NOTE: The following is a transcript of a self-interview with Jay Leonard Schwartz, author of O Little Central Florida Town Of Bedlam. The interview is taken from a podcast to be released in the near future. The author—that’s me—discusses his new novel and its development.
Jay: Hello and welcome to this podcast that champions independent authors of absurd fiction and non-fiction, as well as works of satire and dark humor. Also discussed are their creative approaches to writing, be they process or product in nature. Today, we have with us writer, musician, filmmaker and self-confessed Dadaist at large, Jay Leonard Schwartz, author of the absurd and social-satire novel, O Little Central Florida Town Of Bedlam. Jay, welcome to the show!
Jay: Thank you, Jay. I appreciate my being here. I’d just like to say that it’s really nice of me to have myself here, today.
Jay: So, Jay, what is this book about?
Jay: That’s a good question, Jay. You know, I always find that it’s much easier for me to write or develop a project, even a novel in this case, than summarize it in fifty words or less. Basically, however, the novel is the absurd saga of a soggy little Florida town in crisis. The town’s inane history is marred by natural disaster, social dysfunction and bureaucratic ineptitude. As a result, the quirky and eccentric locals of this quagmire of civil strife are forced to live with chronic flooding, political apathy, and societal decay—and eventually fight for their very existence when suddenly threatened by a cosmic collision of political corruption, vindictive weather patterns and supernatural forces.
Jay: How would you describe the genre of the book?
Jay: Well, the book mixes elements from different genres, but it is very much social satire that captures small-town Florida eccentricity, chaos and cataclysm. I’d further describer it as a novel of absurd excess in which would-be heroes, innocent misfits and well-meaning hedonists must face an onslaught of political and authoritarian megalomaniacs, fetish-enthusiasts, extraterrestrials, sociopathic animals, tricksters, and inclement weather—all contextualized under the backdrop of Florida history and based on any number of real-life events. Really. It also contains elements of science
Jay: Is there message in your book?
Jay: That’s something I definitely considered while I was writing the book—and, indeed, I thought there should be a stronger message about global warming, rising sea-levels, and the threat to low-lying cities, such as Miami. However, for the most part, I think the book certainly stands as a cautionary tale, albeit a twisted one, that riles against apathy and conveys the need for us all to reexamine our relationship with government and our communities, as we take a good look at the current zeitgeist of our times in order to make changes in our lives—certainly at the societal level. Alternatively, maybe the message of my novel is just that shit happens anyway, so we might as well make the best of life anyway.
Jay: Good point! So who do you think your novel might appeal to?
Jay: Certainly those with a sense of humor and a taste for the absurd and ludicrous—as well as those with a hankering for anything convoluted that relates to Florida and its history. I’m originally from Miami.
Jay: That’s right I am! You might even say old Miami, when it was still referred to as God’s waiting room and the playground of northern-based snowbirds.
Jay: Moreover, my family has been in Florida since sometime in the 1880s, so that’s a lot of backwards history to reckon with—especially in the sense of how I remember it growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. Florida changes its culture every few years in the way that some people change their underwear, but some quirky things seem to remain universal. Maybe it’s the Sun that makes Floridians and Florida life so odd in places.
Of course, my book is my critical and comical take on Florida, but I’ve been surprised at some early readers of my novel—Floridians, of course—who expressed how well they related to the concepts in my book. Seriously, if you’ve ever lived Florida, you have to have a sense of humor cause you know it’s not what local tourism boards love to advertise. Miami, for example, goes by the nickname of the “Magic City.” Most people think the term was a reference to it being some mythical vacation-oriented tropical paradise. In reality, the term came about in reference to the population, construction and housing boom of, I believe, the late 1930s.
By the way, there are elements of science fiction and fantasy, suspense, political intrigue and even a bit of romance in my book, as well. Of course, there are more absurd and seedier elements of my book which sort of evoke images of an early film of John Waters. So, as far as readers go, I’d say my novel offers a little bit of something for everyone. Also, the weather enthused, who tend to start salivating over any mention of a hurricane, will be intrigued by it. Oh, and people who love to hate Donald Trump will especially love my novel. Just saying.
Jay: How did this book come about? What was your motivation to write it?
Jay: The novel, which I really prefer to call a saga, started out as a writing experiment on my developing descriptive character sketches and backgrounds. While I always felt that writing dialogues and playing with words were my strengths, I didn’t really have the same confidence in writing descriptions. Moreover, I wasn’t even sure that I could really tell a story—especially in that I’m very abstract in the way I imagine scenarios and even characters.
In truth, I’ve always wanted to write a novel and have always fancied myself a writer. Like many, I’m sure, the idea of being a author is probably more inspiring than the actual process of writing a novel. For example, in 1979, in order to visit my sister, I traveled across America by Greyhound bus, from Miami, Florida to Los Angeles, California. On the back of a picture snapped of me somewhere along the way, I wrote: “The great American author – 1970.” I had the idea that for three days and three nights I would do nothing but sit on that bus and write. I remember that en route I did indeed take a lot of notes and wrote in a journal, but mostly I looked out the window, listened to my radio, and slept a lot.
It’s also true, that before I began my writing experiment, I had begun a different project—a more academic pursuit—that related to an idea I had for compiling a book about self-actualization for teachers of the arts, based on the many articles on humanistic teacher-training methodology I had written long ago for teachers of English-as-a-foreign-language. That endeavor lasted about an hour and half before I got bored and so I decided to just free-write some absurd characters to entertain myself. At the time, I was recovering from a bout with intestinal issues, so I figured that laughter was probably more therapeutic than painstakingly pouring over teaching methodology. However, it was an article I had written about writing descriptions that gave me the idea to work on the characters as a writing task.
