Kevin Maloney’s wild ride
You won’t read a funnier novel this year than ‘The Red-Headed Pilgrim’
Think of the funniest books you’ve read, books that made you actually laugh out loud. It’s hard, right? Sure, there’s Catch-22, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and anything by Vonnegut, but what about new books? In our current era—one defined by depression, anxiety, and emotional disconnection—why aren’t funny novels our go-to media for escapism?
I have a few theories: Writers are afraid of being taken less seriously. Humor is extremely subjective subjective. It’s hard to sell a comedy book.
The main reason, though? Being funny on the page is fucking hard. Not many can do it.
But Kevin Maloney can.
It’s unlikely that you’ll read a funnier book this year than Kevin Maloney’s The Red-Headed Pilgrim. Based on Kevin Maloney’s real life, the novel’s about a character named, well, Kevin Maloney—a young, 20-something who travels the United States in search of artistic, spiritual, and existential enlightenment. Oh and he’s also trying to lose his virginity and ingest as many hallucinogens as he can along the way. (You can read an excerpt here).
And while this all may sound like a zany romp, Maloney (the author) elevates the novel by masterfully sneaking in moments of heartbreaking sadness, anger, ennui. Gifted writers know that comedy is the ultimate Trojan horse.
If you think the plot of The Red-Headed Pilgrim sounds similar to the works of Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, or Bukowski, you wouldn’t be wrong. These writers have an unmistakable influence on Maloney’s propulsive writing style. But The Red-Headed Pilgrim subverts everything we’ve come to expect from an autofictional travelogue. It replaces Bukowski’s misogynistic hedonism with anxiety, Thompson’s assuredness with self-depreciation, and Kerouac’s self-seriousness with a lot of crying. If enlightenment is a form of rebirth, Kevin Maloney is gracelessly somersaulting, wet and messy, out of that womb.
I first met Kevin Maloney in 2014 at the Associations of Writing and Writers Programs (AWP) in Seattle. AWP is sort of like Comic-Con for writers, and the amount of nerdiness is the same.
Imagine all the stereotypes of writers that you have in your head, and now multiply that times 10,000, and cram them together in a convention center for three days.
Amidst the sea of stuffed collars, cardigans and expensive spectacles, Kevin Maloney made an immediate impression. He looked like he had been transported straight out of Heavy Metal Parking Lot—a tall metalhead with a long red mullet, ripped jeans and flannel. He might as well have been a space alien. But what really set him apart was his earnest self-assuredness. I love writers, but, man, we have a knack for being miserable, petty, and insecure. Kevin, on the other hand, was a beacon of positivity. Just a goddamn genuine person.
So, I was stoked when Kevin agreed to chat with AWKSD over a few days via email. Also, I request—nay, demand!—you come see him discuss The Red-Headed Pilgrim with Julia Dixon Evans on Friday, January 27th, 7 p.m., at The Book Catapult.
Before we start the interview, how would you like the readers of AWKSD to prepare to read this? What kind of environment should they be in? What should they have ingested? What's the ideal situation to take a dive into Kevin Maloney's head?
Thanks for asking, Ryan. My ideal reader is drinking a can of Hopworks “Juicy Bear” IPA in the bathtub, while applying eczema ointment to a rash on their nose and forehead, a result of their severe beer allergy. There’s a book on Tibetan Buddhism next to the bathtub, which they’re ignoring to read an article on their iPhone about the most insufferable contestants on Season 5 of The Circle. They finish the article and start scrolling on Twitter and come across a post from their arch-nemesis, Ryan Bradford. It’s about an interview he did with some 6’6” grunge-obsessed redhead who thinks he knows the meaning of the universe. Against their better judgment, they click the link. That’s who I hope is reading this.
That’s a solid composite of my readers, I’d say. I bet roughly 30-40% of my readers are here out of spite (looking at you, Jim Ruland).
But I think this provides a good segue about being mad. I’ve always thought that any good piece of writing is an act of revenge, either subtly or overtly. The Red-Headed Pilgrim is such a big-hearted and funny book, but there is some real pain and hurt in it. Is there anyone or anything that you hope to stick it to with this book?
Whenever I sit down to write, on some level, I’m trying to stick it to everyone who ever told me that being a writer was a hobby, not a career. I mean…they were right. I don’t make a living as a writer. But I don’t see it as a hobby either. For me, it’s an almost spiritual thing. Despite the low or nonexistent pay, I’m still doing it all these years later. I’m still swinging big and trying to make the art I’ve always wanted to make, and I try to find the biggest audience possible because—who knows? Maybe this thing will pay off eventually. Probably it won’t. That’s okay.
As far as The Red-Headed Pilgrim goes, the only person I’m trying to stick it to is myself. To the extent that the book is autofiction (it’s probably only 50% based in reality), I try to look back at my former self and make me extra foolish, extra ridiculous, extra clueless. The pain is real, the character’s struggles come from a real place, but I don’t have any grudges against anyone in my past. The older I get, the more I realize we’re all just wounded babies. I wanted to channel my own wounded baby and lay it bare on the page.
