PLACEBO JUNKIES Coming Out This Week From Knopf


J. C. Carleson’s new book, Placebo Junkies, is coming out this week from Knopf, and I wanted to write a few words about it (avoiding spoilers):

First, this book is well-written. The phrasing is great. The voice is consistent and engaging. For an example, here’s half of a sentence from the first chapter:

” …hold in that razor-blade wetness long enough to find a cup, a bucket, anything to catch it, dammit, and you barely manage to stifle your scream of triumph as you find an empty Snapple bottle in the trash can and fill it with your beautiful, cloudy piss with its faint but unmistakable trace of blood.”

Second, this book is gritty (see example above). The characters, events, and relationships are real, honest, and brutal.

Third, this book will make you think about some big, important social and societal issues. How’s that for a vague promo with no spoilers?

Finally – and maybe most important for a young adult book – you will never be bored while reading this. There wasn’t a single moment when I thought, “Yeah, I’ll just read something else for a while and put this book down.” No, Placebo Junkies has enough of the unexpected to keep a reader going all the way until the end.

William Faulkner Quote On Talent Versus Work

This needs no intro or follow up:

“At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that — the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, train himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance. That is, to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is … curiosity to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does. And if you have that, then I don’t think the talent makes much difference, whether you’ve got that or not.”

[Press conference, University of Virginia, May 20, 1957]
William Faulkner

Time Is Not Linear – Art Inspires Art

Here is my explanation of time – the way that I understand time – with images of art interspersed (great art affecting the way that I think).

First, while writing a novel, I don’t worry about time, not in draft stage. I write any scene that’s important, in any order that I think of it. There’s no order to it at all, only madness. And sometimes I trust that madness and never put those scenes back in what people think of as time order.

The Tree Of Life, 1905, by Gustav Klimpt

The Tree Of Life, 1905, by Gustav Klimt

In my memoir, The End of Boys, time was thematic, meaning that scenes from my life linked to other scenes of any time period based on theme, an overlapping view of my own reality that isn’t based on chronological progression but instead on thematic development of the person. I tried to help the reader by showing time switches in italics, an italic switch being a trick I learned from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Kesey studied Faulkner as well, and also used the italic switch in his brilliant Sometimes A Great Notion.

Notary, 1983, by Jean-Michel Basquiat

Notary, 1983, by Jean-Michel Basquiat

Time is Circular. The image I see of time is one of overlapping circles, maybe circles pushing forward, or maybe circles dropping back, but then they might loop around and push forward once again.

I had a friend from El Salvador explain that linear time is a modern way of thinking about time. He said that in the Bible, time was thought of as circular or cyclical, that God is eternal and that the earth is a living series of cycles. THAT is how I like to think of time. This modern push to mechanize and count seconds digitally doesn’t interest me. The theory that all of the world could be on the same exact clock to the nanosecond because of satellites and cell phones is an idea that makes me think of Nazis, a “perfect” sterile image of a Northern European or US technological ideal. But ideals are not interesting to me. Imperfection is interesting to me.

The Tower of Babel, 1563, by Pieter Brueghel

The Tower of Babel, 1563, by Pieter Brueghel

In my work in progress, Too Shattered For Mending (Knopf, 2017), I’ve used present tense for the progression of the current story (in time order) and past tense for interlaced scenes that happened in the past. Again, I don’t worry about any of those old scenes being in order because I trust the intelligence of the reader and know that she’s capable of recognizing chronology or of not needing linear time at all.

Guernica, 1937, by Pablo Picasso

Guernica, 1937, by Pablo Picasso

Joshua Tree Versus Los Angeles – Ridgemont Video On My Writing Residency

During my short-term writing residency in Joshua Tree National Park this spring, pro skater and Ridgemont filmer Coop Wilt came up to visit me, climb, and adventure together. He shot this footage and Stacey Lowery edited it.

Click here to see the video.

A Rant: “Here, Let Me Put You On Speaker Phone.”

It’s well-known that I don’t like cell phones (see my article last year for VICE Magazine), but the truth is I don’t like any kind of phone (Not a rotary phone, not a cordless phone, not a payphone, in fact, no phone at all). I’m partial to the phrase “A phone is an appliance, not an obligation,” and I treat all phones like appliances, annoying appliances, appliances that I want to silence or rip out of people’s hands, appliances that I want to crush with my 20-ounce framing hammer.

But one of the worst phone-gadget-accessory-inventions is the speaker phone. That small insidious button is a true asshole.


