Interview with Leila JohnstonSeptember 30, 2009
I’ve known Leila Johnston for a couple of years. I think we met through Myspace, of all places. She’s very funny and is an excellent writer, having published her first book, How to Worry Friends and Incovenience People a few years ago. We attempted to collaborate on a few different projects, such as a podcast and a comedy blog and some sitcom ideas, all of which petered out because the world is a hostile and unfriendly place.
Still, Leila kept busy and has written a fantastic new book, called Enemy of Chaos, which is a satirical choose your own adventure book. Theoretically, that sounds like the kind of gimmicky book that you buy someone you don’t really know very well for Christmas. But it isn’t. It’s the tale of a fortysomething OCD geek attempting to impose order on a series of chaotic episodes. It involves zombies, time travel, pound shops, travel agents, the apocalypse and much more. It is very funny but also quite touching and thought-provoking in places. I would recommend it. You can buy it here.
Anyway, to promote the book, I decided to interview Leila over Skype’s text chat, which is the best way to interview anyone.
EnemyOfChaos: Morning! I wonder if I can change my name to enemyofchaos on here.
Greg: Is that your new name for everything? As far as branding goes, it’s quite a good name. I shall change your name in the final draft. I think we should include almost everything in the interview. It makes it more authentic.
EnemyOfChaos: Have you prepared questions?
EnemyOfChaos: I won’t talk about my personal life.
Greg: Ok. I appreciate that you’re not Jordan.
EnemyOfChaos: Only joking. Of course I will!
EnemyOfChaos: I’m not Jordan, you’re right
Greg: What I like about doing interviews like this is that there’s always a slight lag and answers get out of sequence. Much like your book.
EnemyOfChaos: Yes, it’s all out of sequence, I might release another one where everything’s in order or contains a big fold-out flowchart with the winning routes coloured in.
Greg: I want to work out how to save this. I’m paranoid about losing it. This might be my big break.
EnemyOfChaos: Skype saves it, don’t worry. Don’t want to lose this solid gold!
Greg: It may be solid gold. People may look back at both of us and say “this is where they peaked”. I hope not.
Greg: I like the fact that you can read your book as a novel, not following the instructions, just turning the page, and it’s this abstract mess of chaos, which is ironically what the protagonist is fighting.
EnemyOfChaos: aha yes.
Greg: So, tell us all a little bit about the book. What inspired you to write it?
EnemyOfChaos: I think the thing is…
Greg: That was a proper question.
EnemyOfChaos: Yes. I’m trying to answer it.
EnemyOfChaos: I know a lot of older, nerdy men and I was thinking about them and what they’re missing I suppose; and I always wanted to do a CYO adventure book. So when Snowbooks asked for sci-fi and fantasy submissions this year I thought it would be cool to do something geek cultury like that.
EnemyOfChaos: Which is kind of my schtick anyway.
EnemyOfChaos: The book was also a good repository for all the weird ideas I’d had over the previous few months that would otherwise have nowhere to go. It changed massively over the 6 months I had to write it, and I ended up starting from scratch again and doing the whole thing in six weeks.
EnemyOfChaos: I used a Jew word.
Greg: I know. You seem to spend all your time hanging around Jews, trying to steal our comedy secrets.
EnemyOfChaos: I don’t know what it is! Are you lot drawn to me or am I gravitating towards you. I am very envious of you all though.
Greg: We’re like malnourished moths drawn to your Aryan flame.
EnemyOfChaos: Almost all the funniest people I know are Jewish I think.
Greg: I thought the book was great. I was surprised how much geeky stuff you knew. Did you do a lot of research?
EnemyOfChaos: Glad you liked it. I did watch and read a lot of sci-fi over the six months but ended up mainly refering to things I already knew because didn’t want to seem too inauthentic. The referencess to adventure games, films etc are basically all stuff I already knew, some of the science things I checked out in books/wikipedia.
Greg: I found it quite amusing, because it’s essentially a 40-something socially inept man, whereas in real life you’re an attractive, socially skilled 20 something woman.
EnemyOfChaos: haha well thanks. I’m not that socially skilled really. In fact it made me go a bit mad doing it.
Greg: Well, you seem to do ok. You’ve never embarrassed me in public.
EnemyOfChaos: Every fibre of my being is geared to that. In fact a lot of younger women have been in touch about it, which didn’t surprise me really because of course it’s not about being a middle aged man that much at all, it’s just a load of silly ideas and wordy stuff and a (hopefully) fun game.
Greg: That’s true. I actually found quite a lot of it very touching, because it’s about failure, and entropy and life going awry. Obviously, it’s very funny, but there’s also a sense of life spiralling out of control, which isn’t really very funny. It’s quite sad.
EnemyOfChaos: Yes. I thought you’d ‘get’ that.
Greg: I did ‘get’ that.
EnemyOfChaos: I mean it’s a stupid gift book, but it turns out to be a lot about death, eg. starts with a funeral, ends with a kind of – oh, I won’t say. But I’m obsessed with death and that’s what came out in my late night urgent writing sessions.
Greg: I’m obsessed with ignoring death.
EnemyOfChaos: Yeah, we’re a funny pair. I hope you didn’t find it too depressing.
Greg: No. Come on. It was very entertaining and there’s some excellent jokes in there. I thought it was very original, and it was good to see something that reflected just how funny/clever you can be.
Greg: As opposed to our terrible attempts at podcasts or websites.
EnemyOfChaos: haha, well that’s very kind.
Greg: So, tell us what sci-fi you like. Are there any sci-fi books or films that aren’t that well known that you would recommend to us all?
EnemyOfChaos: Ooh, good question. Did you read the thing I wrote for the Big Green Bookshop? I don’t think they’ve published it yet but I talked about a book called “Stories of my life and others” by Ted Chiang. I’m a really slow reader so I like short story books best.
EnemyOfChaos: “Ted Chiang is a highly-regarded sci-fi writer, relatively new on the scene, and all about quality rather than quantity. This slim tome is a collection of most of his work to date and the stories explore loads of mad ideas about alternative realities. There’s the world where angels exist, but rupture the fabric of spacetime like great natural disasters, amoral hurricanes whisking souls away to heaven or earth-cracking quakes sucking casualties down into hell. There’s the society who wants to build a tower to the roof of the world, with every detail painstakingly visualised for us by Chiang, and there are the aliens who write notes for Earth in strange splayed symbols but disappear without really telling us anything. And that’s the thing I like about Chiang’s work: it has a certain dignity, a holding-back. There’s a genuine fascination with questions but a modest pause where other fiction writers would supply answers.”
EnemyOfChaos: So I thought that book was clever. I also listened to some stories about entropy by Isaac Asimov who’s always good value in his slightly mental way.
Greg: I’ve been working my way through vintage sci-fi films of the 70s and 80s. Some were much worse that I’d expected and some were much better.
EnemyOfChaos: Oh yeah, which did you like/not like?
Greg: I thought Escape From New York was shit, which surprised me as people always go on about it. Capricorn One was great, although it’s more of a conspiracy thriller than a sci-fi film. What about you? What are your favourites?
EnemyOfChaos: Well as I think we discussed on the podcast once, I did like Silent Running. Also really like Alien, of course, who doesn’t… Ripley rocks it… although in general not very interested in aliens in films, always the same. I like things with good original ideas in them, and twisty time travel stuff. Back to the Future is probably the best film ever made, but Primer was a good lo-fi crack at modern time travel paradoxes. I’m not very into big budget things. I watch a lot of films. I like horror as well, Let the Right One In was good. Terminator II for nostalgia purposes and I <3 Eddie Furlong and wish he was my son, but often when you go back, films aren’t quite as good as you remember them. I couldn’t finish watching Fire in the Sky when I tried recently, altho I remembered it being really scary and cool (and partly inspired some stuff in EOC) and as you know I’m a lifelong Red Dwarf fan, but a lot of that doesn’t really count as sci-fi, if we’re honest.
Greg: Liking Red Dwarf is about as nerdy as you can get.
EnemyOfChaos: I’m glad I don’t have to embarrassed about it anymore.
Greg: I can’t believe you prefer Terminator II to the original Terminator.
EnemyOfChaos: Well I like both, don’t get me wrong. It’s just T2 is the one I remember better I think.