Hell yeah. I kind of suspected that would be your answer. I'm a big fan of sticking it to myself, and in your book, you take it to a sublime (not the band) level. I love how thoroughly you humiliate, emasculate, and perpetuate the Kevin Maloney in The Red-Headed Pilgrim. I think I once heard that the writer of the novel Forrest Gump would ask his kids, "What should Forrest do today?" and that was his writing process. Your book felt similar but more like "How should Kevin Maloney suffer today?" But you do it lovingly, in a way that doesn't come off as pathetic or mean-spirited. (Btw, you ever heard of the movie Forrest Gump? Would love your thoughts on it.)
So, I was going to ask you how much of the book is true, which is a stupid question that most writers abhor, but one that the reading public is always dying to know. Now that you said it's about 50% (a solid percentage). I'll just list some events from the book and you can confirm "true", "false", or "abstain":
You've seen God multiple times while high on drugs.
You worked in a Teddy Bear factory.
You're an unrepentant fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Hallucinogenic mushrooms grew in the quad at University of The Pacific Northwest.
True. (the college was actually called the University of Puget Sound, but otherwise… yes)
Neil Diamond is better than Tom Petty (not in your book, but just need to know your answer).
Hahahaha, sorry. No. False.
You once had $9,000.
You fumbled a threesome.
You were married by a person named "Tree".
You spontaneously started writing a poem during the birth of your child.
True. (I’m still ashamed of this)
Once while on opium, you put on a woman's dress, which became then your stage attire for a band you fronted.
False. In real life it wasn’t opium… I was probably drunk. And the dress was actually fishnets and a feather boa that I bought at the mall. But otherwise TRUE.
(This is tracking a lot higher than 50% huh?)
And, to answer your first question, FORREST GUMP is amazing.
I hope you're doing dramatic readings of the child-birth poem on your book tour.
You have a regular job, which seems to afford you a pretty comfortable life (i.e. you can have all your basic needs met without stressing about it). I assume you're no longer the starving artist as you portray yourself in the book. Does your current financial sitting or occupation influence your writing? If so, how?
Yeah, I'm a web developer and have a pretty great life set up. My wife and I own a tiny 700 sq ft house in North Portland with an actual tiny house on wheels in the backyard. It's the urban homestead I've been dreaming of for decades. That said—I don't feel a strong sense of calm or security. I run my own business, which takes up a ton of time and involves constant worry. That time and stress cuts into my ability to be a writer and artist. In a way, it's been the same struggle I've felt my whole life regardless of what job I've been working. I think there's a huge relief that happens when you know you can pay your bills, but beyond that, I don't think money makes people happy. What makes me happy is living as an artist, and unless I find a way to make that my full-time job, I think I'll always live a crazy life, being pulled in two directions at once.
Let’s go back to Forrest Gump for a second (which is mentioned in your book so this is not entirely out of the blue)... man, I have such a love/hate relationship for that movie. Of course, I loved it growing up, and besides Jurassic Park, it was the only movie I saw more than once in the theaters. Also in high school, I went on a month-long European art history tour with my classmates where we saw some of the most heart-wrenching, life-affirming pieces of art in the world, but my number one memory from that trip was walking around the Palace of Versaille, listening to my best friend recite the entire movie from memory. It's like, here we are, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we're just cracking up at "But you ain't got no legs, Lieutenant Dan."
But as I've gotten older, Forrest Gump actually seems like a very cynical movie now. Like the message is: conform, follow orders and you can succeed. Every counter-cultural subversive in that movie gets punished, especially Jenny. It's like a right-winger's wet dream.
Sorry for being long-winded but I swear I have a point to this: I found The Red-Headed Pilgrim to be unapologetically idealistic and earnest, which you don't see very often in art. It's not quote unquote "cool" to be funny and human and idealist and positive. I was wondering if you could talk about idealism, earnestness, and positivity, and how those shaped your book, life, and writing.
In life, I feel like we’re always told when something is supposed to be beautiful or profound. There’s a sign next to a painting or a building saying, “This is profound.” But staring at it, we miss something more interesting in the periphery. Probably your best friend’s re-creation of Forrest Gump WAS more interesting than some 300-year-old castle full of paintings of dead kings, and that’s why you remember it.
I think you’re right about The Red-Headed Pilgrim’s underlying optimism. I agree that most “cool” art feels like it needs to be gloomy and nihilistic to maintain its edge. I don’t know what to say other than that, for me, nihilism feels kind of safe? Like… I think it’s harder to be big and flamboyant in the world. When you put your truest self out there, you risk criticism. You’re vulnerable and exposed. There’s nowhere to hide. I think people are drawn to that. They connect with you when you’re not hiding. When you’re willing to lay all your flaws on the table and say, “This is the real me. Do what you will.”
