An Interview with Philip Baruth

Philip E. Baruth is the author of the new politically infused sci-fi novel, “The X-President,” and an English professor here at UVM. His third novel so far, this work is his first one published by a large publishing house (Bantam Books). The book, which came out on November 4, is the first of its scale for Baruth, which is something he more then welcomes. We sat down with Baruth (three times actually, but that is an inside joke) to talk about his new book, his influences, music, and more.JS: Start Off with telling how this book came to be.PB: I had two ideas that I was working on. One was this satirical plot about the tobacco companies. They very greedily spread out in to the third world. They make millions of people sick but its just that nobody is really paying attention to the there like the way we are now I the U.S. And now the states are in effect partners in the tobacco companies. So in that story, the rest of the world sues the United States for the health costs associated with smoking and the U.S. won’t pay so they go into WWIII and it’s called the Cigarette Wars. I had read this book by David Maraniss, First in His Class, a great biography of the young Bill Clinton, and it starts when he is sixteen years old. I love that picture of Clinton going to the White House to meet JKF when he was sixteen in 1963.So I decided that maybe I would write, you know, a more recognizable historical novel about Bill Clinton. So I was working on both, and finally one day I just thought, “What if they were the same book?” And I just, in the way that sometimes happens, its like if you’re fiddling around with a bunch of electrical equipment and your plugging things in and nothing’s working, and then you try something and all the lights go on. That’s kind of what it was like. And I sat down and I wrote ten pages without even trying. And that’s pretty much happened for the rest of the book. Everytime I would sit down I would write five pages. There was almost no effort involved with it. That was kind of new to me because I had been writing books that were a little darker, a little more serious, more literary maybe. And I would proceed more slowly with those books. Not that I didn’t like writing them, but, it wasn’t the same kind of rush.JS: Yeah, it feels that way when you read the book. It goes very fast, and keeps you involved. I don’t know if I would go as far as to call it “less literary,” because the topic is very relevant in today’s society.PB: Well, I figured that when you are a literature professor there is no way you are ever going to get away from that part of your mind that is trying to be more literary. So even if I go and throw in science-fiction conventions or thriller conventions. That part is still generating somewhere.JS: You talked about how the writing went really easily. Did you make a storyboard or anything like that? For example, Vonnegut for Slaughter-House Five had huge sheets with timelines and things like that. Did you do anything like that?PB: I had a schematic maybe, with ten things on it. The only thing that I knew really well that I wanted was the ending. So the whole thing was kind of reverse engineered to produce this ending that I wanted that I can’t tell you about without ruining it for you. The last line of the book, before you get to the epilogue, so the last line of the book proper. That is, the last line of chapter forty, was the motivator for the whole plot. I wanted to produce that. So then working backwards I came up with this, like I said, a grid of maybe ten things that would happen on the way to that. And then there were just these amazingly fun things that I would stumble across. Like the Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson fight. I don’t know if you’ve gotten to that yet…JS: Yup, I have in fact.PB: And um, Muhammad Ali, who was still Cassius Clay then, jumps into the ring after the fight. And that’s an actual thing that happened, that I found researching in the New York Times for other things that happened in the week when the young Bill Clinton meets JFK. I was just flipping around through the microfiche and all of a sudden there is this headline, “Liston KO’s Patterson, Clay Jumps in Ring,” and I was like, “Wow!” So, on my schematic, basically what happened is I added a cloverleaf where you loop out into that fight, and then you loop back to the plot. So if you look at it…JS: It’s like a New Jersey left turn.PB: Exactly. Doesn’t make any sense in terms of advancing the plot, but it was just chemically pure fun.JS: Yeah, like we said before the feeling of the book is one of a willingness to advance and keep going. Let’s change the subject a bit. Could you talk about your influences when it comes this type of post-modern science-fiction and political writing. We have talked a bit about Vonnegut.PB: Well there is also Hunter Thompson. In Thompson the thing I like is, he’s got this tone where it’s deadly serious, except that it’s not. It’s tongue-in-cheek but it’s almost…you’re never sure if he’s actually going to pull out a machete and cut someone’s head off. And I love that tone. And I think you can see some of that in the book. Um, one of the reviewers said it had a, “Determinedly straight face,” and that’s kind of what I’m after. Also, Thompson has