Woe Is Us: A Talk With John Reed

Existential Interviews Politics Transgressive

The San Francisco Chronicle said John Reed "excels in the realm of the strange". Reed is the author of four previous books, including Snowball's Chance and All the World's a Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare. He teaches creative writing at the New School and Columbia University and is on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle.

His most recent title is Tales of Woe, published by MTV Press. The book is a compendium of true-life tragedies. However, Reed has done something subtly yet artistically important: instead of choosing tales that have a redeeming moral message or happy ending, he has deliberately chosen ones that do not. And he has done so for a morally serious reason: he wants to underline that life is sometimes brutally unfair. Justice, in other words, can be the result of how human beings do (or do not) organize their affairs as much as it can be the result of providential "forces".

I spoke with Reed by email and phone in August of this year.

FINN: Is the book partly an antidote to the Pollyanna-ish "arc" of so much contemporary culture? In other words, was it written in part to say, this is part of the truth of life on earth?

JOHN: That's it, exactly. Sin, suffering, redemption. That's the news, that's the movie, that's what they tell you to keep your hope alive, to keep you from accepting how much unhappiness there is, not only in your life, but in the world. It's not an accident, that story, it's a convenience of the class that own us. You'd think that model -- sin, suffering, redemption -- would make you feel better about life. Maybe it does for a few minutes, but it can't really help; you try to apply that model to your life, you'll meet with misery and resistance, because that model is bullshit.

FINN: How did you choose the artists?

JOHN: We looked at over 3000 artists, scouring anthologies, comic book stores, comic conventions, and the web. (Deviantart.com and the MoCCA festival stand out.) On the one hand, we didn't want a single style to dominate the book, opting instead for a pulp journal or magazine that oriented itself in terms of narrative, that reached farther into culture by varying its visual associations. On the other hand, again like the pulps, we wanted an ineluctable quality, a "woeness." The art had to convey hopelessness. I'd always ask myself, "is it woe?"

FINN: What were your sources? Newspapers? Interviews? Other?

JOHN: Yes, mostly newspapers and interviews. Interesting, though: at the time I did the research, the sites that aggregated newspapers -- for example, questia.com and highbeam.com -- worked much better than they do today. Many of the sources were searchable when I wrote the book, but now are subscription based, and not readily available or searchable. Not a good thing.

FINN: You mention the years of colonization and dictatorship the Philippines has suffered in the lead-up to one story, "De-Spare". Could there be a political Tales of Woe in a follow-up volume?

JOHN: Indeed there could. Or a sex Tales of Woe. Or a Sarah Palin Tales of Woe.

FINN: In one story a Native American named Elmer Seetot murders and dismembers a friend. He is reported by his sister Hattie Wright. He then is placed in a jail cell with another inmate named Barry Jack, whom he rapes for five days. The raped inmate seeks help. He's told by one social worker that "everyone needs a stiff dick in them once in a while". The raped inmate has a nervous breakdown. He tries to sue for compensation. His suit is summarily dismissed. What is striking about this story is the way victimization keeps "moving", and the main victimizer -- Seetot -- is aided and abetted by others who are either too weak or too clued out to see the harm they are contributing to. Is part of what drives woe these latter human shortcomings -- toward weakness and obtuseness -- as well as cruelty?

JOHN: Seetot frightens me. That story is a perfect Tale of Woe: just when you think it's bad, it gets much worse; the rapes are totally pointless. We're culpable. Sarah Palin, and all of us. As well, Seetot gave himself up. If he hadn't, he'd still be out there. The police didn't care. His victim was a homeless black guy.

FINN: Violence against prostitutes is the subject of two stories, "Sac of Sex Slavedom" and "Father Knows Death". In both stories, the women involved are either forced into or likely forced into the sex trade. Given how widespread human trafficking for the sex trade is, were you confronted with a variety of horrific woe-tales? And if so, how did you narrow down your choices?

JOHN: Yeah, I did think, "no more of these." But that wasn't the first type of story I had to cap. The easiest to find were animal Tales of Woe. Animals are innocent; they never deserve to suffer. And, we torment them frequently. Next, stories of suffering children. Children are innocent too -- and the human race isn't doing all that well by them, either. The third type of story I had to ban: stories that take place in Alaska. I had ten of them before I realized, "hey, these are all in Alaska." While I was working on the book, Palin got the VP spot, but I was already familiar with her governorship, and her state. Incidentally, a book store just canceled a reading because it didn't like the sex trade stories.

FINN: "Father Knows Death" is particularly bleak in terms of the sheer scale of the brutality involved. An entire town is implicated in terms of at least turning a blind eye to what is going on. One is reminded of lynchings, or the orgy of serial killings of young women that took place at Cuidad Juarez. Does woe grow when not confronted? While the book claims to eschew a moral lesson, could it nevertheless be said that woe spreads when not confronted?

