photo of a vhs tape

Sometimes Cool Things Have to Die: An Interview with Jeremy Hawkins

Admit it: if you’re above a certain age, you miss the weekly trip to the video store. In my hometown, before Blockbuster arrived, the local video store was run by a Vietnam vet who refused to rent any film starring Jane Fonda. Rentals cost two bucks ($2.12 when you added tax—I always arrived with my dime and two pennies!), and there was always a movie playing on the screen over the cash register. There was something magical about perusing all of the films, knowing that somewhere, a cinematic gem lay hidden, and it was up to you find it. Sure, many of the films turned out to be crappy, but that was part of the fun. And oh the horror of finding out that all the copies of the film you really wanted to see were already rented! My ex-wife and I could spend hours scouring the shelves, unable to decide on a mutually acceptable pick until right before the store’s closing, when we’d grab some obscure foreign film in desperation and then fall asleep on the couch within the first ten minutes. Netflix, I admire your convenience, but I miss trips to the video store, even the soulless corporate Blockbuster that eventually became the only game in town.

The Last Days of Video by Jeremy Hawkins is a charming novel about life in a video store during the industry’s dying days. Filled with likable comic characters, the novel perfectly captures the aura of the local store in a mid-sized college town. Instead of Netflix and chill, try some Jeremy Hawkins and chill—you won’t be disappointed!

The Last Days of Video is available at Barnes & Noble, or better yet, through your local independent book store—if you’re lucky enough to still have one.

Jeremy shared his thoughts about the novel with Cease, Cows.

Chuck Augello: What inspired you to write a novel set in a video store in 2007, right before the industry collapsed?

Jeremy Hawkins: To be honest, I decided to write a novel set in a video store in the early 2000s, back when I was an undergraduate and started working at VisArt Video, a great independent video store chain in Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Immediately, from my first shift at VisArt, I knew it would be the perfect setting for a novel. The movies, the eccentric personalities, the funky aura of the place, all of it. But I held off. For nearly a decade. I didn’t even write a short story set in a video store. I’m not sure why, though I do remember that I didn’t want to waste the opportunity before I was experienced enough to write something decent. That, and I wasn’t sure what I had to say about video stores that would be interesting. “Video stores are really cool” just wasn’t a strong enough foundation for a novel.

Then, in the late 2000s, it became clear that video stores were dying. Fewer customers came into VisArt. We started buying fewer and fewer copies of big new releases. Fewer employees on every shift. Other video stores closing all around. And at some point, the title “The Last Days of Video” popped into my head. And that was interesting. An industry on the decline, coming to its natural end, and the human effects that such a transition causes. And it all dovetailed with the horrendous economy at that time. All of that provided a natural story arc. “Video stores are really cool” combined with “But sometimes cool things have to die”…that was an interesting foundation for a book.

CA: The novel follows three main characters: Waring, Alaura, and Jeff. Tell us about them.

JH: These three characters, who are all very different, are very much extensions of me. Maybe that’s true for a lot of novelists. I don’t know. Jeff is basically me when I was a teenager: anxious, self-conscious, confused, girl-crazy, and movie-crazy. I made Jeff a tad more anxious than me. And perhaps a little dumber than me in certain ways. (But who knows, I was probably pretty dumb back then.) Anyway, Jeff is a sponge for movie knowledge, and for him, working at a video store is, without a doubt, the coolest job in the universe. That was definitely me. So…maybe pretty dumb.

Alaura is the manager of Star Video, and she’s kind of a mixed-up badass. She’s me if I was punk and tattooed and much more of a badass and female. I’m definitely not a badass. Or female. I figured the only way I could pull off writing from a female POV would be to make Alaura a lot like me: in personal philosophy, in age, in attitude, intelligence, speech patterns, etc. She’s both practical and misguided in equal measure—that’s definitely me when I was nearing thirty years old. And yes, I made Alaura very attractive. If I were a woman, I’d want to be super hot.

