Bronx Zoo

by Jay Fernandez and Peter McCarthy



Bill Fitzhugh is a young writer whose voice has all the qualities of the best satirists: witty, wildly inventive, and, a little wacky. His first novel, Pest Control, told the story of a down and out environmentally conscious Brooklyn exterminator named Bob Dillon who is mistaken for a professional hit man. His latest release, The Organ Grinders, includes another original and offbeat plotline--the egocentric attempts of a gonzo-industrialist to perfect the processes of xenografting (animal to human organ transplantation) and profit from them — offers an equally compelling and funny protagonist, Paul Symon, and manages to transcend mere satire and enter the realm of eco-conscious allegory. Though he claims to write "entertainments" (as opposed to "literature"), Fitzhugh has been very well received by the critical establishment as well as the film studios. He seems quite capable of walking the thin line between comedy writer and writer writer in the tradition of Terry Southern or Buck Henry.

We met up with Bill on a hot August Manhattan morning on the 96th Street Subway platform and proceeded to the Bronx Zoo for an afternoon with the bugs and baboons of which he writes so fondly and knowingly. We discussed books, music, and movies; L.A. versus New York versus Mississippi; his careers as a radio personality ("I was chosen because I had the least redneck voice"), a sitcom writer, and screenwriter; the detailed research he packs into his books; and what it means to be a published novelist after years of inhabiting the fringes of an overpopulated and undervalued profession. Bill Fitzhugh is simply a nice guy, who happens to know a lot about prosthetics and testicle grafting, while maintaining a healthy respect for the writing craft by being genuinely appreciative and self-deprecating about his success. While staring down the seemingly endless task of signing 500 copies of Organ Grinders, he remarked with some awe, "Who would have known I'd be sitting in a hotel room in New York signing copies of my book." We think he'll get used to it.

Did you listen exclusively to "Graceland" and "Rhythm of the Saints" while writing Organ Grinders or did you pop on some Simon & Garfunkel every now and then just for some harmonies?

I went through the entire catalog. I had a five-disc changer. And I can't listen to music and write, so day writing and then at night: a cigar, some scotch, tunes, thinking about plot stuff, then, "oh, there's a good line." So, all of them.

What's your favorite Dylan song?

Oh, boy. Can I get a classic and a modern?

Sure.

"Positively 4th Street." A couple on the new one are really great. "Tangled Up in Blue."

Are you going to stick with the 60s and 70s or can we expect a Simon Le Bon or Kurt Cobain?

No, no Cobain. Actually, when "Organ Grinders" started off, there was going to be a guy named "Dizzy", "Pres", a bunch of jazz guys, and it changed. "Dan Steel" is the protagonist of the next one, so it's still the 70s and 80s, I guess. You know, I'm not even sure I'll keep doing it. I'm doing it less and less. . . With Dan Steel there will probably be fewer--as my editor calls them, "easter eggs"-throughout the book. . . [For Organ Grinders] we didn't get permission to use [the epigraphs] in the final manuscript.

The Simon lyric.

"Too many people on the bus from the airport, too many holes in the crust of the earth. The planet groans every time it registers another birth." He got it done in four lines, I had to write 380 pages. The bastard.

Where did you grow up?

Jackson, Mississippi. Right through about 22 years old.

Did you have a good zoo there?

We had a zoo. It's probably not bad for a small southern town. 200,000 people or so. Biggest city in the state. We loved to go. We got some great home movies. Yeah, my dad took a lot of home movies. . . I was watching some the other day and I was dressed up in this Canadian Mounties outfit. And I'm running through and stopping and saluting at the camera every now and then. I didn't select that outfit. They dressed me up in all kinds of goofy shit.

Every home video and photo of me up until I was seven, I have my hand on my penis. My mom described me as very protective.

[laughter]

Did you spend a lot of time in New York to research the landscape for "Pest Control"?

I wrote most of it based on maps originally and then my wife was coming out. . . and she said, "why don't you come and do some research," so we had three or four days. The whole story was written-it was a screenplay and I was adapting it-so I just went to all the places. I went to Astoria, found a house and said, That's Bob [Dillon]'s, took pictures of the neighborhood and got the layout, so when there was a chase sequence I had to make sure the streets all went in the right direction.

