Interview with Scott Erickson

Scott Erickson is a writer of humor and satire. He is a two-time winner of the Mona Schreiber Prize for Humorous Fiction and Nonfiction. One of his stories was included in the book Laugh Your Shorts Off, a compilation of contest winners from the website Humor and Life in Particular.

He has recently published a satirical novel: The Diary of Amy, the 14-Year-Old Girl Who Saved the Earth. The story is about Amy Johnson-Martinez, a bright 14-year-old girl who spontaneously decides to camp in a local wetland to stop its destruction. She grows to believe that her destiny is to save the whole earth. With the world on the brink of environmental collapse, will Amy convince the country to make the bold leap to sustainability before it’s too late?

The book is available via amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Diary-14-Year-Old-Girl-Saved-Earth/dp/0989831108

Why did you write the book?

This was one of those “I had to write it” books. It was a way for me to cope with the fact that humanity is systematically destroying the planet’s ability to support life.

I suppose a lot of people think environmental problems are an “elitist” issue, as if it only affects yuppies who want a nice view from their $900 Sierra Designs tent. Maybe it would help if instead of talking about the “environmental problem” we rephrased it as the “destroying the ability of the planet to support life problem.”

Who is the audience for the book?

The book is for people concerned that humanity is systematically destroying the earth, and are asking questions such as, “Shouldn’t we do something about it, such as stopping it?”

The book is for people who saw the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which presented evidence of massive destruction resulting from global warming and were plunged into depression when it ended with the “hopeful solution” that we should all switch to compact florescent light bulbs.

What value does it provide for this audience?

The book was very therapeutic for me to write, and I hope it will be therapeutic for others to read.

Hopefully the book will provide a sort of validation. It will tell them: “You’re correct that we’re destroying the earth’s ability to support life. And we’re hardly doing anything to stop it. Or in other words, “You’re not crazy.” Because a lot of the time what makes us feel crazy isn’t what we’re feeling, but thinking that we’re the only ones feeling it. I believe that satire can be very helpful in this regard. It can help us laugh at things that might otherwise cause us to sink in despair. It’s the reason that Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was so important. The prospect of total nuclear war and the destruction of humanity should be depressing. But there’s something liberating about that movie. At a very critical time for a lot of people, that movie reassured us that we weren’t alone. Hopefully my book will allow people to stop worrying and love humanity’s self-destruction.

There does seem to be a growing sense of unease about the state of the world.

 A growing number of people are convinced the collapse is imminent and are preparing for it. There’s the rise of doomsday “preppers” who are taking the “rugged individual” approach to surviving in their private compounds. Then there’s the “transition movement” of towns and neighborhoods preparing for a community approach to surviving environmental and economic collapse.

Will environmental groups be angered by your portrayal of the fictional environmental organization “EarthHome”?

I could easily imagine people in an environmental organization bristling at the portrayal of HomeEarth, especially Katherine Bliss with her focus on “the numbers.”

What no environmental organization will tell you is that the environmental movement is losing the battle. And there’s a good reason they don’t want to tell you that. If I worked in such an organization, and my paycheck depended on the numbers, I’m sure not going to tell people we’re losing. But is that the fault of the environmental organizations? Or is it the fault of members that don’t want to face reality? Can an environmental organization be more radical than its members?

Why a satire, versus non-fiction?

There have been plenty of serious non-fiction books warning us about environmental destruction. Around 20 years ago, the books were basically about what we need to do to save the earth. Now, the books are about how we can try to salvage some of what’s left and survive the coming ecological collapse.

That reminds me of the book Collapse by Jared Diamond, which is a survey of what led to the collapse of various civilizations throughout history. He made it extremely clear that civilizations that destroyed their environments did not survive. Yet what was the effect of this book?

Let me guess. Nothing?

That’s exactly right! You win this round and advance to the semi-finals. So we don’t need another “serious” book about how to save what’s mostly gone. From my point of view, all I could possibly contribute was satire.

Were there any satirical works that served as models for your novel?

I tried to find examples to emulate, but with only partial success. Most satire seems to target Washington DC or politics in general. But that’s such an easy target. And my target was much broader.

Dr. Strangelove, possibly the greatest satire of all time, focused on political and military leaders. Another excellent satire, which should be better known, is the movie Network. It was released in 1976 and was way ahead of its time. In some ways, it still is. It’s a very subversive story that not only showed us the corporate takeover of media, but of basically the entire political system. But still, the target was corporate power.

