Talking With DC Pierson About His New Book, ‘Crap Kingdom’
DC Pierson is a comedian, actor, member of the popular sketch group DERRICK, and well regarded UCB performer. In 2010, he added “novelist” to that resume with the release of his first book The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To. Last week, he released his second novel, Crap Kingdom. I had a chance to sit down with Pierson and chat about the book — which I can honestly say is definitely worth reading (or better yet, owning) — as well as working in the young adult genre, making rap videos to get on the New York Times bestseller list, why DERRICK’s success may have been more timing than technological wizardry, Splitsider’s emotionally insecure readership, and why it’s cool if high school students try to cheat out of reading your book… so long as you still get paid.
Crap Kingdom is a twist on that classic story structure, where a kid gets transported from his dull life to a magical fantasy world that he’s the “Chosen One” to save. Here, the fantasy world sucks and the kid turns down the job. I assume you had stories like Harry Potter and The Wizard of Oz in mind while writing it.
I think so. I think my main cultural foundation as a kid was Star Wars, which is one of the formative “normal kid becomes the Chosen One” story. I mean in his case it’s all in the same galaxy, but it might as well be a magical fantasy world, compared to Tatooine — but I think I’ve always liked stories like that. I also think those stories, after a while, they’re a little exhausting, right? It’s a template that has existed since the beginning of time. And rightfully so, because it’s interesting. It’s that Joseph Campbell thing, it’s what human beings want to hear. And I think that’s true. I guess I didn’t start out by saying, “I’m gonna do a spin on the Chosen One myth.” I just had this idea for a story, and it just so happened that I could go, “Oh, that would make a good young adult novel.” I think that’s how it came about, and that it became this riff on a Chosen One myth was kind of a bonus and provided me with a framework to work off of.
Unlike your first book, The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To, this book is being marketed in the young adult genre. Is that a market you’re specifically trying to reach out to?
I came up with the idea first. I didn’t start out wanting to write a young adult novel and see what ideas came from that. I had the idea and then said, “Oh, that would make a cool young adult book.”
The difference between this book and the first one is here I knew going into it this would be a young adult book, whereas with the first one I thought it would be sort-of grown-up literature. While talking about [Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep] I heard from people, “Oh, young adult books can have swearing and boobs and drugs and stuff like that.” And in my limited awareness of the young adult genre, it definitely can. But I would have preferred if this were a book where you feel like you can read it 10 years in, or you could read it if you were 25 or 50 or whatever. I think it definitely plays for all those people. But I didn’t want it to exclude the younger end of things. I think it’s something that those kids would really like. I think there’s a lot of really smart 10- and 12- and 15-year-olds out there who have already been inundated with enough Chosen One mythology that they would even pick up on some of the satirical elements. But again, satire is not the main element of the book. The story is the main element of the book.
Let’s talk about the story. Crap Kingdom straddles both the coming of age tale and fantasy epic, but it’s not the typical “fish out of water” story. Rather, Tom’s emotional outlook and choices dictate how fantastical the story becomes. He comes to and goes from the fantasy world based on how it could help his dating life, or when he feels like he missed out on something.
That was the impetus for me emotionally. I was dating a girl, and I started to get really anxious about it, thinking maybe I didn’t want to commit more to this person. And we broke up. As soon as her Facebook relationship status changed to “in a relationship,” I couldn’t have wanted her back more. And I think that’s a theme in a lot of people’s lives: you have something, you take it for granted, and as soon as you see it go and you see someone else with it, you want it back. Oh, you look so great now! What a fool I was! That’s where the story came from emotionally — mapping those beats on a Chosen One, fantasy realm. And it makes sense that at some point you would say, “Yeah, no. No, actually, I’m not gonna do it.”
But I’m not spinning that like it’s any narrative innovation. That goes all the way back to Joseph Campbell and “refusing the call.” I think I structure it a bit differently, but it’s essentially the same idea of saying, “No, I don’t want this. Wait, actually I do want it.” And I think the interesting twist is when you say, “I do want it,” they turn around and say “Nope, too late. Deal’s off.” I feel that’s how it is in life, where you’ll change your mind and people will say, “No, I live in Seattle now,” or whatever the case may be.
