Sunday Salon Interviews Justin Courter

7 09 2007

Justin CourterYou could say Justin Courter is making a big stink in the literary world. His debut novel, Skunk: A Love Story, about a young man’s attraction and addiction to skunk musk and his love interest in a woman with a fish fetish, is probably one of the most olfactory-obsessed, if not strangest, stories I’ve ever read. I recently interviewed Justin for the first in the series of Sunday Salon Interviews.

Nita Noveno: What inspired you to write such a bizarre story?

Justin Courter: Satan. No, actually, I often look at writing stories as a way of conducting little experiments. In this case, the assignment I’d given myself was to write about something repulsive that would also be interesting and funny enough to make a reader stay with it. I’d always felt that the raw material of a novel does not matter to me so much, that what’s important is that there are amusing characters, a voice, and a story that you want to continue to see unfolding. So this was a kind of extreme way of announcing that. Also, I think that if you can incorporate fantastic elements—in this case an absurd addiction and a bogus invention—it can add another dimension to a story.

NN: Who influenced your writing then?

JC: When I was writing Skunk, I was reading Graham Greene, Roald Dahl and T.C. Boyle, and I think their influence is pretty obvious. Franz Kafka, Anne Tyler, Tom Robbins and Helen Barnes were also influencing my writing then.

NN: Did you base the main character, Damien, on any one particular model, real or imagined?

JC: That’s a good question. The answer is no, but consciously and unconsciously I incorporated aspects of the personalities of people I’ve known and characters from other novels. I’ve seen in some alcoholics the hyper-controlled/totally out-of-control tendencies that Damien displays. And after I’d gotten halfway or so into the novel, it occurred to me that Damien was similar to the protagonists of Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist and Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt.

But I think the main thing is that in writing Skunk, I thought a lot about juxtapositions. Since this character was going to have a strange, impossible addiction that leads to dissolution, it seemed appropriate to have him be very practical, uptight and pedantic. That was the logic out of which Damien came to life. He’s also extremely neurotic, isolated, a complete social misfit. And that kind of person has the freedom to try things that people with social ties don’t.

NN: That’s an interesting observation about the freedom of those who don’t have the social ties. The essence of Damien’s character seems captured in this sad, funny line, “Freedom is not to have to smell other people.”

JC: Yeah, I guess you could say that is the essence of his character. He really is a loner.

NN: How did you decide on Damien’s language, which is consistently formal and proper, more British than American it seems?

JC: Yes, his tone is very formal and I wrote it that way as part of the character. I wanted the contrast of an extremely proper voice with extremely improper behavior. Damien has spent most of his life reading books — he sees them as his companions — rather than participating in any social activity. He doesn’t even speaking to people. Damien says at one point that he despises contemporary novelists and sticks to the classics. So when he does have to speak to people, he talks like someone out of an old novel.

NN: So could you describe your writing process for this book?

JC: I started writing with only the idea of someone making this discovery—that skunk musk could give you a high that would be similar to what you feel when you’re on an opiate—and Damien’s voice. I thought at first that I would write a longish short story but I was itching to write a novel and found that I liked where things were leading. So I had to rethink it. I sketched out a vague plot with more characters, other subjects to cover, some turning points, and developed a general idea of what was going to happen over the course of the novel. Then, before I sat down to write, I’d sketch the next few scenes, making notes about new characters, little pieces of research and dialogue I wanted to get in. With an idea of where I was going, I’d find it easier to be spontaneous along the way.

NN: You have such detailed descriptions of skunk behavior. Did you do any kind of research on skunks? Observe them in the woods? Or actually find out the contents of their spray? And have humans ever used skunk musk for anything? Like, for example, weaponry?

JC: I didn’t observe live ones. I went to the library and got out books about skunks and learned a little about their behavior, what they eat, and so on. Skunks spray to defend themselves, and they will first stomp their paws, hiss and raise their tails in warning. I wrote this in 1997, and people weren’t using the internet much yet — I certainly wasn’t — but I’ve since gone online and found all kinds of sites and chat groups for and about skunks and people who keep them as pets. I think what people do is have the skunks’ musk glands removed when they’re still very young.

As far as I know, skunk musk isn’t actually used by humans for anything, but it would be nice to have a little spray bottle of the stuff to squirt at people who fart on the subway. I think that definitely could be marketed effectively.

NN: You might have something there. This idea of a SeaLawn, invented by the whacky, brilliant Pearl, Damien’s love interest, is pretty wild too. How did you come up with it? Is there anything in real life that comes close?

JC: Most of the credit for SeaLawn has to go to Ken Keegan, my publisher and editor. Previously I’d had another invention for Pearl that he didn’t think worked as well and I think he was right. Ken’s idea was based on things that are out there — it is possible to produce hydrogen, which can be a great, clean, fuel source, from algae. I think the problem is that it’s difficult to produce enough of it from algae. I came up the specific qualities of SeaLawn, and the idea of it becoming a free-floating weed that could potentially be dangerous to the planet. So it was definitely a collaboration that resulted in a Frankenstein.