In your books it comes across that you have a real hatred for traffic. Cars and people. So how do you live in L.A., as opposed to New York, which has [the most advanced public transportation system known to man]?

I stay at home. And I get really mad when I get out there. I've got a long magazine article in me, waiting to get out. . . But traffic is fine. Traffic is a moving thing. In theory. It's when it stops that something's gone wrong. And what's gone wrong is, that they've given too many people licenses who-- There's not a rigorous enough test. People are engaged in an activity in which 100,000 people a year die (whatever the number is) and the test is too damn easy. Doctors, also engaged in an activity that can lead to people dying, are put through rigorous education, rigorous testing before your licensed.

It doesn't make sense.

Now, I'm not suggesting eight years of traffic school or driving classes, but more than, "Can you parallel park?" Two thousand pounds of steel and gasoline, you know. I just don't like people who can't drive. It's a dangerous activity. I took a psychology of storytelling class at UCLA extension not too long ago and the doctor/writer/professor guy was saying that the primary inbred motivation is fear. So it's looking at, What is the character scared of? You'd break off into little groups and have to talk to complete strangers and tell them what you are most scared of. I said I'm most scared of being killed not through a mistake of my own but because some idiot out there fucks up. And it's like, "I was walking down the street, and the guy went for his frappaccino and came off the road and I'm dead."

In Organ Grinders there's that bit with the paint guns [where one character, when cut off in traffic or otherwise inspired, pulls out a paint-pellet gun and fires at the perpetrator]. Do you ever -

I think it's a good idea. It's weird that they don't have more of those freeway shootings which were big in the eighties. You better not give me a gun. I can see why that shit happens. I just wrote a short piece for a little thing that Avon's publishing for the new imprint, which is going to be called Spike, and it was dealing with road rage. "A lot of you have read articles about the road rage that's going on out there and you're asking yourself, How can I get involved?" It's a little primer on what to do.



OK, we're at the zoo, which of these animals do you feel you relate most to?

Gorillas. This is a better display, there are a bunch of them, they're closer. The baboons were OK, but there weren't enough species, they were a little farther away. I mean, these guys are cool. They look like little kids, the little ones. And the chupacabras-what were the ones you wanted to see?

The Okapis.

Okapis. Great animals, they're fine, but it's like, Uh-uh, we're not related to them. [Points to gorillas] That's family. They're cousins. I always liked monkeys.

Which of the animals would you have the least problem sitting next to on a plane?

Who thought of this question? One of the little gorillas.

You don't think that would be too much of a problem?

No, it'd be great. Get him liquored up.

How long did it take you to finish "Organ Grinders"?

It went on for a couple of years. It got interrupted by writing a nonfiction book and a screenplay. There was a story that, in the middle of writing "Organ Grinders" and doing all the heart research, was like: Screenplay idea! Stop, talk to Matt [Fitzhugh's screenwriting partner]. Got up, worked it out, wrote it in a few months. And it promptly went nowhere. There were some other interruptions, but it was a couple of years. It took longer than "Pest Control," probably because I was working without the screenplay-the original outline-and I had an idea where the story was going, but I was making it up as I went along!

How did you do all the medical research?

It started when we were camping in Northern California and had gone through San Francisco and gotten a copy of the Chronicle. There was an article about Jeff Getty, who was an AIDS patient who was lobbying to be allowed to have a baboon bone marrow transplant, which he eventually got. His health improved slightly, and as far as I know he's still alive and well, but they couldn't show any correlation that the baboon bone marrow transplant did any good. And everybody was up in arms; the CDC and FDA were saying the pathogens can be released and these wild viruses we don't know about... And, of course, none of that happened. But I don't know enough about the biology to say those weren't legitimate concerns. I assume there was some legitimacy to them.

Anyway, in that article was the word "xenograft," which I just thought was the coolest word. We don't have a lot of good ones starting with "x." What is it? Well, it's a cross-species organ transplant. I knew about Baby Fay and the baboon heart, but that didn't trigger any ideas for some reason. The word xenograft did, and the original title was going to be "Xenotech, Inc." And everybody said, That's stupid. A big "X" on the cover, I could see it. And then a friend gave me some notes that said, You've got your title here on page whatever, when the cop throws his thumb over at Lance Abbott and says, "He's one of those organ grinders, isn't he?". . . .