The concept of “soul-swapping” becomes significant in the book — both as a fantasy plot point and on an emotional level. Where did that idea come from?
Soul-swapping came up organically as a mechanism to get the characters to and from the fantasy world, but without having to go through the same portal. And once I thought about what it would entail it sort of gave me all these fun narrative possibilities. Now that makes up my favorite chunk of the book, where you have people going into the fantasy realm and then having their bodies piloted by these souls that are just happy to exist and not be floating in a void anymore.
I think the idea in particular of the soul that inhabits Tom being really competent and everything that Tom isn’t — that’s a sense that I’ve had, that some people I assume are reading Splitsider have — that sense of “everyone else seems so effortless.” Even the people I know who are really nerdy are so effortless. Being inside myself feels like I’m always in that Adventures of Pete and Pete episode where Artie moves their house one inch to the left or something, and everything is just off from then on, just one inch off. And I know I feel that way a lot of times.
Tom is a person who’s like that, who feels that he’s always missing an opportunity. There’s the part of the book where Tom thinks that everyone else knows when to be impulsive, that they know when the right time to be impulsive is, even though that idea itself completely defeats the purpose of being impulsive, right? I certainly know that I can relate to him on that score, especially as an actor, or as a comedian. You always hear these stories of all these other people who got parts: “He just went in, said, fuck it, he just did whatever.” And you have the counter-example of dudes in Maude team auditions at UCB where it’s like, “And then I decided to actually kiss this person I was in a scene with, and it was just creepy and wrong and awkward and bad, and I never should have done it, and it was gross and rapey.” There’s a good time to be impulsive, and a bad time to be impulsive, and I feel like Tom is always picking the wrong time to be impulsive and the person who’s inhabiting his body while he’s in the fantasy kingdom is picking all the right times to be impulsive, and he’s very jealous of that.
There’s a recurring theme in Crap Kingdom that everything in life is a let-down. Even the magical fantasy realm ends up literally made of garbage. Is that pessimism something you’re trying to defeat?
Oh yeah. I don’t think I’m a particularly cynical or negative person, but I don’t feel like a ray of sunshine inside of myself. When something good happens to me, I process it differently, like I don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. I always could enjoy things 30 percent more and think about things 50 percent less. So it came from a place of wanting to defeat that in myself, but I didn’t want to have a character who was like “Buh, this is stupid,” and everything around him rules. It’s more challenging to make your character think, “Buh, everything is stupid,” and everything around him is stupid. The challenge is getting him to look at it in a positive way and give him every reason in the world not to do it, so that maybe you’re a little on his side when he says, “You know what? No thanks, I’m good.” I think that’s a feeling that most of us can relate to, where we’re like, “Wait, this sucks, right?”
While you were writing your second book, did you start to feel more confident in your voice as a novelist?
To a degree, but it was also a bit more challenging, because this one has a different voice from the first one. The first one was written from the main character’s perspective, and this one is written from a third-person, storybook perspective. Now, granted, we’re in Tom’s head, but it’s still third person and past tense, which is a bit of a leap for me. But it did make it storybook-y, and I think if you can have more of those conventions, it makes the things that aren’t like a storybook stand out better and hopefully be funnier. But even then, we still spend most of the book in Tom’s head, because Tom spends most of his life in Tom’s head.
It was less daunting to me, that idea of “I will start this thing and eventually I will finish it, because I’ve done it before.” Like anything else, it’s easier to start something when you can imagine yourself doing it. Starting something and finishing something are very unique sensations.
Did you always want to write novels, or was it more of an natural progression from doing sketch comedy, where you were looking for new ways to get your voice out there?
I got into sketch comedy in college because it really interested me, and I felt that I understood it. And to me, it was superior to other art forms, particularly other art forms that I was surrounded by at the time. Whereas I was in a writing for TV program, people in my sketch group were studying acting. And it was a very serious, conservatory acting program. They would say, “Oh, I can’t do the show this month, I have to do a production of Richard III that takes place in the asshole of a mule.” And I had almost a snobbishness about that, where I thought you could learn more from doing an original sketch comedy show every month than you could from doing yet another production of Richard III that was in the asshole of a mule. I was very pretentious about sketch and valued it very highly, and I still do, because I think it’s a really great way to learn how to express an idea. And the way I view it, and the way the UCB theater where I studied sort of views it, is you’re expressing one, single idea in as economical a fashion as possible.
