Adam P. Knave is a freelance writer and editor, and the author of the recently published novel Stays Crunchy in Milk. The following is an email interview I conducted with Adam where I had the opportunity to discuss his new novel, as well as his take on nostalgia, pop culture and writing practices. I had a lot of fun doing this, and I sincerely hope you not only enjoy this interview, but take the time to check out Adam’s book.
Christian A. Dumais: The first thing that surprised me about the book was the lack of irony in addressing the more cartoon-like aspects of the story. Your approach in writing is sincere and expressed in a very matter-of-fact way, even when you’re addressing the more absurd qualities inherent in the material. What prompted you to take that path?
Adam P. Knave: I didn’t want the novel to just be a bunch of “Remember how this was goofy?“moments. I knew from the jump that if I wanted to make the points and tell the story I wanted to tell I would have to do it utterly seriously. I love doing slightly absurdist things with my writing and one of the things I’ve found is that you can get away with a lot of crazy nonsense if you make sure to do it with a straight face. I mean take apart most epic fantasy novels. Crazy stuff, right? But people take it seriously because it takes itself seriously. The same holds true here. By taking everything matter-of-factly I allow the reader to take the same attitude about the world. That lets the story shine through and doesn’t force anyone to sit through nudges and winks.
CAD: I can tell you were having a lot of fun with some of the worlds, especially the “G.I. Joe” part, where the protagonists kept pointing out all the obvious things fans have been saying for decades now, and in keeping with the tone, I sensed – perhaps wrongly – a certain amount of restraint. Do you feel there were story opportunities that weren’t explored because you decided to do without the nudges and winks?
APK: Well sure, in a sense. I mean anytime to decide to tell a story you also decide to not tell a million other stories. So yes. There was an entire different novel in there full of nods and winks and laughing. Mostly I do that on my website, where I will tackle a bit of pop culture every now and then and point and laugh in a loving manner. But really this novel was so not about that. The pop culture stuff is really window dressing, it’s a way to explain something, but it is never the point.
CAD: Do you ever have any concerns about dating the story by including pop culture references?
APK: Not at all, since the references were already dated. Ha! I slay me! Itreated it as a setting. If a novel is set in the 1950’s do people worry about it being dated? Or is it a period piece? Well I wrote a period piece. The period just happens to be “popular childhood culture of the 80’s.” Maybe it’ll catch on. Soon there will be more novels set there and we can overtake Victorian romances! Seriously though, the struggles of writing a period piece were very much in mind with this. After a while you relax and just accept it. This is the story you want to write and so you write it. Trust in the story and it can see you through.
CAD: A lot of the fun with the book was putting together what each of the worlds the characters traveled in represented. It’s worth noting that you start with the world of product mascots before entering the world of toy products and so on. Considering the seemingly unlimited worlds you could have started with, why did you feel product mascots were a good starting point?
APK: Well I had to start with where the main characters were from. There is a very deliberate order to the worlds that were chosen in the order they were chosen. It all comes down to how we are taught about the world through pop culture and advertising. We’re taught to like peas because the fun cartoon giant is awesome and we like him so we should like peas. As we get older we learn specific lessons from different age-geared aspects that lead us to a place. And I recreated those steps.
CAD: Then I guess my question is, why these characters? It’s unconventional, and as a writer, I’m wondering what you thought you could gain from cereal mascots as your protagonists rather than, say, video games icons?
APK: I realized that out of all the cereal characters the Universal Monsters cereal mascots talked to each other. Sure the Rice Krispie kids knew eachother but they were on the same box. Think about that. Unless the characters knew each other beforehand (Fruity Pebbles) or were on the same box the mascots each had their own worlds. Except for the Universal Monsters based ones. That was my in, right there. They were unique in a sea of sameness. They were friends. And I wanted to write about growing up and friendship.
CAD: The book, in many ways, felt like it was specifically written for our generation; that is, those of us who were raised on cartoons and Nintendo. Given the specific issues you’re tackling, were you ever concerned about limiting your audience?
APK: I was, actually. I figured, though, if I was going to write a book that dealt with turning 30 and growing up then I would have to be honest about it and talk to what I know. Which is looking back at how I got there and that is tied up in, at least partly, all those cartoons and shows and the lessons they teach, both on purpose and by accident. In doing so I knew I would run the risk of not being able to talk to people too far out of my experience range. All right, fine. Not every book is for every person and they don’t have to be. Someone writing noir mysteries doesn’t tend to worry that people who hate mysteries won’t like his book, right? That’s limiting the audience by the content. Same thing, just mind is even more tightly focused. And chances are my choice here will majorly hurt sales of the book. But my publisher knew that when he bought it. We both knew it was a risk worth taking. So to hell with it. People who it connects with will hopefully love having something to connect with that much and people who don’t connect at all will hopefully enjoy the story and trappings anyway.
CAD: Which part of the book did you enjoy writing the most?
APK: Hard to say. I think I enjoyed the second section the best, in theprocess. The world was just a constant source of fun for me and I had a good time creating the characters there. In order to create any of them I had to take their source (or sources) and boil it all down to the very core of the concept before building it back up with changes. This way everything would feel similar and yet different. It was always a challenge but finding the exact right tone was incredibly rewarding and some of the characters in that section were tricky. And fantastic once I got them down.
