Mark Ozeroff talks with Book Glow about the writing of In the Weeds. The novel is available from Open Books Direct.
BG: Describe the book in one sentence.
MO: In the Weeds is a boisterous ’70s tale of gas, grass, ass…and Vietnam.
BG: What led you to write it?
MO: I am addicted to airplanes, and flying happens to make a fine hook on which to hang an adventure story. So this novel is an ode to aerial freedom, about a man who gets as close to being a modern-day privateer as possible. Except, instead of sailing an 18th-century ship through the Caribbean, he flies a beat-up Cessna over those same waters.
There’s also a strong historical context to my novel. Vietnam was one of the defining elements of my youth. I first heard it discussed in second grade current events; in junior high school, every night I watched guys on the news not much older than me firing M-16s into the jungle. During my first couple years of high school, I wondered if I’d end up in Vietnam myself. The war was omnipresent in my early life, and that omnipresence is reflected here.
But it’s Vietnam’s aftermath—PTSD—that ends up being the axle upon which this story turns (it is estimated to affect thirty percent of combat veterans). Post-traumatic stress disorder became a sort of unseen character in my novel, elbowing its way forward into prominence.
Another big area of focus in the novel—marijuana—entwines with the PTSD, in the form of self-medication used by the protagonist. This is reflected in contemporary experience—PTSD has again become a prominent issue, and medical marijuana is successfully prescribed as a treatment.
BG: How long did it take to write?
MO: The actual writing of In the Weeds took about two years. Of course, that ignores the lengthy periods I spent working on other stories along the way (I had several unfinished projects on the back burners of my writing stove).
BG: Do you prefer writing in one genre over another?
MO: I’ve always loved reading historical fiction, so I guess it was natural for me to choose that genre. But this is the first time I’ve tried book-length humor. I loved it! Writing this novel made me laugh loud and long, from prologue right through to epilogue. In the Weeds also steers into the absurdist genre (think of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row). And it more than dips a toe into a genre I have come to call cannabis-ism.
I blended all these perspectives together to make a tasty multi-genre milkshake.
BG: Is there anything autobiographical in the novel?
MO: Let’s see: Slats is a skinny Jewish guy from the South, whose main form of enjoyment is flying and riding motorcycles. He loves animals, uses humor to deflect attention from himself, and prefers living in a barn with his airplane to a more conventional existence. Yep, Slats is a lot like me…except that I lived in a hangar on an airport, instead of a barn.
However, the good news for readers is that Slats has a heap more smarts, daring, personality, and success with women than I will ever be able to claim. Don’t tell anyone, but he’s a better pilot, too.
BG: What book most influenced your life?
MO: One of the best books that ever got hold of me was Old Soggy No. 1, an autobiography by a rough-edged pioneer aviator named Slats Rodgers. Rodgers built the first aircraft in Texas back in 1912 (modeled on a photograph torn from a magazine), went on to teach flying during WWI, then became a pioneer crop duster. But his most interesting exploits by far involved smuggling liquor out of Mexico, during Prohibition.
After reading this book, I knew there was nothing I’d rather do than live a life of harmless banditry from the cockpit of an airplane. Slats’ aerial escapades planted a seed in my mind that took forty years to sprout, eventually flowering into In the Weeds. In fact, I found Slats Rodgers’ book so inspiring that it’s prominently featured in my novel – my protagonist is named in his honor.
BG: Where do you write?
MO: Some writers will tell you that, in order to breathe life into a story, a dedicated space is vital. It must be indirectly lighted to soothe the artiste – bright enough for clarity of vision, but low enough to encourage the muse. It must be comfortable, so as not to distract. It must be decorated in a literarily adroit fashion. One must establish a creative ambience, a pocket of splendid isolation, where a work of art can be nurtured.
But I don’t subscribe to that. My “office” is the corner of a tiny casita, where I hunker over a card table holding a decrepit computer. Slumped in a chair with a cheap gel cushion, I employ a ragged swim towel as upholstery to catch the perspiration of inspiration. A goggle-wearing leather flying helmet keeps watch, perpetually urging me on to greater effort.
I may have to turn myself in for operating a sweatshop.
BG: Is there any one thing that especially frustrates you about the writing process?
MO: Yes, editing (sorry David, I couldn’t help myself). In truth, though, the most frustrating part of writing for me is shopping a manuscript around. In trying to sell the two novels I’ve written thus far, I amassed ninety-nine rejection slips – that’s a big enough stack to replace the Sears and Roebuck catalogue in an outhouse. If I was a baseball player, I’d be batting twenty. I’m happy to say, though, that the rejection slip parade came to a crashing halt after I queried Open Books.
So you go right ahead and edit, David.
BG: Any advice for novice writers?
MO: Find yourself a good writer’s critique group. My own—the Word Weavers—sure taught me the finer points. And don’t forget to read. Read lots, and read widely—you’ll be surprised at what you absorb by osmosis, when you spend quality time with good writers.
BG: What’s next?
MO: I have one more project left on the back burner, based on a short story I wrote years ago. The Color of Despair is a young adult novel which takes place during the middle years of the Third Reich. It looks at the burgeoning Holocaust through the innocent eyes of two German girls, one Christian and the other Jewish. In fact, the Jewish girl is a minor character from my first novel, Days of Smoke. It’s quite a challenge to write about so horrific a subject for younger readers, but I believe that lessons about hatred need to be passed on.
At least that’s what I’m going to write about, unless another character who’s taken up residence in my skull gains precedence. And Joseph Walks Far—warrior of the Western Ute nation, as well as history’s only airplane-mounted Indian scout—is a mighty insistent fellow.