American Carnage: An interview with contributing author Rick Shingler

Welcome to Day 3 of interviews with the American Carnage crew! My review of the anthology is here. This is our last day of interviews. This final interview is with Rick Shingler, writer of the story “The Day the Earth Turned Day-Glo.” Again, please note: discussion is welcomed, but keep it respectful. I know that the anthology’s theme has the potential for controversy, so comments will be monitored.

Note: answers are unedited/uncensored/unwhathaveyou.

All answers, thoughts, and opinions are from the authors.

Also note: this interview is on the long side.

First, tell us a bit about yourself. Any fun and interesting factoids?

I’ve always sort of wondered what story Alex Trebek would ask me to tell during the boring meet and greet part if I was ever on Jeopardy. Maybe I would tell one of my weird celebrity encounter stories, like clothes shopping at a flea market with stand-up comic Emo Phillips or helping Geraldo Rivera’s mom pick out a Christmas present for her son or the time I had a phone conversation with BB King and didn’t know it until after hanging up the phone. Or maybe I’d tell something about my family, like the story of how my wife and I accidentally birthed our daughter without medical assistance in the bathroom at her folks’ house.

But when I really think about it, I’d probably just say something boring about growing up in Ohio or living in New Jersey. (Editor’s note: wait, what? Tell me more about this accidentally natural home birth. Is your wife secretly a super hero? Because I’ve been in labor, and yeah, there’s no way I’d do that without nerve-numbing assistance.)

Tell us a bit about your writing. Are you usually a fiction writer, or did you make an exception for this anthology?

I’ve always considered myself to be a fiction writer. I’ve written plays, comic scripts, short stories and even a novel adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Pericles”, reworked as a comic space opera. I always have a few works in progress, because I have gadfly-sized attention span stands in direct opposition to my high level of commitment to any project I undertake. The good folks at Psycho Drive-In have been gracious enough to let me ramble and grumble about TV shows and movies from time to time, but my heart is in storytelling, even if my voice has been slow to be heard. I’ve gotten so good at shrugging off form rejection letters and emails that I’m almost able to pretend that it doesn’t chip another huge hunk out of my soul every. Single. Damn. Time. When I write, my goal is to entertain myself, because I’m likely to be one of the very few who ever actually reads it. If it’s made for me and I get to read it, it’s never going to be an TOTAL waste of time, right?

Speaking of the anthology, what drew you to it? Why did you decide to submit a story?

I may be mistaken, but it seems that the idea of an anthology of stories inspired by the titles of punk songs had been discussed amongst some of the PDI contributors before the 2016 election even happened. Once we crossed that milestone, the concept felt like a mandate for all of us. Over the past couple of years, our Western society has edged closer and closer to a place that would make George Orwell say, “You can’t make this shit up”. I wanted to be one of the voices of rage calling out in the darkness and maybe even a tiny beacon of hope in this burgeoning dystopia.

And that might be corny and is almost certainly self-delusional, but what else am I gonna do?

Tell us about your story. What inspired you to write it?

Honestly, this wasn’t even the story I set out to write. I was working from a different song title and everything. My original story pitch was called “Suspect Device” after the Stiff Little Fingers’ tune. I started working on it but was really struggling to pull it together. When I get truly stuck like that, one of the techniques that sometimes works is to back away from the story, look at it on a macro scale, and try to figure out where the obstruction popped up. It’s kind of like running a mental plumber’s snake through the clogged toilet of my brain. This time that process revealed to me that one of the main characters (arguably the central character of the entire plot) was a boring, dimensionless scoop of vanilla ice cream.

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“Suspect Device”, it turned out, was the story that takes place only after his story happens. This would have been fine if I was writing a novel, but it was too much of a digression for a short story.

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With that in mind, I realized that his background story was a story of its own, and that story is the one that you find in this anthology. I hope to revisit “Suspect Device” again someday to see if I can shake it loose.

Incidentally, the technology that serves as the centerpiece of “The Day the Earth Turned Day-Glo” represents a bit of creative self-cannibalization.

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Once upon a time, I convinced myself that it would be a great idea to write the book for a spy thriller rock opera based entirely on Electric Light Orchestra music. It was to be a story of two estranged lovers, each a world-class spy, who discover respectively that they are working separate angles of the same case. A villainous, reclusive businessman known to the world at large as Mr. Blue Sky develops a technology which allows him to control the sun and they can only stop him by burying past differences and working together. Act one would have ended with the villain
blotting out the sun while an adoring crowd sings his praises. Act two would have opened with “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” as the world descends into chaos. There would even have even been a pas-de- deux between the two agents to “Last Train to London”. Now that this story has been published, I’ll have to figure out another hook to pitch if I ever get stuck in an elevator with Jeff Lynne.

The anthology is about a Dystopian world (with or without aliens). Do you think that we’re closer to an apocalypse or a Dystopian society now than we have been in the past? Or are we already on our way there, without even realizing it?

I am typing this answer on the day after the collective members of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the famed Doomsday Clock to 11:58, the closest it’s been to midnight since the 50s.

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I don’t think anyone can conscionably deny the current instability of our world. We are teetering on a brink like a school bus hanging off of a bridge in a Superman cartoon. I sincerely hope we all have the sense to hold our breath and lean back in our seats before the bus goes over the side. Because, let’s face it, Superman isn’t coming and we have to figure this shit out for ourselves. The thing that keeps me up at night is how many people seem all too eager to make a run for the front of the bus just because tipping it over the edge would be different than what we’ve done in the past. I honestly don’t get it.

Things have gotten a little…heated in recent times, especially when it comes to politics. Have you gotten any pushback or criticism because of the anthology’s theme?

