Mitch O'Connell's colorful, crazed pop-art illustrations have appeared everywhere from the cover of Newsweek (four times) to a recent full-page story in The Wall Street Journal, but you'll have to forgive him for hoping for a good-sized turnout at his appearance at Nice Price Books in Raleigh on April 27.
"I’ll be in North Carolina meeting my fiancé’s father," says O'Connell, on the phone from his home in Chicago. "My only goal is that hopefully a respectable line is in place to impress him.
"So I impose this responsibility on the people of Raleigh—hopefully it’s a burden they’re willing to shoulder."
O'Connell's on tour to promote Mitch O'Connell: The World's Best Artist, a new hardcover collection from Last Gasp Publishing that offers an extensive retrospective of his pop culture-infused career in art, providing colorful, chaotic pics that draw from decades of American iconography.
"I’m lucky that my grandparents and my parents saved a lot of my stuff, so there were still books available from childhood and adolescence," O'Connell says. "It let us give the book an actual narrative, and hopefully a humorous one."
That was the challenge set before young writer Brandon Sanderson when he was called upon to complete The Wheel of Time, a series of doorstop-sized fantasy novels published from 1990 to 2005 by Robert Jordan, a pen name for James Oliver Rigney, Jr., that have sold 44 million copies worldwide. Jordan’s death in 2007 while working on the planned 12th and final volume of The Wheel of Time caused an uproar among those seeking to know the fate of hero Rand al’Thor and the other characters.
Enter Sanderson, the prolific young writer of the acclaimed Mistborn series. A longtime fan of The Wheel of Time, Sanderson was tasked with turning Jordan’s partially-finished manuscript, pre-written ending and extensive notes into something that would successfully conclude the series, which eventually was split into three novels. (Jordan had once said the last book could run 2,000 pages; the finale trilogy collectively ran more than 2,500). That last book, A Memory of Light, was published in January to rave reviews and a spot on the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
Sanderson will appear at Quail Ridge Books and Music with Jordan’s widow and editor Harriet McDougal on Feb. 20 to promote Light and answer questions about the series. We got him on the phone to ask what it was like to finally bring the series he loved to an end.
Journalist Jonathan M. Katz, who currently resides in Durham, was the only full-time U.S. reporter in Haiti at the time of the 2010 earthquake. His experiences, not just during the immediate aftermath of the quake but over the next few years of relief efforts, are recounted in his new book, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster (Palgrave Macmillan, $26.00), which he'll read tonight at Durham's Regulator Bookshop at 7 p.m. The book has received widespread acclaim for its insight into post-earthquake Haiti, and during its writing it received the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award from Columbia and Harvard Universities.
We got on the phone with Katz at his Durham residence for an in-depth discussion of the problems with Haiti relief efforts, the lack of understanding and need for accountability regarding the international community's involvement with Haiti and much more.
INDY WEEK: Obviously you have strong opinions on the issue, but I’m curious if your thoughts or perspective on Haiti have changed from when you first wrote the book.
JONATHAN M. KATZ: Most of what I’m describing in the book is what happened, so if something significant happened in the future, I’d want to write a Part Two. But, nonetheless, it’s important to remember that the clock hasn’t stopped, and people are still living in Haiti, and the problems they are facing are still going on.
But I wanted to focus on the aftermath of the disaster, and then the coverage of this a year after, and then two years after, because those are the problems that carry into the future. These problems didn’t end, and they aren’t going to end unless things are done.
About 20 or so years ago, Kevin Allison was mostly known as that ginger dude from the MTV sketch-comedy crew The State, mostly serving as the straight guy for the other players’ more wacked-out characters.
These days, Allison is less about playing roles and more about telling stories, mainly on his podcast, RISK!. Sort of a more uninhibited version of public-radio shows like The Moth and This American Life, host Allison usually corrals many funny people (to name a few, Marc Maron, Sarah Silverman, Margaret Cho, Janeane Garofalo, his former castmates in The State) to tell stories that are brutally honest, wildly entertaining and, on some occasions, deeply emotional.