JOHN: There are 2.5 million people who are, right now, owned and trafficked by other people. It's a 42.5 billion dollar market. There's no light at the end of the tunnel. The priorities of our governments reflect the concerns of the greedy, inhuman monsters that own us all. If ever there were a cause to wage war, this is it -- but the people that command armies don't care about slavery. Well, maybe I should say that human suffering isn't their primary concern.

FINN: Another story, "Bee for the Honey-Slut", depicts woe in an ambiguous way. A couple of well-built-but-not-entirely-well-hooked-up single mothers initiate a sex party with a group of young (underage) teenage boys. But it's hard not to feel that the alleged statement of one boy, (albeit later retracted), that the events were "awesome", expresses something of the complexity of this sort of situation. In other words, it might have been psychologically scarring for the boys involved, or might not have been. This ambiguity lends “Bee for the Honey-slut” a different quality from the other tales; it is not as much horrific as a reading experience as it is weird, hypnotic, a double-edged sword. Did you sometimes pick tales because they were not woeful, quite, but simply interesting?

JOHN: "Bee" seems different; other people have called it out. But I think it qualifies. Nothing good came out of what happened to those people. Whether there was a crime or not, the result was suffering. Regardless of what really happened (we'll never know), the story breaks down two ways; if the MILFS were guilty, their suffering was deserved but the suffering of their children and their victims was undeserved; if the MILFS were innocent, everyone's suffering was pointless.

FINN: In “Bureaucrat's Book of Death”, you describe the bungling of Homeland Security agents who lock an ailing infant, Michael Futi, in a room where he dies of respiratory failure. At the end of the same piece, you give a list of agents who have fallen in the line of duty. At first, the two items do not seem connected. Was one of the points of this tale that the very notion of Homeland Security breeds paranoia (in the case of Michael Futi) and arguably unnecessary risk-taking (in the case of some agents)?

JOHN: It's tempting to blame our suffering on meatheads like the guys who work for Homeland Security, but I wanted to make it clear that they're suffering, dying pointlessly too.

FINN: Did you ever find that woe interconnects? For example, did one talk of woe connect to people or information that gave you a lead for another, different story? Is woe exponential?

JOHN: Well, yes. The PETA people gave me a million horror shows, well after I had decided no more animals. The anorexia story was endless, as was the albino extermination story, as was the sex-trafficking, etc. I'd thought to cover a wide array of suffering, but quickly realized 25 stories were not going to represent, they could only indicate. We originally had fifty stories, and planned to give them four pages each. But the stories turned out to be longer.

FINN: One effect of reading this much gruesome true-life material is that one becomes numb. How did you protect yourself emotionally from being overcome by bleakness?

JOHN: I'd assumed I'd go numb, but that didn't happen. It only took a few stories to render me hypersensitive, and the work was extremely debilitating. Educational, though. I could not take my own petty complaints seriously. Woe has had a huge influence on me as a person. I'm much happier with myself and my life.

FINN: Did any of the tales come to you via anonymous sources? That is, are you woe's Bernstein and Woodward? Similarly, after this book comes out, will you be accessible to readers who want to contact you with tales of their own, some of which may be based on leaks (such as the secrets sometimes kept in hospitals when medical bungling takes place)?

JOHN: There is a blog at talesofwoe.com. You can email me from that site.

As far as medical bungling is concerned: I had a half dozen stories like that. I didn't publish them for two reasons: they weren't woeful enough; I couldn't confirm information. If I can do anything to get stories of medical bungling into print, I'll do it.

FINN: In “Welcome to Alaska”, you describe the infliction of woe, but this time on animals, and draw the little-known but clinically significant connection between those who torture and assault animals and the torture and assault of humans. What makes the tale noteworthy is that the assault of the animals in this case is sexual. Two questions here: first, at the end of “Welcome to Alaska”, it's pointed out that there are no laws in Alaska against sexually assaulting animals, even though this clearly falls within the purview of animal abuse; is this tale partly agitation for legal change?

JOHN:It's completely retarded that Alaska doesn't have laws, for example, against raping dogs. People who rape dogs rape people. This guy, who also frightens me, is a dog rapist and pedophile. Our lack of compassion -- for other people, for dogs, for life on Earth -- is our downfall.

FINN: And second, in an earlier work of yours, the post-911 contra-Orwellian satire Snowball's Chance, you depict animal woe in an updating of George Orwell's Animal Farm. Is animal woe a pet concern, so to speak, of yours?

JOHN: People are an extraordinary animal: at our best, the most beautiful; at our worst, the most ugly; at our best, the most intelligent; at our worst, the most idiotic.

(Finn Harvor is a writer and artist living in South Korea. He has had work in THE KOREA TIMES, DARK SKY, RAIN TAXI, THE BROOKLYN RAIL, THE CANADIAN FORUM, PRISM INTERNATIONAL, AND THE HUFS INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF FOREIGN STUDIES. He has written and staged two plays, and his monologue "Die Happiness" was demo-taped by Clark Johnson of THE WIRE. He is at work on two screenplay-novels.)

(A woeful John Reed musical playlist is available at Largehearted Boy).

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