I think of the Fool in the Tarot deck. He’s optimistic and looking into the distance. He represents the beginning of things. He’s about to walk off a cliff… in that sense, it isn’t a good idea to be that vulnerable. But that kind of openness is what Zen is all about. It’s what psychedelics do to our brains. We see the world as a new thing. And I think that’s a worthy pursuit in art and in life.
Speaking of drugs and psychedelics, there are A LOT of drugs in The Red-Headed Pilgrim. This is going to be a square question, but do you ever worry about what you're putting out in the world? Like, weed is legal in both of our states, and I wouldn't be surprised if mushrooms were legalized in our lifetime, so it really shouldn't be a big deal, but do you still ever get static from, say, family members, friends, or close acquaintances about what you're sharing? Or do you have any stories about awkward situations where people brought it up? (I mean, apart from this question right now?)
In general, my family is supportive of my writing but they don’t always GET it. I’m sure my mom would be 1000x happier if I wrote a novel about a guy who makes a lot of good decisions, never breaks the law, and spends his days watching sports and planning his retirement, but she’s never going to get THAT son, and I think she’s made her peace with it. Sometimes my wife gives me shit because people think I’m some kind of Hunter S. Thompson figure, but the truth is, my life is pretty wholesome. I drink beer and watch reality TV and hang out with my wife and cats, and only very rarely do anything unsavory.
I don’t think too much about the consequences of my writing, but I do hope I don’t glorify drugs. Actually if I glorify mushrooms a little, I’m okay with that. But I try not to make hard drugs or alcohol seem like they lead to anything other than misery. I love writing about people who make bad decisions, because I think human beings are always fucking their lives up for stupid and beautiful reasons, but that doesn’t mean I’m advocating that people live that way. I write about flawed people in a flawed world and I hope my readers (and friends and family) understand it in that light.
I also think you get away with it because The Red-Headed Pilgrim is so goddamn funny. You get away with so much more if you filter it through comedy. Like how in those early seasons of It's Always Sunny, if they were being extra offensive—say, Charlie wearing a nazi uniform—they'd make sure someone was eating a banana to lighten the tone. And since your book is so fast-paced, I think I laughed at least once on every page.
But being funny through writing is hard. How do you approach it? What makes you laugh—both in your own writing and in other people's writing?
I’m lucky to be surrounded by funny people. My wife is the funniest person I know. When we go out with friends, I’m usually the least funny person in the room. But I think being funny in real life and being funny on the page are different skill sets. My favorite writers—Kurt Vonnegut, Chelsea Martin, Denis Johnson, Miranda July, Charles Portis, Joseph Heller—are all extremely funny on the page. I read their books over and over and study what makes them funny, where their humor comes from. The timing, pacing, etc. I’m also a huge fan of funny TV shows: The Office, VEEP, Arrested Development. I think a lot of writers who explore serious subjects think that a Michael Scott “That’s what she said”-type joke would detract from the gravity of a scene, but for me, it deepens it.
Like you said, when you explore dark themes, humor gives you permission to speak the truth in a way that’s harder to do in serious fiction. I think there’s a reason that the Jester or Fool in Shakespeare often has the most profound, philosophical lines. Laughing and crying are basically the same thing. They’re a sudden outburst of emotion. When I write a funny scene, I usually read it into the recording app on my iPhone, then listen to it while I go for a walk around my neighborhood. Comedy is so much about timing… I need to hear it out loud and tweak it over and over so that the joke lands just right.
"Laughing and crying are basically the same thing" is such a vibe. I want that on my tombstone.
Okay, let's wrap up with some hard-hitting questions.
First, the question that I think is on everyone's mind: what is the final word-count of The Red-Headed Pilgrim.
53,020… according to some definitions (National Novel Writing Month), this only barely makes it a novel
What is the best Red Hot Chili Pepper song? (Be extra careful here, considering you're speaking to 1000s of San Diegans aka RHCP experts).
Oooof. That is by far the hardest question you’ve asked. I’m going with “Don’t Forget Me.” Frusciante’s playing on that song is straight from outer space.
What's the best IPA? (see above warning)
Oh, now you’re really trying to start some shit. Heady Topper from my former stomping grounds, Burlington, Vermont, is hard to beat. But I’m going to keep it local and go with Fort George’s 3-Way IPA. The recipe changes every year, but it’s always amazing, and the can art (a critical component of a great IPA) is top tier.
And what would 20-year-old Kevin Maloney think of current Kevin Maloney?
He’d nod and say, “Hell yeah.”
Over the next few months, I’ll be novelizing the 1994 cinematic masterpiece, The Mask. Why am I doing this? No idea. Somebody stop me! (jk please don’t stop me).
This is a perk (or maybe punishment) for paying subscribers, and I sincerely hope you join me on this journey/downward spiral.
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This Saturday, I’m going to be selling AWKSD books and merch at Stay Strange’s READ OR DIE!! Book and Zine Fair. It’s going down at Che Cafe from 4 - 8 p.m. There will be some rad live music that will sure to melt some brains and open some third eyes. See you there?
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