I ran across this article,“Trying To Find An Agent Is The Worst Thing Ever,” and I laughed so hard. I was determined to track down the author, Ken Pisani.
Let’s just say after a few Twitter DMs and emails, we set up a time to meet for coffee, as we’re both L.A. locals. An inspiring author myself, I had to meet the funny man behind the hilariously written article. I found his humility and natural comedic personality refreshing. We sat and had coffee and he answered all of my questions about the writing world and the TV industry. I then ordered Ken’s book AMP’D, an adult commercial dramedy, and absolutely loved it! AMP’D briefly landed on the Los Angeles Times Bestseller List and was later nominated for the 2017 Thurber Prize for American Humor, “losing” to Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime.
AMP’D is an off-beat humorous tale about a man whose arm gets amputated in a car accident. At its core, the book is actually about re-establishing yourself through life’s transitions and learning how to live with this normal. After Aaron get’s in a serious car accident, his arm is not salvageable and he finds himself moving back home to live with his dad. Now one-armed, he finds himself exploring the world of pot-smoking, adjusting to giving up his job as a teacher, and becoming a fish counter (an actual job!)
The entire time I was reading it, I could see it unfold as a movie. And despite Pisani and his agent getting the book optioned, it never reached the big screen. I’m still hoping this book has a chance. It is no surprise that Pisani has had a career in TV show and comedy writing. It definitely shows through his work. If you are a Kurt Vonnegut fan, you’ll love AMP’D. And, if you want a break from speculative fiction and the world of genre specific, AMP’D is a must read. This is especially true if you love a good laugh and a book layered with relatable-life-subtext.
For all of you aspiring author’s here’s my Q & A with the laugh-out-loud funny man and novelist Ken Pisani.
Q & A With Ken Pisani
What sparked your inspiration for AMP’D, your debut novel?
I wanted to break out of the rigid structure
of screenwriting, and also stretch those “prose” muscles, and I decided that called for an unconventional story and a protagonist who was on anything but a “hero’s journey.” (We could have a much longer conversation about my belief that the hero’s journey is bullshit!) AMP’D isn’t really about a guy whose arm is amputated; it’s about feeling suddenly diminished, about who we decide to become when we’re no longer the person we used to be. And then filtering it all through a comic lens: Aaron’s comic humiliation begins with his being forced home to be taken care of by his father, and every further struggle—including the reluctant reunion of a family that thought they were mostly done with each other—just piles on more comic setbacks for Aaron. (Comedy writers are sadists at heart.)
Aaron is a fish counter, which is a hilarious profession. How did you come up with that job for your main character and how much research was involved?
I wanted Aaron to find a ridiculous job that mirrored his personal futility. (Another I considered: lighthouse operator in a place far away from any body of water.) I stumbled across federal government efforts at fish conservation—which is really dam conservation, as everything is designed not to save the fish but to save the dams endangering them. By the time you’re firing fish over dam walls with a FISH CANNON(!), clearly your concern isn’t for the well being of the fish. Surreal government bureaucracy seemed a very good fit for Aaron. The twist was that he quickly became good at his job—which is basically counting fish swimming in the wrong direction. This is an actual job(!), about which I read what I could and even contacted a government agency via email; they responded to my questions, although there was a note of annoyance in their replies.
I could relate to Aaron in so many ways because I’ve always felt a little different from other people. Was something in your life or career that influenced the main character being an amputee and having to adjust to this new norm?
I recall I was well into writing the novel when I realized what I was writing about: As I mentioned above, feeling suddenly diminished. It struck me much later that I was about to turn 50, and that’s really what I was writing about. I think it’s relatable on multiple levels—it could be the loss of a job or a loved one or divorce, or even as you point out a general feeling of otherness. The difference perhaps is that Aaron uses his missing limb as an apologist for every selfish thing he says and does, while the rest of us cannot.
The alligator was humorous and a unique pet to pick. What prompted you to make this choice? Are you familiar with Mary Thorn and Rambo, the woman and her alligator who live in Florida? He sleeps with her in her bed and she dresses him up and even kisses him on his lips!
I’d never heard that! Now I have to look her up. As a kid I had a friend who kept alligators in their apartment bathtub (and the crazy thing was they only had ONE bathroom). The backstory of Muhammad Ali Gator suited the oddball relationship between Aaron’s parents, who at one time desperately loved one another. It’s one of many unconventional anniversary presents between people who weren’t about to gift paper, china, silver like everyone else.