Waring is the curmudgeonly owner of Star Video. He’s the drunk misanthropic version of me. He’s who I might have become if I didn’t surround myself with loving people and, in general, try to make healthy decisions. Waring is a jerk. But a lovable jerk. He says all the angry things that I wish I could say to people, but that I don’t have the nerve to, because I’m so worried about anyone disliking me. Oh man, if I could turn that anxiety off. Waring doesn’t give a shit. Of course, he’s also depressed and miserable as a result. He has no friends. He’s an alcoholic. He’s basically a buffoon. But he was also the most fun to write.

CA: In the middle section of the novel, Alaura attends The Reality Center, a New Age-style group that promises to help participants reach their full potential. You clearly poke fun at it while respecting Alaura’s desire to set her life right. Years back, I attended the Landmark Forum, which has its similarities to the Reality Center. Tell us about The Reality Center. And is there a real-life equivalent on which you based Alaura’s experience?

JH: The Reality Center is based on a real place. I won’t name the place specifically, but I believe it is an offshoot of Landmark. A few years back, some friends of mine went to this place, and they tried to recruit me. I went to a “graduation” ceremony, and the whole thing really really upset me. I lost friends over it. I’m not a joiner, and I’m an atheist, so I have a real aversion to group-think and things that seem religious-y, as this place certainly did. I was like: Stop freaking smiling at me. Can’t you see I’m uncomfortable? Anyway, I knew I wanted to write about this place.

At first, I did tons of research into LGATs (Large Group Awareness Training) and Werner Erhard and est and Landmark and similar places, and I was going to write a simple satire. Just to make fun of the whole thing. But after a lot of thinking, and after maturing a bit, I realized that a cruel satire just wasn’t interesting. I mean, I still think places like that are pretty bonkers, but now I realize that they really do help some people. Turns out that I know lots of people who have benefited from organizations like Landmark.

So…in the novel, the philosophy of the Reality Center morphed into something much more in line with the themes of the book: progress, the future, technological evolution, etc. And for me, that was a lot more interesting that just a simple satire.

But yeah, I still think it’s bonkers. All that handholding!

CA: Unrequited love seems a major theme in the novel, whether it’s between two people, between Waring and the town of West Appleton, even between the audience and the movies themselves. Was that your intention?

JH: Unintentionally, that was my intention. What I mean is: I didn’t realize I was writing a book about loneliness for a long, long time. And then I woke up one morning and realized all my characters were lonely. That they weren’t in relationships and spent a lot of time wishing they could be in relationships and lamenting failed relationships from their past. And I was like…shit, I guess I’m writing a book about lonely people.

Funny thing is, I’ve got lots of love in my life. Family and friends. I certainly feel lonely a lot of the time, but in reality, I’m not. Maybe it’s just because I was an only child. Maybe we should do a survey: Do authors who are only children write a lot about loneliness? I bet they do.

And yes, to me, the act of watching a movie, or consuming any other piece of art, is fundamentally a solo endeavor. Even if you’re with other people. In the end, it’s just you and the work: your reaction to it, the conversation you’re having with the work, etc. Maybe that’s “lonely,” maybe not. I don’t know. Also, I’m single. A lot of my love is unrequited these days. I can’t wait until it’s requited. Would requite the crap out of some love right now.

CA: Waring Wax, the owner of Star Video, is cranky, rude, and often drunk, yet his passion for film is a life force that draws the other characters. He has a knack for getting people to follow him. Was he the first character you created when you started thinking about the story?

JH: Yes, Waring was the first character I created. And he remained basically the same throughout the writing of the book.

Those of you lucky enough to have watched Black Books, the great BBC sitcom, will recognize Waring in the character of Bernard Black. Bernard is the drunken, acerbic, misanthropic owner of a rundown bookstore, and he’s played by my favorite comedian, Dylan Moran. When I see Waring, I see Dylan Moran (even though I made Waring older and uglier and chubbier). Waring became his own thing, of course. He’s more human and less cartoonish than Bernard Black. Waring has a backstory, if a slight one by novelistic standards. And since we’re privy to Waring’s thoughts, we realize that he’s capable of love and compassion—we’re not always so sure of that with Bernard in Black Books.