I hate being put on speaker phone. Hate it. I hate speaker phone like many people hate Justin Bieber, long lines at the super market, heavy traffic, engine trouble, or the uglier Kardashians. I have never knowingly put another human being on speaker phone in my lifetime, and I hope I never become a terrible enough person to do this to someone I love (or even to someone I just sort of like).

There are so many things I hate about speaker phone, so it’s difficult to know where to begin with this rant. Maybe I’ll just start with this one, tiny, abominable phrase:

“Oh here, Pete, let me switch you over to speaker phone so you can talk to everyone.”

Really? You’ll do that for me? You’ll just switch me over to speaker phone so I can talk to everyone? Everyone I didn’t ask to talk to? Thanks. I really wanted to talk to everyone. I really wanted to talk to everyone so badly that I called you, only you, just you, one single person, to communicate one single thing that now is going to take FUCKING FOREVER because I’ve got to navigate the Everest-size crevasse that is communication with whoever EVERYONE is.

And also, thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to many, many people who I can’t picture in whatever size room you’re in, wherever you are right now, doing whatever you all are doing. I already had a hard enough time just picturing you and your face and your actions while we’re on the phone having a singular conversation, but thank you for giving me another mental challenge. I really wanted this phone call to be a mental Gordian Knot rather than a quick one-on-one communication to convey a message or ask a question.

Next: The sound of a speaker phone in someone’s car.

The other person’s voice cutting in and out? The mumbling? The “What did you say?” repeated over and over. The person saying, “I’m sorry” but it’s never an actual apology. Or what about the side conversations in the car during the phone call? The passing traffic sounds? The driver’s comments about other drivers? The music in the background? The clicking? The clunks? And all the while it sounds like a prenatal ultrasound machine is struggling to find a baby’s heartbeat. It’s really a great experience. I just love being on car speaker phone.


I also love seeing fellow drivers talk on their speaker phones, leaning out their open windows, or looking directly at me while talking to their own empty cars like patients at the state hospital in serious need of heavy psychotropics. And then when they yell at whoever they’re talking to as if they’re trying to get my attention? Oh, I love that too.

Let’s see…

Another of my favorite things is when I’m apparently too stupid to detect that I’ve been SECRETLY on speaker phone the whole time. I say something like, “Oh, that’s a good question. Let me talk to her for a minute and see what she thinks.”

Then the person who I called directly chuckles at my ridiculous and obvious stupidity. He says, “You’re already on speaker phone, Pete. She just heard everything we said.”

Oh really? She was silently listening like a creep, like a stalker, like a serial killer to everything we just said, not commenting, not letting me know that she was listening, just you and her in on a little trick you were pulling on me? That’s so funny. That so chuckle-worthy. I love, love, love it when I don’t know someone is in on our private conversation.

But I get that people are busy, that sometimes they have to click me over to speaker phone, that sometimes they’re cooking or changing a baby or doing something else that might actually be sort of worthwhile or important when I call them…

Which leads me to my least favorite calling experience: When someone CALLS ME and we’re already on speaker phone when I pick up.

“Hey Pete, how’s it going?” and it sounds like they’re calling me from a public restroom, the hard sounds caroming off the stall’s angles as I’m forced to picture them squeezing off a burrito-sized log.

It’s hard for me to stay with phone calls that obviously begin on speaker phone. If you’re too busy not to multi-task, don’t call me. Don’t call me while you’re in the bath shaving your legs or slopping soap on your genitals. I don’t want to hear that watery-sudsy sound in the background.

And don’t call me while you’re peeing (which people actually do somewhat regularly with me). I don’t need to hear the force of your stream and wonder about your coffee or water intake as you ask me what I’m up to. I want to say, “Who cares?!! You’re FUCKING peeing right now, right when you called me!”


And please don’t ever call me as you try to find something that you’ve lost. I can hear your hand sorting through that spilling-over junk drawer as you say, “Yeah I was just…” more sorting noises, then “I’m sorry, I’m just…” more sorting noises, and I have no idea why you called me, but if I wait a minute or two while you find whatever it is, I’ll get the opportunity to know what our conversation is going to be about.

Yes, thanks for calling me just now. This is great. This is a really, really, really wonderful phone call we’re having here. Thank you. Thank you so much for letting me join you on this incredible adventure with your favorite technological accessory.

7 Strong Opinions: If You Want To Be A Great Artist, Don’t Eat Fat Chunks Of Half-Cooked Mediocrity

Mushy food

A few years ago, I finished writing and revising my first publishable literary novel (I say “publishable” because I’d written a lot of garbage-pseudo-literary fiction before my first published novel, and that trash fiction was thankfully never published).