NN: I find it ironic that you work at the Bronx Zoo. I know your job as a grant writer came after the book was written, but do you see animals in a different light now? Are they providing you with inspiration for a future story?

JC: I’ve always liked animals. And I’ve always been interested in animal behavior and in how it sheds light on human behavior. And yes, that’s part of the reason I wanted to work at the Wildlife Conservation Society, even though I don’t work with animals. I’m a Development Officer in Foundation Relations.

I once wrote a story in which a man marries a baboon. In my new novel, there is a minor character who is a field vet, whose job is like that of one of the field vets here at WCS. In the novel there is a disease that is spread by humans eating animals who’ve eaten humans, and I describe a little of the barbaric, inhumane conditions in modern slaughterhouses. So yes, animals continue to factor into my writing, in different ways.

NN: Can you tell me a little more about this new novel?

JC: It is similar to Skunk in that it is a satire that involves addictions, much of it takes place in the American heartland, and the activities of the characters will affect the rest of the country. But most of the things people do in this novel are things people have actually done. There is no science fiction. The story involves a cannibal who’s on the lam. He winds up in a town run by a polygamist, pedophiliac Mormon fundamentalist “prophet.” The heroine is a young girl who is trying to escape this nightmare town and the clutches of the prophet. The tentative title is Keep Sweet. So, more weirdness to come.

Justin Courter’s work has appeared in many literary journals, including Pleiades, The Northwest Review, Fugue, The Literary Review, LIT, The New Orleans Review, and the anthology Paraspheres. A collection of his prose poems, The Death of the Poem and Other Paragraphs, is forthcoming from Main Street Rag Publishing. He lives in Queens.

Skunk: A Love Story is published by Omnidawn Press (June 2007) and is available for purchase at:  or


Support Girls Write Now!

6 06 2007

From Salon hostess & Girls Write Now Mentor Caroline:

Please join us for our signature event on Sunday, June 10th, 4-6 PM, at Barnes & Noble Astor Place in New York City!

The grand culmination of the 2006-07 Girls Write Now season, you won’t want to miss this opportunity to hear the BEST teen writers in New York City read from their brand new anthology This Girl Here, featuring a foreword by Aury Wallington, author of the bestselling young adult novel, Pop! Special Guest Speaker, Jessica Valenti, founder of and and author of Full Frontal Feminism, will introduce our girls.

Anthologies will be available for sale from 10am-10pm from June 8-June 10. Come out any time that weekend to meet the Girls Write Now Class of 2007 and, while you’re there, be sure to pick up your special Barnes & Noble vouchers. Use the vouchers to buy any item in Barnes & Noble and a percentage of the sale proceeds go directly to support programming for our 2007-08 season!

All Girls Write Now programming has been 100% free for almost a decade. But we simply cannot continue that way without your help. Whether or not you can attend our event, please keep our girls writing by making a tax-exempt donation today online at

Farenheit 451.2

4 05 2007

Ahh, another book banned by folks who don’t even bother to read it. If that pisses you off, please kindly read on & see what Salon alum Julie Polk & the banned author, Maureen Johnson, have to say about it.

Dear One and All:

On April 27th, my friend Maureen Johnson’s book THE BERMUDEZ TRIANGLE was removed from the shelves of the Bartlesville Mid High Library in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. At the bottom of this email you’ll find the names and email addresses of the committee members who agreed to the removal.

BERMUDEZ is about the friendship of three teenaged girls and what happens to their friendship when, after one of them goes away for a summer, the other two

begin a relationship. It is a smart, funny, and very clean book–there is a little bit of kissing, and no sex at all. Here is an excerpt from the letter written by the one woman whose objection resulted in the removal of THE BERMUDEZ TRIANGLE from the library:

“There’s no mention of the myriad of diseases, pregnancy, destruction of friendships and lives that are very real consequences of a “sexual free-for-all” decision.”

That’s right: in a book that contains no sex, just a kiss between two girls, this woman says she objects on the grounds that the consequence of unwanted pregnancy wasn’t discussed. Bend your mind around that one, I dare you. Perhaps, as Maureen says in her very smart and funny blog, the objector does not know how babies are made.

As for the “destruction of friendships,” that is the entire subject of BERMUDEZ: it is an intelligent, lovely book about what happens to friendship when dating enters the picture. There is nothing to object to at all in this book — unless, of course, you happen to be a blatant homophobe who is willing to use your prejudice to control what everyone in your community is allowed to see.

