Joe Ponepinto’s Mr. Neutron, published earlier this year by 7.13 Books, is smart, fast, and funny-part speculative fiction, part political satire, and one hundred percent unique. Ponepinto grounds his tale in the vain and vapid world of local politics, and in Reason Wilder, gives readers one of the more memorable characters in recent fiction. The novel follows Gray Davenport, a small-time political operative, as he uncovers the truth about Reason and his campaign. Readers looking for a fast-paced, good-hearted genre mash-up should vote Ponepinto and check out his novel. Purchase a copy of Mr. Neutron here.
Chuck Augello: If you came across someone browsing a copy of Mr. Neutron at a bookstore or the local library, what might you say to entice this potential reader to bring the book home and start reading?
Joe Ponepinto: I’d probably sidle up and say something weird like, “It gets even funnier.” Of course that assumes the person is already laughing. I might ask them to take a guess at who was the model for the shadow figure on the cover.
CA: How did you come to write this book? Tell us about the initial inspiration for Mr. Neutron.
JP: The genesis of the book came from my brief career working in politics many years ago. The very first draft was something I wrote maybe a dozen years ago, and was my first attempt at fiction. Needless to say it was abysmal. It was a very straightforward political thriller, except without the thrills. The characters were all the stereotypes you find in novels of that genre. After it got rejected I put it away, went off to get an MFA, and wrote a ton of other stuff. But the original idea stayed with me and continued to morph. Maybe because at the time I was a member of a speculative writing group (science fiction, horror, etc.), I started to play around with the ideas and the characters, wondering what the book would be like if the Reason character were supernatural—I couldn’t help thinking that if someone dug up a bunch of body parts from dead politicians and stitched them together, that few people would be able to tell the difference from the candidates we see on a regular basis. I write almost everyday, but there are days when inspiration strikes more profoundly than others. On one of those days I rewrote the first chapter in a single sitting. Reason became a Frankenstein’s monster. The protagonist, Gray, became a nerdy anti-hero. Everyone else became a vapid narcissist with an agenda—just like real politics. My writers’ group thought it was great and that gave me the encouragement to keep on going in that direction.
CA: While Gray Davenport, the veteran campaign worker, is the point of view character, much of the story revolves around Reason Wilder, the eight-foot tall mayoral candidate. He reminded me of the alien leader in The Twilight Zone episode, “To Serve Man.” Tell us about Reason.
JP: Ha! I love that episode of Twilight Zone. Reason started out based on someone I knew during my political days. When I worked in politics in Long Beach we had a guy who was a serial candidate for mayor. He was a little weird—long white hair and beard, drove a hearse, and he owned the largest American flag in the world. In fact I remember moderating a mayoral debate and when it was this fellow’s turn to sum up, he ripped off his shirt to reveal a naked (and flabby) torso, and sang his campaign theme song. But as I mentioned above, as the story became stranger so did the character. When I hit on the idea of a candidate who was essentially a Frankenstein’s monster, I realized that I had never read Mary Shelley’s book. So I took it with me on a writing retreat. It’s one of the best and most inventive novels I’ve ever read, and the themes and ideas embedded in the narrative really helped me see what I could do with this character. There is a mind, and a soul, within the giant’s massive body, just as there is in Shelley’s book. For those readers in the know, there are a couple of subtle nods to the original novel in Mr. Neutron. And by the way the famous movie has almost nothing to do with the novel. If people are interested in seeing the work in a more authentic format, they should watch Kenneth Branagh’s version of Frankenstein with Robert De Niro as the monster.
CA: The current political climate is rich soil for satire. While writing Mr. Neutron, did you find yourself reacting to things in the news?
JP: You may be surprised to know that I finished writing the book about six years ago. Yes, it took that long to find a publisher. People in the lit business don’t take chances the way they used to. If a book doesn’t fit into a ready-made category it’s a lot tougher to get it in front of the public. That’s why you see little more than variations on popular themes. So seeing it in print now—and I’m eternally grateful to Leland Cheuk and 7.13 Books for bringing Mr. N. to the public—with what may appear to be parallels to current developments and trends, is a strange kind of feeling. I certainly didn’t plan any of the similarities. It’s serendipitous that certain aspects may reflect what’s happening today. In fact I didn’t pay much attention to what was going on in the news at that time at all. The characters and themes all come from my experiences in the political world—although they’re greatly exaggerated. And people are people, driven by ego and desire, whether they’re working in a local campaign or a presidential one. Events and trends are cyclical, so I suppose it was just a matter of time before my story synchronized with current events.
CA: Religion also comes under view of your satiric eye. Tell us about Reverend Hand.
JP: This kind of goes with what I said above. Just like political trends, there are archetypes who come to the public’s attention from time to time. When I wrote the book, the memory of religious charlatans like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jim Jones, and others was a lot fresher, and maybe that played a part in the decision to cast Reason’s handler as a mysterious preacher. Considering that Reason has a link to the departed, I think it makes a kind of sense. And I won’t be too surprised, especially in the current social climate, if we soon see another prominent religious figure indicted for embezzlement, tax evasion, grand larceny, what have you…
CA: In the Acknowledgments, you provide a long list of influences, from the Marx Brothers to Lucille Ball, from the writers of The Big Bang Theory to Benny Hill; even silent film comedians like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd are included. How do these wide-ranging comics influence your work as a fiction writer?
JP: I’ve always loved to laugh. I grew up in a house in which we laughed a lot. My father was pretty funny, and his father was in vaudeville and was even funnier. My sisters are funny. My relatives are insanely funny. Family get-togethers were like an episode of Seinfeld. So I guess humor is in my bones. As you can tell from the list, it ranges from the cerebral to the cornball, from the sophisticated to the slapstick. One thing you might note in looking at that list is that none of the comedians I listed could be considered mean-spirited. Some of them were self-deprecating, and most made their careers out of poking fun at the powerful and self-centered among us. I hope people will see the same kind of humor in the book. Self-centered characters, such as politicians, are good targets for satire because they rarely see beyond themselves and therefore are oblivious to reality.
CA: You are also the fiction editor of the Tahoma Literary Review. How does your work as an editor influence your fiction writing?
JP: Was. Kelly Davio, my co-founder, and I sold the journal last October. It was an exhilarating four-year run, and I couldn’t be prouder of what we accomplished in terms of literary excellence and valuing writers. As editors, Kelly and I, and Yi Shun Lai, our nonfiction editor, read almost every submission ourselves, so in terms of my writing I got to see hundreds of beautifully written pieces, and thousands of clunkers. You can’t help but learn from that experience—what works, what doesn’t. One of the aspects that made TLR different, and successful, was that we provided a variety of written critiques for fiction and nonfiction. When you put your criticism into words on a regular basis, you develop a philosophy about writing that’s informed and consistent, and which can serve you well in your own efforts.
CA: Finally, there is no shortage of ways to spend one’s time. Why do you choose to write fiction?
JP: I truly love it. I have more stories to tell than I can possibly write. Plus, writing is thinking, and to me there’s no better way to occupy oneself. It beats violence, and you come up with some interesting stuff sometimes. The late basketball coach Jim Valvano once said, “If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.” I’ve got the laughing and the thinking covered. And the crying too, but that’s another interview. So I’m feeling pretty good these days.
Chuck Augello is Head Editor of Cease, Cows. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, dog, two cats, and several cows that refuse to cease. His work has appeared in One Story, Juked, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, and other fine places. He publishes The Daily Vonnegut and contributes interviews to The Review Review. He’s currently at work on a novel.