Jay: And how did that work out, Jay?
Well, let’s just say that when I let my mind go, it really goes! In a very short time, I had written these over-the-top character sketches complete with their backgrounds. As I developed one character’s history, I had to come up with other characters in his or her past, obviously. Then, in turn, I did the same for those side-characters. Soon, I had an entire cast of characters with crisscrossing and intersecting histories. It was at that point that I began to think about plot. However, I was so overwhelmed by the plethora of characters and their backgrounds that it was difficult to make sense of the bits and pieces as a cohesive narrative.
It was then that I made two major decisions in my desire to weave my efforts into a novel. The first was to create a visual representation, sort of a spider-gram, of all the characters and their real or possible connections to each other. The second was to allow a main plot to develop organically from all these relationships. Therefore, I began to organize the characters into categories concerning their social groupings, places in time, locations, and also motivation. After that process, I just let my imagination run wild.
Jay: So you’re saying this was an organic process. Was this perhaps influenced by your affinity for the ideology of the Dadaist art movement of the early twentieth century?
Jay: Yes, especially concerning the influence of “chance” as a component of the creative process. In this sense, the so-called main plot arose from my sensing a pattern in the chaos of the characters, places and biographies I had created. Eventually, I ended up with a pastiche of timelines and story lines that I began to piece together—and in doing so, a cast of main characters emerged. Their motivations, as characters, eventually gave rise to the major conflict and ultimate resolution of the narrative.
This process itself yielded additional twists and turns that surprised myself as the writer. One of them being the final realization that the book was really a saga about the history of a backwards small town in Florida, named Wespesiwa Beach, and its challenged and eccentric inhabitants, rather than it representing some linear plot featuring, for example, a hero and a villain, etc. At the end, personally speaking, the experience of crafting all my ideas and writing efforts into a cohesive novel was really quite a journey. I’m still amazed it turned out in the way it did and that it all makes sense.
Jay: What else would you say is unique or significant about your book?
Jay: Firstly, it’s a saga. It’s big and bold, and it’s very frank about many historical issues and present realities—all of which in real life tend to be sprayed with perfume and paraded around as something they’re not. Moreover, in this era of short-attention spans and soundbites, I don’t even know who writes such sagas anymore, especially in regard to historical fiction.
Jay: Did you have any concerns or insecurities while writing your novel, especially regarding how it might be accepted?
Jay: Not specifically while I was writing it. Later, while editing it, I considered who might have an issue with some parts of it, especially some of the characters. I think if a reader knew, going into it, what the book was about, he or she would probably enjoy the trip. On the other hand, if someone just picked the book up off the shelf, he might start reading it and say, “Oh my God! What the fuck is this shit?”
Jay: Yes, somethings certainly cannot be unread. So you’re saying the book is not for everyone.
Jay: Obviously, there will be those that condemn this book for some of its subject matter and character descriptions. You know it’s true that you can’t please everyone, and certainly this novel is not for everyone. The book contains some adult themes, but they are usually handled within the context of, say a juvenile mindset. One reader already described the book as “scatological” in nature.
It’s also my first novel so, to those novel purists who are looking to be critical, it’s probably deeply flawed in many respects. Nevertheless, some friends of mine who are academics have read it, and they’ve confessed to laughing their asses off, as well as marveling at its satirical content.
Jay: I guess there’s just no accounting for taste. Now, who or what were possible influences on your novel?
Jay: There are a lot influences, I’d say, both direct and indirect. Of course, Florida history and culture just lend themselves to ridicule—and my being a native South Floridian affords me a license to satirize my past and so-called heritage. I wouldn’t say I have a love-hate relationship with Florida, and Miami more specifically. Although I left Florida, and in fact the United States, more than a quarter of a century ago, my head often spins at the local headlines from way across the pond; somethings, it seems, never change.
In this respect, I would include a nod to the late radio-talk show host, Neil Rogers, who regularly lambasted and lampooned life in South Florida. I spent years listening to his acerbic and humorous take on the local culture. Those who are familiar with his work would say that Neil was always dead on the money in his views. Sorry no pun intended.
Jay: Neil … GOD! OK, what else? How about them dirty parts?
Jay: Well, regarding the more lurid parts of my novel, I’d say, as I mentioned before, that the early films of John Waters, who is often referred to as the King of Filth or the Prince of Puke, was perhaps an influence on me in the way I imagined certain scenes that are quite gratuitous and over the top. Yet, they are certainly within the context of the absurd nature of the book. Like him, I also would love to see my readers collapse into nervous fits of laughter.
I can also say that another influence was certainly the chaotic times we are living in, especially last year, 2020, in which there was the coronavirus pandemic and its related bedlam, the US presidential elections, episodes of police brutality, and various other global catastrophes that seemed to oddly echo a lot of what I was writing about, and that oddity motivated me further. For example, there’s a lot of political satire in my book, with obvious parallels, fictional of course, between the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, and one of the villains in my book. Again, somethings, or people in this case, just lend themselves to ridicule and that’s also why I consider this book, in part, a cautionary tale of political ineptitude. In fact, I think my novel should be required reading, forcefully fed, for all politicians, especially for anyone running for congress, Governor or Mayor.
Jay: What would you like your readers to take with them after reading your novel?
Jay: Certainly, I hope they get a good laugh and enjoy my strange twist on almost everything in the universe. There’s a long list of historical, socio-political, supernatural, and, of course, perverse subjects and themes that I touch on this saga. However, woven into the chaos and conflict of the narrative are the saving graces of hope, love and community.
Note: Part II of this interview, in which the author covers the process of writing his novel, will appear in a separate post. The novel, O Little Central Florida Town of Bedlam, is available now online from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle eBook formats. Get your copy below: