July 21, 2015

Going Bozo for Bizarro: an interview (and giveaway) with Carlton Mellick III, author of "ClownFellas"

Carlton Mellick III is an oafish gentleman with the stylishest of sideburns. He is one of the leading authors in the bizarro fiction genre—a booming underground movement that strives to bring weird, crazy, entertaining literature to the masses. Imagine a mixture of David Lynch, Dr. Seuss, South Park, and Troma movies. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

About ClownFellasIn a topsy-turvy world where clowns are killers and crooks, Little Bigtop is a three-ring circus of crime, and no syndicate is more dangerous than the Bozo family. From the wildly original mind of Carlton Mellick III comes the short-story collection ClownFellas—an epic mob saga where life is cheap and the gags will slay you.

For years, the hard-boiled capos of the Bozo family have run all of the funny business in Little Bigtop, from the clown brothels to the illegal comedy trade. But hard times have befallen the Bozos now that Le Mystère, the French clown Mafia, has started moving in and trying to take over the city. If that weren’t enough, they’ve got to deal with the cops, the Feds, the snitches, the carnies, the mysterious hit man Mr. Pogo, and the mutant clowns over in the Sideshow district. With the odds stacked against them, the Bozos must fight to survive . . . or die laughing.

Gef: How do you see Clownfellas working as a salve on the somewhat sullied public perception of clowns? I ask this as someone with a long-abiding aversion to clowns.

Carlton: I am there with you. I’ve always had an aversion to clowns myself. I tend to find them creepy at best and obnoxious at worst. So when writing a book where 90% of the characters are clowns, I had to challenge myself to make the clown characters as likable, as interesting, and as relatable as possible to even the most clown-averse reader without removing any element that made them clowny. They are 100% clown—literally, they are a race of clown people, not humans in clown makeup—yet they are real people with real problems and the red smiles permanently embedded in their motley-colored faces rarely express how they actually feel inside.

Another trick was making the clowns funny. The book is very much a comedy, but because I don’t have the sense of humor of a four-year-old I don’t find typical clown-antics to be all that humorous. So it was an interesting experience trying to make clown-humor work for adult readers. I found myself laughing out loud as I wrote several scenes in the book, so I’m hoping I succeeded.

But to answer your question, I do believe Clownfellas will make the clownphobic public warm up to clowns. I know the experience of writing the book completely changed my own opinion of clown characters. Before this book, I never would have read, let alone write, books featuring clowns and now I feel like writing a hundred more Clownfellas stories. But that might have a lot more to do with my love of weird mafia stories.

Gef: Rather than a novel, you opted for a short story collection with this book. Was it a matter of having a world here with enough moving parts that you wanted to explore than one straight plotline?

Carlton: While the book is essentially a short story collection (or a novella collection, due to the stories averaging at 20,000 words each), I like to think of it as a novel in six parts. It’s structured a lot like Frank Miller’s Sin City series, where the main setting is the element that ties all the stories together.

In Clownfellas, each part is told from the perspective of a different character in the Bozo crime family. Main characters reappear as supporting characters in each installment. What happens in one tale will often have an impact on the world in the next. While each story stands on its own with its own story arc, there’s also an overarching storyline that comes to a climax at the end. I guess you can say it’s a bit like a season of a television series in book form, with the last episode acting like a season finale.

I took this approach for a lot of reasons. For starters, it just seemed like a lot of fun to write. I’m a big fan of series in any medium, from books to television to comics to anime, so this gave me an excuse to try my hand at an episodic style plot. It also allowed me to explore multiple characters, multiples storylines, and get into all the different aspects of life in Little Bigtop. I would have had a hard time deciding which storyline to go with if I was forced to choose only one, because there’s a lot going on in this world.

Gef: One aspect to the book is a little something called the Comedy Prohibition Act. Kinda timely given the way social media has given voice to some rather ... unfunny people coming out against comedians like Amy Schumer, Trevor Noah, and others for unvarnished and/or risque jokes. Is all that just squeaky wheel syndrome do you think or something more insidious with today's pop culture?

Carlton: It’s probably both, but either way it’s definitely become a problem. I love dystopian stories and the worst dystopia I could imagine would be one where comedy was outlawed, as it is in Clownfellas. I don’t believe it is realistic that the government would ever go as far as outlawing or even putting major limits on comedy, but right now we’re going through a kind of self-censorship where a lot of people are too scared of offending anyone. And I think that’s just as bad. Comedians need to brave it out and not be afraid of social media backlash or it’s only going to get worse.

It reminds me of what happened to comedy in late 2001, during the 4-6 months after 9-11. A lot of people don’t remember this, but comedy (or lack of it) was really scary during that time. Comedians were too frightened to make fun of the government or most political issues; they were scared of public backlash because the country was all about unification and healing at that time. Everyone remembers how brave The Daily Show with John Stewart was for criticizing George W. Bush and the war in Iraq in 2002. But nobody remembers The Daily Show of late 2001, when they were the complete opposite of brave. When the US first invaded Iraq, John Stewart was hesitant to make fun of the government. Instead, The Daily Show ridiculed safer targets, such as the “hippies” protesting the war. If you can find old episodes of The Daily Show, you’d think they were right-wing and pro-war. It really wasn’t funny at all.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the Daily Show. I love John Stewart. But for a few months there I was really scared about what had happened to comedy. People were scared of offending the masses and it seemed as though comedy was dead for a while. It took a group of brave comedians, which included John Stewart, to move forward. And while there was backlash, including a few politicians who believed it should be made illegal to mock the government, they stuck to their guns and eventually everything got better. That’s the only way comedians will get through what they’re currently struggling with at the moment. But I fear it will get worse before it gets better.