So there was that article on Getty and then I started breaking it down and figured there was going to be a financial guy involved, because biotech is heavily financed. So I just researched business magazines, doing biotech/finance searches and there was a great story about a guy. . . who wrote about he and his brother, taking $20,000 and building some sort of pharmaceutical company that they sold five or six years later for $600 million. It was just one of these wild stories of a small investment that got huge. Then he became the biotech whiz kid, raising zillions of dollars investing. Then he got overextended and everything suddenly went wrong and the guy has just bilked lots of people and he's looking at prison and he's wandering around the office playing his guitar all night. It just got very weird. And I thought, Here's a character. He ended up having nothing to do with the story eventually.

So I researched the finance end, I researched the science end, and I think that was most of it. Eventually, I did a little on-line research on prosthetics for Artie at the end, but really minor stuff. And then [a guy] who I know-married somebody I went to high school with-it turned out he's also from Mississippi, is the transplant surgeon at Stanford, who was my consultant. He's doing xenograft research so he could answer all my questions. I said, "Don't let me cheat on anything. Call every mistake, and I will propose ways around it and you'll tell me whether it's conceivable or not."

I was up there once doing some geographical research, going up to the Altamont Pass where all those wind generators and windmills are, and he called at three in the morning, "I got a heart and lung transplant. You wanna come down?" I zoomed down there, scrubbed up, put my little mask on, and I'm standing at the head of the table. This woman's head is right here, and her chest is open and it's empty. And the doctor's like [whistles], cutting things up, pulling things out. She's twenty-six years old. I had never seen a lung. So they pull out these blackish, pinkish things. She had a hole in her heart which had led to underdevelopment in both the heart and the lungs. And, they're being wacky surgeon guys, pulling out little pieces of meat, going: "Where's that O.R. cat?" And the heart's out, sitting in a little silver tray, still pumping. . .

Did your friend [the surgeon] OK the testicle grafting?

No. I called a bunch of urologists and spoke to receptionists, assistants, and said, This is who I am, call my publisher. I need this question answered, because I wanted to be accurate, and nobody called me back. And heart guys can't tell you about testicles. . . .

So everything else in there is technically feasible?

I think so. Certainly, in terms of the baboons, we know how we can breed animals for size, for more milk, to do all sorts of things. I never spoke to the breeding/genetic person who could say whether it was at all possible to take an animal who's normal gestation period was this long and shorten it. Certainly, you couldn't shorten it to here, but if you could bring it down a couple of months. Just knowing how our reproductive technologies have improved, I don't know why you couldn't go from always a single birth to some multiple births. Not to a litter of eight, but if you can get three or four every time with a slightly shorter gestation period, you're increasing your productivity-based on what I know we do with cows and other animals. I didn't check that out nearly as much as I did the transplant stuff.

Are you an organ donor?

Yes.

Can I see some I.D.?

[Produces a California state driver's license with the Organ Donor stamp] There it is. [Pointing to the magnetic stripe on the back:] What's in here, this is what we ought to be scared about.

Did you like biology and chemistry in high school?

I have one or two report cards left from high school, and it's: D, D, C, F, D. It was a fairly rigorous school, in my defense. It wasn't a public school where I would have C-ed, I'm sure. Terrible, failed.

Did you like it, though?

No. . . The problem was, I think, that they weren't interesting. First of all, you're interested in all that high school stuff. For me, in the South, it was football season and getting in [name withheld]'s shirt-That's her real name, don't use her real name. In Latin class, the non-language part, the culture part. . . I found interesting. That was the only thing on tests that I got partially right. I couldn't conjugate a Latin verb, I just didn't get it. So my parents thrust me into French, which I also didn't get. The algebra teacher was my football coach, so I think that's where the C's came from, because we didn't have a lot of guys to choose from, and I was playing both ways. Offense and defense, and kickoffs, and kickoff returns, and the punt team.

Let's see, did I do anything well? In grade school I was a good little student, learning to read and write. Behavior problems. Probably would have been given Ritalin or something now. But the grades started to go south in late junior high school. High school was not promising. . . .

[cheering from gorilla area]

The gorillas are doing the stand-up thing.

I told you there was going to be a sex show at one.

What were you doing when you decided to take a crack at "Pest Control"?

