Interview: Paul Neilan, Author of Apathy and Other Small Victories

Paul Neilan author photo

Paul Neilan's debut novel, Apathy and Other Small Victories, was appropriately hailed by our boy Neal Pollack as "a triumphantly, weirdly hilarious comedy." It tells the story of Shane, a late-twenties Greyhound addict stuck in a soulless job at an insurance company, who passes his time sleeping with his landlord's wife in exchange for rent, getting beat up by his corporate-climber girlfriend, stealing salt shakers compulsively, and partying with deaf people. In the midst of being investigated for murder and enduring the sounds of his upstairs neighbor's sexual relationship with a guinea pig, Shane finds temporary relief by sleeping in handicapped bathroom stalls, drinking Miller High Life, and thinking up bumper stickers like "The world is your oyster, but you are allergic to shellfish."

Here's how it all begins:

"I was stealing saltshakers again. Ten, sometimes twelve a night, shoving them in my pockets, hiding them up my sleeves, smuggling them out of bars and diners and anywhere else I could find them. In the morning, whenever I woke up, I was always covered in salt. I was cured meat. I had become beef jerky. Even as a small, small child, I knew it would one day come to this."

And another clip:

"I didn't know what I was doing in that city. I never know what I'm doing anywhere. I only know how I'll leave. It's always on a Greyhound. It's almost too easy. They go everywhere cheap and all you have to do is sit back and look out the window and pretend that motion and direction are the same thing."

And so, here is my interview with Paul Neilan. Like they say in The Big Lebowski, "He's a good man--and thorough."

Apathy is your first book and the dust jacket mentions nothing about your educational background--or really anything about you aside from the fact that you worked at a mind-numbing job at an insurance company in Portland. Talk about your background in terms of how you've developed your writing style. Did you follow the now-typical path of getting an MFA in writing? Why or why not?

There's nothing about me on the jacket because I have no credentials. I majored in English at school, but I only took one creative writing class. I think I got a B. And I never really thought about getting an MFA. I'm too spiteful to take criticism constructively and I'm only comfortable being honest about people behind their backs, so workshops or group critiques were never what I was looking for. For years I just wrote in journals and didn't really worry about turning any of it into stories or stuff for other people to read, so I guess I developed my writing style by talking to myself, like some homeless people do. Only I used a pen and paper instead of just freaking out on the street. If they switched to a different medium they might be better off. It would probably help if they had someplace to live too.

Given that you share a number of characteristics with Shane (age, employment history, etc.), some of the reviews have blurred the lines between your biography and Shane's—asserting falsely that Apathy takes place in your hometown of Portland, for instance. In what ways do you most identify with Shane? How much time have you spent going Greyhound? Is it true that you offed a deaf chick?

I know a lot about his shame and bitter humiliation, especially when he's stuck in that cubicle as a temp. And I agree with pretty much everything he says about how compromising and depressing it is to work in an office and how crushing it feels. It hurts inside just thinking about it. I'll sometimes get a little bit of his debilitating cynicism, but it's usually only if I'm watching TV or sitting in the tub. I rode a Greyhound for two months straight the last time I was trying to figure out where to live. I'd never really traveled around America, so I got a pass that lets you hop on and off as much as you want and I went all over the place. I think I put in over 11,000 miles total. It was kind of like the Bataan Death March except those guys had better bathrooms. I highly recommend it. And I want to make it clear that I've never murdered any deaf women, or men either. I don't know how that rumor got started, but I've taken a lot of shit from the deaf community because of it. I've told them it's not true but they just don't listen. I guess because they can't.

It seems like Oregon is the home of a lot of great young and experimental writers, from mainstream names like Chuck Palahniuk to small-press publisher-authors like Kevin Sampsell. In fact I think Chuck wrote a book about Portland called Fugitives and Refugees. After "riding the dog" all over the country deciding on a place to live, why did you choose to settle in Portland? Are you more of a fugitive or a refugee?

Portland's an easy town to get by in and it's pretty weird, so you can do your own thing without anybody hassling you or even noticing if you don't want them to. I might have to rob a gas station to make my rent this month, so I'll probably be a fugitive soon, but right now I'm just some dude that lives here.

What's with all these comparisons to Benjamin Kunkel's

I don't know. I've heard it's a really good book but I haven't read it yet, and I'm not sure that I can. I'd be way too competitive and petty if I picked it up now. I'll have to give myself some time to mature into a better person before I check it out. I just hope I'm taller than him in real life.

What authors have you read recently who have driven you to realign your worldview in some small way and/or caused you to drink heavily? Anyone worth recommending?

A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley, but it will make you want less alchohol not more. Watching someone drink themselves into an insane asylum, you see that's it's really not as fun as it sounds.

I definitely agree with Neal Pollack's comment that your book is "weirdly hilarious." Did you set out to write a comedy? Or is it more that the commentary is so sad/true that the only logical reaction is to laugh?

Thanks. I did set out to write it as funny as I could, and yeah I think that sometimes the everyday nonsense gets so absurd and heartbreaking that you really have no choice but to laugh. You can't go around crying all the time, now matter how much you want to. People would make fun of you. I know I would, even though I feel the exact same way. That's just how it goes.

Is our generation (at least those of us working crappy office jobs and sleeping in bathroom stalls) ever going to care about anything? What are we going to turn into? Is it our destiny to become yuppies and start driving Volvos?

I think our generation has been called to apathy just as our grandparents were called to defeat fascism and the baby boomers were called to get divorced and fuck around for most of their adult lives before bankrupting the entire goddamn country when they retire. But we have the chance to do something really special here. Imagine a world where people didn't care enough to go to war over anything. Where some guy gets up in the morning and says, "I know God wants me to kill the infidels and keep gay people from marrying each other, but I just don't give a shit. I'm going back to bed." It would be paradise on earth. This is our mission. I think we can make it happen, but I really don't care either way. And that's called hope.

Your blog mentions a bunch of reasons to buy Apathy, including "Buy it for the Christian fundamentalist in your life. It will make them furious. There's a guy blowing his head off on the cover for christ's sake." Give us some more reasons.

Buy it for your 90-year-old grandmother. You can even pretend that you wrote it if you want. Say "Look, Nanna! My first novel was just published. Isn't that great!" She'll have no idea what you're talking about. The woman's insane. Bring over some cake and party hats. She'll think it's her birthday. Give the old girl a thrill. Go see Nanna right now.

Buy it for the lady who's about to become your mother-in-law, the one who's already trying to control your life and the lives of the three children she's already pressuring you to have. Give her the book one day out of nowhere, just as a nice surprise, and when she hugs you, calmly whisper: "Don't fuck with me, Ellen. Don't even think about it. Ever." Then smile at her like everything is wonderful. Because from now on, it will be.

Buy this book if you're a redneck, and tell all your redneck friends to buy it too. If enough of you do, it might turn into the punch line of a Jeff Foxworthy joke. You love that guy. He makes you laugh at how ass backwards you are. Do it for Jeff.

Buy it for anyone you know who cries in the shower, who drinks in the morning, whose life only has meaning when they're asleep and dreaming that they're somebody else. They will find comfort here. And if they don't, it's not your fault. They've always been this way. Some people are just all banged up. Good for you for trying to help. You're a great person. Give yourself a hand.

Buy this book or I'll take it personally, and I will have my revenge. I'll steal your girlfriend or make out with your dad. It doesn't matter to me. Whichever will hurt worse. My vengeance knows no sexuality. You don't want this. Your dad does though. Yeah, like you didn't know your parents' marriage was a sham. Come on. Open your fucking eyes.

Image Courtesy Carrie Moore

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