Other subjects Maureen has written about include three teenaged sisters dealing with the aftermath of their father’s sudden death (THE KEY TO THE GOLDEN FIREBIRD); a teenaged girl sent on an adventure through Europe via a series of letters left her by her aunt who died of cancer (13 LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPES); and a take on Faust, in which a girl sells her soul to be cool, set in a Catholic school for girls (DEVILISH). Notice something? Maureen’s books deal with life, love, death, with trying to negotiate life as a teenager. These are big, important subjects, and she writes about them with grace, humor, and compassion. Her books were selected by the American Library Association as Best Reads for Teens in 2004, 2005, and 2006 and have received numerous other citations and awards. DEVILISH was recently shortlisted for the Norton Award, the Young Adult version of the Nebula awards for science fiction writing. We are a long way from Sweet Valley High here.

In the most disturbing development of all, Susan Hunt, the Bartlesville librarian who first let Maureen know her book had been banned, is apparently now facing professional consequences directly resulting from her having informed Maureen that the book was being removed. For more information, please check out Maureen’s blog — which, besides having all this info firsthand, is one of the funniest reads you’ll find on the Webanet:

Among you are educators, writers, librarians; many of you work directly with teenagers in your professional lives. Censorship in any case is unacceptable; censorship based on homophobia is morally repugnant. Below are the names and email addresses of the committee members who, though none of them have read THE BERMUDEZ TRIANGLE themselves, saw fit to ban it anyway. Feel free to take a minute or two to send an e-mail registering your dismay at their willingness to let one narrowminded woman control what an entire school may or may not have access to:

Mrs. Janet Vernon, Executive Director of Secondary Instruction:


Dr. Richard Rosenberger, Executive Director of Human Resources:


Mr. Chuck McCauley, Principal of Bartlesville High School:

One final note: I am collecting quotations from the Bible, which the objector suggested as a replacement to fill the hole on the shelf left by the absence of BERMUDEZ. I would like any and all Biblical quotations you have involving sex, violence, prostitutes — you know, the kinds of things some people like to pretend don’t exist in the bible at all. I have several ideas regarding what to do with these, but I’m taking suggestions for that as well.

In the meantime, thank you for raising your voices!


NBCC campaign to save book reviews

30 04 2007

Book review sections across America are at risk. In the last six months, the Los Angeles Times Book Review was folded into a smaller section; the Chicago Tribune will move to Saturday so that the paper could print 400,000 less copies. The San Francisco Chronicle section – one of the most popular in the country – was cut in half.

The National Book Critics Circle is tired of this and we’re going todo something about it. A few days ago we started an online petition to protest the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s recent decision to eliminate its book editor job (and with it our colleague Teresa Weaver).

In just a few days the petition has picked up almost 3000 signatures, including those of a slew of major crime novelists – Michael Connelly,Denis Lehane, James Lee Burke, Karin Slaughter – as well as Southern literary eminences, like Bobbie Ann Mason, Allan Gurganus and Clyde Edgerton. Also on there: Richard Powers, Richard Ford, Chris Offutt, Gary Shteyngart, Fay Weldon, Julia Glass, David Lodge, AM Homes, Ali Smith and others. Here’s the link.

The petition is part of a big campaign the NBCC launched this week on our blog, Critical Mass, to raise awareness of this issue. It features original pieces by George Saunders and Rick Moody, an interview with David Ulin, of the L.A. Times Book Review, as well as some commentary from the Washington Post Book World:

Would you please consider signing the petition and forwarding it to people you might think care? (Writers, booksellers, readers, friends).

It would be great, too, if you could urge some of them to participate. We’re still looking for short commentaries to post on our blog in coming days and weeks, and for people to write in to their local newspapers.

I think if we can come up with many, many signatures it might grab the AJC executives’ attention, perhaps beat back a trend which is spreading across American newspapers with alarming speed.


John Freeman
National Book Critics Circle
25 East 10th Street, 8B
New York, NY 10003

Tongass National Forest needs you!

27 04 2007

Dear Salon Friends,

I hope you will join me in writing to the U.S. Forest Service, urging them to adopt a Land management Plan that protects the Tongass National Forest (my birthplace). Protecting the remaining intact watersheds with high wildlife values and their rainforest habitats, including rare giant spruce and hemlock trees, should be the highest priority for the revised plan.

Let me thank you in advance and between paragraphs in this boilerplate message. THANKS!

If you go to the web address below you can check out what is at stake and send your own message directly to your members of Congress. Take action on this Audubon action alert at



Hello world!

12 04 2007

Howdy Saloners!

Welcome to “In the Sink.” Get it? Like, beauty salon, not frenchy sah-laaaoh salon.

Nita & I thought it would be groovy to set up a little Salon host bloggy for our ever expanding hosters to post interesting news & updates.

Salon alums–send us your publication news, reading announcements, updates!! We’ll post ’em here. If we feel like it.