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Jan/Feb 2008 Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Michael Neff

by Cicily R. Janus


The Year of the Rhinoceros is an utterly compelling, utterly original novel that hilariously explores what went wrong in this country. Michael Neff is a raucous new voice in American literature. — Robert Olen Butler

Michael Neff is a true renaissance man in the world of literature. As the editor of the literary journal Del Sol Review, chief editor of Del Sol Press, creator/ director of one of the most popular literary sites on the Internet, Webdelsol.com, and founder of the NYC Pitch-and-Shop Conference and Algonkian Writer Conferences (where he mentors countless students and lends his expertise not only on the art of fiction, but also on the skill of the pitch and commercial aspects of the publishing business throughout the country), his plate is full. His short fiction has appeared in many prominent literary publications, including North American Review, Quarterly West, Pittsburgh Quarterly, The Literary Review, and Conjunctions. His first novel, Year of the Rhinoceros, is due out in spring of 2008 through Red Hen Press. Neff's insights in Year of the Rhinoceros were ripped from his experiences in the literary world and as a former federal worker in the Executive Branch. In Rhinoceros, he creates a tale of love, murder, betrayal and courage. The setting and circumstances are based on Hill hearings, studies, articles, and interviews with anonymous former agency staff.

 

CJ     Year of the Rhinoceros is just about hot off the presses. Can you tell me what the title means?

MN     The rhinoceros is a metaphor for stupid and dangerous human beings, and government itself, derived originally from Ionesco's Rhinoceros. They serve similar purpose, though mine is more expansive.

CJ     How would you describe your journey to where you are at in your career right at this moment?

MN     The journey to where I'm at right now might be thought of as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington meets Donny Darko: an idealist trying to do the right thing becoming the victim to dark and surreal forces beyond his control.

CJ     Where did you draw your inspiration from when writing this novel?

MN     My specific literary inspiration for the novel was Dostoevsky and Balzac. I desired to recreate a time and place, and one that would reveal a dark, crucial and pivotal moment in the history of America. Specifically, Washington D.C., 1984—Ronald Reagan's biggest year as president.

CJ     If there is one idea from your book that you wish for readers to ponder, to question, to reflect upon finishing the book, what would it be?

MN     That as human beings we often labor in self-destructive fashion, even in the most subtle and trivial of ways, to create an environment hostile not only to our political well being, but to our survival as a whole—and amazingly enough, while readily assuming the role of predator and hypocrite, to punish anyone who attempts to save us from ourselves. This is the source of the anger and angst endured by whistleblowers. It's as if an entire world conspires to ruin them. My favorite Dostoevsky quote sums all this up: "Tyranny is a habit; it grows upon us and, in the long run turns into a disease... A society which can watch this happen with equanimity must itself be basically infected."

CJ     When creating The Year of the Rhinoceros, you essentially put yourself in the position, in your words, of the voice for the whistleblowers in Washington. Who were these people and why do you feel the need to give them a voice?

MN     They are numerous and mostly unrecognized, whether or not their efforts are met with any success. I stand in awe of anyone who finally decides to take a small stand by just saying no to compromising those basic values of honesty and integrity most of us were raised to accept, but so few of us are willing to support when things get tough. The true whistleblower is a hero. I feel honored to give them a voice. Their efforts also provided me with the vehicle I needed to get a cross-section view of the whole criminal enterprise of the American government. The agency distorted by the Reagan White House into a force employed to discover and betray whistleblowers is the setting of the novel, and it still operates today, doing its honorable work for George Bush.

CJ     You claim that your novel is based on non-fictional circumstances, the background having been pieced together from Hill hearings, studies, articles, and secret interviews with former agency staff members who must remain anonymous. How much of the story is fact? How did you incorporate the facts in a fictitious manner in order to create such a compelling novel?