Allison, 42, took time out to answer some questions the Indy had about his podcast, and what can people expect when he brings the show live to the Artscenter this weekend during the NC Comedy Arts Festival.
INDY: In a recent Indy article, RISK! was described as "The Moth, but less NPR-y." Do you think that's a fair assessment?
Of course, the big question is how you get all these people to dispense such personal stories?
In the first few months, the stories were mostly about embarrassing, R-rated comedy-of-errors situations. Someone pooped their pants on a date. Someone masturbated to a grainy home video and then realized the people in the video were his parents. Someone accidentally fed psychedelic mushrooms to their elderly cleaning lady.
But in time, the fans of the podcast started writing in saying things like, "This show makes me feel like I'm not such a freak after all" or "Now I see that others have been through harder things than I'm going through lately," and they started pitching us stories. So, it was from fans of the show that we first started to get the heavier stuff: stories of surviving abuse, dealing with the death of a loved one, struggling with extreme poverty.
So the show took on this extraordinary feel where any given live show or podcast episode could go from outrageously hilarious to shockingly tear-jerking. And that's now what people love most about it. That it's as unpredictable and extreme as life itself.
After nearly a decade and 11 novels in her best-selling urban fantasy series The Hollows, author Kim Harrison admits that the characters "almost seem real" to her. "I know them better than a lot of my neighbors," says Harrison in a call from a hotel in Houston on her latest book tour. The author will appear at Quail Ridge Books and Music on Saturday, Feb. 2.
"I’ve spent almost 10 years with most of the characters in the books, and know what they will and won’t do—but it’s most exciting for me when they do something I wouldn’t expect, because then I have to back through the books and figure out why and flesh out their history one more layer, and that’s always fun."
The Hollows series, which started in 2004, chronicles the adventures of witch and private investigator Rachel Morgan in an alternate universe where supernatural creatures exist alongside the human population, which was mostly wiped out by genetically-engineered tomatoes in the 1960s. The series, currently on the 11th of a projected 13 books, features plenty of action and not a little humor—and has hit the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
Harrison says she's already written the end of the series: "The next book is at the publishers, and, if I’m lucky, I’ll have the edit letter waiting for me when I get home. And the final book is in rough-draft form. Everyone who survives gets their happy ending—everyone who survives, that is. I like to laugh, and I can’t end things on a sour note. Rachel would be very upset with me if I did."
In its premiere at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Compliance proved one of the most controversial films there, prompting multiple walkouts in its initial screening. And last month, INDY Week's Neil Morris called it the best film of the year.
The film chronicles a day at a fictional fast-food franchise where the manager (Ann Dowd, who recently received Best Supporting Actress from the National Board of Review for her role) is called by a police officer (Pat Healy) informing her that a young employee (Dreama Walker from TV’s Don’t Trust the B—— in Apt. 23) has stolen money from a customer and needs to be detained until the cops arrive. Even though audience members are clued in early that the “cop” on the phone is a fake, those on the other end of the line follow through with his demands—which include a strip search and increasingly degrading acts being perpetrated on the hapless cashier.
It sounds far-fetched—until you find out this scenario really did play out more than 70 times in the United States.
“My reaction to hearing the story of the events it’s based on was one of, ‘I’m not one of those people! I would never do that!’” says Zobel in a call to his apartment in New York City.
“But then you start realizing there are times when you just don’t know what you’d do in a situation. There are things that are built into us that in some ways I’m curious about. I don’t think that this is a matter of education or intelligence level, but the relationship to authority that some people have, and how that relationship comes out in people.”
Despite the grim subject matter of Compliance, Zobel says that his cast and crew had a better time making the film than some people have had watching it. “We were certainly not comfortable on set some times, but as creators, we had a different relation to what was going on onscreen — people who make horror movies aren’t scared all day,” Zobel says with a laugh. “We were aiming for an effect, so it wasn’t so much of a situation that was like that of watching the film.
