Joseph Edwin Haeger interviews Jeff Chon, the author of Hashtag Good Guy With a Gun, published by and available now through Sagging Meniscus Press.
The last five years have been strange. The last year especially, but even before COVID came rolling onto the scene, it was weird. Having Donald Trump as president, espousing some pretty vile worldviews, emboldened a lot of people in their own beliefs that were previous kept hidden. Add this with America’s penchant for violence and you get an explosive outcome. One thing that felt odd during our year of isolation was mass shootings suddenly stopped.
The (not-funny) joke was we’d know the world was coming back into normalcy when we started hearing about shootings again. And then, that happened. We went two weeks with a shooting every single day. America was coming out of the pandemic, and the proof was in the bloodshed. It’s disheartening and frustrating that America has such an intimate relationship with this.
This is a known aspect of American life. Over the last however many years, we’ve seen it pop up in literature and film, notably with We Need to Talk about Kevin, Beautiful Boy, and How to Be Safe. Those books and movies put the shooter in role of the villain and sideline them. The main characters are people who have direct connections with them, and we see the personal effects of a shooting from this unique angle, but none of these stories take on the perspective of the shooter.
This is where Jeff Chon’s new novel, Hashtag Good Guy With a Gun, stands out. His main character, Scott, isn’t a mass shooter, but one who stops a potential shooting. Good guy, right? Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. The reason Scott was in the position to stop a shooting was because he was ready to blow the door open on a child sex ring in the basement of a pizza parlor. (Sound familiar?) He’s a guy who has his point of view twisted and distorted by misinformation in this country. By accident, he becomes a #GoodGuyWithAGun.
This book is so sharp and quick, with tons of layers to peel away, that I knew I would have gotten lost in a rabbit hole trying to review it. Even the asides in Chon’s book are so brilliant and poignant that I could easily talk and gush about it, and all that would ultimately end with, “You gotta go pick this book up.”
Instead of my ramblings, I sent Jeff Chon a few questions and he was kind enough to provide some insightful responses.
The Big Smoke: Hashtag Good Guy With a Gun is extremely topical. I noticed references to our current political climate throughout (notably, the election, and the conspiracy theory that there was a child sex ring in the basement of a pizza parlor). It’s impressive that even with how solidly this book is set in our current time, it still feels like it can be timeless. How much foresight did you put into the longevity of the book?
Jeff Chon: Not a lot to be honest. It was something that I thought about early, but then I realized the longevity of this book isn’t up to me. I have zero control over that, so I focused more on trying to tell the best story I could. I had to remind myself this isn’t a book about current events, but a book about people living through something as it was unfolding. My feeling about bad books centered around issues is the issue itself takes over and the people become sock puppets debating that issue, as opposed to actual human beings, so I just tried to write a story about people in the hopes that the timelessness of their problems would outweigh the timeliness of their moment.
Throughout the novel we hear about the upcoming election. After the election, we see characters talking about and referencing the president-elect. Having just lived through it, it’s clear you’re writing about the 2016 election and the book perfectly captures the political landscape of that time. In a way, this book already feels like a piece of historical fiction with its finger on that moment’s pulse. Why did you decide to remove Trump and Clinton’s name and keep it more general?
That was a little tough. Short answer is it just read better that way. Long answer is I didn’t want to mention Trump in particular because I didn’t want him to overwhelm everything the way he does, but it’s clearly him. And I do mention Reagan, Nixon, and the Bushes, so it’s clear where the “Candidate” / “President-Elect” fall on this timeline. Ultimately, I liked the idea of Trump being this unnamed black cloud looming over the story without naming him. Just like in real life, what he represents is much worse than who he is as a person. To be honest, I felt these people in the book—and I also feel this way about the people in our actual world—would’ve acted on their worst impulses whether he’d won the election or not, so naming him just didn’t seem all that important in the long run.
Hashtag Good Guy With a Gun doesn’t feel outrageous or over the top. Everything in here has either happened or could easily happen. Was there ever a moment when you wanted to make it more hyperbolic or ridiculous because the nature of this counterculture is already toeing that line? What was your reasoning with keeping it closer to reality?
