In this mojo blog exclusive, former and future neighbors Luke Geddes and Woody Skinner set out to discuss Luke’s debut collection, I Am a Magical Teenage Princess, but end up talking about Sega Genesis, Tony’s pizzas, and Tolstoy.
Woody Skinner: Yeah, yeah, yeah, so your book gives readers an idea of your perspective on mid-century teenage culture, but mojo wants to know where you stand on the really big stuff. For instance, which 90s depiction of teenagers is more important today–Twin Peaks or Saved by the Bell? Don’t sidestep this question with some evasive witticism!
Luke Geddes: I think what this question is really asking is: Kelly Kapowski or Audrey Horne? And don’t try to tell me that a reasonable argument can be made for Jessie Spano, Lisa Turtle, Donna Hayward (Laura Flynn Boyle or Moira Kelly version), Maddy Ferguson, Lucy Moran et al., for every conflict the human race has ever faced–world wars, turmoil in the Middle East, the cola wars, the choice of whether to ask Santa Claus for Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo, etc., etc., etc. can be reduced to this single binary: perky 90s babe or mercurial femme fatale? And it’s a question I must evade. The audience for my book is small enough that I simply can’t afford to alienate either lucrative demographic. Anyway, it’s too hard. It’s tantamount to making choose between Betty and Veronica, and I refuse to do so. Next question!
P.S. The answer is Audrey Horne. And Veronica.
WS: So, basically, what you’re saying is that the Sega Genesis is the femme fatale of game consoles? Are you finally admitting Sega’s superiority to Super Nintendo?
LG: OK, Sega Genesis is the femme fatale in the sense that, like the archetypal noir femme fatale, its surface appearance–slick, black, with sexy futuristic curves–belies the ugliness of its heart: a shoddy piece of 1990s gaming hardware with an affected, instantly dated ’90s ‘tude. Have you held a Genesis controller in your hands lately? Playing any game that requires any subtlety of movement or reflex with that thing is like trying to a deliver an unboxed pizza with your bare hands. Maybe that thing works for your meatheaded Genesis titles–your beat ’em ups, your superficially fast and sloppy platformers, your derivative sports franchises–but compared to the SNES controller which, with its 6 intuitively placed buttons fits my womanly hands so snugly I feel as if it were born with it umbilically attached, it’s a poor man’s Atari joystick (really–these message board nerds confirm it). I’m afraid you’ve got the analogy all wrong. Kelly is the Genesis: easy, meretricious, trying-too-hard. Audrey is the SNES: timeless, classic, the ideal specimen of its type.
WS: Now that we’re on the subject of ideal specimens, I want to discuss the characters in your collection. While all of your characters are excellently rendered, a couple of the most memorable are not people but appliances: the enormous TV and Ursula, the sexbot-turned-spaceship-housemother. Your depiction of these figures raises some important questions. Should we be more considerate of our appliances? How do we keep them from taking over our lives? How do we dispose of them without leading to their tragic demise?
LG: I don’t know how to begin to answer this question other than to say that as a kid I hated the movie The Brave Little Toaster, not because it was bad or boring (though I’m pretty sure it is), but because it made me sad. Also, The Lemonheads’ “Stove” is the most affecting song of the 90s alternative rock/grunge era. Kurt Cobain, Shmurt Shmobain. And isn’t any wonder how many hoarders (not to mention hoarding-based reality TV programs) there are now that Pixar has personified practically everything?
Appliances have already taken over our lives, or at least I wish they would take over our lives. Mark Zuckerberg, Google, et al. have the wrong idea about the future; I don’t want to be connected 24/7 to my online social networks via computer-glasses or brain-connected nanobots. I get depressed enough when I go on facebook the requisite 79 times a day, why would I want to be perpetually reminded that everyone else is having more fun than me? I want to blend smoothies in my naval and have waffle irons hinging my armpits. I want my brain to microwave a Tony’s french bread pizza and my nostrils to dispense the freshly grated parmesan cheese. I want to watch Dobie Gillis on the back of one eyelid and read the Mary Worth microfiche archives on the back of the other. That is my ideal cyborg future.
WS: Many of the reviews of your book–which were written by people much smarter than me–have focused on subject matter. These stories reanimate characters from an array of pop culture forms–comic books, cartoons, surfer movies, musicals, etc. While more thoughtful readers have considered the thematic implications of this material, I find myself wondering about the logistics of your pop culture education. In other words, what cable package did your family have when you were growing up?
LG: This is your best question yet! At one point we had both the extended Time Warner cable package and a decent Dish Network package. Cable and satellite at the same time! I am pretty sure the reasoning was that during this period was that Time Warner lacked both the Cartoon Network and TV Land, yet we had to retain the cable so we could have a television set in every room of the house except for the bathroom. This was the classic era when Cartoon Network was 85% reruns of crappy Hanna Barbera series that only my parents remembered from hazy 1970s Saturday mornings and TV Land was all Hogan’s Heroes, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, etc., not The Hughleys and Friends or whatever the hell they show on it nowadays. Making sure their children had access to these types of programs seemed very important to my parents, and I guess you could say it had more of an impact on my writing “career” than being read aloud to as a child.
WS: You were raised in the Central Time Zone, but now you’re on Eastern Standard Time in Cincinnati. How has this change affected your television habits?