I also wanted Waring to have a super power. So I made him a savant-ish expert on movies. He’s a genius when it comes to movie history. He connects with movies much better than with people. And really, since Alaura loves Waring for some crazy reason, I think the reader has permission to like him, too.

CA: You worked in an independent video store for many years. How did that experience inform the novel?

JH: There’s a character in the first chapter of my book, a mean customer, who is based on a real customer I once had. This guy—I don’t even know his real name—was a total jerk to me. I won’t get into the details. It still upsets me. Not really, but sort of. The point is, I never really got to tell this guy what a jerk he was, because in that moment, years ago, I didn’t want to lose my job. The customer is always right, that sort of crap. So I just took this asshole’s attitude. Now, years later, I’ve written and published a book where that customer gets what’s coming to him. And that makes me happy. Because I really, really hated that guy, whoever he was. (I realize that he’s probably a decent person who was just having a bad day or something, but still.)

Otherwise, there aren’t actually that many video store anecdotes in the book. It’s more just the vibe of the store where I worked. Movie love, shared cinephelia, the vague sense of hopelessness that existed in those final days when we knew the end was coming.

That said, Star Video in the book is based very closely on the VisArt Video location in Carrboro, NC, where I worked for many years. The layout is the same. The neighboring businesses are basically the same. West Appleton is basically a fictional version of Carrboro, my home. It’s all a love letter, and a friendly jibe, at Carrboro and Chapel Hill. There are a lot of jokes in there that only people in Chapel Hill/Carrboro would get. And I love that.

CA: Describe Alaura’s relationship with Match Anderson, the film director who features prominently in the novel’s last third.

JH: Match Anderson actually comes from an aborted novel that I…well, that I aborted years ago. The original idea was a comedy about a film director who hallucinates seeing the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock, but who has to keep working on the movie he’s making, or else his career will crumble. That book didn’t go anywhere (thus the aforementioned abortion…I wonder how many times I can work the word “abortion” into this paragraph. Abortion.) But at some point I realized that Match Anderson was sort of insanely perfect for “The Last Days of Video.” The book was kind of zany and malleable enough to support the arrival of a crazy Hollywood film director. So that’s what happened. I just plopped him into the book.

So…Match is a crazy film director who is in West Appleton filming a movie, and he’s also (as if that all wasn’t convenient enough) Alaura’s ex-boyfriend from high school. I just went for it. To be honest, I think I barely pull it off. But it’s fun, I think. Fun and silly to forgive a lot of storytelling sins. Match arrives in town and he’s sort of the last great hope that Star Video will be able to survive. Alaura has carried a torch for Match for a decade, since they graduated high school and went different directions, so for her, he represents the wrong turn she thinks her life has taken. I don’t know. It was all meant to be wild and fun. I hope it is.

CA: A hallmark of a good novel is that after it’s over, the reader still thinks about the characters and wonders what became of them. As the author, do you ever think about what Alaura, Waring, or Jeff might be up to these days?

JH: I think about Waring sometimes. At the end of the book, he winds up in a certain situation, a situation that I think we’re rooting will work out for him. I’m really rooting for him. I hope he sobers up. I hope he finds someone, a romantic partner who will put up with him and take care of him. He’s not a bad guy. Just kind of a jerk.

When I think about Alaura, I think about meeting her at a bar one night and buying her a drink and talking with her about movies and, hopefully, kissing her. At the end of the book, Alaura has a sort of flight of fancy about a potential future where she has a husband and a baby and they walk around their small town together. If I can ever find my Alaura, I’d gladly be that husband.

CA: A generation is coming of age that will have no memory or experience of going to the video store. What do you think they’re missing?

JH: Video stores weren’t just a place to rent movies. They were a cultural repository of movie knowledge. And that knowledge has now largely been lost. Netflix and Amazon’s algorithms just don’t cut it.

VisArt had an amazingly curated collection, and an insanely knowledgeable staff, and it was all just there, like ripe fruit, ready to be plucked. Mainly, I think upcoming generations will miss out on the experience of wandering a video store for twenty minutes or two hours and stumbling across a strange movie they would have never found any other way. That was a special experience: to be surrounded by the scope of film history and to let movies find you.

