Beyond The Logical To The Absurd: An Interview With Bill Campbell, Author of ‘Koontown Killing Kaper’
Bill Campbell is the author of Sunshine Patriots, My Booty Novel, Pop Culture: Politics, Puns, and “Poohbutt” from a Liberal Stay-at-Home Dad and the recently published Koontown Killing Kaper. A satirist in the classical sense, Campbell also hosts a podcast called The Bill Campbell: Misanthrope Show and occasionally blogs at The Billanthrope and The Intersection of Madness and Reality. I recently caught up with Bill for a phone interview.
I wanted to start — and I know you have an essay about this entitled “Why I Wrote Koontown” — with the genesis of the project: when and where did the idea come about?
The idea has kind of come over time. There were a bunch of things in pop and mass-culture which has kind of given me a little bit of cognitive dissonance, sort of like the concept of thug and criminality and the drug thing — just the constant theme and how prevalent it was and yet, like the crack wars are over. You keep hearing all these different stats — education stats, crime stats — that didn’t quite jive with the popular image of black men or black people in general. And then one day, I was listening to this thing on NPR where a black scholar went to the publishing industry and asked why 80% of books written by, for, and about African Americans was ghetto lit. He didn’t get into it, but this was around the time a statistic came out that said that only 30% of African Americans live in majority-minority neighborhoods — now that’s ghetto or otherwise.
So to me it’s like: you’re two-and-a-half times more likely to be portrayed to live in the ghetto than you are of actually being in the ghetto. So there’s this picture of the ghetto, which is something that was just kind of given to me. So he asked if they were going to publish anything else, and they said, “Well, you know, if it’s such an extraordinary work then we’ll think about publishing it.” I thought: Well this is just a terribly absurd standard, either you write ghetto lit or you’re shooting for a Pullitzer. That didn’t make sense to me. That’s not a burden that other writers have to face. You know, they don’t get a white writer and go, “You’re just not Appalachian enough” whether you’re from Appalachia or not. That’s not a standard placed on them. And then right after I heard that, there was on the radio, at 12’o clock in the afternoon, there was some guy talking about drugs and AKs on the floor, and pretty much Koontown was born that way.
People like Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich are perpetuating these myths that have no basis in reality — it seems like what you’re doing in Koontown is blowing these myths up to a ridiculous proportion to show how ridiculous they are. The example that comes to mind is the Welfare Queen, who’s literally constantly giving birth in the novel.
Basically what I wanted to say was…it’s a function of satire that you take everything to its logical and go beyond that through its absurd end. And a lot of what Koontown is is that white media gaze — it starts with the white media gaze and it ends with it, just historically speaking — which is why it ends with a minstrel show. You take that and its sort of like if black people were actually living the ways and in the proportions that are often portrayed, then this is what it would look like.
Right, so Welfare Queen would be that. Birthing her babies to the state. Because that’s basically what you’re saying, you know? Because, you know, like immigration, it’s been racialized. It doesn’t matter what the actual numbers are. We just have a racial image of these things. Much like crime. We have racial images of what crime is, even if the statistics don’t necessarily bear that out.
Right, the myth and the images people are conjuring up…people like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum…have more power than statistics. Statistics are so much more abstract.
Yeah, that’s true. It’s a story that’s been told for like 300 years and the end result’s the same.
[You're too young to] remember the hysteria around crack. While cocaine was technically not considered an addictive drug, technically speaking, crack cocaine became the most addictive drug that ever was. We had this thing called crack babies, and crack whores and cities were blowing up. You know, this is the most dangerous thing ever. And the poster children for it were inner-city black youth…and you had the most disproportionate criminal sentencing we’ve ever had. People going away for 20 years for like a little baggie of weed. Meanwhile, if you look at who uses drugs or who’s selling the drugs, the figures are pretty much the same [across racial boundaries]. But they went after…they have this thing called crack and they criminalized it and they criminalized inner-city black youth, that was the image. And those are who went to jail for crack wars. Now we supposedly have a meth epidemic, have been having a meth epidemic, but you don’t hear the same kind of hysteria. Because meth is racialized too — it’s racialized as a white drug. But we don’t see tank-like armored vehicles cracking through trailer parks. We don’t have meth babies and meth whores. You don’t have single mothers being carted off to jail for meth. You just don’t have that.
And even with, what most experts would acknowledge as probably the single greatest drug problem in the country, even with that we’re spending at least as much in resources on the criminal enforcement — disproporionally, racially speaking, obviously — for things like marijuana and cocaine.
