By Lily Lieberman
Back to school blues? Joe Meno, the award-winning author of novels like "Office Girl" and "The Boy Detective Fails" has mastered the art of seductive distractions –- just what you need to survive the dreaded back to school grind.
And his new book, "Marvel and a Wonder" --which debuts September 1 -- is a unique take on the generation gap between a Korean war vet and his sixteen-year-old grandson, exploring themes like faith, sacrifice and family... With a bit of crime, tragedy and even love.
With that in mind, MTV News jumped at the chance to talk Meno about his new book, writing honest sex scenes and his musical influences.
MTV News: It’s hard to hate any of your characters, even the ones you should – I find that’s pretty common in all of your books. All the characters are morally ambiguous. Even the villains have good qualities. Why do you put such an emphasis on this?
Joe Meno: In some ways I think that’s really what the whole point of fiction is. It’s really hard to do in a film or a TV show; you only have 90 minutes and it’s hard to get to that level of complexity. But there’s something about a book that seems perfectly suited to sort of getting to that complexity.
In novels you’re able to occupy character’s internal thoughts and it’s really hard to do in these other mediums. When you’re reading like, a character’s thoughts or when it’s in first person, you’re reading kind of their own story, so you have the opportunity to see what makes that character complex or complicated. And to me that’s what the whole point of fiction is.
It’s to help you understand people who are different from you. Part of it I think is like I was a kid and in my 20s when I started writing and the characters I try to write about are the characters I don’t see a lot of times in books or other films.
And so you’re trying to represent them in a way that hopefully feels authentic or that feels more complex. In that book "Hairstyles of the Damned," I’d seen so many films and read books about these high school kids that felt so one-dimensional especially when it dealt with race and sexuality. There’s character in that book who like do horrible things and they’re rude and selfish, but so are people sometimes.
MTV: Let’s talk about "A Marvel and a Wonder" –- I love the character of Quentin and his late bloomer charm. He’s so headstrong in his pursuit of herpetology and very different socially.
Meno: I think so much of it is because he’s this kid, probably the only person of color in his town, and he’s so isolated that he spends so much time in his imagination. And now in any kind of social circumstances, he just shuts down.
He has these really great thoughts and plans, but he’s just not able to communicate them. Yeah, he’s a way, way late bloomer. I guess a more psychological term would be like arrested development. Because of the relationship with his mom and the fact that he’s moved around a bunch, he’s still very much like a child even though he’s 16.
The book is set in 1995, I have two kids now, and I can see clearly that there’s been a shift. When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, by the time you were 16 you were kind of expected to be an adult. By the time we were 16 and able to drive, certainly by 17 or 18 and into college, you just had very little interaction with your parents.
There’s slowly been a kind of shift in how we think about childhood. It’s like childhood almost extends to 20 or 22 even after the end of college. When I was growing up, there was this expectation that you were on your own now. And this book is kind of capturing that change.
The grandfather is in his 70s, strong and independent and doesn’t really understand this shift that’s occurring. I don’t imagine Quentin has a specific diagnosis but I think he’s like a lot of kids in the 90s. Suddenly there was an explosion of video games and the internet and the idea of playing indoors and staying inside became this thing, versus the expectation that you would be outside. That really changes the way people communicate with each other. Quentin is way more comfortable talking to himself than he is other people.
MTV: There’s a lot of Bible imagery and analogy in this book and others. Did you grow up religious?
Meno: I did, I went to catholic school till I was 18. I would say I have a complicated relationship with institutionalized religion. And I would say both Jim and Quentin do. They’re trying to figure out these bigger questions about like faith and sacrifice and I still feel like I’m entertaining a lot of those same questions.
In the book there are really big forces at play. One is greed and the accumulation of things there’s also been this huge shift in income equality and this huge gulf between people who have the most and people who have the fewest is kind of at an all-time high. And there’s this sense right now that to be an American you have to take as much as you can and hold onto it.
And at the same time there’s also this really interesting sense of sacrifice. Those two things are kind of at odds with each other and that’s what’s at the heart of the book - these two competing qualities.
MTV: In all of your books, there are these ongoing themes of family, redemption, sacrifice and faith –what draws you to those themes in particular?
Meno: I’m 41 and I’m still trying to negotiate or make sense of it myself. Sacrifice doesn’t really exist on a national level anymore and that’s a pretty new thing. My father, my wife’s father, my grandfather, they all served in the military and there was this expectation on some level.
Now most people aren’t engaged nationally in some form of service and that changes the way you think about people in your country; you kind of think of them at a distance. And so there’s that shift away from some sort of sacrifice – thinking of yourself as the most important thing in the world versus thinking of yourself as some sort of a whole. A lot of these things have changed for the better, like race and gender equality.
At the same time, certain things like sacrifice in my father’s generation have been lost. And so the book is really trying to find what the things we can let go of are and what are some of the things you want to hold onto.
MTV: You also use a lot of ghosts, both literally and figuratively. Do you have any experience with ghosts?
Meno: There’s this really weird thing that you ask kids to do where your like, here’s all these stories in religious texts of this concept of ghosts, but then you’re constantly saying, "oh, but that’s not real." Somewhere in that contradiction of sort of what’s real and what’s not is where fiction happens and imagination happens.
At some point, that’s where all of my books reside. Between something that kind of seems real, but maybe it’s not and you’re trying to figure out if it is. Ghosts also seem like this very American image and it appears in songs like country western, gospel and pop music. It seems to connect to the history of our country in a lot of ways - this idea of a character or person who is trapped between two worlds.
