Mark Russell is headlining Blue Skirt Productions’s first show this Saturday. Russell is the author of God Is Disappointed in You, with cartoons by Shannon Wheeler. It is an interpretation of the Bible that gives you plenty of laughs along with your brimstone and fire. We thought it would be fun to ask him a few questions and give you all a chance to find out more about him and his work, so I sent him some questions on writing, life and his cartoon strip, Eagle Sport.
BSP: You’re headlining our Inappropriate show, what’s the most inappropriate thing you’ve ever done?
MR: Sabotaging a Slurpee machine. A friend showed me how to rig a Slurpee machine so it would just keep pouring out its slush until it was empty. I was a little drunk with power after that.
BSP: How did you and Shannon end up working together on God Is Disappointed In You?
MR: We were talking in a bar, and Shannon mentioned that he had never read the Book of Job and didn’t understand when people used it as a reference. I told him the story of how Job was basically a side bet between God and Satan, and he said, “That’s perfect! You should do the whole Bible just like that. I’ll draw cartoons and we’ll have a book.”
BSP: The Bible is a large book to take on. There are so many interpretations and schools of thought related to it. What compelled you to do your own interpretation?
MR: Almost everything written about the Bible is written with an agenda at play. Believers want to sell you on it, so they’ll tell you what they want you to know about the Bible and hide all the grotesque brutality and weirdness. Others write about the Bible to assassinate it. They want you to know all the contradictions and horrors, but not any of the truly profound or humanizing elements of the Bible. I wanted to write a book where you got everything, and you could make up your own mind about what you think about the Bible, or what you might find of value in it.
BSP: One of your bios describes God Is Disappointed In You as irreverent. I didn’t get that from the book. I find it to be a funny, smart interpretation that uses humor to call things to question or to light. Am I reading too much into things?
MR: I see irreverence as a species of honesty. It’s only when you don’t take something too seriously that you can see it for what it is. To basketball fans, Michael Jordan is this supernatural being, this legendary icon whom they can only know through his greatness of his accomplishments. But to his kids, he’s also the guy who putters around the house in his underwear and makes horrible scrambled eggs. We don’t see the people close to us with reverence. That’s how I wanted to look at the Bible. As a funny uncle, or a beloved sister with a beanie baby addiction. To look at the Bible as an austere holy book is to keep yourself from really getting to know it.
BSP: I’ve seen snippets of the cereal wars story on Facebook and think it’s hilarious. Any chance we’ll see that in print?
MR: For the uninitiated, I have written a series of short “cerealized” (get it?) stories about Frankenberry, Boo Berry, Count Chocula and other characters in the breakfast cereal universe. Will they ever be published? Probably not. Though a friend of mine suggested that they would make for good reading on the back of cereal boxes, which I think would be the perfect medium for those stories.
BSP: How was your panel at Comic Con in San Diego? What was that experience like?
MR: It was a marvelous experience. Writing is such a solitary enterprise. You never know how people are going to react when they’re reading it, or even if they will read it, so to have a live event where I can interact with readers directly is utterly invaluable for me. And it really pleases me that people seem to like the book. I was worried that my book would be too sacrilegious for believers and not mocking enough for non-believers, that I find it really gratifying to meet Christians who have a sense of humor about the Bible, and atheists who are willing to be surprised at how much wisdom it actually contains.
BSP: Which superhero jammies would you wear?
MR: Axe Cop.
BSP: When did you start doing your cartoons? (Is there a link to where we can send people to view them to put in this part of the text?)
MR: I taught myself how to draw in my twenties while working at a kiosk in a parking structure. It was busy for an hour or so in the morning, and then it would die off for the rest of the day, so I would have all that time to read, write, or practice my drawing. It was the next best thing to a MacArthur Genius Grant. Currently, I publish my cartoon strip “Eagle Sport” on Nailed Magazine.
BSP: Do you have a day job? What is it?
MR: Yes. I work as a building manager at a local university.
BSP: What is your favorite genre to read?
MR: I read a lot more non-fiction than fiction. While there’s fiction I love in just about every genre imaginable, I think the most important thing for being a writer is to expose yourself to the outside world and to have something to say about it. The writers I like tend to know about a lot more than just writing.
BSP: I’ve seen you act in a few plays now, how does that satisfy you creatively? Is it as satisfying as writing?
MR: Writing is painful. It’s sitting at a laptop or banging your head on the coffee table because things aren’t coming out right. Acting is much more playful and fun than writing, and you’re continuously creating, but I don’t find it nearly as gratifying as the rare moments when you get something right as a writer. It’s the difference between basketball and soccer. Basketball is fun because there’s lots of scoring, but nobody gets too excited when someone hits a shot. Soccer is mostly a game of frustration and failure, but when you do score a goal, you feel like the heavens have opened up and children will be named after you.
BSP: What resources do you use for your writing, any local resources you would recommend?
MR: The Internet. I save everything I write on the cloud. I’ve heard enough horror stories of novels, short stories, and screenplays being lost to computer crashes to know better. I generally read about ten Wikipedia articles a day for general research purposes or to point me toward related topics I might need to research. Another great resource is human beings. Get to know other writers. Aside from the fact that they’re usually interesting people, it’s the best way to stay connected and to get involved with readings, writing groups, and other communities that might help your growth as a writer.
BSP: Do you workshop your stories with a writing group?
MR: But of course. I can’t tell you how enormously helpful it is to have other people who are willing to read your work and give you honest feedback. When I write, I get in my own little zone of what I want to say and develop blind spots to questions the reader might be having. I need to have other people read my work to give voice to these invisible questions. Also, having regular meetings creates an artificial deadline which keeps you moving forward.
BSP: How do you know when a work is finished?
MR: A work is never finished. At least, I’ve never written anything that I didn’t think couldn’t be improved with just one more revision. Usually, when I find myself changing things back to the way I had them before, though, I realize that I’m wasting time and will make myself stop working on that piece.
BSP: Do you prefer one writing form to another?
MR: No, but I find writing non-fiction to be easier. Fewer possibilities to discard.
BSP: I know you have written a book, and that you write screenplays for the Ten Minute Play Festival on occasion, and cartoons. Do you do any other writing? ‘Cause I really want to envision you with a long black cigarette holder in your mouth and a black beret on your head. And a black and white horizontally-striped shirt.
MR: Are you envisioning me as a writer or a mime? I write a lot of different things. I have four books in various states of completion, two of which will eventually be graphic novels. I’ve also written a lot of short humor pieces, which I used to publish in a zine I ran called The Penny Dreadful. This was before there was a TV show for steampunks with the same name.
BSP: PS: it was a poet/mime/author/painter in my head.
Russell and cartoonist Shannon Wheeler are teaming up again to work on a follow-up book to God Is Disappointed in You titled, Apocrypha Now. The book will cover the Apocrypha and other non-canonical books that “weren’t quite good enough to make it into the Bible.” The expected publication date is July of 2015. Keep your eyes out for it and be sure to grab a copy of God Is Disappointed in You!
Mark Russell is a writer and cartoonist living in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of God Is Disappointed in You, a modern re-telling of the Bible, and he has previously published work in McSweeney’s, Stir Journal, and several other now-defunct magazines. His cartoon strip, Eagle Sport, appears regularly online at Nailed Magazine.
You can catch Mark at our show this Saturday, at Common Grounds Coffeehouse in Portland, OR.