June 22, 2004
THE PBJ INTERVIEW
by Bob Sassone
OK, so the first question about your book Be More Chill is, what the hell is a squip?
A squip is an ingestible quantum computer that gives you real time social advice. Basically, it's a pill that makes you cool. You eat it; its coating dissolves in your system and it sidles up to your neurons to communicate directly with your brain, telling you what to wear, how to act, whom to be friends with and whom to ignore. It can be set to several different celebrity voices: Jack Nicholson, Keanu Reeves, Tyrese. It's the next step in human lifestyle enhancement. You can learn much more about it by Googling "squip."
Were you cool in high school? And what is "cool" anyway?
I wasn't cool in high school, and that made it easier for me to identify what cool really is. It is a genetically determined predisposition toward sexual desirability and personal comfort. On the surface, it has everything to do with looks and dress, but then someone comes along who looks wrong and dresses wrong but simply establishes a new paradigm for cool. So it's genetic; it's controlled by pheronomoes; it's inevitable; some of us are born to win and some are born to lose, and that's why in Be More Chill Jeremy gets in trouble even after he gets a squip.
So you're saying there's a set definition for cool? What about the theory that not being with the popular kids, not wearing the right clothes, not "being cool" is actually cool in itself?
The idea that not being with the popular kids and not wearing the right clothes can make you "edgy" and "different" and get you the girl/boy in the end... that's a very 90s idea. I don't see that in America anymore. American culture, and especially American youth culture, has no place for nonconformity. The nonconformists are labeled as potential shooters and told by their principals to wear different shirts to school.
American youth culture is big business--it's much bigger business than it was 10 years ago--and that business rewards those who choose to wear what is pitched at them. So yes, there's a set definition for cool--turn on your TV.
If a squip had existed when you were in high school, or even now, would you have taken it?
Absolutely, I would have taken a squip in high school. Maybe it didn't exist for me at the time, but plenty of products did that had the power to make me cool: drugs, alcohol, certain girls, designer clothes, certain types of backpacks and shoes. To the degree that I'm very cheap, I didn't go after all of them. But I absolutely wanted to and I did go after the things that were within my reach. If a squip had been there, I'd be all over it. I like a sure thing.
I'd probably get one now, too, just because I get lonely.
I haven't gotten through the whole book yet so maybe you address this, but couldn't a squip be considered a type of drug, an intoxicant to change the way you act and are perceived by others, like drugs or alcohol?
The squip in Be More Chill can be a metaphor for a lot of things, and I don't want to be so pretentious as to analyze it myself. (The book is being used in a course on "the self" at Manhattan Marymount College this fall and it'll be interesting to see what those students think it stands for.) It certainly is possible to view the squip as the ultimate drug, and many people whom I talk to about Be More Chill say "A pill that makes you cool? We used to have those, man. They were called luuuuudes..."
But I like to keep the squip open-ended. More than the ultimate drug, it's the ultimate product.
Explain a bit how you started writing, influences, first writing job, etc.
When I was 15, I started reading The New York Press, an NYC weekly without the Village Voice's pedigree but with, I think we can all acknowledge now, better writers. People like Jonathan Ames, Amy Sohn and Jim Knipfel wrote confessional essays for the paper at this time and while all of their writing focused on sex and drugs, I didn't really have any sex or drugs in my life--but I did have snot and vomit. So I figured if I sent a story of my own off about snot and vomit, it might get me published.
The first thing I sent in was an essay: an early version of "Stuy High" from my book Teen Angst? Naaah.... I put it in the mail; two months later it came back to my house--not enough postage. So I sent it back.
Two months after that I got a call from then-editor Sam Sifton. He liked my writing but thought I should write shorter stuff. From then on, I wrote 1200-word pieces on a freelance basis. If New York Press liked what I wrote, they would print my story and pay me $100. If they didn't like it, they wouldn't print it and wouldn't pay me anything.
My influences then were George Orwell, Michael Crichton, the NYPress writers, and some of what they made me read in school: Raymond Carver, J.D. Salinger. Since then I've expanded both backwards and forwards, taking a lot from the Iliad, Odyssey and Satyricon and also being blown away by Cryptonomicon and Everything is Illuminated.