In any case, the Comedy Prohibition Act (which is what inspired the formation of the clown mafia in Clownfellas) was definitely inspired by the current state of comedy.

Gef: I don't know if 2015 has shaped up as a bizarro renaissance, but it seems with larger publishers upping the visibility of the genre there seems to be a resurgence. What's your take on the progression on the genre?

Carlton: This year marks the ten year anniversary of bizarro fiction becoming a genre. It’s still pretty underground, which is how a lot of people like it, but I believe there’s a lot of growth ahead of us. I believe bizarro fiction can and should be embraced by the mainstream. It shouldn’t just be a small genre for a select group of underground punks and weirdoes, I think bizarro can appeal to anyone. I believe it could grow into a large mainstream genre someday. Most people think that’s an absurd idea, but when you think about it it’s not any more absurd than horror or science-fiction becoming genres in the last century.

People like weirdness. People seek out weirdness. Have you ever heard somebody say “The weirdest thing happened to me today” and found yourself actually interested in hearing what happened to them? Or have you been curious or attracted to people you come across who have abnormal/eccentric personalities? Or have you ever wanted to visit a foreign country just to experience a culture that was strange and different from yours? Even if many won’t admit it, most people are attracted to the weird. I think that’s the strength of bizarro fiction.

I believe the main thing holding the genre back at the moment is a lack of understanding of the genre. The most well-known bizarro books right now are the ones with crazy over-the-top titles like Ass Goblins of Auschwitz, The Haunted Vagina, Baby Jesus Butt Plug, and Rampaging Fuckers of Everything on the Crazy Shitting Planet of the Vomit Atmosphere. These aren’t necessarily the best written bizarro works, nor the bestselling, nor the most definitive, and actually make up only a small percentage of the books published in bizarro fiction. However, they get the most attention. People like talking about them. They go viral. So for those who don’t read bizarro fiction, who are introduced to the genre through these works, they get the impression that the only point of bizarro is to create trashy shock-for-the-sake-of-shock anti-literature. But that’s not what bizarro is about at all. Bizarro is about telling stories that are completely different from anything else that’s currently out there, stories that focus on imagination without limits. I think the image of bizarro will improve in the near future, mostly because the quality of the work being published in the genre is consistently rising and getting as much attention as the crazy-titled books.

Gef: How about as a craft? There's this blend of horror and humor, the surreal and the satirical, leaning one way or the other, but have you seen shifts in how you and fellow authors have approached the genre?

Carlton: Bizarro has been maturing quite a bit lately. I believe the appeal of weird ideas just isn’t good enough for the readers and creators anymore. Early bizarro was an explosion of odd ideas that were fun and imaginative but they rarely went beyond that. These days, bizarro writers have been making it a priority to emotionally engage readers in complex ways. A clever idea needs to be accompanied by characters that the reader cares about, no matter how odd the character is or how surreal of a world he lives in. Stories need to keep readers on the edge of their seat, make them think, make them feel. The genre is still full of fun and ridiculous concepts as it always was, but now you’re more likely to forget just how ridiculous the concepts are and go along for the ride.

The bizarro fiction approach I’m most interested in is when writers attempt to emotionally affect you in unexpected ways. Like when you find yourself laughing in a story that should not be funny. Or when you find yourself terrified or disgusted while reading about something that originally seemed as sweet as a children’s story. Or when you find yourself crying over the death of a ridiculous character, such as a talking toilet or a man with a bulldog for a head that you originally found pointless and irritating until you got to know them through the course of the story. I believe that’s the direction bizarro fiction is evolving toward: weird stories that evoke even weirder emotional responses. I’m excited to see what comes out over the next ten years.

Gef: You've been writing for a fair while, and prolifically so at that, so you must have been subjected to a myriad of bad writing advice. What's the worst bit you can think of?

Carlton: Probably the worst bit of advice would have been from the dozens of older science-fiction writers I associated with when I was just starting out in the late 1990s who regularly advised me to stop writing weird/surreal/bizarro stories and stick to more conventional storylines if I wanted to get anywhere as a writer. They continuously told me that nobody would be interested in my kind of writing, that I could never go pro. So I tried doing what they advised and toned down my work for a while, but that pretty much just resulted in a lot of rejected work that I wasn’t even proud of. The first story I wrote once I went back to writing the weird/gonzo stories I enjoyed writing, wasn’t only published but made it into The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. That pretty much pointed my career in the right direction. A year later, I was able to quit my day job and write for a living.
I learned two things from that experience:

1) Take all writing advice with a grain of salt, especially if the advice-giver isn’t the kind of writer you want to be in ten years (although I don’t recommend completely ignoring any advice no matter who’s giving it).

2) Strive to be unique and different. Uniqueness sells. The only reason I was able to make a living as a writer despite being in my early twenties was because I was the only person writing the kind of books I was writing. I didn’t have any competition. Trying to fit in because that’s what you think is going to get published is like shooting yourself in the foot.

Gef: Being prolific as you are, you must have more irons in the fire. What's next on the menu? And how can readers keep up with your shenanigans?

Carlton: My release schedule is usually pretty consistent. My books come out on a quarterly basis, so there’s something new from me every January, April, July, and October. The book I’m currently working on is called Bio Melt. It’s kind of a cyberpunk horror novel about a group of people trapped in a flooded futuristic city under attack from giant creatures made of fused-together human body parts. Think Videodrome meets Attack on Titan. It’s been a really fun book to write so far.

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