LG: Well, the biggest difference, Woody, is that when I moved to Cincinnati, I lost my main source for watching shitty cable TV all night, i.e. you and your house, and so I’m sorry to say I’ve watched much less Freaky Eaters and Strange Sex since the move. I’ve always been a big proponent of the Central TV schedule; primetime starts at 7 and is over by 9 or 10, so you can watch all your shows before you go out and not have to worry about catching up later. I’m starting to see the benefits of Eastern, though, but only because I can still make it home in time to watch my shows even when I have a night class. But on the other hand, I find it harder to justify staying up till 11 when I’m teaching at 8AM the next day that I haven’t prepared for it. Let’s put it this way: I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the first 15 minutes of every episode of Nashville and I spend a lot of time wondering whether that’s too much or not enough.
WS: Obviously, your collection is thematically anchored by its focus on teenagers, but many of the stories–including “Mom’s Team vs. Dad’s Team,” “Invasion,” “He’s a Rebel,” and “The Enormous Television Set”—slyly investigate familial relationships. Is this simply an inevitable consequence of writing about teenagers, or have you found yourself—indirectly, improbably–working within the Midwestern tradition of writing about dysfunctional families?
LG: You’re just trying to lend this interview some semblance of seriousness and credibility by getting me to quote Tolstoy, aren’t you? Well, I won’t do it. Suck it, Tolstoy!
WS: Archetypes–your book has them. Is there anything smart you want to say about them? Would it be fair to say that many of these stories explore tensions between the archetypal and the individual?
LG: What you said sounds pretty good. If I were forced to add something I’d say that the characters we encounter in the broad cultural landscape are far from “round” or “dynamic” or “deep” and still they retain a perhaps unhealthy but significant meaning and emotion for many, many people. People prefer–often with a passion–one breakfast cereal mascot to another, wear Batman and Spider-Man t-shirts in almost religious sense, tattoo Bugs Bunny or Tinkerbell onto their arms and legs, etc. Yet when it comes to literature, a lot of goons like James Wood and John Gardner would have us believe that the writer must create “real” people–or at least facsimiles of “real” people–in order for characters to sufficiently move the audience. I think writers could learn something from advertisers in this sense; when even the character Captain Crunch elicits an emotional response from the auditor, be it childhood nostalgia or desire or hunger, it calls into question how crucial elements like relatability and depth are to character.
WS: Most author interviews have questions on process, presumably because the interviewer doesn’t know what else to ask. I have now run out of questions, but I don’t want to know about the angle of your pen when you write or the shade of light that leads to the best characterizations. You like antiques as much as (or more than) writing, so would you be willing to tell us a bit about your antiquing process? Start with the music selection on the way to the antique store.
LG: Although obviously I am a great fan of 1950s and 1960s popular and rock music, I usually go with something more contemporary, as it’s very likely that the antique mall or show, if it’s indoors, will be piping the local oldies station and I don’t want to get fatigued by that stuff. (I’d like you to imagine this parenthetical aside as a long screed against the dearth of variety on most oldies stations, the decline of the 50s/60s format in favor 60s/70s/80s–or worse, JACK FM–formats, as well as a not-too-subtle boasting of my own superior knowledge of a diverse range of early rock ‘n’ roll music.) I like music that follows the basic tropes of classic pop music–short, catchy, somewhat repetitive, somewhat simple–with slightly more contemporary (or maybe I just mean “punker”) elements–speed, sloppiness, bare-bones recording quality. Add a subtle undertone of kitsch–so long as it doesn’t regress into base novelty and the music retains an overall sincerity–and you’ve got your perfect antiquing tunes. An antiquing mixtape would have stuff from The B-52’s first album, early Blondie, Marshall Crenshaw, Pixies, Beat Happening, Jesus & Mary Chain, Black Lips, The Cramps, Jonathan Richman, and my fave Cincinnati bands Tweens, The Harlequins, and The Tongue & Lips.
Upon arriving at the antique mall/show, my process entails plotting out an intricate and carefully measured route so that I don’t miss a single case, shelf, or booth. I could go on about this for pages and pages, so I’ll just summarize by saying that I’ve never gone hunting, never really played any sports or done any of that traditional manly stuff, but I imagine the intense concentration and series of intuitive observations and micro-calculations (e.g. noticing that certain color combinations in booth decoration suggests booths with more certain potential, predicting how much time to spend in each aisle given the mall’s impending closing hours and my wife’s mounting boredom, pondering the ratio of my desire to a given item’s price, etc.) I bring to antiquing is similar. To witness me antiquing is to see me at both my best and my worst.
WS: You have exactly three hours to spend perusing antiques. Do you visit a big-box antique mall or a carefully curated mom-and-pop place? You can’t do both. Be honest!
LG: Easy. Always go with the antique mall. I am the explorer, the collector, the shopper. It’s my job to curate, not the store’s. Otherwise there’s no joy in it. The diversity of the mall’s merchandise trumps every time. The antique mall’s messiness, sloppiness, its layer of dust over every square inch–to me these are all benefits.
WS: What shade of light leads to the best characterizations?
LG: The light of the computer monitor as the writer looks something up on Wikipedia.
Luke’s book, described by Publisher’s Weekly as a “rewarding and unusual collection,” may be purchased here.
Luke Geddes is the author of I Am a Magical Teenage Princess. He is a Ph.D. student in literature and creative writing at the University of Cincinnati.
Woody Skinner is a recent graduate of Wichita State’s MFA program; he’ll soon be joining Luke in the Ph.D. program at the University of Cincinnati.