Interview: Alex Robinson Pt. 3

Categories:  Interviews

 Alex Robinson
As he made more than clear in the second part of our interview, Alex Robinson is a man more than happy to talk about his lower regions. As fun as that was, however, Robinson fans are likely more interested in the dirt on the author’s real successor to his first two major works, Box Office Poison and Tricked.

While the forthcoming Too Cool to Be Forgotten shares more in common with those two books than the detour that was Lower Regions, the work also marks a few departures from the structure of those works.

In this third and final part, we discuss the author’s upcoming book, tie up a couple of loose ends, and of course it wouldn’t be a proper Alex Robinson interview without one reference to Synder from One Day at a Time.

One of the most interesting aspects in terms of the appeal of Box Office Poison was the fact that, while the book didn’t really win any awards over here, it managed to rack up honors when you went over to France. Is there something about that particular book that appeals more to European comic readers?

You know, I was thunderstruck when that happened. At the very least because I was up against Craig Thompson, who has won pretty much every award possible in America, so the idea that I could possibly beat Craig Thompson, let alone a bunch of French cartoonists in their own country—I figured that I had absolutely no chance of winning. But they must have done a heck of a job translating it [laughs]. That’s the only thing I can imagine. I have no explanation for why that happened, but the book is pretty popular in France, so go figure.

The book takes place in New York, but are you thinking about the sort appeal this book is going to have in other areas? Is this going to be universally appealing to people across the States or abroad?

Well, fortunately when I was doing Box Office Poison, as the title implies, I  had no idea that anyone would like this. I just wrote a book I’d want to read and chances were that no one else would like to read that. That’s why the book is called Box Office Poison, because no one want to read a book about a bunch of people sitting around, talking about their feelings and things. And I certainly never imagined that it would get translated into different languages.

I was horrified when the French translator sent me a bunch of questions about the pop-culture references. I was embarrassed and horrified when I realized how many there were in the book. There were literally 200 questions—‘what does “kiss my grits” mean?’ ‘Who is Linda Lavin?’ If I had been thinking of international audiences, I would have never included references to Synder from One Day at a Time. You just have to do the book you want to read, and hope that it catches on.

It becomes even more pop-culture-centric when you start dealing with a story about a rockstar in the next book though, right?

Well, I made a conscious effort not to include any real-world references. No movies, no TV show, no rockstars. It’s tricky when you’re dealing with pop-culture, because something can change, over time. If you made a reference to OJ Simpson in 1985, it has a very different context than after the murders. I made a reference to Anna Nicole Smith in Box Office Poison, and now it has much different connotations. It’s tricky. You’re risking time being your enemy. A joke can change, or people can just totally forget what those references mean. You’ll need to come up with footnotes saying, ‘the Spice Girls were a popular singing group in the 1990s.’

Do you feel yourself compelled to create just a generally more universal product, now that you’ve got such a broad readership?

No. that was an extreme case, not including pop-culture references anymore. The new book I’m working on, a good chunk of it is set in the 1980s, so there’s a lot of very specific references.

Purposefully dated stuff?

Well, I’m just trying to convey a certain time, and pop-culture is an easy way to do that. It’s very consciously reminding you that this is an 80s book. Every time I do a book, I’m convinced that it’s going to be unpopular. “Okay, this is it. This is my Hudson Hawk. Everyone’s going to say that I totally blew it.” I think I sort of have to do that, in order to let myself have that freedom. If you go into something thinking that everyone’s going to want to read it, it makes you self-conscious. That way it’s not that disappointing if it does tank. And this book definitely will tank [laughs].

How far are you into the new book?

I actually just finished it. I’m doing corrections, proof reading, and all of that stuff now. Hopefully I’ll have it wrapped up and totally ready to go by the end of the year [2007-ed.].

How many pages is it?

It’s a short one. It’s only 121 pages.

When you finish one of the big ones—400 pages, or so—is there a special celebration you throw yourself?

