How did “Der Kommissar’s In Town” come about?
Well, my friend Maurice Broaddus had a Kickstarter for an anthology of supernatural noir stories called Streets of Shadows, and for his own safety didn’t solicit me for a story until the funds were already raised. This was early 2014, and Occupy had already gone kaput but it still weighed heavily on my mind, so writing about an Occupy-like movement seemed right. I also had someone follow me on Facebook who was a bit of a weirdo, but he was very into psychogeography, so that was interesting, and I decided to combine the two.
Who was responsible for the earworm title? (Still playing in my head, darn you!)
Me! Maurice complained about the earworm too!
As anyone who has spent time with radicalized groups knows, your characters have very familiar elements about them. Was this from personal experience?
Yes. I’ve been involved with a variety of radical groups and experiences since the early 1990s. I also had, thanks to an accident of geography, the opportunity to participate in four different Occupy movements. There was:
Occupy/Decolonize Oakland: the most radical and notorious of the US-based Occupy movements: frequent mixing it up with the cops, an attempt at a general strike, infighting between different affinity groups.
Occupy Berkeley: heavily influenced by the pre-existing politicized homeless in town, it quickly became in politic when it wasn’t tailing Oakland.
Occupy Cal: an Occupy based on the campus of UC Berkeley—militant liberal rather than radical, it made demands of the state for educational funding, as opposed to trying to confront the state or dismantle it. (Of course, the state rolled in to start confrontations anyway.)
Occupy SF: people messing around near the Fed in San Francisco and other places downtown. Interestingly, it was punk-radical but also shot through with Ron Paul-flavored libertarianism, apropos given that it began by occupying the sidewalk outside the central bank. After a while, it fell apart and became a nutball Facebook-only group, full of stuff about chemtrails and Obama stealing all the guns and such.
Anyway, it was fun while it lasted. “The system/has got to die!/ Hella hella/Occupy!”
Did you have any urban planners/theorists in mind?
I was interested primarily in Kevin Lynch and his The Image of the City. He looked at Jersey City, Boston, and LA—I’ve lived in both Jersey City and Boston—through the prism of mental mapping. One reason why Jersey City has always been a bit of a backwater is because it doesn’t seem to have much of a city center. What does one imagine when one thinks “Jersey City”? It’s a good question, and similar to the old joke young locals would tell:
Q. What’s there to do in Jersey City?
A. Go to New York!
So for years, I had a vision of a city with a center, but then that center gets popped. Having lived in a city without a center, I knew that there was plenty of potential for change, resistance, weirdness, etc. (I actually returned to Jersey City for the first time in twelve years recently, and the city planners really tried to make Grove Street a city center. I could barely find the direction of my old apartment, except that the McDonald’s by the PATH station is still there. Everything else, including the width and color of the streets, was changed.)
Further, a mental map of a city, even when very well conceptualized, can limit as well as illuminate. I’ve been to many protests in famous spots—after generations of sitting in at City Hall or walking across this or that bridge, or taking over this or that shipping pier, both the protestors and the police have committed to engaging in a certain set of public rituals. What if that was disrupted, fundamentally? If the mental maps of the city were changed, brutally? Then radical movements might have a chance, though the cost would be high . . .
I was struck by Charlotte and Mickey’s language and how it revealed character. Charlotte is sensitive to gender identity but refers to women as girls whereas Mickey calls them women but stumbles over not categorizing people by their genitalia. Can you talk about why you made these choices for this story?
People use informal language, or slurs, when they think they can get away with it. And there are generally two instances when they can—when within an in-group, or as a high-status individual who is proof against criticism. Charlotte would be, under normal circumstances, an outsider, but having been sent by some greater authority to deal with an issue, she is the ultimate Insider. Mickey, who can opt-out, is an outsider trying to work his way to the center, thus he has to hold to the various social rules more closely.
Why does the city open itself to Charlotte at the end?
Like the intellectual said after his glasses were smashed and his nose bloodied and his ribs broken: “The struggle continues!” The city has its own plans.
What was the most interesting response to this story when originally published?
Honestly, as far as I can tell, most Kickstarted anthologies are essentially privately published. Outside of the few hundred backers, nobody even comes across them, much less actually reads them. I even just did a quick Google on my surname and the story title—a few sites listing the book’s table of contents is all I found. I was keen to get the story republished online so that somebody would read it! I suppose if I were to get hate mail or whatnot, it’ll be this month.
After Streets of Shadows, I pretty much swore off working for Kickstarter books. Either trade publishers or small presses that have an extensive mailing list and tend to sell out only. If I wanted to write what nobody reads, I’d write experimental postmodern fiction for literary journals. (Which admittedly, I am doing these days, to a certain extent anyway.)
Anything else you want readers to know about this story?
Of course not. It’s all in the story, after all!
Any news or projects you want to tell us about?
Yes! I have a novel coming out this summer—it’s a Lovecraftian murder mystery, or a fantastical detective story that happens to take place at a Lovecraft-convention, called I Am Providence. Everyone should pre-order it. I’m also working on an anthology with Molly Tanzer, called Mixed Up!: it’ll pair flash fiction with classic cocktail recipes. Save your money for that in October 2017. It’s a gift book, so be sure to buy two. Even if you don’t have a friend, with an extra copy of Mixed Up! you’ll probably be able to make one.
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