They’re also going to miss out on the disgustingness of the porn room. Though I guess the Internet is just one big porn room now.

CA: While video stores seem destined for the dustbin of history, the same was said for vinyl, and I see vinyl slowing launching its comeback. Do you think there’s any hope for video stores to ever return?

JH: No. I really don’t. A few video stores will survive, in certain communities. There’s a great store in Asheville, North Carolina that I recently visited, and it was amazing. And there’s still actually a VisArt Video in Charlotte, NC. But other than those very rare exceptions, no.

The vinyl metaphor doesn’t hold up, in my opinion. There’s a romantic attachment to vinyl records, and on top of that, they just sound wonderful. There’s no romantic attachment to DVDs and VHS tapes. They’re made of cheap plastic. And the quality of the viewing experience of a DVD or Blu-ray disk isn’t any better than streaming something off Netflix. It just isn’t.

CA: Which writers and/or novels have inspired or influenced you over the years?

JH: The big ones for this book are Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, Kate Christenson’s The Epicure’s Lament, Keith Lee Morris’s The Dart League King, and a bunch of others I just can’t think of right now. Otherwise, Douglas Adams, Michael Chabon, Douglas Adams, Dickens, Vonnegut…writers who I think are fun and smart and heartfelt, which is what I really aspire to: accomplishing all three of those things.

CA: If you worked at Star Video, which films would you pick to be your Staff Recommendations?

JH: I could go on for days, man. Days. As I recall, at VisArt my selections were Brazil, Smoke Signals, The Grey Fox, Red by Kie?lowski, Wages of Fear…and of course more, but I can’t remember. VisArt closed in 2010. I’ve forgotten.

CA: How about Staff Recommendations for novels? Which books should people be reading?

JH: I’m reading Vonnegut again these days, which I think everyone should do after they first read him in college. Vonnegut is a blast, and smart, and heartfelt, obviously. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson is making my head spin. The Sellout by Paul Beatty. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. Every person in the universe should read Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me and Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. Prodigals by Greg Jackson is an amazing collection of stories I recently read. Highly recommended.

I’m not really up on the current stuff, I’m afraid to say. I’m taking a step back, and I’m mainly reading old stuff. That’s actually a decent philosophy. The old stuff is generally better—because it has stood the test of time.

CA: What are you working on currently? Can we expect another novel in the near future?

JH: Oh Chuck. That’s such a heavy question. I wish I was writing another novel. I wish I was writing short stories or writing screenplays for Hollywood or writing anything at all. But I’m pretty damn blocked.

I hate the concept of writer’s block. I don’t believe in it. But I’ve got it. I start all these projects and they all die. I’ve written probably two short stories in the last two years that I’m proud of, and that’s fucking it. I’m not joking.

Part of the issue is that Last Days of Video was a blast to work on. Every single day. I loved the silly characters, I loved making movie references, I loved that it was a light, funny, heartfelt thing. And I just haven’t been able to find another project like that. I try to write all this serious literary shit, which I’m realizing is a mistake.

So kids, the lesson is…write fun silly things. That’s what I’m trying. I’m writing a short story about David Hasselhoff’s sailboat breaking down on a small island, and he becomes a hero to the people there. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Jeremy Hawkins‘ debut novel, The Last Days of Video, was published by Soft Skull Press (an imprint of Counterpoint Press) in 2015. His writing has appeared at Electric Literature, Diagram, Pacifica, The Molotov Cocktail, and other venues. He earned an MFA in Fiction from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington; he teaches creative writing at the Carrboro ArtsCenter; and he is the founder and lead editor of The Distillery, a web-based editing service. He lives in Chapel Hill, NC.

Chuck Augello (Contributing Editor) 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 in other fine places. He publishes The Daily Vonnegut and contributes interviews to The Review Review. He’s currently at work on a novel.

Lead image: 280212 Days Gone By… (via Flickr user Pete)