Wussie: In Praise of Spineless Men. I suppose it’s best described as nonfiction humor that blends history and anecdote.
Some chapters, you get your satirical bios of prominent wussies from history and legend, like the biblical Isaac and Thomas Jefferson. Other chapters explore pornography, sex toys for men, and so forth: common elements of the lifestyle of the modern American wussie.
And just what might readers learn from it?
So, just how do wussies face death? How do they face friendly streetwalkers, or Starbucks baristas? I wanted to address these questions and explore all the aspects of modern life that terrify the spineless—demanding bosses, contact sports, airport security, airports, air… I tried to do this in a way that was incisive but never mean. After all, these are my people, my tribe, and I wanted our voice—squeaky as it is—to be heard.
Tell us something about yourself.
I’ve lived and worked most of my “adult” life in Japan. Not sure when this interview will appear, but as we’re doing this interview, a pretty good-sized swath of our country is reeling from a massive earthquake and tsunami that struck two weeks ago and set off a chain of very frightening events at one of our nuclear power plants.
Well, that must have been scary.
I’m afraid I don’t have a terribly gripping survival tale to tell. My wife Michiko and I had the good fortune to be at our farmhouse in the western part of Honshu at the time all of this happened, so we learned about the earthquake hours after the fact through mass media, just as most of the world did.
Not sure if all this is interesting for readers. But it’s all the excitement we can handle right now, thank you very much.
What inspired you to write this book?
I suppose I started getting in touch with my own “wussitude” after publishing my second book. The first one had sold well enough even without any promotional efforts on my part, god bless it, but the second one was dragging and desperately needed that promotional nudge that authors are obliged to provide their children. And I just wasn’t able to provide it. “What if the book sucks? What if my promotional efforts inspire people to buy it, but they hate it and post mean reviews of it?” I was paralyzed by this sort of fear.
This is where the reader expects some inspiring Paul Harvey-esque story about how I conquered that fear, promoted the book, and garnered a windfall. No. Instead, I merely accepted my wussitude—embraced it even. In the process of doing so, I turned my back on my “child.” The second book never did catch fire, but I came away with a crackerjack theme for the third one: The notion that being a wussie isn’t a bad thing. All that young wussies have ever needed to come to grips with their own wussitude were role models. While I myself lacked the fortitude to be one of those role models, I realized that I could write a book presenting illustrious wussies from history. So that’s what I did.
How did you choose the title?
I had read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s essay collection Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women some years ago, so I played off that. A pleasant balance between the two books, I thought: one, a tough woman extolling the virtues of tough women; the other, a weak man extolling the vices of weak men.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?
I majored in creative writing in college in Minnesota. After I came to Japan, I managed to get a number of magazine feature articles about various aspects of life in Japan published. After that, I got absorbed in teaching and drifted away from writing for the about a decade.
In 2000, the end of a relationship drove me into an acute, suicidal depression. A therapist recommended that I try to write my way out of it, which may have been the best little chunk of advice ever to come my way.
For all the things I’d done before—which I’d like to think were not utterly obscure—that was my real birth as a writer. I plunged into an exploration of all the relationships that I had had since coming to Japan just after college, and that exploration eventually became a sort of funny-slash-melancholy rumination called How To Pick Up Japanese Chicks And Doom Your Immortal Soul.
Did you learn anything from writing and publishing this book? What?
Well, I tell you, I’m sure the most valuable insights I gained came from an act of writing came from the writing of my first book, the memoir How To Pick Up Japanese Chicks And Doom Your Immortal Soul. You know, we all like to think of ourselves as the protagonists, the heroes, of our own life stories. Especially if you’re a writer, you likely end up catching yourself narrating even the most mundane events of your life in that writerly voice, like “Susan perused the heads of lettuce as if they were the skulls of vanquished enemies. She selected one that looked like her uncle, and chopped it up with zeal,” and so forth.
What I learned from that book is that sometimes, we can be the villains in our own life stories. I was certainly the villain in mine for a while, and might never have snapped out of that phase if not for the therapy of writing that book.
Okay, but what about the new book, Wussie?
As for Wussie, this was my first attempt at a type of historical biography. I had to do what, for me at least, was a prodigious amount of reading on my wussie subjects: the biblical Isaac, Japanese emperor Hirohito, Henry David Thoreau, and Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson was a wussie?
The reading about Jefferson was particularly fascinating. He was a remarkably layered character and, yes, an incredible wussie. The way he could genuinely loath the institution of slavery while cheerfully owning slaves his whole life through, for example. I fear that my chapter on Jefferson is one of the weakest in the book; it was so hard to do justice to such a colossal wussie. I felt a lot of pressure and, being a wussie myself, succumbed easily to it.
What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?
So much of the advice that emanates from book-world pros like agents seems deliberately designed to produce awkward, unwieldy and unwanted prose. I’m talking about moldy old chestnuts like “Study the market and see what’s selling” or “Decide who your target audience is and think of five reasons why someone in that group would want to buy your book.”
My first book, and still my biggest success so far, was very much an unplanned child. As I’ve already noted, I had no intention of writing that memoir. I simply needed to get it out of my system to keep from going stark raving mad. It was like removing a tumor without anesthesia. The question of who might want to read the book—the very idea that anyone would read the intensely private things that I was writing for that matter—was the farthest thing from my mind. And yet the resulting book sold pretty darn well for the first three years after its release—again, as I said, with essentially no promotion at all.
Maybe I’m over-generalizing, but it seems to me that any writing that’s destined to endure was written by the writer for him/herself, not for this or that book-buying demographic. I realize how corny this sounds, but the inspiration has to come not from the wallet, but from the heart. Or at least, from some sort of internal organ.
One other thing: Mechanics matter–perhaps now more than ever. Anyone who simply can’t produce grammatically sound prose or can’t use all the punctuation marks with confidence really needs to pay someone to copy edit the work.
Who is the perfect reader for your book?
I suppose the ideal reader of Wussie would be female and in her twenties to forties. She currently has, or once has had, a beloved figure in her life who was a tremendous wussie, but could never admit it to himself. The wussie might have been a college roommate, a brother, a co-worker, even her father. This book, the author can hope, brings her closure and a few chuckles as well.
Where can readers learn more about you and your book?
I blog at www.joshmuggins.com