Standups will say sometimes that writing jokes is like solving a math problem. It’s one thing to have funny idea, and it’s another to sit down and figure out how to execute it. Is it a commercial parody? A genre parody? What’s the lens through which we’re experiencing this idea? It’s almost like there is a right answer, like there is a best way to do a sketch. Even though it’s art and truly subjective, it feels like there is a very objective element to it. And that’s what I always liked about comedy, the empricism of it. You either got a laugh or you didn’t.
Do you see writing a novel as yet another vehicle of executing the kind of ideas you would have for sketches?
Yes and no. I wrote a lot of prose and short stories in college because I liked knowing that I could have this idea, and I could express it. And I still do feel — like, I don’t want to say my books are like long sketches, but in the case of my first book, it’s about a kid who has a friend who turns out has no biological need for sleep. You can take that one, weird idea, and everything else in the world is normal. It’s like a sketch where everyone’s normal at a bus station and there’s a dude there who’s crazy in x-specific way, and he’s going to react against all these normal people, and they’re going to react against him. It makes it a lot less daunting to see it that way, rather than, here’s a novel about an author who lives in Nantucket. Go. And then things happen. Not that there’s anything wrong with books about authors who live in Nantucket.
In Crap Kingdom, similarly, you start with the idea, and you ask, what is the most fun and economical way to express this idea? And it just so happens that instead of being a sketch, it turns out being this fleshed-out novel. You can read a sketch that isn’t a young adult novel that is the same idea and has a similar structure to it. Like I don’t feel my book is a parody. It definitely has a parody element to it, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that. My comedy group DERRICK would go in to pitch ideas, and they’d be like, “Hey, that’s funny.” But they know you’re a sketch group, and they’d say, “But that’s like a sketch, you could do that in three minutes.” No, I know what a sketch is. There’s more there if you want there to be more there. Just like if you look at a show like Wilfred on FX. Yeah, I could totally write a sketch in my UCB 201 of a guy whose dog talks to him and nobody else sees the dog talk. But the makers of that show said, here is this interesting hook, but it’s not just the hook, but the contours of that hook that give us all these other interesting narrative possibilities to explore emotional things, intellectual ideas.
I’m still almost weirdly defending myself against an imaginary critic who’s saying “Well, it’s just a sketch.” No, I’ve written quite a few sketches. I know what a sketch is, and I know what can be expanded out into a whole universe of a thing.
You’ve been making rap videos using names of people who have pre-ordered your book. Why the big push for pre-order sales?
Eight or nine months ago I read an interview with a guy named Baratunde Thurston, who used to work at The Onion, and who is now an author and a free-floating Internet genius. He’s sort of a thinker on productivity and technology and race and all kinds of things. He wrote a book called How To Be Black, which is a nonfiction book that he did a really awesome pre-order campaign for. In this article I read, he broke down his whole campaign, and what worked and what didn’t. I’ve used the tenets he laid out as a guide. I shot for his thing and came very short. He did so many multifaceted things, where maybe if I understood coding better or the Internet better, I would do.
I know I sort of came to prominence in a comedy group that got us lumped in as YouTube darlings. Maybe if I understood something about technology. We really didn’t. That technology just became widely available, and then our director knew how to edit stuff on Final Cut Pro because he wanted to edit his own things. We just happened to be at a very fortuitous time in history. He just knew how to make sketches. And so, I think I have a lot of cool ideas. I don’t know if I have the technology background to execute them efficiently.
But one of the things that Baratunde was talking about in that article was you want to make sure that people actually buy the book. That sounds very obvious. You can get people talking about books, or telling others about books, but it’s very difficult to get people to buy the book. Especially now in the attention economy where everyone’s attention is being pulled in a million different ways. He was also talking about pre-orders, because he basically got on the New York Times bestseller list in his first week, and he was could stack the deck with pre-order sales. And that put a bug in my head where I said, “I want to try to do that.”
