Jul/Aug 2008  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner

Interview by John Warner and Kevin Guilfoile

Kevin Guilfoile: Unlike My First Presidentiary, which was once described, possibly by us, as the "Finnegan's Wake of hastily written cartoon books," your current book, So You Want to Be President?, looks like it involved actual research about American history and presidential politics. If it didn't, you and I certainly grew up in two different Americas, one in which high school students actually learn extensively about civics and another in which they are hypnotized for all of fifth period by the lustrous Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific sheen on the top of Tami Shanahan's head. Did you actually learn anything surprising while writing this book?

John Warner:     So You Want to Be President? took a tremendous amount of research, but fortunately, much of it fell into two categories: 1. Stuff I was pretty sure I already knew, and 2. Stuff other people figured out for me. The book business isn't all that interested in accuracy (see James Frey) or originality (see Doris Kearns Goodwin), so half-remembered trivia and Wikipedia were good enough for me. As for some surprising discoveries during my plundering of the virtual encyclopedia, I did find out that both Mandy Moore and Sarah Silverman are from New Hampshire. They may not be in Tami Shanahan's league, but that's pretty good hot famous chickage for such a small state.

Let me turn the question around on you. Your novels revolve around scenarios that are fictional (as far as we know), or at least have not yet come to pass (like legalized cloning in Cast of Shadows). I imagine you must take some steps to insure that your peyote-induced fantasies conform to at least some plausible future reality. So what's the secret?

KG:     I was an American studies major whose entire knowledge of genetic science was culled from the 1979 Peter Graves vehicle Parts: The Clonus Horror. I knew I was going to need to do research but, never having written a novel before, I wasn't sure how to do it. So I called up a professor at the University of Chicago who was supposed to be an expert in scientific biological stuff and I said, "Professor, I'm writing a novel about a doctor who clones his daughter's unknown assailant from DNA left at the crime scene and then waits for the kid to grow up so he can see what the killer looked like." There was this pause and then the professor said, "Oh my God! He can't do that! That would be horrible." So I told him the fact it was horrible was kind of the idea and he said, "Dear Lord! He must be stopped! Why would he do such a thing! He can't do that!" And I said I wasn't really asking for his permission I just had a few questions about cloning and the professor said, "Zeus protect us all!" And so I hung up. That's when I decided that I would just write the book and when I came to a scientific fact I didn't know I would just make it up. Then when the book was finished I went back and tried to do the research and get all the science stuff right. I missed one minor thing, but I'm not telling you what it is.

JW:     I think what you point out is that the key to effective writing is that it be convincing, not necessarily accurate. A reader is ready to believe all sorts of things as long as they seem true. You get away with cloning in Cast of Shadows. In My First Presidentiary, we got away with portraying President Bush with being roughly as smart and well-informed as the average ten-year-old.

KG:     The Clonus Horror imagined a future in which corrupt politicians began cloning themselves and their wealthy cronies with a secret plan to harvest the clones for their organs whenever they needed a transplant, hoping they might live forever. In an unrelated development, every single person I know in the humor writing industry is voting for Obama. Every single one. (Although, I have never met P.J. O'Rourke.) During previous Democratic administrations overwhelmingly liberal humor writers focused on some personal weakness. In the Carter years it was his brother Billy. During the Clinton presidency it was his brother Roger and also his weird, self-immolating addiction to skanks. In the event of an Obama administration, what will catch the focus of satirical wags?

JW:     Probably his ears, at least judging from the average editorial cartoon caricature. Either that or that his wife doesn't seem to actually worship the ground he walks on, as is supposed to be the norm for first ladies. I think there's little doubt that an Obama administration will be less of a target-rich environment than the Bush years, but this is sort of like saying that Kobe Bryant is a less awesome basketball player than Michael Jordan. This is undoubtedly true, but some appearances aside, Barack Obama is still a politician. They are, almost by definition, going to be doing something dumb that small- minded people such as ourselves can make fun of. God Bless America.

KG:     Like most writers I keep a pen and notebook next to my pillow to record those gems of insight that occur in the mysterious dimension between sleeping and wakefulness. Last night about three in the morning I thought of a question to ask you for this interview. What I wanted to know was, "ABS urrty Sel Cenduit Heraler?"

JW:     I used to have this habit as well, but had to stop once I accidentally blew my nose into the premise of what I'm pretty sure would have been the critical and commercial success of the millennium. For awhile I substituted pen and paper with a voice recorder, but the sound of my wife telling me to shut the hell up and go back to sleep drowned out any possible wisdom. Now I hire an overnight stenographer to sit quietly beside my bed recording anything I happen to say either waking or sleeping. Here's last night's output.

"Mommy! Blacklegurgh. Thirsty."

Positively Beckettian.

As you know, since you were there and drank three gallons of cough syrup during the writing, My First Presidentiary was completed in eighteen days. My other two books took about four months each. You, on the other hand, with Cast of Shadows and your current project take closer to three years from genesis to exodus. What's wrong with you? What's wrong with me?

KG:     I don't know if Ian McEwan has ever used this excuse but my latest novel has taken so long because of potty training. Not mine, I mean, but my son's. Potty training kicked my ass. If you had told me five years ago that the hardest part of raising a son would be convincing him that he doesn't have to sit in his own feces I'd have said you were nuts. True story: After about a year of trying to teach my son to use the toilet, when I was at my lowest point, when he had just about convinced me that his way really was better, I was walking past the downstairs bathroom and saw a cat turd in the bowl. Yes, the cat learned to use the toilet before my son.

JW:     Both of our wives out earn us by significant margins. My question, how did we get so lucky?

KG:     We are Domestic Machiavellians, you and I. Ooh, I just coined a cool term. Maybe we should write a humor book about being the stay-at-home husbands of successful women called "The Domestic Machiavellian." Do you think there is enough overlap between people who want to read stay-at-home daddy laff books and people who use Machiavellian in a sentence?

JW:     I say we skip the book and go straight to the TV show, Not So Desperate Househusbands.

As you note, we are both stay-at-home parents, you to two children, me to two dogs. Like most who work out of the home and have such responsibilities, it can be hard to find the time to write in between carrying out necessary domestic tasks. I solve my time-management issues by sending the kids outside to chase squirrels and chew sticks, giving me a few hours of peace and quiet. What are your techniques to strike a balance between parenting and writing?

KG:     The two most important tools to the parent who is also a writer are the wireless laptop and the ninety-minute Scooby-Doo movie. Scooby Doo in Pirates Ahoy! is usually good for 500 words.

JW:     Let me also recommend a nice dried pig's ear to gnaw on during the Scooby Doo feature.

Your novel was praised by the notoriously difficult to please Michiko Kakutani. What's up with that?

KG:     I think in general I have been very successful at lowering women's expectations of me so that over time they find me more tolerable than I actually am. It worked with my mother, it worked with my wife, it apparently worked with Michiko Kakutani. It's the one life skill I hope to pass on to my sons.


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