While I went through the whole publishing process with my first novel – revisions, copy-editing, covers, blurbs, publicity, etc. – I almost destroyed my own mind.

How did I do this? By reading a lot of commercial nonfiction.

That might seem dramatic, but it isn’t. Reading a large quantity of commercial nonfiction was a horrible decision. Don’t get me wrong, I thought I was doing the right thing. I had a best friend who loved and recommended nonfiction to me, and I kept reading the material he gave to me. From there, I branched out and tried other informative nonfiction.

But I’m not being dramatic when I say that the regular reading of nonfiction affected me. I struggled to write high-quality literary fiction for two years after, and regularly discovered myself thinking more simply about everyday issues. As an artist, I was becoming mentally simplistic. Vacuous. Vapid.

It’s not that nonfiction is terrible writing, and it’s not that nonfiction is inherently a bad thing. BUT…commercial nonfiction is incredibly mediocre writing. If all writing is bathwater, commercial nonfiction is tepid, luke-warm, not worth getting into, and certainly not worth submerging in for long periods of time.

I know I sound harsh, but if producing great art is your goal, then don’t immerse yourself in mediocre art. Set high standards, and maintain those high standards.

Here are seven strong opinions on the topic:

1. Keep your internet visits short. VERY FUCKING SHORT.

The internet is a festering puss pond of mediocrity. Have you ever sat next to someone while he’s surfing Facebook? That catatonic, slack-mouthed, dead-eyed face he makes while he stares at the screen? That once-every-10-minutes “Whoa, you gotta see this” exclamation?

Or long episodes of hanging out on Twitter?

Scrolling through other people’s Instagram photos?

Looking up sports gossip?

Celebrity news updates?

Set a time limit with the internet and stick to it. Say, “I’ve got ten minutes to answer these two emails, post once, and get offline.” Then stick to your time limit. CLOSE THE LAPTOP.

2. Don’t read mediocre writing.

My mother raised me on the phrase “Readers are leaders,” and I love that phrase because it’s true. If you’re not a reader, you’re not a great artist. It’s as simple as that. Great books and memoirs and poetry develop creativity. They make your mind work. The metaphors and complicated structures and narrative arcs force your mind to find new connections, spark analogous thinking, enhance mental divergence. If you want to be a great artist of any kind, you have to be a great reader.

But although I love the phrase “Readers are leaders,” it’s not completely true, or it’s not completely true in all cases. What you choose to read does matter. Selection matters. For example, if you read only Amish Murder Mysteries (a real genre in publishing that sells quite well) or Paranormal Romance, for example, you’re never going to create great art. That’s a fact.

To create great art, read great art.

3. Don’t watch reality television.

The average person in The United States watches hours of reality television every week, and some of the most popular shows on television are reality shows. So reality shows are – by definition – what the middle watches. The average. The mediocre middle of America.

Most artists know that reality shows won’t help them produce great art, but what about the opposite effect? Can watching bad reality shows negatively affect you as an artist?

Bad Input = Bad Output?

That seems like a logical equation.


Let’s take The Bachelorette on ABC for example since it was listed by TV guide as the most popular show on television last week. This is a show about a young woman looking for love, and two dozen men trying to be the last man standing. It seems like a classic plot, right? But if great art is the goal, then the specifics of the art matter.

In The Bachelorette, no character has any depth, people’s lives are made up of dates, roses, feelings, alcohol, more feelings, more alcohol, talks, swimming, hot-tubbing, and eating while drinking more alcohol and again talking about feelings. Also, everyone on the show speaks in the passive voice:

“Feelings are getting intense.”

“Tough conversations need to be had.”

“Things are being said that I don’t like.”

Wait, who did what?

Why can’t those subjects do any actions?

Even the better reality shows, shows with more powerful conflicts, shows like Naked And Afraid on Discovery, are – unfortunately – formulaic. Since Naked And Afraid is a true survival show meaning the (contestants? stars? participants?) actually suffer physically while trying to survive for 21 days, all of the conflicts are the same show to show. While trying to survive, will the two people find quality drinking water? Will one of the people start a fire? Will either of them find much to eat? Those questions are great for a little while, but not for long. Every show is the same. And the mundane is the unimaginative.

4. Study art.

– Go to the Picasso museum in Barcelona. Watch Picasso’s developmental process unfold room to room. Examine his mental process as he becomes more abstract.

– Read at least five Toni Morrison novels.

– Listen to Wu-Tang. Then listen to Jay-Z’s The Blueprint.

– Go to the Vatican in Rome, and stare at each sculpture for a long, long time. Think about chiseling any of those marble sculptures out of one giant block, start to finish, no mistakes.

