BY DAVID DUHR
My uncle Jerry is better known in the family as Bubba Duck or Bubs, due to his spot-on Donald Duck impression. He has been a writer for as long as I can remember, and earlier this year Night Train to Moline became the first manuscript of his available for exchange on the free market.
At its core is the fictional Reverend Bobby Floy, Christian Fundamentalist and host of the Gospel Radio Hour, broadcasting from Chattanooga. Floy and his show have such a devoted following that Gospel Times Publishing has decided to compile a “Best of: 2006-2010” retrospective. After a brief intro from the fictional publisher, the rest of the novel is comprised of calls from listeners and increasingly-bizarre responses from the good Reverend.
Recently my uncle and I chatted via email about Night Train, his writing background and process, and his forthcoming book When Hell Freezes Over. As most of our conversations do, this one danced the line between serious and inappropriate.
Q. Where to begin, Bubs? I guess let’s start with this Night Train book, since it’s the reason we’re doing this. Tell us a bit about the origins of the book and the good Reverend Bobby Floy.
A. Night Train to Moline was originally written as an escape from another manuscript I was working on titled When Hell Freezes Over. Hell is also a work of fiction; however, the humor is very dark and the main character (Legion) is especially sinister and devious. After working on it for several days I decided I needed/wanted a break from the sinister darkness of Legion … so I created Pastor Bobby Floy as an interesting, enjoyable escape. I wanted the humor with Pastor Bob to be goofy, lighthearted, and ribald. In other words, the exact opposite of When Hell Freezes Over. So that’s the origin (and reason) for Night Train.
At the time I had no intentions of trying to market Night Train … it was just something I wrote to appeal to my own sick humor. I wanted Pastor Bob to make me laugh, and didn’t initially write him to make other people laugh. The idea of marketing the manuscript came much later in the process.
The original title was Southern Comfort; however, the publisher asked me to change the title, since they already had another work in progress with this same title. I went through the book looking for something that might work as a replacement title and kept coming across the phrase “night train to Moline.” This new title seemed to fit well with the subtitle: “A Lighthearted Journey Into the Fundamentalist Subculture.”
Bobby is a fundamentalist pastor, meaning he interprets the Bible with an undue sense of literalism … which in my view lends itself to some enjoyable humor. Although he’s clearly abrasive, I also tried to make him a fun-loving character who, despite his abrasiveness, can also manifest moments wherein he’s actually somewhat lovable. But I’ll let the reader decide on that.
Q. Pastor Bobby was definitely fun-loving in his younger days. There’s a recurrent thread in this book where we learn little by little that Bobby in his youth was an unabashed Lothario. He’s also a blatant misogynist who believes that Hell is full of ugly women who run around sticking corkscrews up men’s asses. What’s the intent here? Is Bobby supposed to stand alone as just one deeply flawed human being, or are you meaning to say something about Christian Fundamentalism’s opinion of women?
A. It’s true—in his younger days ol’ Pastor Bobby was The Fair Penitent who couldn’t keep his trousers zipped. All the more reason why his “conversion” proved so earthshaking. I fear he’s also a blatant misogynist. But consider those few calls from his sweet momma, and then you’ll know why.
When Pastor Bobby discovers that his account of the reality of Hell (Pastor Bobby-style) is actually being believed by his callers, he embellishes Hell all the more in order to ratchet up the fear (and perhaps make another convert. Whatever works!) Alas, he’s a good old-fashioned American pragmatist.
Ditto on the Christian fundamentalist opinion of women … at least to some degree.
Mostly, Pastor Bobby just loves to be a story-teller.
Q. Just like you. You’ve been writing for as long as I’ve known you, and as Pastor Bobby might say Night Train sure as hellfire ain’t the first time I’ve had a peek under your manuscript dress. I’d like to discuss this for a while, so let’s start at the beginning. When did you first start writing? What was your first project? Do you prefer to write in boxers, briefs, or with your junk flapping in the wind?
A. Wow, that’s going way back. I tried to write my first novel (a murder mystery!) in my junior year of high school. After that I moved to poetry, which I thought was easier. Most of my poems were truly juvenile—stuff like “When Clancy Pops the Cork!”
Then I worked in the Public Information Department for fifteen years with a firm in Boston, and one of my responsibilities was to be the editor of the monthly employee magazine—for which I won several national awards. After that, not much writing until about fifteen or so years ago.
