Interview with Conor Lastowka

Posted: 06/10/2015 in Author Interview
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Today we have an interview with author Conor Lastowka. Whose book, Gone Whalin’ I got to read because he was offering a special Rifftrax exclusive from one of the shows that if you saw it you got notified it was free on Amazon.

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Conor Lastowka has worked as a writer for RiffTrax.com, the web incarnation of Mystery Science Theater 3000, since 2006. In addition to writing jokes about modern blockbusters, old b-movies, and comically outdated educational shorts, he has been a writer-producer on several RiffTrax Live events broadcast nationwide, and performs as the voice of DisembAudio on RiffTrax MP3s.

He is also one of the editors of the blog [Citation Needed], which collects the best of Wikipedia’s worst writing. He has co-authored two volumes of [Citation Needed] books riffing on hilariously bad Wikipedia writing, and produced and written a season of podcasts expanding some of the all-time worst Wikipedia entries into skits.

He recently published his first novel, Gone Whalin’.

He lives in San Diego with his wife Lauren.

You can find his website and connect with him on twitter.

I hope you all enjoy reading his answers as much as I did.

BP: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where you’re from, what got you started into writing, etc)
CL: I grew up in Northern Virginia. I just moved from San Diego to Burlington, VT. The first ever writing gig I had was a monthly humor column in our high school paper, then a daily comic strip in our college paper, and now I am a writer-producer for RiffTrax.com where we make movies funny and do live shows a couple times a year. A little while ago I published my first ever novel Gone Whalin’, about a college kid who starts waking up on a 19th century whaling ship every other day.
BP: Did you always have aspirations of being a writer?

CL: I wouldn’t say I always aspired to write, but writing, especially comedy writing, has come more natural to me than any other skill. I’ve always lived my life slightly in awe of people who have skills that seem so foreign to me like “playing a musical instrument” or “building a level bookcase” or “handwriting that doesn’t resembled the palsied scrawlings of someone on their deathbed” and it never occurred to me until later in life that to other people, writing was not something you were naturally inclined to or enjoyed. Writing for me, was sort of the result of doing something I enjoy, and then trying to do it enough that I very slowly improve to a point where I’m hopefully working with something other than just raw talent. I’ve been lucky enough to have an opportunity to get paid to write every day for nearly eight years now, so hopefully there’s been a quantifiable improvement.

BP: What were your inspirations into writing Gone Whalin’? And what were your inspirations for the characters in the book?

CL: Well at RiffTrax, I do a lot of short form writing. One liners, short bits, the occasional sketch. And it is a lot of fun. But you’re always working within the constraints of the movies, and there’s no real story telling involved, no characters to develop. Writing a novel is the exact opposite. It’s the Long Con of storytelling. You’re one hundred percent on your own. There’s no crappy movie to do the heavy lifting. It seemed like a great way to test my comedic chops to create my own little world and see how my sense of humor would work playing by a different set of rules.

Plus, a novel’s sort of one of those things that you want to do to see if you can do it. And it used to be that if you wrote one that nobody wanted to publish, you’d spend years working on it and nobody would read it. But I knew that based on experience publishing the [Citation Needed] books, I could get people to read it when I was done, as opposed to say a screenplay or something else I could write that might never see the light of day.

BP: How long did it take you to write it?

CL: I don’t have exact numbers: at some point in time the manuscript got so long that google doc’s revision history wouldn’t show me the beginning of it. (It actually had to split up into two docs because it reached the limit of characters or words that a doc can hold.) I feel like it was probably around 20 months. But that’s not like a crazy ‘20 months of sequestering yourself like Jack Torrance and work on nothing but the novel until you go crazy’ schedule, that was just when I’d find time to work on it.

Then of course once you’re “Done” you have to edit and revise the damn thing. It’s essentially like taking a really long trip, like flying to Australia with multiple connections and layovers, then finally getting there filthy and exhausted, thinking “I’ve arrived!” and having someone be like, “Congratulations. Now get on this plane to Japan.” So that took many more months, just because the book was so long.

But the entire time I was motivated by one thing: the desire to be done. I knew how great that was going to feel and even though you just got microscopically closer to it with every writing session, it was a powerful motivating force.

BP: Are you planning on writing a second book based on the last chapter of Gone Whalin’?

CL: That is not something I’ve ruled out! I think that at the very least, the adventures of Vance taking on the menace of the Electrowhales in the dystopian future would make a good short story or novella. I’d love to give it a shot and see where it goes, perhaps there’s an entire book in there once you really dig into what happened. I think that Ziro Goes Hawaiian could be quite the tale as well.

BP: What are your practices and/or support systems into writing a book?

CL: I didn’t have any hard and fast rules. For the most part it was just forcing myself to carve out time whenever it presented itself, even if there was something else I’d rather be doing. It’s always easier to not write, and there’s a whole lot of fun things that you can do while not writing, several of them involving beer. So even if you opted to just write 300 words instead of doing those things, I considered that a success.

Taking notes was very important, especially when you’re working on a comedy driven book. I’d have ideas for jokes or situations at any given time, drifting off to sleep, in the shower. And I experienced first hand that if you didn’t make an immediate note of it, things would just disappear. So I tried to make it a habit to jot those down in a notebook at first, and then evernote or google keep. I would sometimes get an hour long massage and try to think out book ideas the entire time, when it was done before I’d even get dressed I’d be fumbling with my phone to write down ideas.

My wife Lauren was my support system during it. For most of the creative process she was the only one I told I’d been writing a book. I just wanted to avoid being someone who was “working on a novel.” When I finally got something that I was ready to show her, hearing her laugh from the other room as I was working on editing and revising was great encouragement. She’s an editor by trade as well, so her advice and ability to answer questions that I repeated dozens of times like “Does the comma go inside the quotation marks” was invaluable.