Not yet. Granted, it’s only been out a couple of weeks. I’ve posted links to it on my social media pages, but have (so far) only seen support from known members of the so-called resistance. It’s been crickets from those friends and family who somehow maintain their support of what passes for the GOP these days. I would welcome a little pushback, just so long as the person pushing can convince me that they have read the book. Any knee-jerk criticism without investing the time to read is just lazy and/or stupid, and I don’t have the time to bother responding to laziness and/or stupidity. There’s way too much of that, and it’s really at both ends of the political spectrum. Reducing complex policy and human rights issues to t-shirt
slogans and bumper stickers and protest signs (and Twitter posts) is dangerously reductive, but we’ve been doing it for most of my lifetime. All anyone seems to want is to “score points” on those who disagree with them using mean tweets, one-dimensional memes, and talking points. Sure, everyone wants to feel secure their beliefs, and that’s how the biased media outlets like Fox News and MSNBC thrive. It’s like being a cozy cocoon when everyone agrees with you, and we all need that sometimes. But we can all benefit from time outside of our comfort zones.

I keep thinking of how our current social media culture was presaged for me in an old comic book letters page. It was in an issue of one of Garth Ennis’ comics. I think it was Preacher, but I’m not going to go digging through back issues to find it. Some rando wrote to tell Ennis what a hack he was and how shitty his writing was and endless invective diatribe… Ennis responded to this guy in true Irishman fashion, inviting him to come to a con and say these things to his face. He pointed out how easy it is to sit in the safety of anonymity, stare at a blank sheet of paper or blank screen and pour out hatred, but when an opportunity to express these thoughts face to face came, he was confident that the letter writer would shuffle his feet and mutter unintelligibly. Sometimes I fear we have gone too far the rabbit hole of internet anonymity to ever be capable of meaningful discourse.

When you think about the future, is Future Earth a scary or an optimistic place? Or have we, perhaps, already wiped ourselves out and this is a moot point?

It’s always a little scary. The unknown always is. It would be a lie to say it hasn’t gotten a hell of a lot grimmer over the past twelve months. There’s always been a pendulum swinging back and forth. We go through a period of conservatism for a while, then it swings back to progressivism. When the progress reaches a critical point, our culture goes into a state of shock and swings back to the right until people begin to realize how utterly joyless and boring a conservative society is. The past couple of years, what with Brexit and now this nonsense here in the states, I fear that the pendulum has broken loose from its moorings and threatens to crush us all. All that said, I tend to be one that seeks the good in everyone and
every situation. I see more people finding their political and artistic voices. I see more people engaged in true political debate than ever before. I hope it can drive people to turn away from empty sloganeering and start seeking elusive philosophical truths again. There’s an old saw about the things that don’t kill us making us stronger. I think the jury is still out on whether this bullshit will kill our republic, but can you imagine how much stronger and united we will be if we can find some way to knit the fracture our childish, vainglorious, chaos-loving president is so hell-bent on widening?

Since ICoS is all about survival, do you think you’d be more likely to survive an alien invasion or a zombie apocalypse?

I don’t think I’d do so great in a zombie apocalypse. I really don’t like canned food enough for survival to feel worthwhile. Probably the alien invasion. I’d try to hitch a ride off-planet. I love to travel. Explore new places, sip exotic cocktails… (Editor’s note: I like the way you think. Assuming the aliens don’t eat or enslave me or feed me to their pets, I’d probably hitch a ride, too.)

What’s your favorite apocalyptic scenario?

What if all of the Hemsworth brothers were really just the same Hemsworth from alternate timelines, and those timelines are folding over each other like a schoolgirl’s hair braid? We are all living on borrowed time, awaiting the Great Hair-Tie when all the Hemsworths merge into one giant Voltron-like Hemsworth Overlord. The survivors of this coalesced timeline will bend in service or die in existential obscurity, flaking away like spiritual dandruff to float forever across the cosmos. Whatever the case, if it all ends up with my wife, my kids, and me safely barricaded inside of an impressively well-stocked library/liquor store/cookie bakery, it should be cool. (Editor’s note: sweet baby Groot, somebody please turn this into a movie.)

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself or your writing?

The real secret of my writing is that I have the great good fortune of sharing a bed (and a life) with an English major who is lovingly unkind in her criticism of my work. Mary keeps me tremendously honest, and has, on untold occasions, provided the filter that spared the world at large from the more idiotic bits of rattletrap bouncing inside my skull. She’s always the sounding board for my brainstorming sessions and the first person to lay eyes on anything I produce. It’s the finest support system any writer could ever hope to have.

As I look ahead, it looks like this year might be sort of a big one. I’ll be writing a new superhero comic called Empire City for up-and- coming indy publisher Empire Comics Lab with my artist buddy (and fellow Psycho Drive-In contributor) Dave Hearn. I’m putting together a pitch for my contribution to the upcoming sequel to last year’s horror crime anthology “Noirlanthotep” from PDI Press. I am redoubling my efforts to find an ending for a coming-of-age-in-the-era-of-Pac-Man novel that’s been boiling on the back plate for several months, and I hope to finish a draft of it by the end of the year. I’m hoping to find time to continue work on a period crime saga centering around a character named Nick Domino. One Domino novella is complete, and I hope to follow it with a short story before digging into the next novella so that I can package all three stories together as the first volume of three, totaling nine stories in all. But that’s a long-term plan. And as if all that’s not enough, there’s a politically-charged stage play and a screenplay adaptation of a Trevanian novel vying for my creative attention. Back here in reality, my current
column at Psycho Drive-In is called “Everybody Dies”, and is a monthly look at films based on Shakespeare’s Tragedies.

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