Well, it’s tough. It’s not like I finish page 400 hundred, and that’s it. Then comes the worst part, which is going through it, re-reading it, doing corrections, getting notes from editors telling we which scenes aren’t clear. It’s kind of the schlokiest part. It’s more of a trickling ending. When it comes out, that’s the celebration part.

How soon after the end do you launch into the next project?

It really depends. I always tell myself that once the current one is done, I’m going to jump right into the next one. By the time Too Cool does come out, I should be well on my way to the next book, but it never seems to work out that way [laughs]. I always get distracted or do a couple of short stories first. You need to recharge your batteries a bit and wait for inspiration to strike you. I did do one page of my new fantasy book, but I got hit with the corrections for my new book, so it probably won’t be until early next year that I seriously start working on it.

Too Cool to be Forgotten—this book that is so destined to fail—what’s the premise behind it?

The good thing about this book is that it’s got the easiest premise. It’s the only book that I have where I can sum it up very easily. A middle-aged guy wants to quit smoking. He gets hypnotized, and it sends him back to being a teenager in 1985, where he basically has to relive his life over again from that point.

It’s sounds a bit more linear than the last couple. It’s a single protagonist book.

Yeah. It was a challenge to write in that sense, because it does only have one main character, who’s pretty much in every single scene. So it doesn’t have the rambling sub-plots and huge cast of characters of my other books. It was tough to write in that sense, because it’s very uncharacteristic.

That’s interesting. It seems like it would be far more difficult to manage seven main characters.

Well, it’s harder because you can’t get as broad a range of textures and scenes. If I’m working on something like Box Office Poison, I can say, “I’m going to put in a funny scene here to lighten things up,” or, “I’m going to go for a dark undercurrent for this sub-plot.” There’s none of that in this. It’s pretty much a one-man show. It’s harder to convey any kind of scope. Also, if your main character’s not appealing, then you’re stuck.

When I look down the character list to Box Office Poison, it’s easy to pick out autobiographical character traits in much of the cast. When you’re not spreading yourself out amongst a large cast of characters, are you putting more of yourself into this single protagonist?

This one isn’t straight up autobiography…

You’ve never traveled through time…

Well, that’s just what I want you to think [laughs]. But no, high school has such an irrational importance in my mind—it looms large in my legend, as they say. It helped that this year was my 20th high school reunion, so I thought it would be important to do a story about high school, and why it’s so important to me. It’s almost art therapy.

Something cathartic.

Yeah, though it didn’t really work out that way [laughs]. But it got me through a story. But yeah, there are always autobiographical elements to the story, no matter how cloaked.

Does that apply to Lower Regions?

[Laughs].…that’s a good one. Not as blatanly…

Well, there’s always going to be something in there, whether you, as the creator, are aware of it, or not.

That’s true. I’m sure someone can look at the book and psychoanalyze it. “Clearly he has issues with gigantic golums.”

There’s one word in the book and it’s onomatopoeia. Is there a reason why the book is silent?

My goal, when I set out to do it, was to have the most fun possible, which would be, basically, a sexy woman killing monsters against a black background. No talking, no characterizing. Because there was no talking, I couldn’t make the story too complicated. Anything that couldn’t be conveyed with very simple storytelling was off-limits. It became very complicated at the end. I didn’t just want her to kill the last monster, and have it be the end.

So there’s a sub-story tacked on to the end.

Yeah, I guess so. At least you find out why she did all of that. But it did make me want to do a fantasy story with dialog, next time. But this time around, I just wanted to make it light and fast. Kind of like a video game. An old style video game. I know nowadays they have complicated stories.

At the end of the book, there’s a rogue’s gallery of characters. Were they created specifically for the book, or are they old characters pulled from your sketchbooks?

No, they’re all done just for this book. I wanted to do as many monsters as possible, and I had a page to kill. It was fun to draw. They’re the types of characters I’ve always drawn—basically just a bunch of D&D-style characters.

–Brian Heater

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