“This was a movie that was really being made by virtue of the fact that all the people involved were interested. We weren’t interested in competing with The Avengers—it was just a group of people who were really interested in this idea. So we wanted to be faithful to the ideas that got us there, and making sure those ideas came across.”
Zobel’s eclectic background includes co-founding the popular Flash animation site Homestarrunner.com, home of such cartoon characters as Strong Bad and Trogdor. After college, he attended UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem with David Gordon Green, and went on to work with him on his films George Washington, filmed in Wilmington, and All the Real Girls, filmed in Asheville (Green, in turn, executive-produced Compliance).
His first feature, The Great World of Sound, was released in 2007 and received warm reviews. Filmed in North Carolina, it told an offbeat story about two hucksters who recruit amateur singers to make demo recordings.
INDY WEEK: It’s only been a little over a year and a half since bin Laden’s death. How soon after the event did you start working on this book? What were some of the challenges in making sure it was something that was ready to be published?
Mark Bowden: It all started, technically, the day after bin Laden was killed. I was out in LA at the time, and a movie producer asked me if I would consider researching and writing a script. I emailed Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, and asked me if he would consider putting me on the list of the thousands of journalists who wanted to interview the President about this event.
Much to my surprise, Jay emailed me right back and said he thought I was an ideal person to do a story like that! He didn’t know I was just writing a script, but my friend the producer wound up deciding not to pursue the project, so I wound up with potential access with no project. I called up my publisher and pitched it to him, and he said yes.
I told him I did not want to be the first—that I wanted to research this until I felt I was ready to write, and he accepted it on that basis. So I signed a contract and got to work!
How much access did you wind up having?
Ultimately, I did sit down with President Obama for an interview in the Oval Office that lasted an hour and a half. I interviewed most of the key people on the White House staff; I interviewed extensively at the Pentagon and at the CIA, and at the Joint Special Operations Command, and in and around the country with sources of my own who were able to help me understand various aspects of the technology and strategy that’s been involved in the last 10 years, and I had the help of my son and my cousin David, who worked on a documentary film for the Discovery Channel based on my work, and they did reporting and interviewed people in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
With all that, I had help, and I had opportunity.
As you were doing research for this, how did your perception of the situation evolve, in terms of your understanding of it?
Well, I think like everyone else, I was fixated on the raid itself. But as I got more into the story, I realized this was more of a 10-year-long story, for which the raid was only the last few hours. And I was only vaguely aware of the evolution of what I call the “targeting engine” that the CIA and Special Operations and NSA and various counterterrorism intelligence agencies put together.
So that was all new to me, at least in the detail that I came to understand it, and of course at that time I had no knowledge at all of how the CIA found bin Laden, which to me is probably the single most remarkable aspect of the story.
What do you feel is the biggest misconception that the public’s had about the events leading to bin Laden’s killing?
Well, I do think that most people don’t realize, or didn’t realize, that finding bin Laden was not a sudden stroke of luck. It was a very long and painstaking process that developed the information that led to this fellow Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Really, the most remarkable piece of this was finding him, not knowing that he would ultimately lead them to bin Laden, but knowing there was a good chance that might happen, and then that subsequently paying off.
I think the most surprising thing for most people is that this was not something that happened suddenly; it was a very gradual, very determined intelligence effort that found bin Laden in the compound.
That touches on one thing the book makes very apparent—that intelligence is more than what people see in thrillers, it’s about a gradual compilation and advancement of leads. What was one of the greatest challenges in presenting that information in a way that stays true to the process and conveys its impact without sensationalizing it?
Well, I think that’s obviously a major challenge when you’re constructing a narrative. But I believe that if you penetrate to the core of a story, and you understand the significance of each turning point, it becomes inherently interesting.
I think where writers get lost is when they get distracted by a lot of extraneous, but curious or interesting detail. But the key to me was focusing in on exactly what were the pieces that had to be fit together, and where did those pieces came from. If you narrow it down like that, I think it becomes compelling—if you put together the story in a very clear and I think decisive way, and I think that helps maintain the reader’s interest.
