Whenever I think of the absurd, the ridiculous, and the scary, one author springs to mind, and that is David Wong AKA Jason Pargin.
Jason Pargin, under the pseudonym of David Wong, was the executive editor of Cracked Magazine, a featured guest on the Cracked podcast, ran the comedy site PWOT and has authored five books, one of which has been made into a movie. Of the five books, three are apart of the John Dies at The End series, a comic horror series about two eternal slackers, and a paranormal drug called Soy Sauce. The second series, which is seeing a new release in Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick: A Novel is about the misadventures of barista turned billionaire heiress in a world where everyone is trying to kill her, and all of it is recorded. Both of the series are brutal, hilarious, and sometimes just plain insane. Jason effectively merges the ridiculous with canny characters and solid plots that keep you wanting to read more. Grimdark Magazine had the great fortune of having a chat with Jason about future projects, his writing motivation, and what the future is for John and Zoey.
BT: I read that you had never missed a deadline on any multi-year writing projects, which is remarkable. Could you tell me about your writing process and how you plan out your deadlines?
It all starts with the terrible knowledge that if this writing thing falls through, I’m not really qualified to do anything else. I mean, sure, I have stuff like a huge whiteboard in my office where I track projects and deadlines, I have alarms on my phone to remind me what needs done, etc. But it’s the anxiety that makes me actually adhere to the schedule. I have to build the track because the train is coming and the guy driving it is drunk.
BT: What were the influences that initially inspired you to write? Was it your early writing days doing PWOT? Or before that?
I would like to tell some inspirational story about how I was born a writer, but I think I was really just born with the desire to talk to people without actually having them talk back. I suspect that if I’d just learned how to make friends, none of this would have happened.
BT: When you are writing something, you have said you have to be frank with yourself. You need to figure out what you have to drop and whom it will affect because there are only so many hours in the day. Is this the approach you have always taken with your writing first with John Dies at the End and onward to Zoe Punches the Future in the Dick?
Over time, I’ve found that one of the real secrets to career success is just being able to say “no” to the people/things that would distract you from your work. I realize that sounds depressing, because you’re imagining me telling my child I’m skipping their piano recital so I can finish my book about butt monsters, but it’s more about saying no to all of the little distractions, whether it’s social media or poker night with the gang.
If you’re serious about writing (or getting in shape, or anything, really) the first step is to draw boundaries around it and say, “This is important to me, and only emergencies will intrude.” But twenty years from now, I’ll probably write a sad book about finding better work/life balance, so what do I know?
BT: John Dies at the End’s publishing process was a little different than your other books in that it started as a web serial. You got immediate feedback from viewers. Can you tell me a bit about that?
In most US states, forcing a friend or family member to read your 150,000-word manuscript is classified as a form of assault. So getting real, honest feedback is a huge challenge for any new writer, but especially for me, as I had no educational or professional background in fiction writing and no experienced writer friends. I was just a guy working in an office.
But what I did have was a popular comedy blog and I basically posted this book there one chapter at a time over the course of a few years. That served as my novel writing school, it let me see exactly where readers were dropping off, or what parts they thought were boring or confusing. Plus, I had moderators who could delete all the death threats, so that helped.
BT: Why name the drug “Soy Sauce”?
I feel like a real author wouldn’t admit that he simply doesn’t remember, so I’ll go with “Satan told me to name it that during a seance.”
BT: Does Molly get a lot of fan mail? Because if she doesn’t, she should!
Unfortunately, the messages I get from people treating those books and characters as real tend to be much, much darker than that.
It’s the second book starring these characters but I’m going to assume that most of the people reading this haven’t read the first one, Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits (if everyone on the internet had bought a copy, I’d be writing this from a floating mansion made of gold). That’s fine, these are independent stories and you can jump right into the second one. But let me quickly summarize the first one anyway:
It’s the near future and Zoey Ashe is a young woman living in a trailer park who finds out her father was a powerful crime boss who has just died under spectacular circumstances. As a result, she is summoned by his old crew to Tabula Ra$a, a brand new city in Utah built by douchebags and governed by no one. This city of the future is home to two emerging technologies: One is a social network that allows users to see anything at any time, via ubiquitous tiny cameras everyone willingly wears as accessories pinned to their clothes. The other technology is implants that grant the user superpowers, but not the training or common sense to use them well. The combination of the two — superpowered morons with a ready audience — is about to result in chaos.
Zoey thus finds herself working with her father’s people, a team of con artists with PSYOPS training who solve problems via a series of elaborate mind games. I won’t spoil how the first book ends other than to say Zoey apparently survives, since there’s a second book and her name is on the cover.
Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick picks up several months later, when the city is on the verge of its crazy Halloween celebration. As often happens in novels, a corpse turns up. Zoey is accused of being the killer, becoming the subject of an elaborate online conspiracy theory that quickly turns stupid and deadly, in that order.
