Nicholas Tana and Pete Mesling Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Programming
Updated: Mar 14, 2020
Much of Nicholas Tana’s work as a writer, director, and actor has been in the areas of light comedy (Hell's Kitty: The Movie, Hell's Kitty: The Musical), documentaries (Sticky: A Love Story), and picture books for children (The Kingdom of Glee; Monsters are Afraid of Babies; The Kitten, the Cat & the Apple), but he’s written a script for a science fiction project called eJunky, and it’s unlike anything he’s gone after before. This is kind of a coincidence, as I’m known mostly for my horror, crime, and suspense fiction but have written a science fiction story called “His Blade So Keen” that is likely to be the closer in a forthcoming collection.
Well, I got to thinking, wouldn’t it be fun to sit down with Nick and use these two unpublished/unproduced works as pivots for a more broad-ranging discussion about the state of the universe? Nick agreed that it would, and so here we are.
But more germane to this post than any of the above details is the simple fact that Nick and I have been close friends since college, and that’s going back a piece.
Fair warning, then, ladies and gentlemen. Let’s begin.
Pete: Nick, it’s a pleasure. Thanks for agreeing to do this. You know, I’m not going to beat around the bush. We talked over the phone about what a coincidence it is that we’ve both written science fiction pieces recently, which is somewhat out of character for both of us. But we decided to keep still about our impressions of each other’s pieces until now, to keep the conversation fresh. I have to say, the coincidence deepens. Even our themes are eerily similar.
One of those themes is the danger of suppressing the full range of human emotions. I suppose the dark side of technology is on everyone’s minds to begin with. We’re past the glazed-doughnut phase, where it’s all about the sugary flavor, not the diabetes we’re paving the way for. Black Mirror started to check our blood sugar, I think, but I came to that show late. I don't know about you, but my story was written before I'd seen any of the Black Mirror episodes. I think inspiration struck when I read an article about the potential for implants that could alter our moods. That just sort of glued itself to a sense I already had that we put an awful lot of blind faith in science to do the right thing. Can you trace your eJunky script back to a single source of inspiration?
Nick: It's funny you mentioned Black Mirror, because I have watched several seasons now, but I had my idea for e-Junky (originally titled Guardians of Pain) at least eight-years prior to Black Mirror coming out, so well before having seen any episodes. However, I had a development executive friend tell me about a month ago that my story reminded them of Black Mirror, combined with Total Recall, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (based on Philip K. Dick's short story). I suppose I see it. To answer your question, though, I can't trace my inspiration for eJunky to a single source. I believe the idea was inspired by a multitude of technological advances that have me concerned about our future. Although I think science is definitely the best answer we have to getting to the truth in this world, especially amidst all the fake news, this doesn't mean that we as a society should trust the sheer speed at which businesses seem to be shoving everything down our throats, marketing the greatest, latest gadgets or apps, as if they possess the solution to unhappiness. In contrast, it's pretty clear that as we make discoveries in artificial intelligence that human thought and emotion are very complicated; people are making life more challenging in their efforts to take short cuts. You and I share this concern, obviously, as it seems to be reflected in our recent works, not unlike Mary Shelly with Frankenstein. One thing we have in common is a concern about technological advances making monsters of us all. Frankenstein, the novel, came out post-Industrial Revolution; Black Mirror, and our recent works, are post-Internet Revolution (Information Age). I see your short story and my script as cautionary tales for whoever might be listening. However, in eJunky, I try to show both sides. I try to show that there is an obvious upside to technological advances, but there are serious downsides, too. I'm curious, with your protagonist, what drove him to go so far as to do what he did at the end? Not sure how much I can give away here in talking about it. Anyway, I think you’ll agree, there needs to be a balance and education moving forward to help folks make a conscious effort to learn to live with technology, in a way that doesn't get out of hand. I've even thought of making Sunday a real day of rest for myself and my family, which would involve no cell phones or Internet; something to create a sense of balance to curb the growing anxiety around having to stay connected 24/7, keep up with all the change.
Pete: The idea behind “His Blade So Keen” is that scientists are culpable. They’re not just innocent bystanders. Science might be all about objective truth, but scientists are flawed, like all humans. Reichert came to me as someone who had lost his soul, and he seemed to want to show me that it’s possible for science to go so far that only extreme measures can rectify certain transgressions. What I soon realized is that it’s even worse than that. He’s allowed himself to be driven mad by his own ambition. And of course the word Reich is right there in his name.