MN     The setting is real. The circumstances are real. The struggles of the whistleblowers are real, and their prosecutors are real—just the names changed to protect the guilty. The plot is fictional, but based on a true story. Laney Dracos was a real person and she really did suffer for her beliefs and for her resistance to the god of rhinos. One particular way I incorporate facts into the story involves the pseudo-legalistic manner in which whistleblowers were forced by Reagan's agency to run a gauntlet of tests to determine authenticity. Of course, no one ever made it through the tests alive. That way, Reagan's team of sociopaths could rightfully go to Congress and testify they'd never actually met a "real whistleblower" in their lives. It was all a game, one designed to prevent Reagan and his corporate pals from suffering the loss of any important contracts.

CJ     You mention that the partial purpose of this work is to set the record straight on Reagan's terms in the White House. Why is this important to you? What do you hope to gain by "exposing" the truth behind Reagan and his administration?

MN     Like many in this country, I am tired of the purposeful revisionism on the part of some Republicans regarding the presidency of Ronald Reagan. They want to make him over into their version of Kennedy, mythologize him into something he wasn't. Reagan's regime was one of the most corrupt in American history, especially when one takes into account the number of public officials caught exercising their right to criminal behavior.

The Nixon era was more publicized because of Watergate, but the Reagan era was a free-for-all of rampant fraud, waste, and abuse of power at all levels. Also, there is the ridiculous myth that Reagan was responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union. That is a little like giving Nixon credit for the first U.S. landing on the moon. Reagan just happened to be making rehearsed speeches at the time of the collapse.

I recently had a long talk with Tom Devine, director of the Government Accountability Project in Washington, D.C., one of the top three watchdog organizations, and he told me the Reagan group was more energetically evil than the Bushies—who are mostly morons and evaders. It was during the Reagan era that corporate America began taking over Washington. The Pentagon had already succumbed, but much more was left to do. The Reaganites infiltrated like viral organisms into every niche of government, spreading corporate cheer and influence. EPA was a shining example. Ann Burford set an example and conducted a marvelous cleansing campaign that reverberates even to this day.

CJ     Your protagonist, Manny Eden, is described as an activist from America's heartland, and like thousands of other young idealists, "dangerously naive and anxious to devote his life to public service." Do you see a part of yourself in the protagonist? If not, is this, Manny Eden based upon someone you know or just an ideal of someone, or a collage of multiple people?

MN     Manny Eden and I were both naïve. We both suffered a sense of betrayal. However, I was never a fan of Ronald Reagan, whereas Manny hero-worshipped him. Manny was/is the archetypal idealist. We follow him into the leviathan, we learn something, we experience it as he does. The city of Washington chews these people up and spits them back home again, or else they move to Virginia and work for General Dynamics. Or else they stay and become part of the problem. Back to social Darwinism…By the way, Walt Whitman had a great quote about Washington, something like, "I am here amongst the great mass of loafers, traitors, incompetents, and axe-grinders that goes by the name of Washington." I love that quote because it's so true.

CJ     Do you think that some people connected to the "real" story behind the novel will be upset with your "exposure" of this subject matter?

MN     The Reagan supporters won't be happy. They live with the belief that he was some kind of savior. It's scary. The bureaucrats will just stay in denial. Capitol Hill might be amused, and then wax dismissive. Who knows?

CJ     Most writers will tell you that their works are 90% character, plot, description and 10% personal experience. You worked for the federal government. This had to have had a direct influence on your writing. How? Why?

MN     Having worked in Washington in the executive branch was a huge influence. It taught me the concept of "social Darwinism" and how it applied to the culture of Washington. It enabled me to understand why I often felt like one of the few sane human beings surrounded by a mob of dysfunctional types who demonstrated an utter lack of regard for even the most basic ethics. This condition was never more prevalent than in GSA, the last agency I worked for (the first being NASA). My co-workers and boss—a fellow by the name of James Dean (not kidding) at the Committee Management Secretariat in GSA—were at odds with me over things you would never believe unless you directly experienced it. Even keeping track of basic numbers in that office proved to be an impossible task complicated by dishonest motivation and personal agenda. It was incredible. When I left that office, not one professional remained behind who actually answered their phone—and I'm not bragging.