Because drug use is pretty much steady across the races, technically speaking only about 13% of the illegal crime dealers, users. etc. would be black. But the people who go to jail for that, in some cases you have as much as 90% of the people who are on drug charges that are black. And it’s because you have that image. Because you have Koontown that constantly plays every day. You know, a black man aged 18-25 is four times more likely to be in college than in prison, but you’d never get that sense just watching television or listening to music or reading books. You get that this young black man is dangerous.
Okay, this isn’t really a question — or I don’t know how to put this in the form of a question — but I had to ask: singing vagina?
Yeah, what about it?
Just where did that come from?
Well I work for a company that produces audio books for the blind at the Library of Congress. So we have narrators come in and do these books and we had this one book, this ghetto lit book, that was written in the male voice and the female voice — but we’re not allowed to split it up like that, it has to be one narrator — so the narrator was an older black man who has a really deep voice, kind of like Barry White. So this is first-person female…and it was very sexual. So you have this guy with this really deep voice and he’s very proper and he’s like: “Oh, you’ve got my pussy singing, Oh you’ve got my pussy singing.” You know what I mean, you hear like an embarrassment? And it sounds so funny, this deep baritone talking about…pussy. So I was reading this book and cracking up, like in tears…That’s how Grey’s vagina became so powerful in the book. Oddly enough a lot of women like her.
She’s a lot of women’s favorite character and I find this very odd.
I didn’t picture it. I thought that was something that I would get in trouble for. But I thought people would be a lot angrier about the book than they have been so…it’s all very strange.
There’s a soundtrack to Koontown Killing Kaper. Was that your idea; how did that come about, and how did you decide who would be involved?
You know, it just came about on a lark. I just thought, since a lot of it has to do with music that “Wouldn’t it be fun to have a soundtrack?” I just thought…just because I’m a music junkie, I always give my books a soundtrack — I just make a mix that I would put in a soundtrack; but then I thought “Wow, wouldn’t it be cool if there was an original soundtrack to this book?”
…I asked Triple Threat if she would do it and yeah, she was game. I only gave her three months to do it, so it was impressive.
Wow, that’s quick.
Yeah, I was just like, “…and I need it in three months.” And she was like, “Oh…really?” But she pulled it off, you know?
And so all of the recorded soundtrack is Triple Threat?
Everything except for the last track: “Tomorrow Yesterday.” That was a co-worker of mine, a song he did a while back.
I just gave her the book and she gave it to a bunch of artists that she liked and they read it and that’s what they came up with.
I thought it was cool as hell. As a writer you never get to see anybody’s reaction or even know how you affect people, but if you have a soundtrack dedicated to your book you get actual evidence that your book did affect somebody. That they put their own creative efforts into complimenting you.
Yeah, it must be very refreshing [to finally have that feedback].
Yeah, I almost cried. [Laughs.]
What were some of the most memorable reactions you’ve had while talking about the book?
Well, one of the weird things I’ve gone through is I had about three or four white people in their seventies buy the book so…that’s been weird.
Sure, that’s not something you’d expect.
Yeah, because you’re like hip-hop satire? And they’ll take the soundtrack too and I’m like “You know that’s rap, right?” So that was weird. And then there have been people who have thought that I should go to some sort of black re-education camp since clearly I’ve lost my mind. But I’m just like “You know, you need to read the book because it’s saying what you’ve been saying — just saying it in a different way.” We actually gave a black face performance at the Harlem Book Fair in Newark…they shut it down. So Triple Threat and Tay Black went up on stage…they were in black face and as soon as they said the n word they cut off the music…
But then they let them perform.
And after they performed the same people who cut them off said, “Hey, good job. We like what you just said.” But that’s the original reaction…But I mean that’s kind of important, you know?
Yeah, certainly with a title and a cover like that you’re trying to shock people into reconsidering things or looking at them in a different way, and I guess that can lead to some negative reactions.
Oh yeah, and it should. And that’s fine. I’m just hoping nobody actually slugs me, because I’m too old to fight. [Laughs] I’m totally fine with people being angry with me. That’s fine, it’s not the first time. And if you don’t get it, you don’t get. That’s fine too. You’ve read the book, it’s very unapologetic. So if you don’t get it I don’t really care.
Have you had a lot of that type of knee-jerk reaction — more or less than you expected?
The thing that I find kind of interesting is that mostly what I’ve gotten is when people are offended they try to act like it doesn’t exist…It’s sort of like that horrific accident, like if you saw somebody with half their face chopped off and they were walking around — it’s kind of like that “I’m not looking at you,” you know what I mean? Very few people are like “I can’t believe you!” — that kind of thing. And some people do react that way and I’m like “Well, do you know what it’s about?” And then they’re like, “Oh, okay, I’m sorry.”
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