One of the big differences in our approaches is the level of pessimism. You seem to have given the world good odds for surviving into the far future. My story doesn’t provide that security blanket. Reichert’s universe is just around the corner. We can almost see it from here. The end is nigh.
I think the phones in our pockets are a pretty good analogy to some of this stuff. The stakes might not always be as high as they are in our stories, but the road from dial-up Internet to social media apps spreading right-wing falsehoods on our smartphones is one that has met with precious little resistance, or even skepticism. If it blinks and vibrates, we want it. We’re paying a heavy price for playing such a passive role in society’s development, I think, for letting it all just happen to us. Change is steamrolling us, and each generation starts from a new bar, and on and on and on it goes. But you know what? There are people to blame besides us zombies on the bus who stare and tap at our devices all the way to the office. There are the scoundrels who develop and push this technology like a panacea. Who knows what some of these people might be capable of if they ever start having serious regrets. That’s where Reichert is coming from in “His Blade So Keen.”
Do you think science fiction is a better outlet for cultural theorizing like this than other genres, by the way, or could you see yourself exploring these questions in other forms? I increasingly find myself looking at issues like racism and terrorism in the horror fiction that I write as well.
Nick: I think science fiction is a great outlet for theorizing on the future for obvious reasons; however, I do think horror offers a great landscape for an equally compelling exploration of racism and terrorism. Jordan Peele's Get Out is a great, more recent, example. I see production companies chasing the next racial horror thing now, hoping to emulate it. I suppose Romero started it in many ways with Night of the Living Dead. That said, I can see all genres and stories getting more political with time. I just came home today from watching Joker. The film makes it obvious that we've finally reached a point where even our DC comic book spin-offs are getting serious and political. The series The Boys has some subversive messages that are darkly satirical and political, too. I suppose with a reality TV star as our president, we've reached an age where entertainment has become synonymous with politics. It’s no surprise that you and I are getting political, too, in our work. When getting political, it’s easy to feel pessimistic. While eJunky may display some level of hope, I think it's also deeply cynical in that the best attempts of people to make the world a better place all result in making things worse. In eJunky, people are gradually being replaced with machines and all of society’s efforts to avoid pain and suffering have, ironically, caused people to lose the willingness to live. The truth is, we'll probably somehow survive longer than we both think. However, the quality of our lives may have us wondering whether it's worth it. One of the themes in both of our stories is how we hope technology will make us feel happier, safer, better. But I think technology—the Internet, the social media visibility that makes us always feel like we’re at some high school reunion, trying to keep up with the world—has us all feeling more than a bit anxious and miserable. Let me cut to the heart of the matter here, Pete. What scares you the most about our future?
Pete: I love the comparison of social media to a high school reunion. I've often thought of it as a popularity contest, but a high school reunion is even better. I haven't seen Joker yet, but I want to, based on some things I've read (on social media, of course (hypocrisy is everywhere (as are parentheses))). My impression is that Robert McCammon was almost thirty years ahead of the game when he wrote a story for The Further Adventures of the Joker. The complete story is available for free on his website: https://www.robertmccammon.com/fiction/summer.html But to answer your question, I worry that we may have passed the point of no return on some big-ticket items, and that as a result we’ll be leaving my daughter’s generation with a world in worse shape than the one we inherited. Eighteen years after 9/11 we’re this divided. Seven years after Sandy Hook we’re this gun crazy. And that’s just the U.S. It doesn’t leave me with a lot of hope that we’ve got what it takes as a species to tackle the bigger issues facing us, like climate change, growing income disparity, unaffordable health care, racism, sexism, the devaluation of the arts ... hell, anti-intellectualism in general. And who knows what kind of wars have yet to be fought? The great rat takeover is also something that I’m not looking forward to with much enthusiasm. And of course there’s the elephant in the room: over-population. Not much you can do about that if ethics and morality mean anything at all to you, but it’s definitely part of the equation. So those are some of my fears for the future, but of course I also have some hopes. One of them is that the Internet will suffer a global crash and we’ll be forced to ask more of ourselves again. I do also think that the younger folks have some great ideas and perspectives that will serve them well. It’s just that we’ve left them with a hell of a burden. Where do you see us in a hundred years?