this way, it’s encapsulated in this phrase, “Gonzo.” He just has this way where suddenly the narrative just ignites and goes off into this weird place and then he’ll loop back around to something like realism. So my narrative is pretty realistic but then all of a sudden you realize, I think, “Wait a second. We are talking about a 109 year old rebuilt X-President.”JS: Definitely. There are points in the book where you forget about the huge bulging forearm of B.C. But then, Sal brings something up where it makes you think about it all over again.PB: And there was somebody else I was going to mention. Oh, Margaret Atwood in the Handmaids Tale, um, if you haven’t read that book, it’s just amazing. And again, it’s in the near future so she is writing about this United States that has been taken over by these heavily religious military types.JS: Sounds kind of like it is now.PB: (Laughing) There you go. And that book really blew me away in terms of somebody could be writing very close to the bone about the politics in the united States but just set it thirty years in the future. Not thousand of years in the future where people have five arms, but near futurism. And when I read that I had my eyes open to that as a possibility.JS: What is your favorite Hunter Thompson?PB: It depends. I couldn’t pick. I love then for different reasons. Fear and Loathing is just unbeatable, but then, The Great Shark Hunt, I’ve read, in fact my book is just in pieces because I’ve literally read it to pieces. He’s got a couple of articles about Muhammad Ali, which are just amazing, amazing pieces. So those pieces of journalism that he has done in his own style I love a lot. But then, you know Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail in ’72, there are some actual allusions in my book to that book. Where he is on the trail, and it’s McGovern versus Nixon and some of the writing of that, as political writing it’s…before anyone was doing this. Everyone was writing straight journalism right? All the journalists have ties on. And Thompson is writing things like, “Muskee is Taking Ibugaine,” this Brazilian drug that’s uh, causing all these wacked out behaviors in him. And so he writes that article in this Gonzo style, and just puts it out. And the whole journalistic world goes crazy, they are like, “Muskee is on drugs!?” you know. And then it’s like, “Oh, this isn’t serious. It’s just a joke?” they just didn’t have any context for that. If you read it, it will blow you away.JS: Could you talk about why you made the book political? And why you chose the initials B.C. instead of using his full name?PB: For me. I’m like a political junkie. The way some people follow sports, they don’t just want to know who won. That’s not enough. They have to know the stats because they are following individual people’s stats. That’s how I am with politics. So, the first thing I do when I come in in the morning is I turn on the web and I go to three different papers and I check out all the political stories. Just to figure out where things are for the rest of the day. And so, in that book, up to the time I was finished writing it,. I was tweaking all the politics to make it as up to the moment as it could be. So it includes Bush’s narrow margin in Florida and other things like that.JS: You mean negative margins right?PB: Yeah, (chuckling) negative margins. And so about the B.C. versus Clinton, my first book was about The Grateful Dead and I only referred to them as The Dead. And when somebody asked me why that was, I said, “It just gives me an eighth of an inch distance between the real people and my creation.” So if I want to have them do something that the real people didn’t do, I can do that. The word Clinton never appears in the book. But every pages, every line, is infused with his biographical material. So, um, there’s no denying that it’s him, but it just gives me that tiny bit of leeway.JS: Just one last thing. Talk a bit about your musical background if you could.PB: Well it’s funny that I wrote a book about the Grateful Dead because I wasn’t a deadhead. I saw maybe six or seven concerts while they were together, but that’s not even the price of admission to be a deadhead. You gotta have seen at least thirty to be a deadhead. But the couple that I did go to, I was just blow away because I would go to any other concert, and it was just a concert. And then you would go to The Grateful Dead and it wasn’t a concert. It was like this weird, you know, sort of eastern bazaar, slash, open-air drug market, slash, um, you know, peace, love, and hippie tye-dye. Everything was there. So I wrote my first book out of that. And since I wrote the book, I’ve had all kinds of deadheads send me tapes because it got reprinted in this thing (points to a copy of The Grateful Dead Reader) which is put out by Oxford press so it got huge release. And so, it’s this weird thing. A package arrives in the mail, and I open it up, “(In a stoner’s voice) Hey man, I really liked that piece that I read in The Grateful Dead Reader. Here’s a tape for, you know, Pennsylvania 1975, and it’s the best because they played that song, then did this song, and they didn’t play this song for another ten years.” And so I’ll play the tape, and it’s great music. But, you know, what do I know about where it comes from.