Scott Erickson is a writer of humor and satire. His pieces have been published in The Oregonian, The Portland Mercury, and several online publications. He is a two-time winner of the Mona Schreiber Prize for Humorous Fiction and Nonfiction. One of his stories was included in the book Laugh Your Shorts Off, a compilation of contest winners from the website Humor and Life in Particular.
He honed his humor writing via his long-running zine Reality Ranch. This led to the publication of his first book, The Best of Reality Ranch. It also led to publication of the short stories B-Movie Mash-up and Confessions of a Teenage Non-Mormon Secular Humanist Girl Zombie. These short stories were later expanded into the novellas B-Movie Mash-Up: Gastropods of Terror and How to Get a Head in Real Estate, and Seventeen and Turning into a Non-Mormon Secular Humanist Zombie.
His favorite part of The Best of Reality Ranch was the short absurd humor pieces, which he continued in The Navy Girl Book.
He has come to the conclusion that nature is pretty great, which makes him very sad that we’re wrecking it. This awareness led to his satirical novel, The Diary of Amy, the 14-Year-Old Girl Who Saved the Earth.
His concern about the “dumbing down of America” led to his satirical novella Invasion of the Dumb Snatchers.
He feels that satire is the only intelligent response to the current state of the world. He has found that writing satire is very challenging because civilization continually comes up with things that are more absurd than he can make up.
He has done some interesting things in his life. He spent 5-1/2 months backpacking around the biggest lake in the world, lived for 1-1/2 years at a rural not-for-profit institute teaching sustainable living skills, and spent a summer helping friends establish an organic farm.
He feels at home in Portland, Oregon, which has the largest roller skating rink west of the Mississippi and the highest concentration of craft beer breweries in America. He is possibly the nicest curmudgeon you’ll ever meet.
The Diary of Amy – Author Q&A
Why did you write the book?
This was one of those “I had to write it” books. It was a way for me to cope with the fact that humanity is systematically destroying the planet’s ability to support life. And with the fact that hardly anybody seems to think this is important, such as our leaders. But it’s not just them. According to the polls, environmental problems generally rank near the bottom of our list of concerns, just above the problem of high movie prices.
I suppose a lot of people think environmental problems are an “elitist” issue, as if it only effects yuppies who want a nice view from their $900 Sierra Designs tent. Maybe it would help if instead of talking about the “environmental problem” we rephrased it as the “destroying the ability of the planet to support life problem.”
This is not an easy thing to carry around casually. For me, nothing else makes sense when, as a civilization, we’re committing gradual suicide.
There’s a saying, “Scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.” That very much applies to me. I can’t pretend to be a naïve idealist, but if I totally become a jaded cynic then why bother living?
So in my novel, I got the two sides outside of myself and gave them voices. Amy is the younger version of me, the bright-eyed hopeful idealist who knows that anything is possible. Coyote is the jaded and experienced version of me, who knows there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that anything substantial will actually happen.
Who is the audience for the book?
The book is for people concerned that humanity is systematically destroying the earth, and are asking questions such as, “Shouldn’t we do something about it, such as stopping it?”
The book is for an audience that definitely exists, but is not easy to find. This audience has no organization and doesn’t hold marches or rallies, because it’s an audience that has given up on organizations and marches and rallies.
The book is for people who saw the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which presented evidence of massive destruction resulting from global warming, but were plunged into depression when it ended with the “hopeful solution” that we should all switch to compact florescent light bulbs.
The book is for people who pick up a copy of an environmental magazine, but inside they see articles such as, “Dentists recommend the top five ‘green’ toothpastes.”
The book is for an audience that has given up on saving the earth, but still cares. It’s an audience that sees human civilization as a ship that’s going down, and doesn’t know what to do about it.
What value does it provide for this audience?
The book was very therapeutic for me to write, and I hope it will be therapeutic for others to read.
Hopefully the book will provide a sort of validation. It will tell them: “You’re correct that we’re destroying the earth’s ability to support life. And we’re not doing anything to stop it. In fact, we’re actively opposing anybody that’s even trying to slow it down.”
Or in other words, “You’re not crazy.” Because a lot of the time what makes us feel crazy isn’t what we’re feeling, but thinking that we’re the only ones feeling it.
I believe that satire can be very helpful in this regard. It can help us laugh at things that might otherwise cause us to sink in despair.
It’s the reason that Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was so important. The prospect of total nuclear war and the destruction of humanity should be depressing. But there’s something liberating about that movie. At a very critical time for a lot of people, that movie reassured us that we weren’t alone.
There’s something else. At the conclusion of Dr. Strangelove we’ve witnessed our leaders, the top representatives of the human race, behaving like morons. So when Slim Pickins rides the bomb like a rodeo cowboy, triggering the doomsday device that will destroy the human race, we’re prepared to think that maybe it’s not such a bad thing.
We could ask a similar question at the conclusion of The Diary of Amy. We might ask ourselves: “Does a species destroying the capacity of the earth to sustain life deserve to survive?”
Hopefully my book will allow this audience to stop worrying and love humanity’s self-destruction. What else can you do about it? I suppose we could try to stop it, but I believe my book shows why we won’t succeed.