– Read Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson over and over.

– Listen to Mad Villain’s beats.

– Read Dorianne Luax’ poetry. For something completely different, read Kay Ryan’s.

– Stare at Jackson Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm” until you can see a rhythm.

– Read contemporary poetry and fiction in the literary journals Tin House and The Missouri Review.

– Listen to Bob Dylan’s Biograph collection, and dwell on the lyricism. Then listen to Adele cover Bob Dylan and sing each song infinitely better.

– Peruse a different painter online each month (Google images is an amazing and free resource for learning a painter’s body of work).

– Watch highlight compilation videos of Barry Sanders playing running back.

5. Attempt to understand other people’s lives (and/or suffering).

Although many, many TV shows are about the richest most best looking people on the entire planet, this is not what great art is about. Great art is about empathy and depth and creativity and wonder and struggle. I don’t mean that you can’t be a great artist if you grew up in The Hamptons, but I am saying that you’ll never be a great artist if you stay in The Hamptons your whole life because great art isn’t about one thing, and it certainly isn’t about a few monochromatic rich people who live in boring, daily unreality.

So try something different:

– Talk to illegal immigrants.

– Feed the hungry.

– Work with the homeless.

– Talk to people who are different from you, to people who work different jobs, to people who’ve made different choices, to people who speak different languages. And while we’re talking about languages, learn another language. Don’t be an American who’s content with only speaking English.

– Ask good questions and really listen to other people’s answers. Don’t try to interject with your own better stories or your really funny comebacks or comments. Listen to other people. Imagine their entire lives, waking to sleeping. Be in their houses. Wear their clothes. Sleep with their lovers. Raise their children.

6. Break rules.

My agent recently told me that she couldn’t sell a piece of fiction because the dialogue was a mess. I said, “What kind of a mess?”

She said, “It’s too perfect. No one uses any contractions.”

Dialogue is a careful mixture of eloquence and atrocious grammar. Correct structure and god-awful colloquialisms. The masters of dialogue break rules in perfect ways, and in the creation of great art, we must break rules often. Judiciously.

Think of Gwendolyn Brooks enjambment to break the simple rhymes of “We Real Cool.”

Or Leonardo da Vinci digging up dead bodies?

Or Jimi Hendrix with his homemade distortion pedals?

Yo Yo Ma warping time with his elongated cello swells?

Sylvia Plath going DARK in her personal narratives.

7. Finally, don’t follow anyone else’s advice.

Not even mine. You can follow some of it, sure. Some of it will work with you. But you have to set your own standards. And the truth is, I don’t always follow my own advice. None of us do. We’re all hypocrites. But I keep pushing. I keep trying. And you can too. Set your own high standards, and try to live up to those standards most of the time.

But be your own person. Do your own thing. Find your own artistic outlet and push, push, push yourself to improve. Don’t become complacent and don’t allow yourself to wallow in your own mediocrity. Work on your weaknesses. You aren’t born with talent. You earn talent through daily and monthly and yearly choices, actions, and discipline.

Finally, don’t congratulate yourself too much if you have a moment of success because what is success anyway? Success is one of those cheap 4th of July sparklers on a short metal stick. It may not light. It may not stay lit. And even if it sparks into something bright green and orange and yellow, you’re likely to burn your own hand before the process is over.

Great Article From Orion Magazine On Nature And “The Rock Climbing Cure For Anxiety”


“Facing Fear” by J.B. MacKinnon

Do we need nature? Natural Spaces? Adventure? Contemplative time outside and the rush of adrenaline in a wild setting?

Two excerpts from the full article (click here to read the original – it’s excellent).

1. OVER THE PAST TWO DECADES, the evidence that nature serves us well in mind and body has accumulated to a degree that approaches natural law. “The benefits of nature that have been intuited and written about through the ages have withstood rigorous scientific scrutiny,” notes Frances Kuo, director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Yes, we still find these benefits when we measure them objectively; yes, we still find these benefits when non-nature lovers are included in our studies; and yes, we still find these benefits even when income and other factors that could explain a nature-health link are taken into account. In the face of the tremendously diverse and rigorous tests to which the nature-human health hypothesis has been subjected, the strength, consistency, and convergence of the findings are remarkable.”

2. To which I would respond: surely it was always thus. Were our distant ancestors, gathered around the fire in the lowering light, touched only by the awesome sunset, or did they also dread the awful night? Do we say that nature is only beneficial when it comforts, calms, and uplifts, as though there are no secret pleasures, no vital lessons, in feeling scared, disgusted, and uncomfortable? Is there a person alive who only ever wants the calm sea, and never the storm?