Woe Is You: TFT Interview with Tales of Woe Author John Reed
John Reed’s fifth novel, Tales of Woe, is epic. Spanning 204 pages, these are stories of misery—utterly relentless upset and hard-edge reality spanning across the earth—Reed’s novel leaves us with the understanding that humans are evil, and vulnerable, and faulty, with the ability to ruin their lives, the lives around them, the space around them, the very air into which they ruin breathing ruined breath. Prose distilled to minimal poetic, fact dots the narrative, we are asked to feel. We care about these stories because we want things to work out. The heartbreak is in understanding our lack of understanding. Everybody within the work blames somebody else for the tragedies occurring: no one believes they own the fault. Our society thirsts for the sins Reed’s stories serve up.
The white and red text on black paper—graphic imagery braided between—highlight how terribly wrong something has gone.
This interview was conducted over Gchat, email, hologram presentation and metaphysics.
I: “YOU’RE NOT AT FAULT.”
THE FASTER TIMES: Was there research involved for any of the stories? Are any of the specific instances actual stories you’ve discovered or are they ones you’ve rendered which describe life so well that I just actually believe they are real?
JOHN REED: Oh, they’re all totally true, and there was a ton of research, and checking and double checking, and emails and phone calls.
TFT: This P.O.V. immediately gives us an authoritative narrator we believe, he is our truth-sayer, our fact teller. A voice in a smoky dark bar-room who is eerily, yet not creepily, maternal. Did you consider writing from the characters’ perspectives at all when working on the work?
JOHN REED: I tried coming at the stories from a few perspectives. More author comment, less, and none (the choice). Overt satire, dry humor, or straight (sort of driest humor, the choice). The stories were so horrible, and individual, that no part of my personality belonged in there. The black pages made the prose even more unforgiving. What I wanted was a journalistic voice, reduced to utterly to its archetypal character that it was nearly poetry.
TFT: Your matter of fact ability to state evidence in each tale leaves us with a sense of deeper shock, deeper connection, and deeper sympathy. Why’d you do this this way?
JOHN REED: Reliability, I think. As an author, it’s sometimes not so easy to restrain oneself. There was a lot of stuff I wanted to say, wanted to comment on—but some projects are about restraint.
TFT: Why did you write this book?
JOHN REED: The stories we ordinarily hear in Western culture are sin, suffering, redemption. In fact, when something happens that’s just bleak, bleak, bleak, newspapers will pass because “that’s not a story.” The sin, suffering, redemption model has been peddled by Hollywood dogmatists as Universality. Of course, as they took their claim on a global tour, other cultures were quick to correct them: “That’s not what we call a story,” they said. The sin, suffering, redemption model is actually a Christian model of the story, and a Christian model as adapted by Rome. If you want to control people, that’s the story you tell—the one that says you’re suffering for your sins, and that if you haven’t sinned your suffering will be redeemed. Bullshit, as we all know. But it’s a powerful, emotional argument, an argument that comes in the guise of hope. But if you believe in justice, that justice is a right, you’re in for nothing but despair. You’ll search for a reason for you unhappiness, for how you’re at fault—well, you’re not at fault. You’ll search for a reason it will all work out for the best—well, it very well may not.
That’s the reasoning. As far as my personal reason for working on the book, I’m not sure I know.
JOHN REED: He sure is now. Walter Einenkel. Drinks on me. (And hurry up with that matchbook template!) It was a story in itself, believe me. I was a huge pain in the ass—demanding, wishy-washy, just despicable.
TFT: What was your role in the artwork?
JOHN REED: We wanted a pulp feel, but contemporary and inclined to art (as opposed to graphic illustration). I would say, of the 3,000 or so artists we looked at, I brought 2,950 to the table. We only ended up taking one artist via recommendation—and that was from the recommendation of another artist. Elisabeth Alba suggested Delia Gable—and I did want someone who had that illustrative finesse, and specialized in—how should I say it?—a kind of counter-intuitive beauty. When you consider that Alba met Gable at SVA, the recommendation seems less coincidental. I did pass on a few really terrific artists, because I already had someone representing a similar style. We wanted to represent a bunch of styles, the spectrum, to emphasize the suffering, suffering, suffering narratives. The narratives, as in tabloids and pulps, were the featured content.
I assigned art based on specialty—monster to Ralph Niese, pinup to Michele Witchipoo, animal to Patrick McQuade, etc—and was sometimes very involved in directing the image, and sometimes very laissez-faire. I sent the artists scripts of the stories, which showed how the pages broke down, any design elements, and where the illustration would fall. Two-page spreads were indicated as two-page spreads. Obviously, there was some revision as we went.
I’d say I was involved—down to photoshopping the one image we censored.
II. “PULL THE LEVER FOR THE ARMAGEDDON.”
TFT: Who are some writers you looked to when writing this book, if any at all?
JOHN REED: Not any, consciously. Is it possible I was thinking a little about Charles Baudelaire and Alfred Jarry? Maybe.
