Inside James Taylor Johnston’s ‘Stinker Lets Loose!’ with Mike Sacks

sacks-stinker

Author Mike Sacks is reviving a lost genre with his new book Stinker Lets Loose! Sacks, who has penned five popular comedy books, including two interview collections (2009’s And Here’s the Kicker and the 2014 New York Times bestseller Poking a Dead Frog) is now reminding readers about the forgotten, halcyon, beer-infused days of truck driving and CB radio films.

In the 1970s, American movie audiences saw an unexpected rise in the release of rural, Southern-based, long-haul-truckin’ action movies. Citizens band radio, or CB radio among its aficionados, had its heyday among truckers and then among the general public. CB radios were used by drivers as a way to learn the latest road conditions, the distance to their favorite restaurants, and where police (also known as “smokeys”) set up speed traps. The CB radio became a key component in films such as Smokey and the Bandit, Breaker! Breaker!, Convoy, and Every Which Way But Loose. Think of the CB as a very 1970s version of the internet, albeit with audio only and very dated slang.

The premise for this new book is that Sacks is re-releasing a long-out-of-print novelization from 1977 based on a mysterious, long forgotten trucking movie called Stinker Lets Loose! The book features the movie’s “original” ads, 25 black-and-white movie stills (with captions), and an order form to purchase other novelizations.

In addition to the main character of Stinker, characters include Boner, Jumbo, mountain boy Buck, and Rascal the chimp. The main antagonists are Big Government and the Smokeys.

Sacks, an avid fan of the genre, preferred CB and trucking movies to Star Wars, and became obsessed with the films that offered nonsensical plot lines as well as hot-air balloons, chimps, and Dom DeLuise. The obsession continues to this day.

Stinker Lets Loose! is being released under Sacks’s own imprint, Sunshine Beam Publishing, and is the first in an upcoming series of novelizations and other releases.

You wrote Stinker Lets Loose! under a pseudonym (James Taylor Johnston). What was the reason behind that choice?

I just liked the idea of publishing a book that I wrote the foreword to but that someone else “wrote.” And did so years ago—forty years ago, in 1977. I also like the idea of it being very realistic and “of its time.” I love books that are off the radar now but were popular or semi-popular back when. Books about, say, teen druggies in the 1960s. Or bikers in the 1970s.

But what I really love are novelizations. I’m not sure why. I just absolutely love movie tie-ins. That someone actually took the time to write a book based on a movie script… I find that incredible. I mean, there exist novelizations of the worst fucking movies and TV shows imaginable. I love that sort of thing and always seek them out in used bookstores. Over the years, I’ve collected a ton of novelizations. So this just felt like a fun thing to do.

It was very freeing to write under another name, another persona. Almost as if I was playing a character.

When you wrote for MAD years ago you wrote under the pseudonym, J. Michael Shade. Why was that?

I was freelancing just after college. I pitched MAD some ideas. A few months later, I received a call from one of the editors, who said, “Listen, we like your ideas a lot but we have an intern whose job it is to go through Cracked magazine and find byline names. And we found your name.” The MAD editor said this as if he caught me red-handed while committing a major felony. I thought, Jesus. So? I wrote some articles for Cracked, who cares?

And he went on: “And here’s the thing: we can’t tell you who to write for and who not to write for. But we despise Cracked. They are nothing but a cheap knockoff of MAD. So if you want to write for us—and if you still want to write for Cracked—then there are a couple of things that has to happen, unfortunately. First, you won’t be invited on the annual MAD vacations.” MAD used to send their writers and artists on yearly vacations if you hit a certain number of published pages. For instance, one year they all visited Haiti to meet their one subscriber down there. They also traveled to Europe and other locations. Regardless, I had zero interest in going on any “MAD vacations.” Sounded like a nightmare. So I said, “Fine.”

The editor went on: “And we’re going to pay you less money than we would if you weren’t writing for Cracked.” Now this hurt. I was flat broke and eating spaghetti with cream cheese every night. Literally. “Okay,” I said. But I was a bit pissed.

“And last,” he said, “you have to write under a pseudonym.”

Who gives a shit, right? So that’s what I did for my first MAD piece, which was illustrated by the amazingly talented Drew Friedman. It was about an intern for the mafia. I came up with a fake name, J. Michael Shade. And that’s how I’m still known within the MAD universe: “J. Michael Shade.” Truthfully, I’m still a lot more upset by the lack of pay.

stinker-lets-looseThe cover design is great. Can you talk about its inspiration?

I wanted the book to look as realistic as possible. I’m putting this book out under my own imprint, so I hired an amazing designer, Danielle Deschenes. She’s a top designer at Random House. I gave her a ton of my novelizations and said, “Make it look like it comes from the ’70s. I want it to look as realistic as possible. Imagine you’re shopping for used books on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland or Virginia Beach, and stumble across this. You wouldn’t know any differently.”

I always use Ocean City and Virginia Beach as examples because that’s where I used to buy a ton of used books when I was a kid, during the summers. Danielle nailed it. She even put in some “rips” on the cover and a “stain.” She’s brilliant.

David Sedaris wrote a blurb for the book. You recently opened for him at some of his live events. How did you get to open for him and what was that experience like?

I’m not a big fan of speaking in front of crowds. But David, whom I’m friendly with, asked me to open for him a few months ago. I wasn’t going to say no. So I practiced and did a few read-throughs before smaller crowds. Anyway, I’m happy I forced myself to do it. I love it. It’s very surreal up on stage. I’ve never acted. I’ve never read pieces live. I went from never doing it at all  to reading in front of one thousand, two thousand people.