Nick: I think it's getting harder to predict the twenty-four-hour news cycle, let alone one hundred years into the future. Hell, if all the science fiction writers of the past missed the influence of the Internet in favor of flying cars and trips to the moon, I can only suspect that with the deluge of novel technologies (especially looming artificial intelligence), we're going to flub any meager attempt ourselves.
I have a lot of fears for the future. I think my greatest apprehension is how outraged and reactive we have all become, as a direct result of social media. A tweet from our peachy POTUS has become like the big red button from the 1980s Cold War days. I suppose another fear is how disconnected we've all become in general, despite our desperate attempt to stay connected through social media. As technology tries to bring us together, it works to isolate us as well.
How would the writers of the Lost Generation feel now? It's like everyone has a microphone and we’re doing karaoke, on stage, mic in hand, but nobody’s listening (at least not seriously, deeply). We judge and react to what we feel in the moment, without much thought or deliberation.
You and I are part of the last generation in the world who will have lived a good portion of our lives before the Internet. As such, we can see more clearly than those coming after us how much our obsession with Internet technology has made prisoners of us all.
As an artist, I often feel more like the Internet is an obligation. I read an article in which some folks argue in favor of providing prisoners with access to the Internet in order to help them stay connected and to be able to reintegrate into society, if and when they get out. This has given rise to a short story idea I'm working on in which prisoners are forced to teach society how to survive after a meteor wipes out the Internet.
Do you think in some ways, we who have access to the World Wide Web and all that entails are the greater prisoners? Do you think in an age of over-saturated content and short attention spans that our writing fiction will even have an impact, or are we just singing karaoke?
Pete: Am I to assume that you don’t believe we’ve been to the moon? (Kidding, of course. I see your point.)
I go back and forth in terms of my cynicism toward technology, to be honest. I’ve got a bit of the computer nerd in me. It’s been there since the sixth grade. And of course I enjoy having easy access to books, movies, and music. As a writer, I enjoy the easy access to publishers that the Internet makes possible. But sometimes when I’m flicking through songs on my music subscription service, or selecting something to watch from a movie streaming service, I feel that things have become almost too easy. Or maybe not too easy, but that we now have easy access to too much. It’s like our grocery stores. Do we really need fifty different varieties of canned soup? An entire aisle of sugary drinks and garbage snacks? Thirty-five brands of milk? I think it was Michael Crichton who once said that we weren’t meant to be entertained 24/7. Or was it David Schow? David Schow quoting Michael Crichton? Whoever said it, there’s a lot of truth there. I think the art of cinema, for instance, has suffered a lot from the glut of images that we can all produce and witness with the tap of our fingers.
Remember when you’d go to a theater to see a movie, not knowing if or when you’d ever have a chance to see it again? It made you pay attention, and the art of it was arresting. You mention that you and I are of the age group that bridges the pre- and post-Internet eras. We also bridge the pre- and post-home-video phenomenon. And being able to rent movies at a video store seems like a pretty small shift in retrospect, but it was huge—the right amount of huge. It did give us access to movies we loved seeing in the theater, or missed seeing in the theater, but we still had to work for it, and drop a few bucks in the process. That’s another thing: everything is supposed to be free now. That’s a depressing reality for struggling artists.
But yes, we can make a difference as writers, musicians, playwrights, et cetera. I absolutely believe that. My published writing has reached people, and I’ve had some very nice things said about my work, by people whose work I also admire. That’s gratifying. But of course you’re always looking for ways to expand your reach. Some people abandon the traditional publishing model and go it alone. You know something about this. That can be done well, and it can be done poorly, like anything, I suppose. But there is a misconception that it’s a way around the gatekeepers. It’s not. It’s just that the gatekeepers are a different group of people. Instead of agents, publishers, and editors, you have to riddle your way past freelancers, self-publishing platforms, and other logistical challenges, not to mention paying for everything yourself. Besides, I’ve never fully bought into the pejorative use of the term gatekeepers. I think they can provide a useful service and fight for a high standard in what’s being published. At the end of the day, I’d rather reach a smaller audience in a meaningful way than perform a bunch of insincere cartwheels to win the attention of a larger audience. If that means I have to hold a day job forever, I guess that’s the way it is. But I also know that someone has to get lucky once in a while. Why not me? The dream will always be to have more time to write, so doing this full time would be amazing.
