianity, which was deployed to quell mass unrest, and which remains a fundamental tool of subjugation; if you accept the sin, suffering, redemption model as true, it diffuses your motivation to help people who are suffering (because they deserve to suffer); and it leads you to blame yourself for your own suffering (because “I” deserve to suffer).

You just said,  “there’s no reason to assume that any of that is going to get better.”  Do you think that it’s possible that things could get better?  Is there is an alternative out there somewhere?

Of course. After the Civil War, one of the soldiers said, “If you could have just put us together (meaning the soldiers doing the fighting for both sides), we could have resolved this whole thing in thirty minutes. That’s sort of how I feel about it.  If you’re talking about, “can people make things better?” Yes!  Do I have any faith in the people who are running the show to make things better? No. They can make things better if they want to — if they get something.

That reminds me of a comment President Reagan made during his last interview before leaving office. He commented on the likelihood of advocates like Jesse Jackson actually solving problems.  It’s applicable to most politicians. What he said was something to the effect that if these issues were resolved, it would leave these guys with nothing to fight for, so they have little motivation to solve the problems.

Yeah. Yeah [with more emphasis],  Yes! I agree completely. I’ve been very despondent with the failings by good people in our government. I really shouldn’t feel so hopeless about it now — I just don’t think these people really have our interests at heart. I really have trouble believing or having faith in any of them. On the other hand, I have the feeling that a lot of them would like to do something.

Was it difficult to be so dispassionate in the reporting of the stories?

Yes.  I really wanted to stick to the facts, but at times there was just too much to say, just too much to make fun of, just too much to mourn. How did you remain objective? I think the answer to that is: “revision.”  I went over the text, and over the text.  Jacob Hoye, my editor, caught a few things, too. Which story affected you most?

Was any story particularly difficult to write about?

“Momma’s Little Angel” really upset me. I have young children.  I’d thought I’d eventually get calloused to the stories, that from some point forward I’d proceed unscathed.   I’d decided to write 28, and ‘Momma’s Little Angel’ was the 14th story I worked on.  The work had been getting harder, but I was still hoping that would pass.  With “Momma’s Little Angel,” the work got really hard, and I realized it would only get harder. It was an emotionally dispiriting book to write. But it did make me more appreciative of my life, and generally a more happy person.

Did any of the stories make you especially angry? Which ones and why?

The death of a child at the hands of Homeland Security is pretty upsetting. Then again, those guys die all the time in the line of duty. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand how governments are helping us.

If you could hand Tales of Woe to any one person, who would that be?

Can I hand it to Sarah Palin?  I’d like her to be really drunk first, though.  I’m picturing a honeymoon suite.  

image courtesy J.Reed

Why? — and what’s your interest in Sarah Palin?

She’s the Armageddon! I just think she’s the best. I’d vote for her — I’m serious!  No one likes me for saying this stuff, but on the one hand she’s entertaining. The thing I like most about her is that I think the power structure of the Republican party hates her.  And I like that the Democrats hate her so much, too.  She’s just so entertaining. Actually, Sarah Palin was the real honeypot of Tales of Woe even before she ran for vice president.  I finally had to put a cap on them because I was finding so many Alaskan stories. She (Sarah Palin) was all over the news in terms of all these terrible awful things that were happening in Alaska — and she was always right there. People hate me in New York, but I’d vote for her in a second.

Are there any artists/illustrators you would have liked to have submit work that you couldn’t get?

There were a few that were internet illiterate, or didn’t answer their solicitation email.  One woman’s boyfriend thought I was a masher, and then changed his mind about that when it was too late. I think we got what we wanted, but there are still plenty of artists I’d love to have worked with. Maybe someday.

What is your next project?

Working on a bunch of things.  A boxer musical is pretty close.  Also, messing around with a web coming.  Michele Witchipoo, one of the artists from Tales of Woe is collaborating. Shitty Mickey. We’re about to get the second season up. You can check it out at ShittyMickey.com.

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  • Brenda Wright

    I am Elmer Seetot’s mother and surprised that there is a story about my son in your book.