It’s a very lonely spot up there. But there’s nothing like a live, visceral reaction to a piece you’ve written. I wasn’t used to that. It’s incredible. And the audiences are amazing. They’re primed to laugh, to have fun. Also, David always comes out first and introduces me. That helps a tremendous amount. He’s giving his stamp of approval, which means everything. I love the man. I think he’s a genius writer. Not just with comedy, but with all writing, in any genre. He’s also one of the most decent people I’ve ever met. And that comes through in his work. I don’t know any writer of his caliber—or his popularity—who treats his fellow writers and his readers as well as David does. No one. Except perhaps for George Saunders, another genius and total mensch.

The book is celebrating a certain type of movie, action comedies like Smokey and the Bandit or Cannonball Run. The blurbs on the back cover pan Stinker Lets Loose, one saying “Better than Star Wars. Just kidding. It sucks.” How did you feel about these movies growing up and about the action comedy genre in general?

To be honest, I liked them more than Star Wars. I know, I know. I’m going to be killed for saying that, but I grew up in Virginia and Maryland, and then later New Orleans, and those CB and trucking movies were huge for me. They meant more to me than space operas. I love Burt Reynolds and saw a lot of these in the theaters. I’m obsessed with them. I mean, Dom DeLuise. How did this guy exist? How did any of this exist? Hot-air balloons. Chimps. Plot lines that made zero sense. I loved it all—still do.

They’re very loose and very impromptu. They were the first movies–or one of the first–to have bloopers at the end of the movie. Bloopers in the theater! Not on a “Director’s Cut” on DVD. I always felt as if I was watching surveillance video or something. Or home videos. No one seemed to give a shit.

Loose as a goddamn goose.

In an interview for Poking a Dead Frog you said, “This one nearly killed me. Not sure why, but the process was much more difficult than it was for the first book.” How did the writing process for Stinker Lets Loose compare to writing your previous books?  

It took longer than I thought. I thought I’d write it in a week. But it took a few months. It had to be bad, but very specifically bad. Purposely shitty. Every bad sentence is bad in a very tight, specific way. Every grammatical error. Every non-PC statement. Every cliché. Every horribly written piece of dialogue. But so goddamn fun. I mean, this is why I got into writing — for it to be fun. I haven’t had this much fun writing since… I can’t even remember, really. It’s very unhinged. I hope not too unhinged.

Do you think any advice you’ve received from your interviews with writers and comedians helped in writing this? If so, how?

Yes, I think so. Mostly to just write what you want, how you want to write. This book is not for a major publisher. There were no editorial “notes.” I had complete creative freedom. It’ll probably sell 100 copies. But it was my choice to do it. And it’s the way I want it to read. I wrote it for me. No publisher on earth would want to publish this piece of shit. Any major publisher, anyway. And no agent would want to take it on. They just wouldn’t. It’s not “big” enough. It’s bizarre. It’s not the type of book to sell at airport bookstores. It’s not going to be featured in People magazine. I’m not going to be promoting it on any morning TV shows.

One of my biggest influences growing up was Ian Mackaye from Dischord Records. He was a member of Minor Threat and then Fugazi. A DC guy. And he did whatever the hell he wanted. This was pre-internet. I grew up in the DC area. I found this amazing. I still do. Very, very much ahead of his time.

I’m not calling what I’m doing punk at all. Believe me. What Ian did is on a whole different level. A much, much better level. But I do think that, in the end, what matters the most is just to do what you want, regardless of the possible outcome. People won’t like it. People won’t buy it. Or maybe a few hundred will. But fuck it — just do it. And then move on to the next project.

Really tired of hearing what “works” in the publishing world. “Hey, write a funny book of tweets from Shakespeare!” “Hey! Write a funny batch of poems and haikus in the voice of Donald Trump!” “Hey! Write a funny book about how even guys like cats!” Oh boy. Or “Hey! Write a book aimed at children!” That’s all well and good, but I don’t want to. The older I get, the more I just want to be left the fuck alone to write whatever I want. Again, this one will most likely sell 100 copies but so be it.

I’ve found that writers and publishers are completely at opposing ends when it comes to a humor sensibility. What we, as authors, like to write isn’t what publishers, for the most part, like to publish — the total opposite. But I’m hoping that with the advent of self-publishing, this will all change and that writers will now publish what they want to publish, rather than what others want them to write.

Just tired of it all. Tired of it taking a year for a book idea to be accepted by a publisher. Tired of it then taking two years or more for the book to come out and be published and to find a spot in a store. Tired of having to get blurbs from writers when, in the end, blurbs make zero difference when it comes to sales.

In the end, just have fun. And do what you want.

You recently had an article published in The New York Times on obsessive compulsive disorder. Are there any plans to delve more into this and its relation to comedy and creativity?

I think there’s a very strong connection between OCD and comedy. It’s never been written about. Depression and comedy have been written about extensively, but not OCD. I would like to write a book about a possible connection. I suffer from it quite badly, as do a lot of comedy writers, including David Sedaris, who has written about it quite a bit. If you can channel your OCD energy into something positive—writing, for instance—and not negative (licking strange objects) it can be a very powerful thing. And that’s what I’ve found with a lot of writers. They’ve learned how to control this bizarre energy.

It’s very powerful. I wished I knew all this when I was young. I didn’t. I just thought I was losing my mind. That I was insane. No kid should have to feel that. And I’m hoping that kids now who suffer from OCD are surrounded by people who know what it is and who know that it doesn’t have to be all negative.

What do you think your next book, if you think you’ll do another one, will be about?  

I have a few ideas for books. But I had so much fun with this last one. I want to stick within this format. Just put out more books under my own imprint. Play your cards right, Ian, and I might just make you a major character in one of these books. The virgin who’s afraid of women, but who knows every Monty Python sketch ever performed. You know: me in real life.

Photo by Chris George.

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