EnemyOfChaos: I realise it’s controversial to hold that opinion.
Greg: It really is.
EnemyOfChaos: But i’m a rule breaker Greg. I can’t be pigeon-holed.
Greg: I know. Sometimes you write in the margins of the page.
Greg: You really enjoy Sex and the City, don’t you? That will probably destroy your geek credibility.
EnemyOfChaos: I’m glad you brought that up.
EnemyOfChaos: What i like about Sex and the City is its consistency and collectable quality. My interest in it is almost entirely autistic.
Greg: One of your best ever comedy lines was about Kim Cattrall.
EnemyOfChaos: It was?
Greg: Yes. Something like “Oh, I love Kim Cattrall, I wish she was MY grandma.”
EnemyOfChaos: Oh yeah. She looks great actually. She’s an amazing performer. I watch it for her basically.
Greg: Yes, and she’s well into her 90s now.
EnemyOfChaos: Yeah considering she’s the oldest living woman in America, she’s fucking amazing.
Greg: I think the Red Dwarf vs Sex in the City is a good microcosm of British vs US comedy, in that the British one is full of ideas but shoddily done, whereas US comedy isn’t often that original, but it’s incredibly slick and well-written and produced.
EnemyOfChaos: Yeah that’s true, though I’d say SATC was not very well written really. Did you watch that “Flash Forward” thing.
Greg: I watched about 10 minutes of it. I couldn’t get used to Joseph Fiennes accent. Half of the actors in Britain seem to have moved to the US, adopted american accents and are starring in thrillers. I blame Hugh Laurie. Did you watch it?
EnemyOfChaos: Yeah. I thought it was a bit rubbish actually and had all the things in it that I hated about Lost.
Greg: I recently started watching Lost again, having put it on hold for 3 years. I’m quite enjoying it, but it’s not as good as it was.
EnemyOfChaos: eg. The sense they haven’t decided what’s going to happen yet and are just going to make up any old shit as they go along. I want my show to be in a safe pair of hands! Not some kind of puckish improv.
Greg: I admire your use of the word ‘puckish’.
EnemyOfChaos: Thanks, it doesn’t get out enough.
Greg: It was weird actually, in the last episode of Lost there was a scene in London and there was an actor playing a doorman in a hotel, and I recognised him from a corporate in-house training video that I did about a year ago. The only video I’ve ever written.
EnemyOfChaos: haha great.
Greg: So I have directed an actor from Lost.
EnemyOfChaos: You discovered him, and look at him now.
Greg: I made him, and I can break him!
EnemyOfChaos: I don’t think Doctor Who is very science ficitionistically interesting. Although weirdly I had a choose your own adventure Doc who book when I was a kid called The Garden of Evil that was really dark and scary, that partly inspired EOC. Sorry to change the subject.
Greg: No. It’s your interview. It should be all about YOU.
EnemyOfChaos: Just to get back to sci-fi after talking about Lost.
Greg: Tell me about your love of Magazine, the seminal post-punk band.
EnemyOfChaos: I do love Magazine!
Greg: I know.
EnemyOfChaos: Saw them again recently. Plenty of middle aged nerdy men at that gig I can tell you.
Greg: You must have been in nerd heaven.
EnemyOfChaos: I didn’t have much competition, let’s put it that way. But I tend to fall into these things without realising they’re the kind of things middle aged men like. When I was a student I started a coloured vinyl collection of Stiff Records releases. Wtf is wrong with me?
Greg: I wonder if there’s really a fetish out there, for young women who want to sleep with 40 something men who grew up playing ZX spectrums and listening to Dire Straits. Like the equivalent of MILFS…
EnemyOfChaos: Haha. I think there is a fetishy thing but I think saying I ‘want to sleep with’ them might be a bit misleading, albeit excellent PR. I just feel an affinity
Greg: “I’m a middle-aged balding Robert Heinlein fan trapped in the body of a young woman.” It’s a bit like Quantum Leap.
EnemyOfChaos: Ha! It IS. That’s another one of my interests, not coincidentally.
Greg: Maybe you have a mission to complete and then you’ll return to your real body.
EnemyOfChaos: Quantum Leap is never as good as you remember it. Never go back. Oh god. Idea for next book!
