About a week ago I was up to nothing in particular at 3 AM while slouching over Twitter when I saw a tweet from Brian Alan Ellis asking if anyone would be interested in reviewing/interviewing his new book and himself, to which I said why the hell not and messaged him.
Having read none of his books before I dusted off my kindle and bought all his books, laughed a lot, cried a lot, learned a lot about cocaine, and by the third or fourth book he messaged me back with a pdf of his new book, Sad Laughter.
To keep me alert throughout the reading, I hung my self-esteem and incredibly low sense of self-worth on a nail at the door, made my way down the street to McDonald’s, and read through all of Sad Laughter grease-injected with a McChicken and a wet dollar hamburger. Afterward, I made my way home, and we got the interview going.
How my guts fluttered and spiked after the fast food is exactly how I felt after Sad Laughter, in the best way possible. The very things he was calling out in his book I found myself doing in my own writing. It’s a new perspective on writing, gives a new outlook on the career itself, and gives a new approach to laughter.
It’s a refreshingly critical, yet funny as hell take on the literary world. Something I definitely recommend to those writers who take themselves too seriously and bar themselves in a rut.
Let’s get to it.
Andrew Byrds: Reading through the first 20/30 pages of your new book Sad Laughter, there are many digs at poets/poetry. For example, “Poets, please stop writing long poems. That’s just more of something nobody really wants.” So my first question is, did poetry beat you up when you were a child?
Brian Alan Ellis: No, my stepdad beat me up as a child. Well, he didn’t beat me up too bad. Got the worst of it emotionally and verbally. As for poetry, I just think it’s probably the writing genre that most has its head up its own ass. People who take themselves too seriously are the ones most prone to ridicule. To me, poets generally live in the land of bullshit. I mean, everyone kind of lives there in their own certain way, but poets are often times the most snobby and blatant about it. I see right through them. That isn’t to say I don’t like some poetry/poets. I am friends with quite a few, and I write poetry sometimes. I just think most of it really, really stinks.
AB: Alright, tough guy, I write poetry and see where you’re coming from, but I just wanna let you know the wrath of a poet is not something to mess around with. Gotta couple tercets with your name on it. What does prose do that poetry can’t?
BAE: The poetry I mostly like to read and write consists of just prose broken up into lines, so I’d imagine both are capable of the same things. It’s all just someone’s bullshit thoughts and emotions vomited onto a page or screen, possibly edited and shined up real good. Bullshit thoughts and emotions that may or may not connect with a person who reads things. Also, what the hell is a tercet? Is that like a poetry bullet? Are you going to pump me full of poetry lead? That’s hot.
AB: A tercet is like a miniature barrage of sadboi shrapnel that comes in three lines. It was all the rage after everyone wanted to tell Shakespeare to calm the fuck down after he invented the couplet.
Everyone seems to wanna make a big deal out of everything, especially writers. Taking your philosophy of it all, would you be found hanging out with the brooding nihilists or the cool kid existentialists?
BAE: First off, Existential Cool Kids would be a great name for a band. Also, aren’t brooding nihilists and cool kid existentialists pretty much the same thing? I probably fall in both of those categories, so hanging out with brooding nihilist cool kid existentialists would be like hanging out with versions of myself and, like, yikes, no thanks!
AB: I think the difference between brooding nihilists and cool kid existentialists is the brand of cigarettes they smoke.
Do you find yourself writing more because it’s a way to pass the time, or is there a kind of therapy/ritual to it?
BAE: Brooding nihilists smoke American Spirits; cool kid existentialists smoke Camel Crush. Anyway, I probably write to escape reality. Or maybe I write to get attention. I really don’t know. I suppose writing is mildly therapeutic. It’s definitely a way to pass time. My only writing ritual is tweeting while I am drunk and/or high and either being mortified the next day or eventually using what I had tweeted in a story or poem. Sometimes things are simultaneously mortifying and salvageable.
AB: That makes sense, most people here in Iowa smoke American Spirits when we can’t find meaning in the fields.
Speaking of Twitter, there seems to be a rise in Twitteresque adages being used in writing nowadays. It definitely seems to be prevalent in Sad Laughter. Do you think it’s affected your approach to writing?
BAE: I actually think American Spirits are awful. I smoke Pall Mall. There is no meaning anywhere, ever. And also, yes: Twitter has definitely affected my approach to writing; it is pretty much the only writing I do these days. Sad Laughter is basically a collection of all the times I talked shit on the Internet about writing and publishing in the past five years. No shame. Twitter is the perfect literary outlet for people with dwindling attention spans, patience and brain cells. I fit right in.