I thought I knew everything you needed to know about radio [Fitzhugh's previous job]. Sold what little I had and moved to the Virgin Islands, where I figured, do that Jimmy Buffet thing: get a radio gig, a sailboat, it's gonna be good. Couldn't get my ass hired anywhere, ended up on a freight charter boat, running gasoline trucks from St. Thomas to St. John. The boat captain's looking at me like, Hey, you're pretty cute. That is not what I had in mind, man. Drinking more rum tonight? I think so. I didn't stay down there very long. . .

We had written the screenplay and schlepped it around. One guy had optioned it, a director. I played a lot of basketball and joined a gym when I moved to town, and it was all actors. Wannabe actors, writers, and directors. A guy who's done some movies which you probably haven't seen-he was second AD on "The Big Easy"-and he showed it to a producer who optioned it for $4,000. In six months the guy wanted to renew for free. And we said no way. Matt's personal life was screwed up, and we stopped working together for a while.

I read an article about a guy who had written a screenplay that he knew was a good story and nobody in town cared. And he novelized it. Huge film rights sale, the novel was published and it did well. And I thought, I'll try that. So I started writing it, and Kendall [his wife] said she'd pay for me to go to this Novels in Progress class at UCLA extension, taught by a guy who-interesting guy, he was one of the people who was called in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, said "fuck you," and moved to Europe. . . It was sixteen people [in the class], mostly recovering attorneys-that's how they described themselves. So that's how I ended up writing a book.

What was the germ for the idea?

Matt and I were doing deposition summaries for a paralegal company. Actually we had some fun with it. We worked for an entertainment litigation firm for a while, so we saw a bunch of these nasty manager/artist fights. There were some good ones. It was freelance and you never knew when they were going to call. So when you're not working, you write a screenplay. The first screenplay we wrote was called "War, Incorporated," which was done much better as "Wag the Dog." It's a little bit in the future, and countries wage war economically instead of militarily, so there's really no point in spending all these tax dollars on branches of the military. So they decide to sell them off to the corporations who pretty much had all the contracts anyway. Then one guy decides to boost fourth quarter profits by staging a fake war. The locals think it's a real war. A real war breaks out. Da-da-da-da-da. It didn't go anywhere.

Actually we got a phone call from Mel Brooks on that, which was pretty cool. Mel Brooks. We said we have this new idea, "Pest Control" and sent him the outline, and he calls back and says, "You know, it's kind of cute, but I think what you need to do here is, I'm thinking, Bob's mother-in-law-who he doesn't get along with-he somehow ends up handcuffed to her and he's got to go through all this with her handcuffed to him." Mel, that's a great idea, we'll work on a draft of that. We never talked to Mel again.

So we're sitting around: O.K., what's the next story about? Let's do it about some guy who's dead broke, needs money, like us. And the scene in the bar when he's talking to his buddy, I need some money, what the fuck, rob a bank? That's a federal crime, and you don't really get that much money. Robbing liquor stores is no good. This is what our character is going to be doing, and then he thinks, What if you could get a job as an assassin, I think that pays a lot. If you get a good one, if you hit a big guy. So how the hell do you get that job? And so I think it was originally going to be about a guy who tries to pursue that. I'm willing to kill somebody if it's a big enough paying job. And I feel like it's morally O.K. You know, some people are worthy of it. What's that phrase somebody else wrote? If they needed killing. If they might be improved by killing. We need a placeholder for a name. Let's call him "Bob." And we move on and start beefing up the story, and eventually we needed to give him a last name. Let's go with "Dillon." Let's do a funny little joke thing, and do lyrics and stuff.

Then I started reseraching one day, just killing time. I looked up "assassins" and that's where I saw "assassin bugs." What if he's an exterminator? Wait a minute, this is so cool. It was just one of those weird things where you just happened to look something up and something triggers. Just that there was something called an "assassin bug."

Didn't Spring Creek option "Pest Control"?

What happened is, we came up with the outline of the story. We had two or three ideas, went to our agents and pitched them. And they said, "Pest Control" is the one. That's the one we're going to send you guys with to the pitch meetings. The first pitch meeting was with a guy who worked with Ivan Reitman, I think. Rude guy. Sitting behind his desk, doesn't get up, doesn't extend his hand: "Whattaya got?" So we start pitching, and, of course, we're horribly nervous. First time on a lot with this guy whose name is on a film poster. And he's looking bored. We certainly weren't great pitchers at the time, "Oh my God, that plot point doesn't fucking work." Improvising. "Wait a minute, we forgot to tell you. . ." "Fellas, gotta go."