What do you have coming down the line, though, Nick? It’s hard to guess with you. You’ve made a couple of movies, you’ve staged a musical, and now you’ve got a line of children’s books available—speaking of self-publication. Of course, we know you have the science fiction screenplay in your drawer, too. So what does the immediate future hold?
Nick: I have mixed feelings about our technological progress, too. There is far too much content for anybody to process these days. This means the ability to aggregate, categorize, and tailor searches, based on cookies, etc., is becoming increasingly valuable. If the sheer plentitude of distribution channels and the saturation of content are like wild stallions, the technology to make sense of it all has become the new saddle. “Thirty-five brands of milk,” plus nearly 8,000 movies on Netflix wreak havoc on the mind trying lazily to escape, to decompress. There’s no video store or book shelf on the planet that can contain that many hours of entertainment! Add an estimated 14,000 downloadable games and the nearly four million apps available on Google Play and Apple’s App Store; well, that’s enough to make me want to gouge my eyes out (sort of). That said, I pulled all that data from the Web in about 30 seconds, so information access is tremendous now, thanks to technology. As for the quality and accuracy of data, well, that’s another story. But, as someone who once loathed card catalogs, I love all the information instantly available at my fingertips, even if it’s making my brain lazy. I have to discipline myself to use my power of recall; today, it’s so much easier to click away. As for your reference to those theater days and the advent of video, it’s true. We’ve seen the convenience rise; the result has been a diminished appreciation for the value of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This is also a theme I play with in eJunky. The very title refers to a person (an experience junky) addicted to new virtual and alternative experiences. Technology makes it very easy to become addicted to or dependent on new experiences. Consumerism works to constantly keep life interesting, fresh, to keep life exciting and motivate us to do things. Otherwise we’d probably sit and wither away. However, the way we view new experiences has us focused on the superficial; like zombies, attracted to bright, shining objects and loud noises, we don’t pay attention to the slow-moving grass. When my play, based on my movie Hell's Kitty, came out this June at the Broadwater theater in Hollywood, I was reminded of the value of a limited artistic experience. Those who came out to see the play got to appreciate it, while you and so many friends and fans of my work weren't able to see it because it was for a limited time only. As I was able to see nearly eight performances, I also was reminded of how each showing was unique in its own way. I think at some point this value is going to return to us in a way. The fact that Instagram and Snapchat have video clips that exist for only a certain period of time shows that all access, 24/7, is not the only way to go if you want to maximize the quality of your experience. This applies to the arts as well as to anything, really. I can recall as a child of five, sitting on a swing set, staring down into the blades of grass and watching a battle between red ants and flying ants. I was as mesmerized by that activity as any video game. Though perhaps it wasn’t as overtly interactive, my mind was racing with ideas and questions. It was meditative in a way, even at that age, an almost existential experience. I felt connected to the often painful and violent elements of the earth. It wasn’t until the hairs on my arms stood up, as a summer storm started to brew—a touch of raindrops pelted my forehead—that I realized in that moment, the world was a powerful, scary, violent, but exciting, place. Most important, it was a place of wonder, if you stopped to observe the things happening around you on the smallest of scales, at every moment. Hell, I don’t think watching Star Wars on the big screen in 1977 had as much appeal. If how well one recalls memory is an indicator, that moment watching the battle of the ants is still more memorable. I think we are losing the ability to slow down and look into the excitement and newness around us everyday because technology has us looking elsewhere and in different ways. As such, it takes big, noisy, bright, shiny objects to capture our attention, even if for shorter periods of time. The type of entertainment we’re becoming addicted to has changed; it’s what I call road kill entertainment. It will get you craning your neck while racing down the highway at eighty miles an hour (at least in Los Angeles that’s the way it is), but not much more.