AB: I don’t smoke too much, and even when I do it’s only around other people in case someone decides to take a cool kid existentialists snapshot on their phone and doll it up as a Polaroid in Instagram. And dontcha know? Smoking’s bad for your health. So everyone here just does acid or cheap coke.
So you started House of Vlad, published all your books there up until Sad Laughter, which is being published by Civil Coping Mechanisms. What made you wanna seek out a different company for SL?
BAE: I also do cheap coke, which is why I went with CCM for Sad Laughter, because not only is it a great press run by cool people, they also have the means to make me more famous so I can hopefully sell more books in order to buy better drugs. I also enjoy competing with Bud Smith (who does the introduction for Sad Laughter), so when he published a book with CCM, I knew I had to publish one with them as well. Apparently, my next two “Fuck you, Bud Smith” goals are to be a guest on Otherppl with Brad Listi and to publish a book with Tyrant. Keeping up with Bud is not easy. Wish me luck, Andrew.
AB: Try to get on other ppl, it’s what I listen to when I work out. And nothing makes me sweat more than writers talking about how they’re struggling to make ends meet with their art.
You’ll need to get into heavy construction and get yoked and stoked so you can keep up with Bud. I mean, you gotta know at least one of his weaknesses, yeah?
BAE: Bud is superhuman. The chances of me becoming “yoked and stoked” are very low. I prefer to be “slim and grim,” or maybe “void and annoyed.”
AB: You’re a pretty prolific writer yourself, even compared to Bud. Your writing is a bit more cynical, but in Something to Do with Self-Hate it seems to be more hopeful than your other works, at least not completely hopeless or void of light. Then with Sad Laughter your writing becomes more overtly humorous—do you think your approach to writing has changed much within the last couple years, as compared to when you first started?
BAE: Interesting. Something to Do with Self-Hate, to me, is pretty bleak, but maybe because it hits very close to home. My writing has always been pretty dark. I think my humor has sharpened the older and more hopelessly depressed I’ve gotten. I think I prefer writing funny stuff. Laughter from people is the reaction I am constantly chasing, whether it’s through writing or IRL interactions, which is probably a compulsive thing I do to combat anxiety. I just have a very cynical, self-deprecating outlook on life, so the humors skews darker. A profound statement goes far, but a profound statement that is wearing a clown suit will get the bigger reaction. However, what if the clown suit was covered in blood? Hmm, now we’re really getting somewhere. Now we’re really cookin’ with evil gas.
AB: They say pain is relative, but our experiences are different. I think I find humor in your work, including STDWSH, because I’ve known people who’ve had similar experiences to what you’ve written about but much worse outcomes. An issue that I find in the literary world is how maundering and mired in depressive masochism most works are. It’s saturated. Do you think it’s more of a challenge to write something that’s darkly comedic?
BAE: There is definitely humor in STDWSH, sure. There is a comic edge to it, I suppose. I think the Joseph Heller book Something Happened is a very funny book but it is also crushingly dark and serious. Just depends on taste. I think humor is important, especially in more dramatic works. I also think humor has to come naturally, so writing dark comedies should not be more challenging than writing anything else. I guess it just depends on the person writing the thing.
AB: There’s an Amazon review that says, “SOMETHING TO DO WITH SELF-HATE is a weirdly impersonal novel about heartbreak, which is ironic because it’s exactly what Nickelback songs are too.” How does it feel to be the founding father of the hot new literary circle known as Nickelbackcore?
BAE: Oh yeah, Benoit from Dead End Follies wrote that. I disagree. I am probably more the founding father of Uncle Kracker-core.
AB: Going back to Sad Laughter, are there any specific trends or styles you are seeing in writing nowadays that piss you off/excite you/excitedly piss you off?
BAE: Honestly, not really. I feel most writers have finally learned how to use the internet. They seem to be taking themselves less seriously and are having more fun. Independent publishing appears to no longer be the pariah it once was. Even the academic writing-program peeps, which are mostly a serious lot, have lightened up. They now realize and are accepting of the fact that we will all die broke and alone 666. Everyone mostly seems ready to party. I hope that Sad Laughter will be, in a way, the coronation of that party. Only the real shitheads—racists, sexists, homophobes, bullies, and predators—are excluded.
AB: Is the laughter finally getting less sad?
BAE: For me? No, the laughter is only getting sadder and stranger and more unhinged. But at least I am still laughing.
BRIAN ALAN ELLIS runs House of Vlad Productions, and is the author of several books, including Sad Laughter (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2018) and Something to Do with Self-Hate (House of Vlad Productions/Talking Book, 2017). His writing has appeared at Juked, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, Fanzine, Electric Literature, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Funhouse, Heavy Feather Review, and Queen Mob’s Tea House, among other places. He lives in Florida, and tweets sad and clever things at both @brianalanellis and @HouseofVlad.