Greg: There you go.
Greg: You live near the Big Brother house. Is that good? Are you often surrounded by crowds of idiots waving placards.
EnemyOfChaos: Big Brother house is generally invisible but you do see fireworks sometimes. I’m not usually aware of it though, but yeah when it’s an eviction there are people queuing in the street. I say people.
EnemyOfChaos: Have you read any sci-fi novels based on TV series? I read a couple of Quantum Leap books when I was a kid. I liked The Wall because it was set in Europe and about WWII and the military.
Greg: When I was a kid I did read books based on films. I remember reading the Goonies and ET. I think I thought that they were the original books and that the films came later.
EnemyOfChaos: Me too. I read Back to the Future and Gremlins. We should do a blog, reviewing those books.
Greg: Yes, but then we’d have to read them. I don’t want to read them. In my local charity shop I just saw a copy of a Highlander novel and almost pondered buying it.
EnemyOfChaos: Amazing it’s someone’s job to write those things. A friend of mine used to write spin-off CYO adventure books about Sonic the Hedgehog
Greg: For money? Or for fun?
EnemyOfChaos: As a job! But look, that ages us
EnemyOfChaos: you read Goonies and ET, which were earlier than BTTF & Gremlins
Greg: It only ages me. I am about 6 years older than you. You’re still in the first flushes of youth.
EnemyOfChaos: Sadly not. Certainly not in mind. We’re all dying Greg
Greg: It’s true. You have the mind of Kim Cattrall in the body of a young woman.
EnemyOfChaos: If only it were the other way round
Greg: Maybe that could be your next book. Like Freaky Friday, but with you and Kim Cattrall. See if you can email her agent.
EnemyOfChaos: Brilliant yes! You’re a genius
Greg: If only the world recognised my genius and directly rewarded me with money.
EnemyOfChaos: In a kind of cosmic adwords arrangement.
Greg: Tell me about Twitter. You use it a bit, but not as often as me. I’m hooked. Have you met interesting people on it?
EnemyOfChaos: Ah yes. Well the follower I was most excited about was Preston from The Ordinary Boys as it’d never have occurred to me to follow him
Greg: Does he follow everyone? Have you seen his video for his first single? It’s bonkers in an admirable but actually not very good way.
EnemyOfChaos: it’s hilarious = because he finishes every single tweet with a ‘x’. God, I hope he reads this if I link to it from Twitter
EnemyOfChaos: “does he follow everyone”? Thanks.
EnemyOfChaos: No, he’s quite selective. We have DMed a bit. But I couldn’t resist doing some Chantelle gags and it fell a bit quiet after that.
Greg: Really? You could be the next Chantelle. You could have a brief, ill-fated marriage to him and then you could get fake tits and start dating footballers.
EnemyOfChaos: Amazing. No one would see that coming would they?
EnemyOfChaos: Quite the career change. Right. i’m going to do it.
Greg: “Whatever happened to that nice girl Leila?” they would ask, not realising that you were now busty glamour model Saturn.
EnemyOfChaos: Saturn, I like that
Greg: It’s a good name.
EnemyOfChaos: But Twitter is good, yes. It’s a good idea and it can be fun, but I also find it a bit hard going and addictive. like it’s turning me into a fucking attention-seeking blathering cunt. So scaling down hopefully, maybe leaving completely after Xmas.
EnemyOfChaos: It is my main point of contact with the outside world though.
Greg: Yes. It has that effect on everyone. “I haven’t been mentioned in 15 minutes!”
EnemyOfChaos: Which is my problem, not its.
Greg: But I think it’s uniquely addictive for people who garner their sense of self-esteem and identity from the praise of random strangers that they will never meet.
EnemyOfChaos: Yes maybe.
Greg: Ok. We should probably call it a day. Do you have any last words?
EnemyOfChaos: What do you mean? Is this tea poisoned?!! Wha…..
Greg: My nefarious plan has worked. Now I can masquerade as Leila and live in her house with her boyfriend.
EnemyOfChaos: It’s all you’ve ever wanted. Wear my face as a mask.
Greg: No. I won’t do that.
EnemyOfChaos: Quite right. Got to have some standards.