An Interview With Brad Listi, author of ATTENTION.DEFICIT.DISORDER.

March 21, 2008

Brad Listi is the a creative writing professor at Santa Monica College and the author of ATTENTION.DEFICIT.DISORDER. The myspace blog created for fans of the book, The A.D.D. Blog, has a number of devoted followers and has been called one of the best blogs on the Internet.

A few months ago I interviewed Brad via e-mail about his book, the state of American letters, and the best way for writers to avoid awkward questions at cocktail parties.

Master Caution: Much of ATTENTION.DEFICIT.DISORDER. takes place on the road. Did you set out to write a travel narrative?

Brad Listi: Yes. I knew from the outset that the novel would unfold in several different locations. And I liked the idea of having a peripatetic narrator with an A.D.D. mind. Psychological and geographical A.D.D., so to speak.

MC: Your use of dictionary definitions inserted not-so-randomly throughout the text made me think of wikipedia and how I can spend hours linking to associated (or completely random) articles without ever finishing the one I started. What were you going for there?

BL: Wayne is 22. He’s reeling from the suicide death of an ex-girlfriend, and he’s trying to understand what everything means. I felt it appropriate to have him analyzing actual words, and more to the point, words that aren’t necessarily all that difficult or archaic. The words that Wayne extracts from the text and examines are usually very common words—words that most of us already know the basic meaning of. We know how to use them in context, but we may not be able to define them if put on the spot. This was interesting to me. And it felt natural. Wayne is a character in a period of intense self-examination and reflection. And he’s young, and not a genius. So: out with the dictionary.

MC: A.D.D. is filled with cultural and historic signposts (the late ’90s stock boom, Burning Man, etc.) that seem to paint a picture of the current American landscape as you see it, yet you end the story before the attacks on 9/11. Why?

BL: I don’t know. I suppose had the attacks been included in the novel, it would have been a different book than the one I wound up with. As I was writing it, I felt that Wayne and what he goes through were a fitting preamble to 9/11 and its aftermath. Wayne is a character who senses that the wave is about to break, as so many of us did towards the end of the 20th century. The Halcyon days of the ‘90s. The stock market. Bill Clinton. Blowjobgate. Y2K. All of the mock-apocalyptic bullshit that surrounded the arrival of the new millennium. Let me put it this way: it’s not an accident that Wayne is running through a mini-history of the atom bomb while wandering around at Burning Man. To me, it made perfect sense.

MC: A.D.D. is your first novel. How do you think you did? What are you most/least proud of?

BL: I’m my own worst critic, never really satisfied. But at the same time I tend to oscillate. It depends on when you ask me. Some days, I’m embarrassed by it and wish it could be yanked off the shelves. Other days, I’m bursting with pride, convinced it’s going to survive and be read for a long time. Most days, I try not to think about it at all.The thing with criticism is that it’s impossible to be objective or clear-eyed, no matter what it is that you’re considering. The mood of the individual always comes into play, which is something that doesn’t get talked about enough. And it should also be noted that an infinite number of circumstances factor into a person’s mood and perspective. This includes a book reviewer at The New York Times reviewing Joe Smith’s big novel; this includes a writer like myself trying to analyze his own work.

Personally, I’m uncomfortable as a critic, though I do recognize the role it plays, and I don’t rule out the possibility of doing some critical work, if only to retaliate against the savage bastards who go out ravaging books and authors in ways that strike me as wrong-headed or needlessly malicious. Authors who receive vicious treatment at the hands of critics should be encouraged to retaliate, in my opinion—something which not enough of us take advantage of. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. That’s what I say. If they criticize you, and you feel it’s unfair or mean-spirited, couter-attack immediately. Write a scathing critique of your own, and do whatever you can to get it printed far and wide—on the internet, wherever. Revenge is not usually my style, as I consider it a waste of time and energy, but when it comes to book reviewers, I make a special exception.

MC: Talk a bit about the process (work schedule, frustrations, inspiring moments, etc.) of writing your first novel.

BL: I’m very average in terms of talent, and this is not false modesty. I have a pretty average memory, a pretty average mind. Writing fiction is difficult for me. I worked for several years to get to the point where I could write something that someone would actually want to read. I wrote the manuscript for A.D.D. twice in full before finally writing the readable draft the third time around. The first two attempts were utter dog shit, and if I did anything well in those days, it was that I was able to properly evaluate what I’d done. In both instances, I knew the manuscript was terrible. And I chucked both of them and started over.

As to process, I work a lot, like anyone. I like to write in a rhythm, six or seven days a week. I enjoy it, oddly enough.

As to inspiring moments, I would have to say that research yielded some nice synchronicities. The inclusion of nonfiction non sequitur was something that happened instinctively, without any pre-planning. I just started doing it one day, because it seemed to make sense. Mini-histories. Mini-biographies. Definitions. Et cetera. And as I was researching these things—and the lives of people whom I biographied in particular—I would find that their lives were strikingly similar to Wayne’s in very significant ways. For example: Before I began researching the life of Benton MacKaye, founder of the Appalachian Trail, I had no idea that his wife had committed suicide, and that her death was the impetus for the creation of the trail. When I read that bit of news, I got a pretty good case of the goose bumps. It made me feel like I was on the right track, and it gave me a nice shot of energy and pushed me along down the road. I felt like I had angels on my shoulders.