CAD: Another surprise with the book was in the video game chapters, where you address the nature of these gaming environments, especially how terrifying it could be if you really looked at it closely, such as the black wall. Can you talk about your approach to this section of the book?
APK: I wanted to reproduce things true to their core. Video games were supposed to be things of life or death. You lose – you die. And once I started looking at what a lot of these games really had in them it was oddly scary in a way I hadn’t thought of before. So I put it in the book. It also fit thematically because as the book progresses the stakes rise, as they should. So, thankfully, it worked out. But yes the world where videos game happen is a scary, crazy place full of people who are utterly out of their gourds. Thanks, Nintendo!
CAD: Did you sit yourself down and re-experience any of the source material?
APK: I very specifically did not. I made that choice from day one. I would work only from the noise in my head and if I got things horribly wrong then so be it. Risky, sure, but also pure. Because the real story was so separated from the trappings, I wanted to not fool myself into thinking it was the other way around. So I limited my re-exposure to the source materials down to, well, nothing.
CAD: By not re-watching it, do you think the distance from the original stuff gave you any particular advantages?
APK: I think so. The way I pulled this off I simply couldn’t worry too much if I got some tiny little detail right or wrong. That left me free to just tell astory and not get bogged down in questions that I would have needed weeks of watching things and doing research to answer. Questions that, frankly, no one would ever care about except me. So I’m glad as hell to not have them around my neck. I really would’ve listed the number of holes in the Board of Truth if I had let myself. Seriously. So be thankful I didn’t, you know?
CAD: Could you see yourself revisiting the characters when you’re older? Perhaps 40?
APK: Nope. I truly hope not. This was my statement about growing up.About where you get to when you grow up, if you’re lucky. If, when I’m 40, I want to explore that side, the whole getting older part, well it would be through a whole different spectrum. The things I used growing up to this point and that I’ve used since can look the same in some respects but they are often vastly different. I am, I admit, kind of fond of the idea of pop culture mythology novels. But I wrote mine, see. I want to see someone else play instead. I’ll go to a different place for my next novel. I’m sure that confuses readers on some level, too. Many writers write a type of thing and that’s what they’re known for. I go from A to B to Z to H to C. But I am also, admittedly, crazy.
CAD: With that said, how have you been describing it to people? Particularly those who aren’t familiar with the source material?
APK: Generally as a parable for 30 year olds. And people who are not in the range for it, who aren’t the target I get into the fact that it is a book aboutgrowing up and friendship, that the pop culture stuff is dressing. It isn’t the core of the novel, and shouldn’t be. Yes, people have fun playing with that and liking (or hating) what I’ve taken from that period of time but even if you don’t know the source at all you can still enjoy it for what it is: an adventure story and a modern fairy tale type of thing. No one is excluded. Just some people got backstage passes, you know?
CAD: Speaking of backstage passes, what’s your writing schedule like? Can you walk us through your process?
APK: Well I have a day job to pay bills and such. Generally I work all day and get home around 6pm. Then I write for two or three hours: five days aweek, sometimes six or seven but mostly only five. When I have days off the day job I write for four hours and just find time to fit everything in that I can. I am, right now, working on a project I can’t talk about, two 200 page graphic novel scripts, a new novel and two ongoing webcomics as well as a website that updates daily and more. So after I write for a few hours I sit and plan things out, make phone calls and all of that. It’s a living, of sorts.
CAD: Since you’re jumping from prose to scripts and different mediums, do you find yourself more comfortable with certain projects? Which ones tend to be the most rewarding?
APK: The most rewarding ones are the ones I just finished most recently. Always. Every project has a shape to it. My job is to tell stories. Themedium I use is determined by the story itself. Some things work better as comics, or spoken word or blog entries or novels … whatever they fit the shape of is what I’ll try to tell them in first. And sometimes I have to change the shape of a story to see if I can fit it into a different medium. The novel I’m writing now started as an idea for a movie script. But with adding a bunch of plot and spinning a few choices around it became a novel instead. Happily so, even.
I love prose first and foremost. I always will. There is something utterly pure about it. It’s a writer and a reader, alone in a dark warm place. You don’t get more intimate without fucking, you know? And I mean a good fucking. A real good fucking. That’s the draw of prose.
I think I just said I like to write prose because it’s like fucking the reader. Which … huh. That isn’t quite what I … well, whatever.
Working on comics is a boat load of fun though because I get to work with D. J. Kirkbride more often than not. He’s a great writer and a great partner to work with. So it’s always fun to team up with him and an artist and build something that is more than the sum of its parts. So each medium has draws all by itself. The trick is to find the right shape and medium for each story and then be willing to learn all the time so you can use each different medium effectively.
CAD: For those who finished this interview and still aren’t sold on Stays Crunchy in Milk, what do you want to say to them?
APK: Validate my life and buy a copy of the book. No. Hey, you can go to my site and download the first 77 pages of the novel if you want and give it a try. Also I have to give a shout out to Christian here. We met something like nine years ago and he was the first person to ever interview me. Then he introduced me to some other friends of his, treated me like an equal and like a friend and has always been a great guy. We lost touch for years and recently fell into the same circles again. So yeah, this interview is too nerds discussing writing, it really is, but it is also two friends still having the same conversations as they did nine years ago and it still feels just as awesome as it did back then.