In the book, you often have passages where you go inside the head of Barack Obama and others. When you’re going through your research and interviews and translating them into prose, what are the biggest challenges with sequences like that?
What I try to avoid doing is using a lot of the conventional tools of attribution, which tend to slow down the narrative. I’m content as a writer, if President Obama tells me, “This is what I was thinking, and this is what was happening,” if I can simply relate that fact.
What I’ve done traditionally in my books is have detailed source notes at the end, if anyone wants to check the attribution of the quotes throughout the novel. In this case, that was virtually impossible, because most of the key people involved, other than President Obama, were willing to talk to me, but did not want to have specific things attributed to them, because I was dealing with people who were in high office and positions of responsibility, and they’re just concerned about putting too fine a point on their thought process.
There is a bit more of a need here than in my other books for the reader to simply trust what I’m telling them is through my reporting, rather than something I’m making up.
“The most amazing thing happened—when I walked in the door, I saw a copy of my galley, which was brand new, on the desk," says Straub on a call from her book tour.
"And then Land Arnold, one of the owners, looked up at me and said, ‘We were just talking about you!’ It was a surreal experience, but it endeared me to Flyleaf forever.”
Lamont , which has earned widespread acclaim since its publication last month, chronicles the life and times of an old-school Hollywood movie star over the course of half a century.
"I have always loved movies, but it’s sort of a coincidence that I wrote a book about movies," Straub says.
"It came a couple years ago when I read the obituary of the actress Jennifer Jones. I hadn't seen any of her movies, but I kept going back to her obituary, because it seemed so rich and so much like a novel. I was working on something else at the time, but I kept coming back to this obituary. When I plotted the novel out, I stayed away from Jennifer Jones’ life, and the movie stuff became secondary—it’s sort of the sweet stuff on top that entices people, but to me it’s about this one woman’s life, the choices she goes through, and the changes she’s forced to make, and it just happens to dovetail with that Hollywood story."
Though the book chronicles the pressures and tumult of the old studio system, Straub says that when compared to modern-day Hollywood, "I think that the potentially sad answer is that it’s not as different as you think."
"In the period of the studio system where Laura Lamont became a star, people were signed to contracts were under an incredible amount of control, and couldn't choose their own roles," Straub says.
"But today, you’re still locked into roles. You’re trailed by paparazzi, pictures are posted on every website, God forbid you want to go topless on your honeymoon. It seems like a very unpleasant way to live.
"You know about these people, you know about their lives, you see pictures of them looking beautiful, and if you have an active imagination, you find yourself imagining their interior lives, and what they’re doing when the cameras aren't on them. I find that irresistible."
Though Straub was careful to make her fictional movie stars unique characters unto themselves, she found real Hollywood creeping in to her narrative.
"One of Laura’s best friends is a woman named Ginger Hedges, who was inspired by Lucille Ball, and I didn't mean for that to happen!" Straub says with a laugh.
"That was one of the things that came out of my research, because I learned all these things about Lucille Ball that I didn't know before, mainly that she was in charge in a way that women of the time usually weren't—she and Desi Arnaz actually controlled the production company, and when they got divorced, she took it over herself. And Laura’s second husband, Irving Green, is based on (producer) Irving Thalberg—I read so much about him that I just fell in love with him, so why shouldn't she?"
When it comes right down to it, Joe Rogan will always be a stand-up.
He may have served as a electrician of the '90s cult sitcom Newsradio, a replacement host for The Man Show, a UFC commentator and, most infamously, the host of the extreme reality show Fear Factor. But the man still takes pleasure performing his wild-eyed, button-pushing brand of stand-up. And when he isn't standing up riffing and ranting, he's sitting down, still riffing and ranting, as host of the podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience.
Rogan, 45, talked to the Indy about his career, his infamous stint as a "joke thief crusader" and what him decide to do hosting duties for the recent (and recently canceled) Fear Factor reboot.