We went through some pitch meetings, and it helped us find flaws that we would ignore while we were talking about it. The pitch meetings were one week, maybe two weeks, and a week would go by with nothing. It was taking a long time. So, I was riding my bike somewhere one day and I thought, if we write X number of pages a day in X days, we'll have a screenplay. At the rate we're pitching and not getting anything sold, we'll have a property.

How did you get the meetings without the script?

We had an outline, we had a pitch. Weird, the pitch process. We probably pitched to half a dozen different people. Some good, legitimate producers. We may have gotten a good plot point from one or two of them, but mostly just caught errors ourselves.

Did any of them ask you who you saw as Bob, actor-wise?

I'm not sure if they did or not.

Did you have anybody in mind when you were writing it?

We had Hanks and Crystal, because this was-this might have been ten years ago now, that we had this screenplay idea-so they were younger, they weren't the huge stars they are now. And Ahnuld was always Klaus, because he doesn't say much. We would do his dialogue in his accent. Devito was always the landlord. Pesci could step in and do the same thing. . . But that's not the sort of thing you pitch. . .

Spring Creek flat out bought the film rights. At one point I called Paula Weinstein up and said, "I think I've got the perfect guy for Bob-David Schwimmer." He would be terrific. He's sort of hang-dog, you're rooting for him because he certainly needs a good script now. And she says, "I don't like his nose." That was the end of the discussion. That's why you're a producer, because you know that kind of stuff. I would never have thought about not liking his nose. Somebody recently suggested, my agent at UTA-because they represent him-suggested Drew Carey. I like that. You know, with the big black glasses and the doofus kind of thing. He's a very funny guy, too. . . I'm really bad at casting stuff.

So you make a living as a writer now?

My wife makes a better living than I do. If you don't include the film rights sale. I could be making a living, but I wouldn't be living in the house I'm living in.

Did you see "Untamed Heart"?

No.

Christian Slater. Marisa Tomei. He had a baboon heart. That was the twist.

When was this?

Made in, maybe, '92.

How did they treat it?

[brief plot summary]

It doesn't sound like the baboon heart played a really big role. I mean, couldn't it have been a heart heart? Couldn't it have just been his heart?

Absolutely. It was one of those where probably the baboon heart was the pitch at the beginning and then it got turned into a Christian Slater-Marisa Tomei vehicle.

Nope, never saw "Untamed Heart." And, from the description, probably never will.

Do you consider yourself more of a comedy writer or a thriller writer?

Comedy and satire. Pest Control, I tell people, is a comic thriller. And Organ Grinders is a satire. In the mystery you're trying to find out who's doing these things. It just is a mystery. You've got the organ procurement guy playing the detective role, putting it together for the reader. . .

There are so many great characters, like Artie and his driver.

Bonedigger. I amuse myself. I don't know that I amuse anyone else, but how he got the name Bonedigger. Where he kills the trombone player. "Well, somebody had to bury him." That's where the "digger" part comes from. God, this is stupid, and I can get paid for this shit. This is great.

It went out as a manuscript around Hollywood, and universally Artie was everyone's favorite character.

Did you ever sell blood?

I sold blood for money. For food, when I was in Seattle starting school. I still have my last food stamp, my last $1 food stamp. I have a lot of respect for poor people, because it's hard to qualify for that stuff. You have got to be real, real poor. I only qualified for $17 a month, and it's like, O.K., Ramen with some celery on top.

Do you know there's a Ramen cookbook out?

Where was it when I needed it? I don't know if I sold blood or plasma. I can't remember.

Any sperm donations?

I looked into it. I did.

That's one of Artie's fortes.

Well, sure. I thought I was going to do a lot more on that, in fact. I thought we'd see Artie [doing it] at work or something. I just couldn't. I contacted some reproductive places and got some information on what to do, and thought, nah. . . Actually my older sister. . . did some volunteering for medical experiments in college to make money. I called her when I was trying to come up with some of the tests that Artie could tell that nun on the bus. And she said, "Yeah, they did this thing where they stuck electrodes in my gums. . ."