I write mostly in areas of philosophy/history/theology/biblical studies, for that’s where I have at least some training and expertise. Would love to write good murder mysteries, but fear I lack the talent.
I prefer to write late at night next to my trusty Dell, and mostly surrounded by some good red wine and the sweet scent of Pall Mall. And yes, on many occasions my junk flaps in the wind.
Q. I recall being a teenager and seeing my dad reading a manuscript you wrote about Custer. It blew my mind that you were doing that. Once you began to send me your work, I recall seeing a screenplay, some poetry, a nonfiction work about … hmm, memory fails a bit. It was a historic piece set in St Louis about a woman who wrote novels through the use of a Ouija board. What are some other projects you’ve worked on? And how many of them did you try to publish before Night Train? Any close calls?
A. Hey, I didn’t know about any of your snooping around my work. That Custer manuscript was never finished; it sits on my hard drive even now, about 80% finished. Can’t really remember what screenplay you might be referring to.
The St. Louis woman was named Patience Worth, and it’s a true story. I found the whole business truly fascinating. Finished the manuscript, titled A Taste of the Brew, and sent it out to over thirty literary agents—and couldn’t find even one that was interested. But I still believe in the value of it. Maybe someday.
Only close calls I’ve had were with When Hell Freezes Over. And by the way, on October 1 I signed a seven-page contract to have it published. It’s scheduled to be released in Sept/Oct of 2011.
As one of Pastor Bob’s callers would say, “How ’bout dem apples!”
Q. Congrats on the new contract. As the inspiration for your Legion character, I assume that 25% of the royalties come directly to me?
You did some stand-up comedy, didn’t you? Sometime in the ’70s? Has that informed your writing at all? I.e., do you look at (at least some) of your work through a comic’s eye?
A. You’ve got a good memory. What stand-up comedy I did was too little to base anything on. Watching other comics, however, was more instructive regarding how varied is the sense of humor out there. I thought the more cerebral comics were truly humorous, whereas the slap-stick goofiness was not—yet most of the audience seemed to like the slap-stick goofiness. I can’t say that my limited experience in night clubs has had any influence on my writing.
By the way, I’ll have Legion personally deliver your 25 percent. Fair warning … he brings with him the icy cold of the Abyss. Maybe it’ll inspire you to write your own screenplay. David Duhr and Legion on Elm Street?
Q. Not to spoil it, but most of the Legion book is told via email and other technological correspondence. And Night Train follows a radio show call-and-response format … no exposition, no writing that isn’t dialogue. What is it that draws you to these alternative narrative methods? Do you ever worry that this kind of work will come off as gimmicky?
A. I don’t regard using these sorts of formats as gimmicky. I like the kind of interplay that occurs in this style. I also like the fact that it’s a rarely-used format. C.S. Lewis used it over fifty years ago for his now classic The Screwtape Letters, and I’ve always liked the idea. If there are some who consider this a “gimmick,” then so be it. Doesn’t really bother me. Let them purchase something in the field of “non-gimmick.” To me, character development and storyline can be developed just as effectively with a back and forth dialogue as with other styles.
Maybe it might be considered gimmicky if this format were overdone and overused in literature, but that’s hardly the case. I can’t think of many. But there are a few that a large number of readers have found enjoyable. For example, the exchange of personal correspondence between Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth, or the Kempton-Wace letters between Jack London and one of his female admirers.
Q. Speaking of C.S. Lewis, religion has played a large role in your life and your writing. Both Night Train and When Hell Freezes Over revolve around religion, as do several other of your unpublished projects. Do you start with a religious angle/idea/purpose, or do you start with characters and a storyline and then see if/how religion can fit into them?
A. As I mentioned previously, I write primarily in those areas where I have some expertise—philosophy, theology, biblical studies. Hey, I would love to write a “popular” book on atomic theory, but what the hell do I know about that?
Frankly, “religion” can pretty much fit into any subject whatsoever. It’s not “religion” that fascinates me—I’ve never found religion (let alone religious people) to be anything other than a profound irritation. Most religious people irritate the daylights out of me. What draws me toward religion (if I must use that term) are really the great philosophical/metaphysical questions having to do with Meaning and Purpose. I’ve always found it astonishing how few people out there even care about these questions. The lack of interest boggles my mind.