You know, I honestly feel this book is outrageous and over the top, but it doesn’t feel that way to us because we’re like that frog who doesn’t realize he’s slowly being boiled alive. The one thing that idiot has done is normalize ridiculousness to the point my book feels tame in comparison. There’s a chapter in the book where I discuss how different flavors of Gatorade can be used as markers in the hierarchy of masculinity and, as I was writing it, I remember thinking it was no more ridiculous than a bunch of sad, angry weirdos naming their little gang after a showtune from the Aladdin musical or using breakfast cereals as an initiation tool—and those things are real-life concepts. None of this stuff should feel like reality and the fact that it does is just as disgustingly tragic as the fact we’re simply grateful someone turned the stove dial back to a lower temp because we don’t even remember what it feels like to be out of that pot anymore.
This one is more of a craft question. There are a lot of overlapping characters and the timeline here is pretty fluid in its non-linear state. I could see how this could be overwhelming to keep in line, but you do a great job of keeping things clear and concise. There weren’t many moments where I had to reorient myself, and I think that speaks highly to your skill. Was this something you hammered out in the planning phase? Or did you piece it together as you wrote the book?
I did create a rough timeline in the beginning, but it was fairly improvisational, for the most part, because I lost that handwritten timeline fairly early in the process and then never bothered rewriting it. So, for me the key was the Pizza Galley Shooting itself. Because I revisit it over and over again from different angles, I was able to use that as a center-point and build out from there. During the revision process, I was able to find places where timelines didn’t match up and do what I could to make sure they did. One of these days, I’m going to find that timeline and be really upset because I had what I consider to be the most brilliant phrase I’ve ever come up with, and I couldn’t use it because I can’t for the life of me remember it.
For me, there isn’t any likable character in this book, and yet no one is absolutely evil. You contextualize each character’s journey so we can see the circumstances and motivations that pushed them to where they ended up. The book is cautionary, but the gray areas you employ feel so true to life. How much did you consider this angle and did you ever second guess not having an actual hero? What was it that drew you to centering the book around an anti-hero who’s difficult to root for?
Because this is a story about radicalization, I had to remember “I’m going to become the Joker” doesn’t happen in a vacuum. This doesn’t always work in real life, but in fiction I can find key moments and then dig into those moments and speculate on whether those were what created the monster. I made a decision early on that I was going to lean into their awfulness and see where it took me; that I wasn’t going to pull any punches, or have the omniscient narrator equivocate through commentary about how bad they are. I just wanted to make sure these characters lived according to their own codes and then use that logic to heighten tension and understanding. These people are, for the most part, trash. But at the same time, there’s a disconnect between us as readers recognizing that and them as characters not even remotely considering it, and if there’s any magic to be found, that’s where it is for me.
Top 5 books you’ve read recently?
Here’s my list of Top 5 non-X-Men books I’ve read recently.
Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen: It’s a beautiful feeling when you get a couple chapters in and you already know you’re reading something truly special. The way he shifts between timelines, points of view, and locations is masterful. I remember Ben Vereen once said he watched Bob Fosse do a pirouette with a cigarette in his mouth, and he was so smooth none of the ash fell to the floor. Now I know how that feels because passage after passage left me muttering “Jesus Christ” as I turned the pages.
The Prince of Mournful Thoughts by Caroline Kim: I’ve read a lot of great short story collections, and this is the best collection I’ve read in a long time. Something about this book really captured my imagination. Her versatility is off the charts: every story is perfect in both pitch and tone. Pound for pound, I can’t think of another Korean-American writer who’s doing what she is with short stories, and that’s saying a lot because we’re pretty good.
Lake of Urine: A Love Story by Guillermo Stitch: When I tell people about this book, and they ask me what it’s about, it seems the only thing I can tell them is, “Just read it … it’s insane.” Easily the most wildly unique reading experience I’ve had in forever. It’s like James Joyce possessed by Mr. Mxyzptlk from the Superman comics. For me, it’s a wonderful reminder that writing is mostly about what you as the writer can get away with, and the reader will let you get away with anything as long as you’re good. Just read it. I’m telling you, it’s insane.
The Ghost of Mile 43 by Craig Rodgers: My entire life as a writer I’ve been chasing this spare, minimalist style of writing. There’s a beautiful sense of momentum I can’t ever pull off when I try this stuff. It’s literally magic to me because … how?
Bullettime by Nick Mamatas: Mamatas pulls this neat trick of being both first person and third person simultaneously (over multiple timelines even) that really puts a smile on the old writerly face. I used to love watching Anthony Bourdain enjoy food from other chefs because that moment where he nods and says, “Yeah that’s good,” was always magical to me, and as a writer I felt like that reading this.
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