An Interview with Noah Cicero

First published on The Huffington Post (15th December 2011) //

Noah Cicero is a novelist, poet and short-story writer from Youngstown, Ohio. He has authored six novels, the first of which, his influential and widely-acclaimed small press namedrop The Human War (2003), has just been made into a feature-length film. Cicero’s work has been described as ‘angry’, ‘political’, ‘bleak’ and ‘absurdist,’ among other words. He is currently 31 years of age.

What made you first start writing? Was there a moment when you first wrote something and thought it could go somewhere?

In 2003, I wrote a thing as an experiment after reading Proust’s The Fugitive. I wanted to create something that had tons of mental thoughts in it, a lot of stream of conscious, but in an American way. I also read Waiting for Godot at that time, so I wrote this thing with very short lines and no paragraphs, the actual thing wasn’t that interesting, but the way it was written was.  I can’t even remember its name now, I probably have it somewhere on a floppy disc.  I stared and stared at it and thought, “I did something, I did something.”  It was just one line after one line. I kept looking at it and thought, “I could write a book with this.”  So I decided to write The Human War using the same style, then I sent it to random publishers I found online.

There seems to be something forming that has been for the last decade (with you, Tao Lin, Sam Pink, and others), of an almost collective young American literary voice emerging. What is it moving toward? Do you see yourselves in a certain position in the American literary scene?

Yes, I think we are a group. We read each other’s things and have read a lot of the same authors.  We have all also been influenced by German and French existentialism which is very different than what goes on in popular literature. Popular literature like Denis Johnson or Dave Eggers doesn’t contain philosophy or have any ideas about anything contained in it.  Americans have this thing, in the past literature was created by well-read people who had ideas about life, but slowly starting in the 70s it became “as long as it isn’t genre it is literature.”  Ideas and philosophy left literature in the 70s. What has been coming out for the last 40 years has not been literature but “non-genre.”

Where is America headed?

Well, I would be more worried about your side of the world.  America is about to cut $600 billion from its military which will greatly reduce the power and scope of the American military, it will be the death of the American empire.  When America disappears it will create Power Vacuums all over the planet, in political science it is called The State of Nature.  America and England held a lot of things in place even if it was ugly at times, but now that America and England won’t be able to hold things in place all kinds of strange wars will probably pop up on the planet.  We have to remember that before America took over the world, Europeans killed each other constantly for about since the end of the Roman Empire.  And for America, America will become shittier and shittier as each year passes, the population of America are very materialistic and obsessed with prestige, Americans don’t care about anything, they are proud and stubborn and snobbish which has led to a terrible prejudice of everything.

How hopeful/despondent do you feel about the future?

A small portion of America is protesting right now and trying to learn about what is going on, but the majority are excited about buying flat screens for Christmas so they can sit in their house and watch a giant television.

What are you writing at the moment?

I just wrote a book called NEOTAP, it is 73,000 words, I gave it to my agent, hopefully he can get it published.

Did you have any involvement with the production of The Human War film? How was that experience?

It was a lot of fun, the directors Pirooz Kalayeh and Thomas Henwood were a lot of fun to work with.  I didn’t participate in the writing of the script or much of the film.  I let them do it, I don’t make movies.  I felt honored that someone wanted to make it into a movie at all.  I don’t understand writers who get mad about people messing their books up, they should be happy it happened at all.  Personally I enjoyed the fact that something I wrote gave a chance to the directors, camera men, actors, and sound people to use their creativity.  I went on set a lot for The Human War and Shoplifting from American Apparel, to me a movie set is about a group of people working together to make something, everyone has to do their part and be innovative and creative or the movie won’t work.  I was happy to participate in that.

Is it all about boredom? Or is it a way of the youth trying to get past that and in contact with something meaningful?

I thought about this question a lot: the first problem with the question is the language, the word ‘meaningful’ doesn’t imply what you think it does, most of my generation has the definition of the word ‘meaning’ incorrect.  The word ‘meaning’ implies that something matters to something else.  Water means a lot to me because I need it to live, without water I am in trouble. Food means something to me because I need it to live, without it I am in trouble.  My computer means something to me because I ‘like’ it.  If I don’t have a computer I am not in trouble, I just have to get used to not having one.

For something to really ‘mean’ something other things have to be dependent upon it. In our large societies where we have millions of people nobody really means anything.  In a small tribal society or even in a feudalistic society where everyone has a place and does a certain thing, then people have much more meaning.  I would say how much a human matters really depends on the size of the society, the bigger the society the more needless everyone becomes, basic supply and demand.  People in America, Europe and Asia are generally needless.  An American, European and Asian may have children to become ‘meaningful’ but that is about it.  You cannot become ‘meaningful’ or have ‘meaning’ because you’ve chosen to be a writer or an engineer, it is good that you have direction and you have goals, but that isn’t ‘meaning.’  If I died today the publishing world would go on, everyone would go on, if a blacksmith died in a small village in 1215 England the town would be in trouble.  Do you see the difference?