BT: How would you classify the Zoey series? There is everything from science fiction, horror, mystery, and comedy.
I worry that it sounds pretentious to say I don’t care about what genre I’m writing, but I’ve always figured that’s the bookstore’s problem, to figure what shelf it goes on.
BT: Do you think Zoey is a hero?
I think she honestly tries, and in this world that’s just about the best you can ask for.
BT: The novel’s title is hilarious, and I know that Zoey punches, hits, attaches a shark to, and sets her opponents dicks on fire. The shark scene was amazing, by the way. Why dicks?
Due to what is probably a rare medical condition, my brain’s sense of humor stopped developing when I was 13. Experts believe there may be treatments but I’m making too much money off it now.
BT: Tabula Ra$a was created as a place of no rules by Zoey’s estranged father, where people can do anything and be anyone by literally having a clean slate. Do you think that a place like this could exist?
No, but the desire to find such a place is so fundamentally human that it will one day drive us to colonize the stars. The urge to just bail out of your messed-up life and start over elsewhere is undeniable, just ask any kid whose dad went out for cigarettes and never came back.
BT: The tone of Zoey is always light and funny until you start digging deeper. To me, Zoey is a philosophical look at the effects of constant digital culture and access. Especially with the bullying of Zoey. Was this a conscious choice, or did it flow out organically when you were creating the story?
I mentioned earlier that this is a universe in which tiny live-streaming cameras are absolutely everywhere, so users can sit at home and just browse this God’s-eye view of humanity. I added that partly because I wanted to explore the psychology of having to constantly be putting on a public performance every minute of the day, and partly because I’m 100% sure that exact technology will exist in the future. So I guess it’s both.
BT: You Coined the phrase “Monkeysphere” based on Dunbar’s number where a human or “monkey” could only maintain up to 150 relationships. There is a lot more to it. But I was wondering, the world seems a lot smaller in Futuristic Violence, and Fancy suits and Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick due to everyone live recording their lives. Do you think the Monkeysphere is still valid in Zoey’s future world?
Absolutely! The article you’re referencing basically says that humans have a lot of coping mechanisms to deal with the fact that our brains can’t physically handle that many interpersonal relationships (go try to type out the names of every friend or acquaintance you have — you’ll likely wind up with way fewer than 150). Well, you definitely see all of those coping mechanisms in the Zoey books: the dehumanization of outgroups, the impulse to reduce human personalities down to just a few tribal traits, the rejection of nuance when it comes to judging everyone but ourselves. Sprawling, all-seeing social networks don’t fix those issues, they exacerbate them.
BT: Will there be more Zoey and John Dies at the End books?
I’m writing the fourth John and Dave book as we speak, it’s due for publication in 2022. I’d like to write more Zoey books but that will probably come down to whether or not anyone reads this one. Her fate is held in the cold, invisible hand of the marketplace. Same as the rest of us, I guess.
BT: Do you think that the politics of now might influence your writing in the future?
That’s probably unavoidable but I’m not a huge fan of thinly-veiled allegory, so I suspect it will be more about the general vibe of the era and not that I insert a fictional president into the story named Donovan Tramp. But more than a decade ago, John Dies at the End was referencing this swath of blue collar America that had simply been left behind by the economy, a town of abandoned factories and dying shopping centers. I suppose you can see the roots of 2020 politics already growing in that soil.
BT: You are a man of many hats. You write novels, you were an executive editor at Cracked, you are a frequent podcast guest, and are pretty active on social media. Do you approach writing differently for each of the varying spaces, or do you approach writing the same no matter who it is for?
Well, the issue is that I really only know the one way to write, so I can’t claim there’s really an approach behind it at all. It all just kind of comes out the same way.
BT: Are you a big reader? What are you reading right now?
I read all day, every day, but I’m rarely reading the right things. If I converted all of the time I spent zombie-scrolling through Twitter into reading books, I’d be a walking library. As it is, the last great book I read is The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones, a novel that effortlessly weaves in elements of the characters’ culture and the suffocating weight of economic anxiety into the supernatural horror. If you liked those elements of JDatE, here’s a chance to see an author do it way better than me.
BT: What do you have coming up in the future you can talk about?
I have weeks of relentless promotion, during which I’ll be trying to convince people who’ve lost their jobs to COVID to spend real money on a book instead of buying food. Then I have to try to finish the aforementioned fourth book in the John Dies at the End series, the working title being John Actually Dies in This One.
BT: Last question, and thank you for answering these! If you have dinner with three people, alive, dead or fictional? Who would they be and why?
It’d be the real person Keanu Reeves, plus the fictional characters John Wick and Neo from The Matrix. Then I just sit back and watch them try to figure out what the fuck is happening while I eat in silence.
Originally published in Grimdark Magazine Issue #24