Some of you may remember that Ron Koertge was already interviewed here at Guys Lit Wire back in the spring of 2010, in conjunction with the release of Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs Today - on the release date of his next book, Now Playing: Stoner & Spaz II, Ron agreed to sit down and talk about the book (and a bit about his process. Ordinarily, you might expect to find a review here, so let's go with this: If you liked Stoner and Spaz, you will love Now Playing. If you don't know about Stoner and Spaz, you will love Now Playing - and then want to dig up a copy of Stoner and Spaz to see how these perfect, messed-up, perfectly messed-up characters found each other in the first place.
1. 1. Stoner and Spaz was published in 2002, so I'm guessing you wrote it at least 10 years ago now. When did you first know you wanted to pick up Ben's and Colleen's story again? Was it difficult to reconnect with those characters after the time – and other books – that came between Stoner and Spaz and Now Playing?
I knew I’d pick up Ben’s and Colleen’s story again when a friend of mine—Lou’s name is on the dedication page—told me that she’d been “seeing Colleen around.” I’m a big fan of hints, intimations and hunches. (I bet on Thoroughbred horses three or four days a week, and I’ve cashed some big tickets thanks to hunches.) So when Lou said she’d been seeing Colleen I figured that was Colleen’s way of telling me her story wasn’t finished. (Things happen to Ben, of course, and he’s the narrator, but Colleen’s the one who’s fun to write.)
It wasn’t hard at all to pick up the story again. I read a little of the original and it all came back to me—the tone, the banter, the attitudes, the sass, the fears, the insecurities, the whole nine yards. Another friend of mine says that I am Colleen, anyway—potty-mouthed, rueful, defensive, and scornful. If that’s true, no wonder I could dive right back in again.
photo credit: Sonya Sones
2. Now Playing picks up pretty much at the point in time when Stoner and Spaz left off, although I certainly thought it could be read as a stand-alone book, since enough backstory is woven in that readers picking it up off the shelf won't feel lost or confused. I found myself surprised by some of the choices the characters make in the book, including Colleen's decision to get high with Nick – were any of them choices or twists that you surprised yourself with as you wrote the book?
Are you kidding? I’m always surprised by what my characters do. I was on a panel the other night with two other writers for kids. They were talking about a book called Save the Cat (or something like that). It’s a screenwriting book with a formula for success: so many peaks and valleys in the screenplay or novel, so many beats per scene. And all of it worked out ahead of time. I said that would drive me crazy. I make some mistakes along the way, and I have to throw pages and pages into the trash, but I’m never bored! I hate to be bored and boring my reader is my idea of a real sin.
3. Having read (and loved) both of the Shakespeare books (Shakespeare Bats Cleanup and Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs), I was struck by some of the parallels – and thus even moreso by some of the divergences – that I noticed in the plot of Now Playing. In Shakespeare Bats Cleanup, Kevin meets Mira, who has different interests and a different background from him, and they end up a couple; in Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs, while still dating Mira, Kevin meets Amy at a poetry reading and they hit it off because they have poetry in common. In Stoner and Spaz, Ben meets Colleen, who most certainly has different interests and a different background from him, and they end up together; in Now Playing, Ben and Colleen (like Kevin and Mira) find that their relationship isn't an easy, happily-ever-after, and Ben meets A.J. (who also happens to be an Amy) at a film showing, and they turn out to have quite a lot in common.
I guess I have to first ask whether there's any significance to the name Amy, since it cropped up in both books – and then, whether you think that same-ness or difference is the bigger attraction (or, if you like, detraction) when writing about relationships.
Ah, yes, Amy. Well, either I never got over this girlfriend I had whose name was Amy or Amy from Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs was still in my head wanting to write some more poems and cuddle with Kevin in her mom’s bookstore so she wormed her way into Now Playing. But now that I think of it, Amy from Stoner & Spaz was the original Amy, so maybe in Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs she was a younger version of A.J. Are you following this?
As far as same-ness and differences when it comes to attraction in relationships, I have to side with differences. First of all, just as a novelist, there’s no friction in sameness. No spark. And second of all I was never particularly drawn to women or girls like me. I’m with myself all day; I don’t need more of that. My wife, for example, is gregarious and unselfish while I’m not nuts about most people and, as a card carrying only child, rarely think of anybody but myself. She’s involved in the community and I would shoot myself if I had to go to a city council meeting. But her goodwill towards most everybody is a lesson to me, while my few deep, passionate friendships remind her to not spread herself so thin. In short, we’re pretty freaking different and we get along marvelously.
4. Despite the surface similarities pointed out in the prior question, the Stoner and Spaz books go in what I would classify as very different directions from the Shakespeare books, in keeping with the traits and tendencies of the individual characters that make up the books. Now Playing seems to me to examine the true nature of love: how is it expressed? is it possible to love someone unconditionally? how do you know when it's real and when it's just wishful thinking? We get to see a lot of different aspects of it in Ben's relationship with Colleen, but also in his relationship with A.J., with his grandmother, and with his mother, who is (like A.J.) a new character who had no role in Stoner and Spaz.
Would you agree that the nature of love – what it means, what its limits might be – is the theme of the book, or do you see it otherwise?
The nature of love, huh, and is that the theme of Now Playing? Sure, why not.
I never think about stuff like that when I write. Afterwards maybe. A little. Novels to me are little symphonies, not horses for themes to get on and ride around spouting off. I read what I write out loud, just like composers look at an unfinished score and sing out loud. My ear tells me when I’ve gone wrong, not some inner theme-Nazi. But just for fun let’s assume that the nature of love is the theme of the book. There really is an awful lot about what love means/what its limits are. How patient can Ben be with someone who falls off the wagon again and again? How upset is he that his mother doesn’t love him as he thinks she should? Would he keep loving Colleen if she stopped sleeping with him? There’s a possible limit for you! And as far as Colleen goes, what does she even know about love? Her boyfriend Ed used her to carry drugs and her mother is kind of a monster. For all of Colleen’s sexual experience and bravado, she’s a kind of virgin when it comes to honest affection.
5. Do you think we'll see a return to Ben's and Colleen's story in the future, or is Now Playing their final curtain? And I know that today is the release date of Now Playing: Stoner and Spaz II, but enquiring minds are sure to want to know: What's next?
More Ben and Colleen? Jeez, I don’t know. I didn’t plan to revisit them. And yet one day—there they were. It didn’t happen this way, but it’s almost as if it did: one Monday I went up to my studio to write and to my surprise there stood Ben and Colleen. He’s in his Brooks Brothers shirt and she’s all tarted out. Her tattooed arm is around his shoulder. His good arm is around her waist. I looked at them. They looked at me. Then Colleen said, “C’mon, don’t you want to know what happens next?”