But my target, ultimately, was “all of us.” It might actually be more accurate to say that the target was something like “the assumptions underlying our society.” But that’s too abstract. So what I tried to show was how those assumptions manifest in “all of us” – whether politicians, voters, business owners, environmentalists, parents, or just regular people trying to get by. But since nobody can change those assumptions except for us, that brings us back to “all of us” as the target of the satire. 

I found very few examples of that kind of satire. The closest example I knew of was the brilliant play The Visit by Friedrich Durrenmatt. It shows, in a very clever and darkly comic way, the power of greed to subvert our values. Not just politicians and corporate CEOs, but everybody. Although I couldn’t really use his story as a role model for my own, I was definitely inspired by the “spirit” of the story.

At the end of the book, I didn’t know if I felt like laughing or crying.

Isn’t that how satire should leave you feeling?

Dr. Strangelove is a perfect example. What many people don’t realize is just after that movie came out, there was another film called Fail-Safe, starring Henry Fonda. Both movies were based on a novel called Red Alert. What’s interesting is that the plots of both movies are nearly identical. But one is a deadly-serious drama, and the other is one of the funniest satires ever made. This made me realize that it doesn’t take much to twist tragedy into comedy.

Actually, Dr. Strangelove began as a serious adaptation of the novel. But as Kubrick envisioned the scenes, he had to keep leaving out things that were absurd to keep the story serious. But then he realized that those absurd comic elements better conveyed the reality of the situation. So he decided to turn the movie into what he called a “nightmare comedy.”

Friedrich Durrenmatt called The Visit a “tragi-comedy.” The story had to do with an entire town murdering one of its citizens, which might not sound funny.

So in my view, mixed feelings are an intrinsic part of satire.

Why the diary format?

I outlined the story assuming a fairly standard multiple-third-person point of view. But a curious thing happened when I actually started writing the first draft. The story felt plodding and uninteresting. And I was pretty sure that if it seemed dull to me, it would seem dull to a reader.

I can’t recall what made me think of trying the diary format, but it was exactly what the story needed. It allowed the character of the Amy to come alive in a way I never could have done otherwise. Instead of having to contrive lengthy conversations to express her thoughts and feelings, she could simply tell us. This saved a lot of time. And as a reader who hates to have my time wasted, I didn’t want to waste the reader’s time.

Did you have examples for writing in a diary format?

For writing fiction in a diary format, my best reference was the early books in The Adrian Mole Diaries series by Sue Townsend. In the first book, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13-3/4, the protagonist was close to the age of my protagonist, which was very helpful.

Those early books were hilarious, and much of the humor was based on Adrian being unaware of the implications of what he was writing. This was very helpful, because it was necessary for Amy to do that and I didn’t know if I would be able to accomplish it.

Is humanity doomed?

It’s not a question of when the collapse is going to start, because it’s already happening. Not just environmentally, but economically. Of course, many people deny environmental problems, or don’t think that they’re serious. And hardly anybody realizes that our financial problems are directly related.

Our addiction to economic growth is a pyramid scheme, and the losers of the scheme are growing every day. All pyramid schemes eventually collapse, but it starts from the bottom and works its way up. That’s what we’re seeing right now.

But we can’t change it because we’re dependent on it. We don’t know what’s happening, so we keep defending what isn’t working any more. That explains why we’re seeing the losers of the pyramid scheme defending the winners.

We accept the destruction of the earth to prop up an economic system that’s screwing us over.  The answer of “more economic growth” has become the solution to all of our problems. And infinite economic growth on a finite planet is impossible: It will destroy the planet before it destroys itself.

In other words, we’re fighting to preserve what’s killing us.

Consider that oil is running out, and that our economy and infrastructure is entirely based on cheap oil.

As a premise of the novel, I have us drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It’s going to happen. The politicians keep trying to pass it, to slip it in as a rider or amendment. And one of these times it’s going to work. Or else we’ll become so desperate, on the verge of economic collapse because we failed to start preparing 20 years ago, that it will be passed openly with bi-partisan approval. I have no doubt we’ll drill the refuge. We’ll drill every possibly place we can find, wage more wars for oil – anything but actually change our lifestyles. How could anybody possibly be optimistic? But don’t get me started.

This is just getting started?

 Well, better stop me before I go any farther.

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