Aaron, your main character smokes a lot of pot. Do you smoke pot recreationally or used to?
I smoked a lot of pot as a teen, from morning till night. At that time, “straight” was an altered state for me. Now that pot is medicinal, it seemed like something a guy like Aaron would take advantage of in an attempt to disappear. Also, naming all those strains of pot was enormous fun.
What is your writing process like? Are you a plotter or a pantser or something in the middle?
As part of my urge was to break from the rigors of screenwriting, which is a lot of outlining and figuring out not just story but structure, AMP’D was much more free form as I tried to find the story. AMP’D is mostly character; the plot (such as it is) doesn’t kick in for several chapters. (You could never do that in a conventional script.) Without giving too much away, there were moments that just struck me as I was writing them that took the story in new directions, and I was both surprised and pleased with those unexpected turns. I can’t recommend this approach to first-time novelists. It can be frustrating and eventually not add up to much. I have a slightly more planned current novel, although I allow plenty of room to change my mind.
How long does it take you, typically, to draft a novel?
Hard to say as I generally don’t have a block of time just to work on a novel. I jump in and out of it when I can. AMP’D was written in pieces until finally around 2013 my wife Amanda told me to just finish it, and because she was working it gave me the luxury to do so and I finished it quickly. I write fast—I can draft a pilot in a week and a movie in a month—but novels are daunting… the decisions are many and more methodical, and the pace slower. Two of my least favorite words are “word count.”
AMP’D is definitely a character driven novel. In fact, reading it for some reason I pictured Steve Buscemi as Aaron. Do you do character sketches for all your characters? Do you sometimes envision actors in each role just to help with development, being that you have a TV writing background?
Reservoir Dogs-era Steve Buscemi is a great choice! But I mostly don’t do that when writing. To me they’re people, not actors or even characters; I can see them but they’re not anyone I know. I don’t think I’ve ever sketched them out. I believe I know who they are essentially and then they emerge for me on the page; I can hear them, and they reveal themselves to me as much as the reader in voice and action.
Aaron is perfectly described in the novel’s opening paragraph:
“I’m not the guy who beats the odds and overcomes adversity. I’m the guy who wakes up in the hospital to find out his arm has been amputated and says, Fuck me.” Even as he (sort of) grows, everything in his character flows from that. And not sketching allows for flukes: I made “Dad” a former Olympic biathlete on an impulse, because I always thought the exercise—cross-country skiing and shooting a rifle—was pretty ridiculous as a sport. But then it became a metaphor for the character, a guy who as he aged modulated his life away from the poles of heart-pumping excitement and the quiet restful state required to hit a target toward “the dull stripe of the middle.”
What have you learned along the way from trying to obtain an agent to getting published?
It’s impossibly hard for a debut novel, especially with unconventional material. Something more plot-driven or in a familiar genre will likely attract greater attention. It’s hard to sell any book, and what agent wants to take on this kind of challenge? I’m aware that I’ve been extremely lucky in finding both agent and publisher. I submitted to 24 agents before landing mine, and then together we suffered the serial rejection of 19 editors and publishers before finding a home at St. Martin’s Press. All in all, I’ve been extremely lucky. My publisher also sold foreign rights, which recouped my advance (and more). But I also learned that being published by one of the “big” houses doesn’t guarantee success. Finding readers is very difficult in a crowded marketplace.
Your style reminds me a lot of one of my favorite authors, the late Kurt Vonnegut. Are you influenced at all by his writing? What are you working on next? Are you going to stick to contemporary adult fiction stories or will you be dabbling in speculative fiction?
That’s very high praise! I haven’t read enough Vonnegut to be influenced by him, but I should remedy that. As for what’s next, because St. Martin’s does not publish short fiction I’ve already self-published a novella, 4 Corners. It’s reverse-engineered from a pilot script I wrote, a quirky Coen brothers-like murder mystery. (The e-book is cheaper than a beer! https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01N7574B2/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i2)
I’m about mid-way through a new novel. It’s more ambitious than AMP’D in that it follows multiple characters across time periods (1989 and present). It might qualify as “speculative” as it’s a wildly fictionalized take on a true story, the defection of a Soviet hockey player to the US, while exploring other world political events of the era. But funny!