Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Chris Bundy on 'Baby, You're a Rich Man'

Posted By on Tue, Aug 6, 2013 at 10:34 AM

CRCover_Bundy_BbyRchMan.jpg
  • C&R Press
Chris Bundy's debut novel, Baby, You're a Rich Man, follows a fallen celebrity, Kent Richman, as he tries to revive his career after a tragic incident that costs him his wife and his starring role on a popular Japanese show. The plot moves quickly and Kent travels through Japan, toward a Buddhist retreat where his manager has hired a film crew to document Kent's "recovery." In the grips of a secret meth addiction and an obstinate need to find himself back in the limelight, Kent follies and declines further into self-induced mire, all the while imagining how everything can work out for the better in spite of all the problems he faces.

Max Currie's fine illustrations are used sparingly - at the beginning of each chapter - and complement the narrative well. The illustrations, along with a number of articles from "Star-Gazer.com" about Kent, result in an innovative format that brings the reader into Kent's world and Japanese celebrity obsession.

Bundy's novel, filled with violence, drugs, lust and illuminating flashbacks, gives the reader no time to get comfortable, leaving no choice but to press on and hope for the best for the protagonist that does so much to trip himself up.

Bundy took the time to discuss the book via email.

Kent Richman is a very interesting character, from his looks to his career to his problematic habits. Where did the Kent Richman character come from? Is he part of you, a person you know or does he embody a known celebrity?

In Japan I watched television in an effort to learn the language. Japanese game and panel shows make up a substantial percentage of TV. They are noteworthy for their amplified sets, extravagant celebrities, and pretty vacuous content. Comedians and other celebrities, most of whom make a living on these shows and do little else, host them. The content often revolves around comic banter (most of which is scripted), a bizarre activity or challenge put to the panel regulars and guests.

Many of these shows have a gaijin-tarento (gaijin talent) as well for variety and colorful commentary. They are typically on these shows because of their fluency with the language, ability to provide a Western POV, and comic sensibilities. In the 90s, there were actually two very popular gaijin talents, both named Kent (often referred to as the "two Kents," Kent Derricott and Kent Gilbert, both of whom were former Mormon missionaries). I thought it funny to add one more to the list though Kent Richman bares no resemblance to either of them beyond his general TV role and language ability. Otherwise Kent is pure imagination. I did witness some pretty dangerous shabu (meth) use when there as it was already a popular drug.

What I like about Kent is he offered me an opportunity to explore a character from the inside of Japanese culture rather than the cliched "outsider" struggling with the characteristic cultural differences. Kent speaks the language and understands the culture - he is on the inside as much as he can be. His greatest struggle is with himself and his notorious past. And I liked that he is famous primarily for looking like someone famous, which reflects the emptiness of contemporary celebrity.

Kent finds himself in a series of precarious situations throughout the book. How much sympathy should we have for Kent?

Kent is responsible for most of what happens to him. Few others are to blame for his bad decisions. I wanted Kent to be the author of his own destiny, for good or bad.

That said, I don't expect everyone to like Kent nor do I believe it is necessary to read and enjoy the book. I do, however, want you to care enough about him to turn the page and root for him. I suspect some will be unable to get beyond Kent's character but I can't read like that. I've always preferred the antiheroes in fiction. Most of my favorite characters in fiction are not naturally likable people, but they are troubled and conflicted and inconsistent and struggling, i.e., human. I wrote Kent the way I saw him: deeply flawed, desperate, and lost. I wasn't concerned that you "like" him. If anything, I wanted him to unsettle the reader, to question him and wonder what has made him this way.

I do think Kent is redeemable. The beauty of fiction is that it allows us to feel compassion for someone who on the surface is hard not to judge for his weaknesses and flaws. I love that fiction can inhabit a mind and body of someone we might otherwise ignore or dislike. Like Flannery O'Connor's stories, a moment of violence is necessary for a character to change, for an opportunity at grace. I wanted this for Kent too.

You weave many details about Japanese culture in the book: language, food, pop culture, architecture. How did you become so familiar with the culture?

I lived there for nearly five years. But I wrote the book years after living there and had forgotten many of the finer details. There was no Internet when I was there, no cell phone. So, despite having lived there, research was also necessary.

Max Currie's vivid illustrations add a captivating element to the book. How did the decision to use Max's work come about?

I saw the illustrations as one more version of the many Kent Richmans we see throughout the story, one more mask that he wears in his search for a more sincere self. On the surface the book includes allusions to manga, anime, and cosplay, but Kent is also a comic character, cartoonish in his sensibilities and actions. As I wrote the book, I thought complementing the story with illustrations would emphasize Kent's cartoonish character and the tendency towards big comic, and often slapstick scenes. I also liked that extra layer of artifice. But I didn't push the idea when I was looking for a publisher. When the folks at C&R Press had the same idea, I was thrilled and we went for it.

I had seen Max Currie's comics and thought that he might be able to come up with his own stylized interpretation of Kent Richman and the world he inhabits. Max read the book, showed me some sketches and talked about what he would do. I felt like he understood the book and gave him free rein to go forward. Next thing you know Max is handing over twenty-plus hand-drawn illustrations, half of them in color. We used almost every one of them in one form or another.

I love what Max came up with: an artistic blend of manga and his own raw polish, but undeniably comic and overdrawn.

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