BP: What are you most surprised at, both positive and negative, about being an author?

CL: Positive? I’m surprised at how many people were willing to take a chance to read a first novel about time travel and whaling, especially people I’ve never met before. It’s a great honor that people were willing to invest the time and that so many of them came away with a positive experience.

Negative? Sounds like a paradox, but I’m surprised at how difficult it is to get people to read a book. For a self published author, I hadn’t realized how much of your job you still have left to do once it’s on Amazon. Marketing it, bugging people to read it, all sorts of other things that I don’t necessarily enjoy. I think it’s just by virtue of time investment, if I send you a song I recorded, you could easily spend four minutes listening to it. Even a movie is only two hours. But to invest in a book you’re going to be spending a dozen hours reading, people really want those vetted.

BP: Are there any other book projects in the works that you can talk about?

CL: There is! I am working on another novel that is approaching the point where I’d say I’m close to being near the beginning of the final stages of it. I took some time off after finishing Gone Whalin’, just because I felt I’d earned it but also because I hadn’t had an idea that I thought warranted a novel length exploration.

But eventually I had a spark, and the more I thought about it the more it seemed like it might work, and might be something I’d be able to make uniq ue as GW. I don’t want to give too much away but there is pole vaulting involved.

BP: What got you started on [Citation Needed]: The Best of Wikipedia’s Worst Writing?

CL: It’s hard to remember exactly because I just looked it up and we’ll have been doing that tumblr for six years in December! But I’d always found the weird niches of Wikipedia entertaining and fascinating, these places that the rest of the world doesn’t care about, so a lunatic who does care about an obscure computer game or a pro wrestler can go in there and just publish their rantings. Through RiffTrax, I met Josh Fruhlinger, who shared a similar twisted interest, and we decided to give it a go. The blog has a steady stream of submissions, so there are obviously other people out there who delight in it.

Publishing collections of our favorite entries seemed like a natural extension and is fortunately allowed by the Wikipedia licensing terms. And riffing the entries just comes natural after so many years.

BP: Were you a big book reader growing up?(comics, graphic novels, and manga are counted as books) If so, how do you think they’ve influenced you today both in your writing and as a person? Also if so, how have they changed as you’ve grown up? If not, was there a particular reason you weren’t?

CL: Oh absolutely. Reading was strongly encouraged in our house, I loved going to the library, and it was like a second Christmas when my mom would come home with boxes of books from the Goodwill book sale. I liked a little bit of everything: Roald Dahl, Bunnicula, Skinnybones, Wrinkle in Time, Hitchhiker’s Guide, Phantom Tollbooth, Redwall, Stephen King. The only book I remember hating was The Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler.

My sense of humor was definitely shaped by the comics page: The Far Side, Peanuts, and Calvin and Hobbes. I was lucky to grow up when there was not only still newspapers with a comics page, but two legitimately funny comics on them. The Far Side had that wonderful ‘anything goes’ style, where you could be making an observational comedy style joke, or a riff on a beloved movie like The Wizard of Oz, or just something completely absurd like Cow Tools. Calvin obviously spoke to a young boy, but only as you get older do you realize what a rare combination of heart and humor and brains it has. And I was always lucky to stumble across yellowed copies of Peanuts collections at friends and families houses to thumb through and cackle over.

I loved reading Dave Barry and realized years ago how much of his voice and technique I still try to emulate. Come to think of it, I was probably influenced by written comedy/humor more than anything on a screen, excepting of course The Simpsons. I haven’t had any giant shifts in taste over the years.

BP: How was it when you learned you were going to help write for Rifftrax? And is it still as enjoyable now as when you first started?

CL: It was so exciting. I’d been working as a PA at a company that did film colorization for maybe a month or two when they announced Mike Nelson was going to move to San Diego. RiffTrax was pretty much just an idea he’d had at that point, a “let’s figure out how to do this and then see if it works” kind of thing, but I knew I wanted to be part of it. I probably was a little over the top in the beginning, I remember getting an email trying to think of what to call the sight and sending out a list of like six dozen potential names. (RiffTrax was not mine, though I think I came up with “Disembaudio.”) I was also lucky that my duties were vague enough that it afforded me the time to go to the studio with him for those early recordings and hopefully give him a sense that we were on the same wavelength.

I remember having just sent Mike a clip of David Spade mocking Vin Diesel for giving the same rehearsed interview questions on multiple talk shows, and he replied by asking if I wanted to write on the Crossroads riff. It was thrilling. I think he wrote the email and immediately left the office, but when I talked to him the next day, I was very excited. RiffTrax has been a great opportunity, and by its very nature, it is different every time we find a new movie to do. It’s been a great group of people to work with, and as a creative endeavor, it’s been very satisfying to get to take risks and do what we think is funny without having to answer to any corporate overlords or standards and practices departments. I feel like I’ve grown as a writer because of it, and that we’re doing some of our funniest work every these days.

BP: Any parting words?

CL: Everyone made fun of that Shia LaBeouf “just do it” video a while back, but his message was on point. It’s a lot easier not to write (or draw or paint or shoot a video.) But if you have a creative idea, embrace it and make something out of it! And then do it again! Then again! Even if it’s terrible, it’s still more than most people do, so you can act self righteous about it. And then someday, if you’re lucky, maybe RiffTrax will make fun of it.

I’d like to extend another huge Thank You to Conor Lastowka for both writing his book and doing the free week on Amazon with it as well as being so generous in giving an interview.

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