MC: There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on in the writing world these days about “the death of the printed word.” Bullshit?

BL: Yes. Bullshit. It’s not going to die. But we do live in a post-literary culture. A lot of people read books, yes. And a lot of books are sold every year. And it’s easier than ever to get oneself into print. But books of literary ambition are very rarely read on a really wide scale. Sometimes it happens, sure. But those kinds of success stories are anomalies. The readers of serious novels are more and more becoming like the readers of serious poetry, I’m afraid. They exist, yes. And they are bright and they are passionate. But the numbers aren’t exactly through the roof.

MC: Who are your favorite authors publishing right now?

BL: Most of my favorite authors are dead. Gore Vidal is still alive, though just barely. I really like his nonfiction. Don DeLillo can be really enlightening, though he’s rarely funny. As to young writers, I don’t read as much of them as I should. In fact, I don’t read as much as I should, even though I read every day. If you’re a writer, and you’re honest, then you’re almost certainly humiliated by the fact of what you haven’t read.My favorite writers are almost always writers who make me laugh out loud. That’s the litmus test. And it happens rarely. Celine, Bukowski, Vonnegut, Hunter Thompson, Vidal—these are all writers who fit the bill. If you can make me laugh out loud while reading, I’m sold. And if you can make me wince while laughing out loud, all the better.

MC: Define post-modernism in 12-20 words, without using the words “response,” “reaction,” or “individual.”

BL: No.

MC: Your blog has a number of devoted regular readers and commenters. How do you maintain an independent voice while still keeping your fans happy? Do you find yourself writing to their expectations?

BL: I went through a spell of trying to be inoffensive, back when my book had just been published, and I was hung up on trying to move copies. The poison of the marketing mind. As I’ve gone on, I’ve stopped giving a shit. Blog readers don’t generally equate to books sold—at least not usually, and at least not on a scale that would really make a difference in a writer’s life—so it’s best to just write what you want to write and say what you want to say, and let the cards fall where they may. If you offend people, so be it. That’s life.

MC: How long have you been teaching?

BL: Four years.

MC: Is your book part of the syllabus?

BL: No. Artists who teach college and assign their own work should be quarantined. And sterilized.

MC: What are your thoughts on literature/writing education today?BL: Overall, it’s in decline. You’ll likely find some teachers who disagree with me, but these teachers probably work in progressive elementary schools or junior highs or schools for the arts or something. I teach at the community college level. And when I started out I was teaching basic English, entry-level English to a room full of college freshmen. Their skill level was somewhere in the range of 3rd to 7th grade, generally speaking. Some of them didn’t even know how to address an envelope—for real. Others could barely use a question mark properly. No exaggeration. For these students, at least, the public school system is failing in utterly grotesque fashion. And I’m afraid there are a lot of them. This is my experience of it—and again, I’m dealing with 18-year-olds. It can be a bit depressing, because you realize that for most of these people, it’s going to be a rough road ahead. If you talk to someone who works with younger students, I’m sure you’ll hear more optimism. When they’re younger, you have a chance to set them on the right course. By the time they’re 18, they’re already so far behind the curve that it would take four or five years of ultra-intensive training to get them where they need to be—and even that might no work. It’s a downer. We live in a country that spends all of its money on weapons and drugs. It’s no great secret why our school system is in the toilet. Vive le resistance.

MC: What writing exercise works best with your students?

BL: I confine my students to a certain page count at the beginning—say, three to five pages—and I don’t let them go over. This helps them learn how to weigh their words, and it gets them thinking in terms of efficiency, which is important when writing fiction (or writing anything, for that matter).

MC: Do you think there is a different literary or artistic culture on the West Coast or are regional scenes and tones kind of disappearing as the Internet displaces geography?

BL: Good question. I’m sure there is a lot of writing that is particular to its geography, but I’m equally sure that the internet is breaking down a lot of barriers and providing access and interchange at unprecedented levels.

MC: What’s going on with City of Champions?

BL: It’s on the shelf, in need of a significant revision. I’m working on a screenplay in a desperate attempt to make money. Welcome to the rat race.MC: What’s your favorite Hunter S. Thompson scene/line?

BL: My favorite thing Hunter S. Thompson ever wrote? His letters. They’re collected in three volumes, and they’re extraordinary. They’re the best thing he ever did, hands down, aside from maybe Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.

MC: What writer did you emulate/mimic when you first started writing?BL: Hemingway and Raymond Carver, just like every other hetero male. And Vonnegut, who remains a hero.

MC: When did you realize that this is what you wanted to do with your life?

BL: Young. I always kind of knew that this is what I would do, as silly as it sounds.

MC: All writers get those “what is your book about” or “what do you write” questions. You recently wrote a blog about it. Share your worst moment spent explaining yourself.

BL: Here’s my best moment: Whenever someone asks me what my book is about, I look at them, deadpan, and say: “It’s about the death of hope.” It usually goes over quite well.

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