INDY: It looks like you've been doing a lot more theaters now, including the Memorial Auditorium tonight. How has that been from going to the clubs to hitting the theaters?
ROGAN: It’s been great. Well, the transition has slowly taken place from my last Spike TV comedy special that also aired on Comedy Central. From then on, I started moving into theaters. I did a lot more theaters from then on. And, then, the podcast started happening. And, because of the podcast, I’ve been able to do much, much larger venues because the podcast has done really well. It’s better than any radio show that I’ve ever been on or anything else that I’ve ever used to promote things. The podcast has been much more successful at getting through to people.
How did the podcast start?
Well, it was never a conscious thought. It just happened. It was one of those things where we were screwing around with Ustream, just on a laptop, and we, you know, would let people ask questions and we would just talk and we just did it for fun. And, then, we said, “Alright, we’re gonna do this every week. Every Monday, we’ll see you guys here and we’ll do this, little Ustream thing.” And, then, it built up and, then, we started putting it on iTunes. And, then, from then, it just became this snowball that we were not just pushing, but we became a part of the snowball. And we became caught up in the momentum of it all. And that’s kind of where we find ourselves right now.
@ Durham Performing Arts Center
Even if you’ve never heard of Brian Regan, the minute you see him perform, you immediately fall in love with the guy.
A 30-year veteran of the stand-up scene, the Miami-born, Vegas-based comic is well-known for his clean but still utterly uproarious stand-up. His humor has definitely given him not just fans but famous fans, like Jerry Seinfeld (who drove him around during an episode of his Web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee) and Marc Maron (who had him as a guest on his WTF with Marc Maron podcast).
The Indy asked 54-year-old Regan, who’ll be performing at Durham Performing Arts Center on Saturday, a few questions about what it’s like being one of the funniest, most reliable working comics out there.
INDY: How long have you been doing stand-up?
REGAN: Oh, wow—about 31. [laughs] That sounds like forever. But I started in 1981, down in Ft. Lauderdale, at a comedy club.
How does it feel knowing that you make guys like Jerry Seinfeld and Marc Maron laugh?
Well, you get to write a lot of checks, man. I gotta write checks out to Jerry Seinfeld and Marc Maron and all these people for these kind words. [laughs] No, it means a lot to me, you know. Making audiences laugh is certainly a big thing for me, but knowing that other comedians like what I do—at least some of them—that means the world to me, you know. It’s a high compliment when people who do what you do like what you do. So, it’s a great feeling.
One of the things that’s great about your comedy is how you’re very physical, contorting your face and body in various, cartoonish ways. Sometimes, you get a sense of balletic gracefulness in your stand-up.
Well, first of all, I appreciate the compliment. I guess the reason why my comedy is physical is because, basically, they’re little vignettes, you know. A lot of my jokes, if you will, they’re like these little, tiny plays, with me and another character or me and an inanimate object. So, it’s me and the eye doctor or it’s me and a flight attendant or it’s me and an ironing board or it’s me and a microwave oven. And the only way for the joke to work is for me to act it out. So, there’s where the physicality comes in. I’m just trying to live the joke out as truthfully as possible when I’m onstage. And, if I don’t, it doesn’t pop nearly as well.
You’ve often talked about how amateurish you were back in the day, relying on props and what not. Today, you’re a comic that appeals to all ages. How would you explain getting audiences on your side as a comedian these days?
Well, for me, I try not to figure out what my audience would like or what they’re looking for, because it’s too hard for me to know what everybody in the world is thinking, you know. So, I just try to figure what I wanna say and what I wanna do and, you know, I like to do clean comedy and observational comedy and everyday kinda stuff, just because it’s what interests me. It’s what makes me laugh. And, you know, the fact that audiences seem to like it as well certainly is a big thing for me. It’s like, wow, now I can make a nice career with this. But, to me, it’s sort of, um, I’m lucky, in that what I like to do anyway is what people seem to respond to. So, I’m just fortunate.