As for what’s next for me as an artist, well, I’ve started my own publishing company. I did it because I have way more stories to tell than I will realistically ever get published; if I wait for traditional publishing companies to pick them up (at best, years out from when they actually publish them). Also, I became increasingly jaded with feedback from agents who are more concerned with my social media following than the content of my book or quality of writing. Lastly, I wanted to learn more about the business side, as a writer, so that I could better understand how to succeed as a professional writer. As someone who has produced movies, I know better than most writers and actors, and even directors, what it takes to make a movie and how to increase your odds of success. I’ve already been through “traditional” distribution twice now with my movies, and I can say first hand, this option sucks, too. It may give one more “bragging rights,” in the sense that someone else believed they can make money off of you because what you created had merit or at least an audience; however, it doesn’t mean you’ll make any money off of it, or that the audience will care. Publishing companies mostly get it wrong, if you count returning money on investment as a gauge of book publishing success.
At the moment, I’m working on a few TV and film projects that I’ve written and that I’m very excited about. When I say excited, I mean I think the work is truly great. I'm not excited by my prospects of that increasing the odds of them getting made. I’m trying to develop these projects in an over-saturated, more competitive-than-ever Hollywood, in which every actor who has ever made it is leveraging their fan base and network and contacts and experience to push past me. The big movement now toward diversity, too, doesn’t make it easier for those who don’t fit that bill, or who have never had the money or privilege allotted to a certain select group of, yes, mostly white Americans. It’s interesting how we as an audience are being made to focus on race over economic class. The solution to a growing racial divide in this country, I'm convinced, remains in our ability to unite over class. If anger and outrage is proving to be the one thing that brings folks together, it would stand to reason that we could all unite over the haves versus the have-nots, but those unions seem to get divided by race and sexual orientation in the end and don't last very long. Do you think being a white, male writer in society today is a detriment? How do you think class fits into your life and point-of-view as an artist?
Pete: Before I touch on a couple of your other points, there is, of course, more than one way to learn about the publishing business. You can work in a bookstore, or own one. You can publish in the small press, take an industry job, or read up on agents, publishers, and other aspects of the business. You’ve chosen to start your own publishing company. Is that more than a self-publishing effort on your part? In other words, do you plan to publish other writers at some point?
Nick: All the other ways you mentioned would feel like a serious detour from my goals as a writer and creator. By starting a publishing company, I can control when and how my stories find their audience without being dependent on others. Most important, I can also learn first hand and from the inside about the finance and economics. It's way harder to do that by taking a job at a bookstore and or working for a publisher. People don't often open up their books to new employees, unless you work in accounting or finance. This would also not be efficient when I own a production company as well. In addition, the earnings I make through my production company are a write-off to my expenses at the moment with New Classics Books, so, I look at it is an investment in building my brand as a creator. Yes, I do intend to publish other authors at some point. Ideally, I'll be able to grow out the New Classics Books, too. However, I'm not very confident, at this point, that my publishing company is going to return its investment anytime soon. The book publishing industry is in trouble, big time, for a number of reasons. I'm more hopeful that my production company, Smart Media, will have enough success with future projects (TV projects, most likely, and, realistically, training videos) to be able to bankroll our publishing efforts into the future as well.
Pete: Okay, to get back to your previous questions, I don’t think that being a white male writer is a detriment, but there is a sense these days that white men are being hit with a certain amount of payback for the sins of previous generations. Some of this is probably fair. Some of it maybe isn’t. Anything that results in more inclusion and opportunity for the traditionally under-served has that much going for it, anyway. Where I get a little bit concerned is when it starts to feel okay to write off the opinions and accomplishments of an entire group of people because of their age, skin color, or gender. I very much belong to the “two wrongs don’t make a right” school of thought. Without that foundation I think true progress becomes nearly impossible. But I do acknowledge that a lot of straight white folks are only now starting to get a sense of how minority groups have felt for far too long. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but there’s also nothing I loathe more than hearing from people who think they do. If any of us want to be heard, we have to speak respectfully and patiently to those with opposing viewpoints, as long as those viewpoints are somewhat reasonable. (I’m not going to sit here and defend your average Trump supporter, in other words.)
As for how class fits into my life and point of view as an artist, well, it’s probably the same as anything else. Money makes things easier, but I suppose poverty can put a fire in the belly. I’ve never wished the “starving artist” life on myself, but I think it does give some people a certain perspective that works fairly well for them. For others it probably prevents them from doing their best work. It’s pretty hard to be empathetic enough to write when you don’t know if you’ll be able to put food on the table next week. Or maybe writing is how you fill the time between jobs to prevent the darkness from taking too strong a hold. Personality and resolve come into play here.