What you say about ‘meaning’, as societies grow larger, making people ‘mean’ less and less, is interesting: In the situation you give, you are speaking of a small community, and the survival of that community, because there are people with specific roles to maintain its survival. Who are the people maintaining the survival of the ‘developed’ ‘industrialised’ society? Are the ones maintaining it the ones with meaning? 

I don’t feel like there are people “maintaining developed countries.”  Everyone seems to be doing some little thing that keeps the machine running, there are janitors, politicians, comedians, bankers and school teachers, all doing a little thing.  Now we could view that as “meaningful” but we don’t.  Now if we were Aristotelians we could view it as everyone doing their duty, no matter what they are, and that they should have virtue when doing their job.  But we don’t.  The television constantly notifies us that whatever we are is not good enough, that we could do better, make more money, buy more things.  My friend Vince said, “Americans are viewed not on what they do, but how much debt they can maintain.”  This is linked to the overriding message of capitalism and democracy, which both have replacement mechanisms, if you are bad at your job you are fired, if the people don’t like you, you can be voted out.  I just read Harlot’s Ghost by Norman Mailer, it is about the CIA. The CIA agents in it are charged with meaning, they are protecting America!  But in reality the CIA and the FBI don’t protect America, they protect the interests of the upper classes and corporations.  The FBI should be out there right now charging police officers with macing and hitting protesters with batons, the NYPD for removing the protesters from Zucotti Park, but instead they do nothing, laws have been broken, our rights are not being protected, but yet they do nothing.  The CIA and FBI only react to whatever crazy politicians the American people vote in, if Bush tells them to torture people they do it, if Obama tells them to catch Osama and throw him in the ocean they do it, they have no morals and no real meaning.  Jesus the politicians who are have “meaning” just voted that pizza is a vegetable because Coke and a bunch of Potato Farmers paid them to, even if they ‘meaning’ they don’t seem to care.

Do you think about your legacy when you write?

I think about legacy all the time, I believe like Nietzsche and Kerouac that a person creates their life.  I don’t think my life in anyway resembles Nietzsche or Kerouac, I just like that idea.  Yesterday I spent an hour teaching a 13 year old how to play some songs on the guitar, I not only want to be known as a writer, but as a person that spends time helping children learn things.

There is a Republican call center where I live that hires anybody and pays 12 dollars an hour, but I don’t apply there because I don’t want to be known as a person that works for conservatives.  To me legacy isn’t just about writing, but about one’s whole life, a life lived where the ideas of virtue are applied.  Concerning writing directly, yes, I want it to be as timeless as possible, but at the same time timely as possible.  My favorite writing is always writing that shows what it is like to live at a certain time but also the author has investigated and thought about what is universal about being alive at any time.  Obviously the story A Tale of Two Cities could have only been told during the French Revolution, but someone in Eygpt could read A Tale of Two Cities right now and gain wisdom from it.

Do you think any of the work on the Internet is timeless?

I think there have been some timeless stories on the Internet, Sam Pink to me is timeless. xTx and Ana Carrete all have a sense of what it means to write something that is timeless.  I think that if you didn’t know what you were looking for and just reading everything that appeared on the Internet you would probably find a lot of bad writing. But what I think Tao and I have done for the past 8 years is try very hard to find out who are the writers who are taking writing seriously.  When I read Ana Carrete’s poetry I thought, “Damn, she is taking writing seriously.”

A lot of the writing are people who come and go, they are having fun in their 20s but soon enough they will end up with serious jobs and responsibilities. A lot of the writing on the Internet is about the minutia of what it is like to live right now and has nothing universal about it, that is true.  I do get enjoyment out of a poem or story about someone just living their day and all the strange thoughts and feelings they have, a writer like [Richard] Yates is like that, he captures his time perfectly and as long as suburbs exist and people are still bored and sad in them then his writing will have a place in the world.  I don’t think you could give a Yates book to a person who has never lived in the suburbs or in a modern society and expect them to enjoy it.  But even though Yates didn’t write what one could call timeless stories, his writing makes an intense statement about what it means to live in a modern highly developed society.  And I don’t think a writer achieves the universal in every book, Hunter S. Thompson doesn’t achieve anything universal in any of his books except for Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, that book says a lot about what it means to be in a democracy, it has the same themes as The Apology of Plato.  If democracy is destroyed for a 1,000 years and gets created again in 3020, they will probably pick up Thompson’s book and read it to learn something.

I think you have explained what I meant when I ask about the lack of ‘timelessness’ in some of the writing found on the Internet. As society grows larger, the amount of writing also increases, making more of it more meaningless; or less of it meaningful. 

I would say the language used is incorrect, a well written story that is timeless and has a great theme.  The Mill Pond by xTx is a great example, the story flows so smoothly, the language is almost poetry, the style is unique, everyone knows the feeling of walking around alone and finding random things to do by their house, everyone knows what it is like to walk around on a boring summer day.  The universal feelings are there.  But I know who and have communicated with xTx, she doesn’t have any social connections, she doesn’t have a college degree, she doesn’t have any way of getting hold of someone and getting the Paris Review to publish her work.  So she publishes it online.