Are you now, or have you ever been, in possession of any illegal organs?

No, sir.

Animal or human?

None. Not guilty. I did not have sex with that organ.

Did you have any pets when you were a kid?

Oh, yeah. I grew up with a lot of animals. Dogs, cats, rabbits, a duck, a couple ducks. . . Had a tarantula. This big, beautiful black and brown thing. And I named her "Frances". . . Mom wouldn't let me keep Frances in the house. . . Died on Thanksgiving. I don't know why. There was no autopsy, we didn't know the cause. But I kept it around for a while. And it came time to do a book report/diarama, where you get a shoebox and do a scene. So I read "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea", made a clay submarine, and draped my dead tarantula over it as the octopus. I took it to school, and by this time it was many days old and stunk to high heaven. And she just said, "You got a fucking A! Get outta here with that thing!"

Did you do any insect torturing? Salt on slugs? Wings off of flies? Magnifying glass on water spiders?

Did some salt on slugs. There was a type of bumblebee that had a yellowish-white dot on its head which meant- [well, it didn't mean that it didn't have a stinger, but if] you knew that those didn't have stingers. The fields around our school had a lot of clover in them and a lot of these bees. So we'd capture those and get thread, and tie the thread between the head and the thorax, or the thorax and the abdomen, and you could fly these bees around. So we did a lot of that. I mean, it's not like we didn't go, Wham! I don't think I did any animal torturing. I was always very sympathetic. I have a lot more sympathy for animals sometimes than people. Got a real soft spot for them. It's hard to see a dog running around the streets without a collar without thinking, Oh my God, do I get this one, do I try to save it? It could be a busy life if you tried to do that. I get worried about those guys.

Have you met many stars in all these meetings and development deals?

Not in the meetings and development deals. The guy who responded most positively to the story is. . . Harold Ramis's producing partner, who has very good taste in restaurants. We've been going to lunch. . .

What about just walking around L.A.?

More. Saw Leno in one of his cars up on Laurel Canyon once. He just waved, "How are you?"

I ran into George Wendt at a liquor store. He was buying beer.

My best story is when I was at a Borders in Westwood, just doing a driveby signing, and Dustin Hoffman was standing at a table looking at some books. Big fan, so I go over there, "Excuse me, Mr. Hoffman, I'm sorry, but. . ." I ran over and grabbed a copy of "Pest Control," and came back over and said-because I thought this might help the conversation last a little longer-"I wrote this novel." I've got some credibility. And he was very gracious, very nice. I said, "I would really be honored if you'd allow me to buy you a copy and give it to you." He said, "That would be very nice." So, I go and get in line and buy the book and come back, and he's gone. I run around the store and find him. He was just browsing still. Go over to him and say, "Thank you, here's the book." He says, "Oh, great title." We talked for a little while. He hadn't read any Hiaasen, but I said Donald Westlake, and he said, "Oh, great." And, of course, I'm saying, Paula Weinstein at Warner Brothers has it. . . But now I'm starting to feel a little more cool and comfortable. Anyway, he was very gracious and I backed out as quickly as I could. He's probably like, "I was here just trying to buy a book, and now this fucking author's on top of me." That was fun, and I probably wouldn't have done that if I was just some guy in a bookstore who had seen Dustin Hoffman.

Who do you read?

I've read probably half of Hiaasen's books. I had never heard of him until I was taking the Novels in Progress class and someone said, "Oh, this reminds me of Hiaasen." Who? So I started reading those and thought, Would that I wrote like this. This is great stuff. And then I started reading some Donald Westlake. And I've just finished Neil Gaiman's book and Christopher Moore's book. Christopher's are funny, they're intended to be funny books, and Gaiman's aren't. But he's more sci-fi/mystery/fantasy sort of stuff. A very good writer. I'm reading Jeffrey Steingarten's The Man Who Ate Everything. It's a bunch of food essays - he's a very funny writer. David Sedaris, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote letters. A Confederacy of Dunces. . . I'll probably re-read that because it's just the Holy Grail.

Do you have any wacky fan stories yet? Anybody do anything kooky at a signing or send you anything bizarre?

That came up at the conference.

No monogrammed panties?