But the truth is that we need art from the mountains and the valleys. The wealthy have things to impart to the poor, and the poor have many warnings for the rich. I’d love to be writing full time. That’s really the dream for me. The more time I have for writing, the happier I am. It would probably allow me to pick up music as a hobby again, too. As you know, I was a fairly serious amateur composer and songwriter for a number of years. That’s something I’ve sacrificed almost entirely to pursue a more thoroughgoing writing career, which has yet to materialize fully. The sacrifices start to wear on a person, and we all have to make them if we take this stuff at all seriously. But what’s the alternative? Giving up? I’m not one of those writers who believes I couldn’t do anything else with my time. In fact, I prove that the opposite is true, forty hours a week. But I do need a very immersive creative outlet. When that outlet was music, I didn’t write as much fiction and poetry. Now that I use the written word, almost exclusively, to wrestle with the demons of existence, I barely make any new music. If the creative impulse is there, God help you. It will demand sacrifices. But that’s not to say it can’t be satiated in more than one way.
So for now I write. The writer’s life is all about patience and investment. It offers almost no immediate reward, the writing itself being the most obvious exception. But it’s never given me more pleasure than it has in the last two years or so. I’ve written some of my very best work in that time, and I have some super exciting projects under consideration with various entities: a second short story collection, two novels, and a handful of stand-alone shorts that I hope will eventually make it into one of the two collections I have planned after the one I’m currently shopping around. This year has seen my work published, or accepted for publication, by Death’s Head Press, Crystal Lake Publishing, Suspense Magazine, The Literary Hatchet, and the Poetry Showcase series of anthologies from the Horror Writers Association. I've also been shortlisted for three high-profile anthologies that I'm really excited about. And the year’s not over yet! It’s been almost four years since my debut collection went out of print when the publisher closed its doors. I’d say it’s about time to announce a second coming.
Nick, thanks for doing this. I’ve had a blast, but I suppose we’re kidding ourselves if we think anyone is going to read much farther. There’s a new Netflix documentary series about bio-hacking called Unnatural Selection. I thought we might touch on it here, but it’s probably more than we can bite off this time around. Consider this a hearty recommendation for anyone interested in the future of our species. It’s also of interest to the philosophical minded in general. It’s very well done.
There is one thing, however, that we really do need to address. Since we started this little back-and-forth gab session, you’ve become an honest-to-God father! It’s been over a dozen years since I was in your shoes, so can you give us a sense of what’s on your mind these days?
Nick: Thanks for this, Pete, it’s been fun! Based on your recommendation, I started watching Unnatural Selection, and I am now a few episodes deep. I’m amazed at how much I think this technology of bio-hacking is going to change our lives, coupled with artificial intelligence, to such an extent that I don’t know if we’ll recognize much of anything in fifty years (provided we live that long). It’s enough to make one’s head spin. I only hope the future is a better one, especially now that I’m a father.
My daughter, Catalina, came into the world on October 20. I suppose she’s grounded me with a sense of meaning that transcends anything I’ve experienced before. It’s very possible to wonder: what’s the point of life, especially when you go through existence alone, albeit with friends and family. But with children you’re obligated to live it. As a parent you’re responsible for another living being, which alone gives life purpose and meaning, no matter what else you do and whatever other roles you play.
Catalina has me looking at the world with fresh eyes. At the same time, I’m anxious about the future she’ll be inheriting. In many ways, I feel more responsible now than ever before. I’m hoping to make the world a better place, as cliché as that may sound. But what does making the world a better place really mean today? Does it imply reducing suffering or does it mean to experience more? Does it mean becoming wiser or becoming happier?
Being a father has me even more awestruck about life. I find myself asking the same questions I ask when starting a new story. What’s it about? What are the characters’ motivations and conflicts? How is it going to end? However, with every new answer, I’ve got even more questions. I suppose that alone keeps life interesting, the mystery, never knowing all the answers.
It’s hard to imagine a better note to end on than that, folks. Thanks for dropping by and reading this somewhat unusual post. It doesn’t sound like you’ve heard the last of Nick or me, so keep your ear to the ground, your eyes on the road, and your hands upon the wheel—maybe not all at the same time. My point is that you never know what might jump out in front of you when you’re not paying attention. So look alive. We're coming for you.