So, how could I make sure people pre-ordered? I would have to look at their receipt, right? How can I get them to send me their pre-order receipt? And I thought, oh, a custom rap song! I’ll put their name in a rap, and then I’ll do it on YouTube. And initially I thought I was going to do literally one for every person, but my friend Eliza was like, “You can’t do that. That’s fucking insane. You’ll die.” So, I’m gonna do 50 names per song, and I announced it before I had ever done one of them. So I didn’t know if I could actually do it. But when I announced it, I got a big run of pre-orders. I sold about 100-150 right out of the gate, and that was in August. And I just kept hitting it a little bit, and then I started doing them, working my way through these rap songs, and people seemed pretty happy about them. And it’s not just me reading people’s names with a beat, I work them into the rap in hopefully clever ways. And nobody’s asked me for a refund yet.
And I thought hopefully people will share these, and friends of these people will want to be a part of it. It’s not like I imagine everyone in the world would want one, because hardly anyone in the world knows who I am. I have a pretty small group of people who are aware of me, and some people are aware of me from different things. But the hope of all my publicity efforts is, maybe if you were aware of me from something else, you’ll be aware of me from something new, and then you’ll make that connection: “Oh right, that guy.” And those two things combined will make you want to buy the book. And with the pre-order campaign, it was something where I wanted people to do it, not just say, “Oh, he has a book coming out, I’m sure I’ll hear about it again when it comes out.” But you won’t hear about it when it comes out, because you’ll be hearing about other things and I don’t have the publicity budget of, say, NBC’s Grimm.
I just thought it was a fun thing — because I’m not hugely famous or anything — where you pre-order this book and send in your receipt and this guy across the country makes a rap video with your name in it. And it ended up being really successful. Even if I don’t make it onto the New York Times bestseller list, we sold like 700 preorder books. And that’s just people who sent me their receipts. And I’ve gotten through 250 names, so I have 450 left to go. And I’m not going to make any promises of a timeline, but I will get through all of them.
You got some attention for commenting on a Yahoo Answers post by a girl looking for a synopsis of your first book, which was required reading for her class. How does it feel knowing that your book is being read in schools, and that students are slacking off from reading it?
The answer is, it’s all cool. Not to be crass, but if you’re in a situation where you’re assigned the book, or even worse, the school buys the book for you — which to my knowledge hasn’t happened, it’s only been summer reading, not curriculum anywhere — whether they read it or not… your boy gets paid. (Laughs.) But seriously, in the case of my two books, I don’t get paid until the sales recoup the initial advances, which is still something I’m aspiring to. I’m like a literary TLC.
It’s just super cool. Not only do people think your book is good, people think children might get something out of reading it, in an academic setting. And I think too, with Crap Kingdom, I don’t think there’s anything in it that’s a big mystery, that’s up for debate, and I didn’t think that about the first book either. There does seem to be one thing in particular at the end of my first book that people seem to have different takes on. Like the top at the end of Inception, or whatever. I always thought the answer was very clear, so to hear that people have counter-veiling opinions is very neat.
It seems like you’ve written books that you would’ve loved when you were in high school. Is it frustrating to have to beg a kid to read them?
No. If there are kids out there who are like, “I don’t want to read,” then that’s not really the kid’s fault. It’s unfortunate that — now I’m sounding like Bill Cosby: (impressive Cosby voice) “It’s unfortunate that the child has not been given enough incentive to…” Hardly any of that burden rests with the kid. I would say it rests with the people in that kid’s life. My mom was reading to me from the time that I was a baby to the time that I was 10. And books were just valued in my home, they were things that were cool. I think there are several situations where kids are told, “Just do it,” and kids ask why, and people are like, “‘Cause.” And there has to be more to that discussion, especially in an attention economy, where a lot flashier things are competing with books for attention. People shit on Twilight, but anytime anyone’s excited about a book, I can’t argue with what book that is. When people are complaining that Twilight took over hall-H at Comic-Con, I’m just like, aren’t you just stoked that it’s a book that they’re excited about? That’s pretty neat. Anytime people are looking at a book and are like, “Cool,” I can’t argue with that.
In addition to the book, Pierson has released a number of other materials, including a rap mix tape, 30 minutes of standup, an hour-long one-man storytelling show, and a soundtrack for the book with songs by original indie artists, all of which are available at Crap Kingdom‘s website. He asks that if you enjoyed any of this stuff, to show him some love and buy the book itself, which is available in stores and on Amazon (positive reviews are always welcome).