No. Just nice, respectful, some interested. One of the reps last night, a woman who is from Trinidad, was so effusive about how much she loved it. She had this great accent. . . It was great. Pest Control has done well for a first time novel. They just throw it out there with artwork and hope for good reviews and that's what's going to sell it. I sponsored my own tour, going to cities where I had friends and family where I knew I could get some people there. There are some stores, like Kepler's in Menlo Park and Barnes and Noble in Encino, where some employee reads the book and goes, "Hand sell this baby, I love this." It's on the shelf: "Staff Recommends." So when I got to Kepler's to do a signing, I didn't have to invite people. The store people had sold so many copies, there were people just coming to hear me yammer about bugs for a while. The problem was, at that point I was writing "Organ Grinders" and I had forgotten every bug thing I had ever learned. But I was ready to talk about organs.

What can we expect next? You've done bugs, you've done baboons. . .

The next one's titled, "Altar Ego." A-L-T-A-R, and the "T' is a big cross. The tone is more like "Pest Control." It's not a satire, it's not dark. I mean, there will be some pretty grim stuff that happens in there, but it's more like "Pest Control." For "Pest Control" I did all the bug research. "Organ Grinders" had all the transplant research. I'm doing a lot of Catholic theology research for this. I thought it was going to be real, We're gonna pull Jesus off the cross and we're gonna kick his. . . body around for a while. Anti-Catholic thing, since I grew up Catholic. But it turns out, No, it's not going to do that. Religion, church: it's all fine. Some people have coopted some stuff, we've got some bad representatives of the church, and we're going to kick their asses around for a while. And say, prayer is good, faith is good, going to church is a wonderful thing, do that. But watch out for some of these people. Wearing the collars. And the miters. So, I'll get to get my shots [in there].

We can't expect that every single priest is going to be a perfectly good human being. The problem comes when the church learns about it and doesn't do anything. That's what exposes the church to these law suits. Because if they simply say, Yes, we've caught him, he's going to do time now, then the church has done the right thing. But they don't. . . I found a website that tracks priests' abuses-not all sexual, some other kinds that priests commit-and in that or some other article I was researching-doing some web research-I found a figure that the church had paid $800 million to settle sexual abuses of the past eight or ten years. They're insured against this stuff. It's that sweeping-under-the-rug part. It's like if an employee is sexually harassing somebody, you can't sue the company unless the company knows he's doing it and they don't do anything about it. For God's sake, admit that the guy was doing altar boys and hang him out to dry. Do the right thing.

What's the funkiest animal you've eaten?

Venison can be good, depending on what the deer's been eating and how it's cooked. There's a restaurant. . . at the Santa Monica Airport that serves crickets with thai basil. And I had it. It's just a crunchy fried thing. It tastes like chicken.

They might as well serve it at McDonald's. Six McCrickets.

Sweet breads seem to be several things. . . Never eaten brain. Don't like liver. Don't think I've ever even tried kidney.

Have you had buffalo?

I've had buffalo. I've had ostrich. Wildly overpriced. [cost per pound] Did you ever see that series of videos called, "Faces of Death"?

Yeah.

There's that scene with the monkey brains? I haven't done that. As far as I'm concerned, you can put those people in there. Yeah, that's one of those things that's wrong. Now, how I justify the captured bolt to the head of the cow and the steak I had at Morton's a couple of nights ago. . .

Everybody draws the line at a different place.

It's completely arbitrary. When I was researching animal rights stuff, one of these serious philosophy professors had drawn it between mollusks and something else. No, that's a weak read there, pal. I don't buy it. "Organ Grinders" is about the frustration of facing things like that. There are a lot of slippery slope arguments, like, if that's allowable, then this has got to be allowable. And if this is allowable, then this. It's got to be an absolute thing. We can't live our lives that way. To me it's really frustrating because most people don't bother to stop and think about it. And when you do, it becomes, God, I don't know, I can't answer that question. What am I doing right, what am I doing wrong? It's all about my frustrations. And representing them.

In a funny way.

I hope.


Jay Fernandez lives in New York where he works for Premiere magazine. His writing has appeared in publications including The Washington Post, The Boston Review, Entertainment Weekly, Premiere, and others. Peter McCarthy also lives in New York where he works in New Media. His writing has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, The Boston Review, and other publications. Together they have written two screenplays and interviewed film director John Sayles for n.b., an online magazine.





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