I’ve had some strange, I wouldn’t say identifiable experiences. I think when I was in my twenties for New Years’ Eve for a new year’s resolution I was like, "I’m going to find out if there’s such thing as ghosts this year." I spent like a year in my twenties and came to absolutely no conclusions. It’s something I still return to in my writing.
MTV: Why do you think your stories appeal to such a wide range of people, and a young adult audience in particular?
Meno: I wanted "Hairstyles of the Damned" to feel like a documentary and feel very raw and authentic and weather that had to do with sexuality or race and it wasn’t going to be kind of cleaned up.
And when I wrote that book, I was shocked that it was getting these YA recommendations. I was like, "you can’t hand this to a teen. This is so totally inappropriate." And when the reviews came out it was getting embraced as a YA book and I was like, "this is ludicrous."
A couple years later, it started getting taught in high schools and I go talk to high schools now about it and I’m still in absolute shock. I think because it feels authentic and feels real and a lot of times teen movies and teen books are written at such a remove – like screenwriters in their forties trying to capture that experience. I wrote that I think when I was 28, which was just far enough away from the events in the book to have some distance but also not too far away to be overly nostalgic.
MTV: Have you ever been compared to John Green?
Meno: I’ve read a couple of John’s books and I think he’s doing his own thing. He has a sense of his audience and he’s been really faithful to that audience in building similar worlds and similar tones. I feel like maybe what I do might be frustrating for an audience, and I’m aware of that.
But I’m kind of interested in learning to learn and grow and challenge myself. I think I’ve been very fortunate in that my books are pretty different from one novel to the next. There’s a lot of things that are similar but in terms of tone and the scale and how they interact with history and just the different styles as well.
Books like "The Boy Detective Fails" and "The Great Perhaps" have more of a post-modern, surreal element to them and this book is very similar to my first two books, which were set in Midwestern towns. So I think I have three different ways of writing and kind of move between those different things.
MTV: Your use of sexuality in the novel is striking – the sex scenes are awkward, beautiful and real, which is a huge departure from the glorified sex we read about in young adult romance novels. How and why do you depict sex in such an honest way?
Meno: [Sex] is really awkward. I’m 41 and have two kids and it’s still awkward. Sometimes, we have this idea of sex that is so far removed from reality and again that’s hopefully what a writer’s job is to do is to capture some of the complexity of it. I’d have to flip back through some of those books, but I don’t think I’ve ever written a sex scene where everything goes right or as planned and that to me is what’s wonderful about it.
You know you have these expectations and then it’s this great moment of connection and it’s a surprise. But that’s what, even as a 41 year old, so exciting about it is that sense of surprise. And I think that’s what I’m trying to capture in these different themes. Sex scenes in books are always like first person, from this male perspective and just about how awesome he is. It feels like such a fantasy.
It’s hard because when you’re 14 and 15 all you have access to is these fantasies. Like in popular film and television and pornography, it’s usually this male-oriented fantasy where no one says something stupid or there’s not a weird sound or all these things that happen that make it really human. I guess that’s what I’m most interested in is what’s human in those moments.
I always feel super uncomfortable when it’s like ah, there probably has to be a sex scene. I feel really bad and then always look around to see if anyone is watching me while I’m writing. I want to apologize to people who have to read those sex scenes, but I feel like it’s part of the characters life, it’s important. Especially the books that focus on younger characters, their first sexual experiences are huge.
I guess my own lack of comfort in writing them is like a way to build scenes that hopefully feel real. I hope I never get to the point that I’m like, "yeah, this is awesome, I have to write a sex scene now." I prefer to feel bad.
In the new book there’s these really uncomfortable moments of sexuality.
There’s these moments of Jim, who’s in his 70s and this woman in the car and it’s kind of beautiful and he ends up wishing he hadn’t done anything. Which I think is a feeling a lot of people have sometimes after sex. It’s not always clear and obvious. I’ve been married for like 15 years and there’s still things that I feel like are a complete mystery to me. And that’s probably what’s exciting about it.
MTV: I noticed that music is an integral part of each of your stories. Each of your past novels seem to be dedicated to an era or generation of music. Was there a musical inspiration/influence for "Marvel and a Wonder?"
To me that’s really just a way to organize a book. Like once I start getting characters, then places and things start happening, for me I look to music to help figure out a consistent tone. For Hairstyles I was like I want this book to feel like a mix tape. Almost like a collage of different moments. For The Boy Detective there were some like orchestral kind of pop bands like Belle and Sebastian.
And so for this new book, there’s this great artist from Louisville, and he has this song called “Then I see a Darkness.” He got to record this song with Johnny Cash right before he passed away. So I was listening to this song one day and it’s this beautiful kind of ballad, it’s about being older and sort of coming towards the end of your life.
And in the middle of the song, the CD skipped and there was this really strange but kind of beautiful noise of the record or the CD repeating itself. There is something really fascinating to me about this western ballad that had a strange almost abstract sound that was coming in the middle of it. So there was something about that - I wanted this book to feel very familiar like like crime stories and westerns and very American genres, but also abstract and magical. So it was really from like this CD that had a scratch on it. It made a weird sound, and I was like "oh yeah that’s what the book should be like."
Take this quiz to find out which Joe Meno book will help you survive the new school year.