Do you still write for the NY Press? Their 50 Worst New Yorkers (or whatever the hell it's called) list must piss off a lot of people.
I'm still a contributing writer for New York Press. Yes, "50 Most Loathsome New Yorkers" gets the most notice every year, but NYPress was also the first place I found that talked about CD buring (in 1996) or Napster (I wrote that article in 1999). It's been on the leading edge of a lot of stuff that the mainstream press has played catch-up with.
So there's talk of a movie for the book. How did that come about, and who do you picture in the cast?
My agency got Be More Chill in the hands of movie people before we even had advance copies of the book. It went around Hollywood when it was still a manuscript. I thought this was surprising but I learned that it's common; a lot of books get squared away as movies before they're even published. People in the movie world are simply looking for ideas and if one comes along that grabs one, they keep it. I didn't do much to secure the movie deal except go out to LA and meet with the I'd be working with (the Weitz Brothers, who did American Pie, and Steve Pink, who adapted High Fidelity).
Casting is one of those questions that everyone gets wrong; they think that movies are cast at the beginning. Casting comes late, late in the game. Right now I am focused on working with Steve to get the script completed. But when we get to casting, I think any dark-haired kid could play Jeremy Heere. To make it interesting, let's say Jesse Eisenberg--he's the older brother of the little girl from the Pepsi ad and he also read the audio version of Be More Chill. Cool guy.
From Rodger Dodger? Great choice.
Yes, Jesse Eisenberg is from Rodger Dodger. I really enjoyed that movie myself, especially the speech at the beginning about women, men, sexuality and power. I believe a lot of that myself.
What are you working on now?
Right now I'm writing a new book. It's all about money. Be More Chill is about the pressure on young people to be cool, to buy as much as possible just to be a barely functioning human. This new one is about the pressure on younger and younger people to make tons of money. There's no childhood in America anymore; the competition starts at birth, and that has some seriously warped effects on people. That's what I'm exploring in this new book... money.
Plus I'm trying to fight depression.
Do you think early success, and by early I mean by the time you're in your early 20s, can hurt someone in the long run, or do you think it all depends on the way they were raised/acted as a kid?
Early success hurts in the short run! And I don't think it matters how you're raised. The problem is that it feeds your and other people's expectations, sometimes to the point where you just cannot make anyone happy, including yourself.
I mean, here I am--I'm a success, right? I'm under a loft bed with no air conditioning. Today I sent my book out to a correspondent at Anderson Cooper who's interested in having me on and nearly had a fit because I couldn't lock my bike up correctly outside the post office. I have no car and the New York real estate market has priced me out of an apartment for the next 5000 years. So am I a success?
My goals when I was 13 were to drive a car, have sex, and be a published author--what should I do now? (Seriously, I accomplished all three goals.) Should I try and write a bestselling book? If I did, I'd want to write another, and have it sell more. The beast is never satisfied.
Meanwhile, my friends are just getting started, working for multinational corporations that they'd be more than happy to serve for the rest of their lives. They have stability; they're never in artisitc freefall. They can calmly build toward success in their 50s. I don't have that luxury. So be careful what you term "success."
The saving grace for me is that I get to interact with intelligent people who actually like what I write. That's what keeps me going.
I did read about the depression in your blog, and you mentioned being lonely above. Are we talking clinical depression or just the word you use to describe typical times of being introspective and bummed out?
I feel a little silly here, because I used to have a joke with one of my best friends about Mike McCready, guitarist for Pearl Jam. Every time a Pearl Jam album came out, and I mean every time, McCready would be quoted in Guitar World or wherever else as saying "I put this album out at a really hard time in my life. I was going through some serious shit and I'm just glad to be through it. It was really difficult."
It was tough to believe since he said the thing five albums in a row.
But seriously, it has been a very hard time for me. I have gone through real, clinical depression and I've written about that on my blog and been really helped by the support I've gotten there. It doesn't make any sense to other people--I'm 23, I just published my second book; I'm working with A-List Hollywood talent on a movie and I'm going to England for the UK version in a little over a week--but there's a tremendous sense of despair and hopelessness about the rest of my life and how I compare to other people. Luckily I'm going to pour all of this into my new book and then I can say when that one comes out, "I wrote this book at a really hard time in my life..."
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