I was one of the judges in the Shirley You Jest book contest, and as such I get to interview the winners. This week I’ve interviewed Anthony Miller, whose book What Would Satan Do? won second place in the fiction category. It has a terrific premise:
“Disgusted with God’s plan for Judgment Day, Satan has quit his job and abandoned Hell in favor of a quiet retirement in Washington, D.C. But life on Earth is tricky for an ex-angel with a short fuse and no impulse control. When a parking attendant mysteriously bursts into flames and a weight-challenged woman somehow ends up in low-Earth orbit, Satan finds that he has attracted the attention of several meddlesome federal agencies. Even worse, there are signs that the governor of Texas has somehow gone ahead and started up the end of the world without him.”
The reviews have been positive. Author Jess Buike writes: “Rip-roaringly funny from start to finish, this book has some of the best quotes of the year and will keep you laughing every moment that you are reading! The characters are delightful, the setting is very American, and the writing style will keep you turning the pages until the very end.”
Red Adept Reviews wrote: “This was a totally crazy, wild, politically incorrect, vulgar read, and I loved it! The author was able to sneak in subtle, underhand references to current events and personages (and none were flattering…), find something absurd in the everyday occurrences and chance encounters that we all have, and still managed to make a fairly profound statement about Good and Evil in our current times.”
I talked to Miller about his book, Satan and something truly evil–being a trial lawyer.
JOE DONATELLI: Through what filter did you channel Satan’s personality? Where was your starting place for that?
ANTHONY MILLER: Satan’s personality is my personality. He just has powers to blow stuff up. I’m not particularly evil, but then neither is the Satan in my book. My starting place was a journal I kept when I moved to Washington. I found the capital to be stupendously not awesome and started writing down the things I thought. There are several episodes in the book that are taken directly from that–the elevator scene with Enorma, the telephone call with the gas company, the taxi cab, the parking garage attendant. Versions of those all happened to me, only I didn’t explode anything. Starting with those actually made a lot of sense, if you accept that voice is one of the most important elements in fiction.
AM: When I wrote, I often pictured Satan as a combination of Ian McKellan and Jeremy Clarkson (host of the television program Top Gear in the UK). But Satan isn’t Gandalf, and though Jeremy Clarkson is about as juvenile as it gets, I sometimes think he needs to be punched in the face. I liked Rupert Everett in those two Oscar Wilde play/movies he did, because he was smart, mischievous and charming, but I don’t think he’d be right. If you took Brad Pitt from Fight Club, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and Meet Joe Black, I think you’d have a good starting place. He does a fantastic job of playing characters who are cool, charming, and charismatic, but who also encounter children with the open-mindedness and unencumbered enthusiasm of a little boy who just found a big box of strike-anywhere matches.
JD: I used to live in DC — it’s an excellent choice for where Satan would retire. Good restaurants, decent golf courses, plenty of evil bureaucrats to pal around with. Where would Satan hate to retire?
DC, actually. Or maybe France. Anywhere there are lots of annoying people–and that’s definitely true of DC. Satan in WWSD is less evil-with-a-capital-E than pure ID, so the question of whether a city is full of loathsome politicians and slimy brown-nosers would take a back seat to the question of whether there are lots of interesting and new things to do. He’d probably do well in New York or London. Iceland might be a treat. Pretty much all of North Africa would probably suck.
JD: I grew up in Cleveland. If we see Satan in Cleveland, it’s probably just a local car dealership owner or city councilman, right?
AM: I have a hard time imagining Satan taking on a role or title other than maybe “Galactic Emperor” or something. Anything with actual responsibility would be too boring.
JD: Where are you at with religion? Do you belong to a church? You obviously need to know about Christianity to write the book you’ve written, and I’ve seen it written that you took Bible study class.
AM: I tried hard to be open-minded about religion, and I read as much as I could to try to answer the question of how so many intelligent folks in history have bought into the Christian mythology (probably not that smart a starting point given that Newton was into alchemy). I found, however, that the deeper you dig, the harder it is to hold on (or find) any kind of faith. I think there are a lot of students of Christian theology who would say the same. Still, I’m fascinated by Christianity, its history and its impact on our culture. I also appreciate deeply the morality and sense of community that you can get from being part of a church community. But it would be nice if we could all be nice to one another without the prospect of Hell hanging over our heads, or deal with life’s hardship without having to whisper sweet, silent nothings to an imaginary friend.
JD: Have you been surprised by how many religious/conservative people have enjoyed the book? Conservatives are often labeled as this homogeneous close-minded group–and there are many religious folks who are not a good advertisement for humanity–but I’ve found many willing to poke fun at and even question their beliefs.
AM: Yes and no. If you can get past the title and the myriad F bombs, you’ll find that I don’t make fun of Christianity so much as the people who would use it and its ideas for their own ends.
JD: What do you believe in?
AM: Not much, though things like the Fermi Paradox, the seeming perfectness of Earth’s solar neighborhood (e.g., the moon balancing out processional changes and thus climate, Jupiter out there slurping up asteroids and comets), and videos of the extraordinarily complicated molecule-based machines that carry out DNA replication are enough to make me go, “Hmmm…”
JD: You’re an author and a trial lawyer. Why did someone as creative as you get into law in the first place?
AM: I think you have to be creative to be a good trial lawyer. A trial is the culmination of a dispute where, usually, there is right answer or where reasonable minds can differ about the answer. (Most cases where one side is clearly right settle long before trial.) The task of a trial lawyer is to take the conflicting points of view and all the piles of documents and other evidence, and to weave all of that into a consistent, coherent narrative, and then use the admissible evidence as a framework to hold up that narrative. And you have to do that within the confines of the Rules of Evidence while your opponent tries to thwart you and convince the jurors of his version. That, I think, takes some creativity. Also, although I may be creative, I’m also extremely competitive and enjoy fighting with people.
JD: What’s the most ridiculous fight you’ve ever gotten into with someone- in court or out?
AM: I’ve gotten into some stupid arguments with opposing lawyers in depositions and settlement meetings. I can’t resist screwing with people, especially old guys with mustaches.
JD: How will the world actually end?
AM: A giant burst of radiation from a relatively nearby stellar object imploding or exploding will turn the Earth into a barren rock.