CJ     I was hooked on this novel from the opening passage:

SAY TO YOURSELF, I AM GOD.

That's right. Imagine it.

Now, do some tricks, try out Your powers.

Hide in a far Nothing at the edge of light. Drift near Far Tortuga in a leaky turtle boat. Melt an icecap, craft a crop circle, have sex with a virus-etc. Now, go to the city of Washington and read a few minds. Pick up a copy of the Post. Hang out in a senatorial hideaway with an oil or weapons lobbyist. Try to reconcile the biases, irrationalities, and politics You encounter there into something that makes sense for the good of all.

In other words, try to un-Babel this city...

You cannot.

It is impossible, even for You. Being all-powerful, You have "created" a place even You will never sort out.

The opening to your novel is powerful, to say the least. It suggests that even if a person were able to wield the omnipotent powers of God on Washington he would not be able to "un-Babel" the city.

Do you feel that most of the political heads in Washington say, "I am God," every morning upon rising? Does God play a major role in your book? If so, why? And do you feel as though Washington and its political "gods" could use a little religion to govern their lives?

MN     God as a force, entity, or influence, plays no role whatsoever, but the gods of Washington have their own religion, one of their commandments being Thou shall go with the flow. As far as what they say to themselves? I propose something similar to I will become a god in due course, God and my handlers willing.

CJ     Is there a particular passage from your book that is your favorite? Is there one in which you would hope the reader would draw a deeper sense of who you are as a writer?

MN     I have favorite chapters. For example, one wherein the female protagonist, Laney Dracos, goes to a power party and meets Ronald Reagan and the First Nancy. She watches the bumbling Ronny perform a Wizard of Oz skit, and she also clashes with Nancy, gets called a "white trash slut," becomes dyspeptic at the sight of George Bush (who flirts with her) and battles a terrible depression that she has nicknamed Gertrude Stein. It's all very bizarre.

CJ     In our conversations previous, you have mentioned that you produced a film trailer for your book. What gave you the idea to do this? How do you hope to affect your readership with this innovative PR move for literature?

MN     I've always wanted to be part of a film, any film, and so decided to undertake the venture to produce a short film taken from a scene in the novel. The purpose of the film, Bad Boss Theory, is twofold: to promote the novel and to better get across the whole point I just made. There are other trailers out there, but they are like animated book flap, montages, commercials. Bad Boss Theory is the first trailer to portray actors in the performance of a script taken from a scene in a novel—and if not for the assistance of a talented young film director, Rahmin Atarod, it might never have happened.

My intent is to further produce a series of short films taken from other scenes, and in partnership with Red Hen Press in Los Angeles, and NextPix Productions, we've created a novel film-trailer competition to not only to accomplish this, but to set in motion a standard and means of using film to promote socially relevant and politically important works. At novelfilmtrailer.com, you can watch the current trailer, see a sample script, and read a comprehensive synopsis of the novel itself. We're all very excited about the project and the promise of intelligently using film to promote literature in this media-savvy generation.

CJ     Is there a particular style, genre or author that you emulate? If not, who are some of your favorite writers?

MN     My primary influences for style and method are various. Old guard include Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Fitzgerald, Orwell, Nathanael West, Tristan Tsara, Antonin Artaud, and all the way back to the likes of Bronte, Conrad, Balzac, Mark Twain, and Dostoevsky. Influences active in more recent years include Kerouac, Kesey, Robert Olen Butler, Jayne Anne Phillips, David Mamet, and the poets Roethke, Jeffers, and Sylvia Plath, among many others.

CJ     Drawing upon your experiences as an editor, mentor and writer, what would you say is the most challenging aspect of the writing process?

MN     It depends on whether or not you're seeking commercial success, but all in all, to write a story readers will want to read and to do so without compromising the qualities or aspects of the work that make it important to you.

CJ     If you had one piece of advice for new writers and published writers alike, what would it be?

MN     Stop being overly derivative, seeking success by emulating others, and instead seek to write about something new and different, maybe even something that matters.

 

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