As a Christian I find myself oftentimes having great admiration for atheists. Why? Because they truly wrestle with these questions. I always try to read the published works of atheists—they’re not afraid to think deeply. Clearly the question of the existence or non-existence of a Supreme Being is the foundational question of existence. I find this whole business utterly fascinating, but it appears that most people do not.
All of which is to say, in writing on these topics (God, Bible, Jesus, religion, faith, belief, existential questions regarding meaning and purpose, etc., etc.) one tends to feel one is at least dealing with an issue of profound and ultimate importance—even if only through Night Train.
Anyway, to answer your question, I usually start with an interesting idea that generally, in and of itself, already contains religious/philosophical components, and then I start writing.
Q. I’ll assume you heard about this recent poll asserting that non-believers are more educated about the Bible and other religious matters. For my part, I think that if there is a God, He’s probably a big hockey fan and enjoys Chinese checkers and a good romance novel. I also think He wants you to come visit more often.
I know our readers would love to see an example of some of your stand-up. Can you write out a quick bit for us? Preferably one that does not involve props.
A. We must resolve this someday, for I always understood that God is a Yankees fan (what else!) who enjoys watching Japanese flamingo dancers while reading Nietzsche.
“He wants you to come visit more often?” Does this mean I should increase my prayer life or die real soon?
The last time I did stand-up was in Providence in 1990. The show was sponsored by a local radio station and me and some other guy were voted, via audience applause, the funniest. Twenty years, Dave! I hardly remember the bit; other than I did some comedy stuff about Ted Kennedy (being in New England and all), and I made up some infantile limerick. All I can remember is the following:
There once was a witch from Wheeling
Who used to make love on the ceiling
For she loved being high
Up near to the sky
A real pity, I guess, that I can’t remember how it ended. Why don’t you give it a whirl?
Q. Regarding the God thing, I meant that He would want you to come visit me more often. Or Me. For all we know, I could be God. So if you’d like to increase your prayers to Me, feel free. Maybe you can pray for me to get a pony. I’ve always wanted a pony.
Maybe we should have a contest to see which of our readers can come up with the best ending to the limerick. Free C4 swag goes to the winner. Send your answers to email@example.com.
So tell us about some of your literary influences. I know that Jack London is one of your main men (and I mean that in a non-homoerotic way, mostly). In fact, another newphew of yours calls you “Uncle Jack.” But how about some others? Whose work do you return to time and again? Who do you read–if anybody–when you’re working on your own manuscript?
A. If you really are God then create your own damn pony.
Haven’t read Jack London in years. I don’t read many novels anymore, either, but I do like Thomas Hardy and Edgar Allen Poe.
Who do I read these days? Mostly non-fiction. I especially like the philosophical works of Alvin Plantinga; Anthony Thiselton in hermeneutics & biblical studies; David Bentley Hart in contemporary theology; along with Richard Bauckham, Dale Allison, Peter David and a host of other top-notch thinkers in the field. I realize that few people outside the disciplines I’m dealing with have any idea who these people are. Still, they’re top-notch, nonetheless.
I also enjoy reading any good book that takes a critical look at the Vatican. For example., Hitler’s Pope by John Cornwell and The Vatican Exposed by Paul Williams.
Q. Why don’t we close with a good old fashioned “What’s next for you?” Any ideas for what’s to come after When Hell Freezes Over? Are you already working on the next manuscript? If you told me about it, would you have to kill me? Haven’t you always harbored a secret desire to kill me? Did you not, in fact, try to kill me once when I was seven, and then again when I was fifteen, both times with cyanide, and only my natural imperviousness to poison (and all other things) kept me alive? Maybe it’s time we put both of those incidents to bed.
A. Like I said, When Hell Freezes Over is scheduled for release in fall of 2011. That book is mostly a satirical slam (I guess I love satire) on certain aspects of modern thought coming out of Enlightenment. Nothing further in the works at this point.
Frankly, I wasn’t aware you knew of my secret desire to murder you. For some reason I’ve just never particularly liked you. Anyway, it wasn’t cyanide, it was a heavy dose of arsenic poured into your mouth late at night while you were having a seemingly wonderful dream. Trouble is, you kept vomiting up the deadly dose. So I finally just gave up and concluded you were the great grandson of Rasputin.