Firing up the Barbee: An interview with David W. Barbee
I first met David at BizarroCon 2012. This was the first day, when people were arriving and milling about and meeting old friends and getting to know new friends. This was my first BizarroCon, and David came with a reputation. Kind of. I had been informed about ‘the Barbees’, a package deal, the lovely couple from the South that make the convention all the sweeter. I recall numerous times seeing the both of them around the convention wearing their matching “A Town Called Suckhole” t-shirts.
So David comes in, excited as anything, and the room lights up. He comes straight in and picks someone up in a great big bear hug (I forget who, there was that much going on at the convention), mentions that he doesn’t just give those hugs out to everyone, then turns to the next closest person – which happens to be me – and gives another great big bear hug. I’d never met the guy before in my life, and there he was, sharing his special hugs with me. That, to me, is what David W. Barbee is all about.
S.T. Cartledge: David, what was the first Bizarro book that you read?
David W. Barbee: Satan Burger
STC: How did you come across the Bizarro genre?
DWB: Just looking for weird stuff to read, really. I just wanted weirder fiction, stuff that could break rules, that combined very strange genres and ideas, which is what I wanted to write myself. Then I discovered Carlton Mellick III and bizarro, and many of the books I read were so daring and so purposefully strange. And I mean that exactly. They were full-throated stories full of strange ideas, and those ideas weren’t there for no reason. They had purpose. Quality bizarro has weirdness that serves the story, affects the characters, and makes impossible worlds feel real. A good story that’s weird as hell. Nobody can argue against that.
STC: What was the process like for you, going through the first batch of the New Bizarro Author Series?
DWB: It was equally exciting and terrifying. It was a learning experience; from having Kevin Donihe helping me through the editing process to networking with other authors and readers. When I look back on it, all I see are the things I could do differently. But at the time, I threw myself into it, which worked out pretty well. I also learned that being a writer can suddenly involve a lot of things that aren’t writing. Stuff that bears striking resemblance to work. But all that work was totally good for me. It’s a test for all the things an author needs: resilience, patience, humility, effort, immunity from personal embarrassment, and a little stubbornness. And if your everyday author needs those things, then a bizarro author needs them in spades. We are literature’s greatest freakshow, after all.
STC: A Town Called Suckhole was one of my favourite books read last year. I found the focus on redneck culture to be fascinating. Why did you want to write about rednecks, and why do you think people want to read about them?
DWB: There seems to be some special fascination leveled at redneck culture, doesn’t there? I can see the appeal. The whole way of life, especially here in the American Southeast, is a special balance of beautiful and ugly, wise and stupid. I wanted that to show through in A Town Called Suckhole because I grew up in this culture. I wanted it to be a simultaneous genre homage and vicious satire, like Blazing Saddles. I wanted to build a redneck utopia built entirely on their values (religiously, ethnically, historically, intellectually), and see just how insane that would be. Plus it’s a great setting for a detective story. I think the result is a story set in a hellhole populated by idiots and with a few decent folks sprinkled in. You know, just like real life.
STC: Tell me a bit about your latest book, Thunderpussy. Why should people read it?
DWB: Thunderpussy is an actiony bizarro spy adventure. There are conspiracies, sumo wrestling, evil corporate interests, velociraptor ladies, robot movie stars, voodoo zombies, sexy violence, violent sex, and the most dangerous vagina in the world. I’m really excited that I got to write a spy book with my weird tastes. Thunderpussy has all the things we love about a thrilling spy story, but set in a weird twisted world where the violence is harder, the stakes are absurdly high, and the sexual tension could power a chainsaw.
STC: What sort of research did you put into it, and what was your biggest source of inspiration for writing a spy novel?
DWB: When tasked with writing Thunderpussy, I wanted to avoid an annoying parody like Austin Powers. Sure there are goofy ideas in Thunderpussy, but I tried to balance that with coolness. The gold standard of spies is James Bond, and his appeal is all about being cool. I refamiliarized myself with the movies and the various interpretations of Bond, and much like Batman he’s a flexible archetype. I still felt I could do a version of this that was different. My spy would be an insane and twisted man whose reality is like that of a beer commercial. Women want him and men want to be him, to an absolutely ludicrous degree. The regular character traits of Bond (seduction, luxury, violence) are cranked up to eleven. He’s the most interesting man in the world. His superpower is being cool. From there the rest of the details came pretty easy.
STC: What are your favourite books, and who are your favourite authors?
DWB: I grew up on comic book writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. Garth Ennis was hugely influential to me in my formative years, especially Preacher. Flannery O’Connor’s stories always made more sense to me than the actual Bible (I was born in the next town over from hers). I really enjoy China Miéville, Cormac McCarthy, Douglas Adams, Joe Lansdale, and Jeffrey Thomas. There are tons of authors in and around the bizarro scene that I can’t read fast enough. Mellick, Johnson, Goodfellow, Pierce, those guys kill me every time. I try to read a wide mixture of things. It’s the rocket fuel my brain needs.
STC: And because I told you there would be multiple choice questions, if you had the power to make books essential reading on the school curriculum, which would you choose:
Ass Goblins of Auschwitz
The Haunted Vagina
Sorry I Ruined Your Orgy
The Traveling Dildo Salesman
DWB: The Haunted Vagina. That would be a good book for pre-teens to read and talk about. Virtuous parents across the country would die of heart attacks and we’d be left with an army of savage orphans, roaming the night and high on bizarro books. Sounds awesome.
STC: Would you like to offer any tips for aspiring writers?
DWB: If you’re a cult writer (which is what I am), then you have to play a long game. It’s about working hard at a steady pace. You always have to have a scheme in the pipe. It’s about working for your books, making your books work for you, and trying your best to not be jackass. That last part is really fucking hard.