TFT: The storylines weave one long thread of misery, sewn together through different cloth. Was this done purposely or were they written as isolated shorts?
JOHN REED: We thought a lot about the arrangement and rollout, both in terms of narrative and art. And with the inflexibility of the layout—each page is written to a word count, and the placement of the art demanding each side be scripted left or right—it was not an easy puzzle. If you had a story that began right and ended left you needed a story before it that ended left, and a story after it that began right—now multiply that by 25. Not easy. We’d always assumed that people would pick and chose which stories they wanted to read, that the thing was too awful to sit with from page one to page 208—but, the welcome surprise is that readers and proceeding straight through. I think that so much went into the cartography—a reader senses that—there’s a reluctance to stray.
TFT: The bopping around continents is very “and there is horror everywhere, Wolf.” Do you think the reactions to the different events are different because people are experiencing them differently via culture? I.e., is a stubbed toe cut off in some places, but bandaged in others? Etc.
JOHN REED: That’s true. There are cultural differences in dealing with stories like this, aren’t there? I suppose my attack on Western-centric storytelling is a little Western-centric. But the form is parody, and in that the correlation is kind of inevitable. The idea is to take elements of pulp and give them a contemporary treatment, but stripped of the sin, suffering, redemption storyline. These stories are just suffering, suffering, suffering. Hopefully, the inversion not only tells stories that are truer, it exposes the sin, suffering, redemption story for what it is: a fraud. Nobody would object to any of these images or any of these stories—if I tacked happy endings on them. Tell a story of sex-trafficking, put a sin at the beginning and a redemption at the end, and it makes it easier to ignore the 2.5 million people enslaved, today. How about a child labor story with a Hollywood finale? Well, we can all go home feeling good, despite the 246 million exploited children. For the most part, the lesson of the Western story is denial.
TFT: How long did it take you to write this thing?
JOHN REED: Really hard to say. I wrote it, I thought it was done. I reworked it, I thought it was done. We reworked it in design. I really don’t know. And does all the art stuff count?
TFT: Did it ever make you miserable while writing it? Or feel better, depending.
JOHN REED: It made me feel so awful I couldn’t sit up in my chair; but it also made me much for grateful for my own life, and more reluctant to take seriously my own petty carpings.
TFT: Did Palin actually authorize that man’s transfer? You know I feel she is an embarrassment to women.
JOHN REED: I hope she becomes president. She’s the Armageddon. How could you resist? Pull the lever for the Armageddon.
TFT: I don’t know why entirely but when I got to “population Mexico City: 19 million” I literally had the sensation of flying over Mexico City in an airplane. Maybe the black paper red font reminded me of looking down at a city from an airplane at night or maybe the way you literally pulled us up out of the storyline with a fact in the middle of a gut-wrenching plotline sort of bumped us up a thought-level or something.
JOHN REED: Interesting you say that. The whole time I worked on that story, I had a Google map of Mexico City on screen.
[It was] Jacob’s idea. I thought it was a terrible idea, and said no. When we couldn’t come up with a design—three or four months trying—I conceded to the inevitable. He’d said black paper two seconds after I pitched him the idea. That’s an experienced editor. It took me years to see it.
TFT: I’m confused. Did Barraza do it or not at all?
JOHN REED: Of course she did it.
TFT: Nice witchcraft. Nice return to the first story when the mother blames witchcraft. Are these spells your own?
JOHN REED: That’s a real spell. I consulted an Abakuá priest, a Santería priest, a Wiccan priestess and a Satanist. They all assure me the spell will work—you can gain total dominion over whoever your object of desire. Just follow the instructions.
TFT: In Nana’s case, for example, it’s such a condemnation of how we look at nature. The calf is born healthy, but in captivity. We are able to see her wave hello, via YouTube, as if she were on exhibition. When you began the work did you want to “say things” like this or were you just writing and not knowing where it would go?
JOHN REED: I did want to say things that were outside the narrative. In the elephant story, I saw the opportunity to use that Bible-type ending: “And that rock is still there today.” In this case, it was “You can see Nana’s calf wave hello on YouTube.” I had to find ways to say what I wanted to say through the facts.
Art by 8Pussy (middle) and Sarah Oleksyk (bottom).
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 Amanda Bynes’s Behavior Revealed to Be Elaborate PSA
- 2 Obama Horrified by the Grammar in Our Emails
- 3 Monster Fart Prompting Management to Rethink “Open Office”
- 4 NSA Demanded Access To Un-Filtered Instagram Photos
- 5 Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson Ambushed By Alan ‘The Paper’ Rubinstein
- 6 ‘Licensed to Kim Jong Il’ Records 27th Straight Year Atop N. Korean Charts
- 7 ‘A/S/L’ Most Asked Question At Kaplan Online University Reunion
- 8 Vice Magazine Now Only Hiring Writers Who Fail Drug Test
- 9 Stanley Cup Final One Blowout Away From “Boston Massacre” Headline Outrage
- 10 Henry Cavill to be Replaced by Stack of Pancakes in “Man of Steel” Sequel