I don’t think because there are more people there is less meaningful literature. I think there are only a few outlets for writers to reach large audiences and the big publishers are invested in making sure their stockholders are happy. Big publishers have to make money, they have to keep their stock price up, they can’t publish something that might not make money.  If a publisher wants to make money they have to publish books that go into every Barnes and Nobles in America, even the ones in Nebraska or Montana.  But people in those places don’t read new literature by new authors they have never heard of, they don’t care.  The thing that defines this new era of online writing is that people who have no social connections are writing and getting their stuff out there.  One could easily say if they were just randomly prowling the internet, “A lot of this is shit.”  But if you know where to look, there is a lot of good writing in it.

Do you feel as if there’s a ‘message’ to give? If there is one, what is that message? 

I think the message is that much of modern society and what makes it run is maya, I’m sorry to use that word, but it is the best word for it, maya. The marketers have taken over society, they have convinced most people that happiness lies in buying objects, in looking a certain way, in spending one’s days watching television and eating disgusting food from grocery stores.

I think for us, the grocery store is the biggest enemy. In most countries you have markets, you walk to the market and go from personally owned stand to personally owned stand seeking food needed to live. The market is about personal entrepreneurship, about freedom. The grocery store is a corporation selling products from a few select corporations. A market is a human selling products that other humans grew, raised or caught to other humans. I wrote human three times in the last sentence, because it is human.

My great Sicilian grandfather came to America and sold food in the market, then the market got pushed out and my grandfather bought a grocery store, a nice little locally owned store where the people could speak to the owner anytime they wanted, then Wal-Mart and other corporations came and pushed my family’s store out.  If you want to know what is wrong with American society look at the grocery store. I often buy things from a flea market near my house because I like the idea of talking to the people selling me things, of having conversations with the people around me.

Internet literature has that old thing to it, you can speak to the author, you can speak to the owner of the press, you can communicate with humans.

Can literature, or art, change anything in any meaningful, lasting way?

Well the best examples are the Bible, the Communist Manifesto, Locke’s Second Treatise and the Koran are all books, those books have been around for a long time and are still influencing people.  But for literature, the evidence is clear, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped free the slaves, the Beatniks ushered in the hippy movement which gave women more freedom, gave people an interest in drugs, and William S. Burroughs was writing about homosexuality before anyone else was.  Homosexuals owe a huge debt to Burroughs and Ginsberg.  Black people and the civil rights movement were greatly influenced by the novels of Richard Wright and James Baldwin.  And even though I don’t think it is that great Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged has had a huge influence on how people in the financial markets behave and view reality.  According to Richard Rorty the novel is where people get their philosophy in the modern era. Novels give us a way on how to view reality, on how to interpret it, and who controls the interpretation controls reality.

I think that we haven’t seen a lot of timeless or innovative writing for awhile because the world was kind of boring for awhile, from about 1975 to 2000 the developed world was really boring.  But everything seems be shaking again, things are being moved around, old things are dying and new things are rising. This is an exciting time if you live in China, Syria, England or America, I want everyone to write about what they are experiencing, if you are in Syria right now reading this, write a novel, if you are in England and are protesting and participating in riots, write it down, I want to read it.

Does meaning not exist outside of survival? How can survival be the only purpose when death is inevitable?

Because we don’t want to die.

All this ‘meaning’ talk is just modern topical conversation.  Read Dickens and Thomas Hardy, nobody is talking about leading a ‘meaningful’ life in those books. In those books people are stuck in a situation and they have to make a moral choice on how to deal with it.  This is why The Sun Also Rises is such a great book, it records the first time young people could walk around and just talk about random things and feel ’empty.’  Books before that didn’t have that.  This is a modern problem which will go away one day whenever we run out of oil.

How about art before large, industrialised societies. Does art also have more significance when there are less people to receive it, less people to communicate to? Or can it be that the wider the ‘audience’ the more significant it can become, for good, or for bad, or for neither? Or does the purpose of art transform when the requirement for communication increases, as we become more disconnected, as in our ‘civilised’ society?

Personally I don’t know, this depends on the culture. In a culture like Egypt where everyone is Muslim and prayers at the same time everyday to the sound of bells because they have such a strong group ethic built into them, then art could affect the whole of society.  As for China I don’t know the dynamics of their culture enough to state a worthwhile opinion. In America where we have CHOICE, there has become many different subcultures and subcultures on top of subcultures.  The best example would be country music, I live in the North-East part of America and they play country with themes such as partying and breaking up with your girlfriend songs.  When you are in the middle of America, Oklahoma and Nebraska, they play songs with themes about God and tractors and farmers.  Even though they are both listening to country music, and they are made by many of the same musicians they listen to different songs from the same album.  America really clings to niche-based marketing, go buy cereal, there is healthy cereal, gluten free cereal, and unhealthy chocolate cereal.  Cable television has over 200 stations now, the niche-marketing thing has taken over, which has led to everyone watching, eating, and listening to things that reinforce their own ideas about life and the world. If someone writes a book or makes a television show that could change life as we know it, only a few people are even going to see it because of the way we market things and how niche-orientated everyone is.

What, do you think, is the purpose of art?

To honor.