There does seem to be a growing sense of unease about the state of the world.
There’s a widespread sense of doom, even if people can’t clearly identify the source of it. I think one sign of this is that our culture seems to be obsessed with post-apocalypse stories and things like the zombie apocalypse. My theory is that these stories serve as a sort of psychological “inoculation.” Experiencing the fear vicariously helps us cope with it.
A growing number of people are convinced the collapse is imminent and are preparing for it. There’s the rise of doomsday “preppers” who are taking the “rugged individual” approach to surviving in their private compounds. Then there’s the “transition movement” of towns and neighborhoods preparing for a community approach to surviving environmental and economic collapse.
Do you think this book will be controversial?
Well, the idea that humanity is doomed might be a bit controversial, yes? Even though early in the book Amy details pretty clearly the facts that make it obvious, and the ways that those facts are hidden from view. The facts are undeniable, although we deny them anyway.
What do you hope this book accomplishes?
The jaded cynic just wants other sane people to realize that they’re not crazy.
I suppose the naïve idealist hopes that the book could stimulate some deep soul-searching in the environmental community. The naïve idealist hopes it could convince the environmental community that they aren’t touching the roots of the problem and need to consider a new approach.
But the jaded cynic thinks they’ll ignore the message of the book if they can. And if they can’t ignore it, then they’ll find reasons to oppose it.
Will environmental groups be angered by your portrayal of the fictional environmental organization “EarthHome”?
I could easily imagine people in an environmental organization bristling at the portrayal of HomeEarth, especially Katherine Bliss with her focus on “the numbers.” Yes, this is exaggeration for satirical purposes. But it’s not invention, as anyone with experience in such an organization knows. Any organization needs to pay attention to the numbers to continue being an organization.
What no environmental organization will tell you is that the environmental movement is losing the battle. And there’s a good reason they don’t want to tell you that. If I worked in such an organization, and my paycheck depended on the numbers, I’m sure as hell not going to tell people we’re losing.
But is that the fault of the environmental organizations? Or is it the fault of members that don’t want to face reality? Here’s a question: Can an environmental organization be more radical than its members?
Superficially, the portrayal of “EarthHome” could be seen as controversial. But as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the organization is a victim to the same dynamics that drive the rest of society. And just like in real-life, the organization is not questioning those dynamics.
How did your experiences with nature and environmentalism lead to the book?
At difficult times of my life, nature has been a sanctuary. I was born and raised in the Los Angeles area. There wasn’t much wilderness there, to put it mildly. Yet there was the ocean. I could always go beyond the smog and traffic, to the edge of the continent. I could turn my back on the craziness, and suddenly I was facing the largest wilderness on earth.
The natural world was the first place I could truly feel at home. At age 19 I moved to Minnesota. More than one person thought I was crazy. On the way there, I visited the Grand Canyon. I set off to hike a couple miles down from the rim, then come back up. But I could not stop. I kept going all the way to the bottom. I was wearing cheap sneakers and carrying only a quart of water. It was very fortunate I was able to get water at the bottom of the canyon at Phantom Ranch. It was sunset when I got back to the rim. I could hardly walk and my feet were trashed. But I was transformed.
I fell in love with Northern Minnesota, especially the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and the North Shore of Lake Superior. Eventually, I spent 5-1/2 months backpacking completely around the lake. Again, more than one person thought I was crazy.
More craziness followed. I lived for 1-1/2 years at a rural not-for-profit institute teaching sustainable living skills, then spent a summer helping friends establish an organic farm.
When we realize how nature is being systematically destroyed we often become activists, even if it’s just on the level of donating to an environmental group. I did a little environmental activism, but after many years studying the causes of environmental destruction I became disheartened. Thus, The Diary of Amy, the 14-Year-Old Girl Who Saved the Earth.
Why a satire, versus non-fiction?
There have been plenty of serious non-fiction books warning us about environmental destruction. Around 20 years ago, the books were basically about what we need to do to save the earth. Now, the books are about how we can try to salvage some of what’s left and survive the coming ecological collapse.
That reminds me of the book Collapse by Jared Diamond, which is a survey of what led to the collapse of various civilizations throughout history. He made it extremely clear that civilizations that destroyed their environments did not survive. Yet what was the effect of this book?
Let me guess. Nothing?
That’s exactly right! You win this round and advance to the semi-finals.
So we don’t need another “serious” book about how to save what’s mostly gone. From my point of view, all I could possibly contribute was satire.
Is satire hard to write?
The hardest part is trying to write things that are more absurd than what real life comes up with. I’ve heard this from a lot of comedy writers lately. There’s this idea that satire is dead because real life has become a satire of itself. I’ve seen television news programs that were funnier than parodies of the news.
Here’s an example: Could anybody have invented the character of Sarah Palin? The vice presidential debate with her versus Joe Biden was one of the funniest things I’ve seen in my life.
Someday she’s going to be elected President. Which reminds me of the movie Idiocracy. It’s a pretty good satire about where we’re heading. Or have we already arrived?
Were there any satirical works that served as models for your novel?
I tried to find examples to emulate, but with only partial success. The problem in almost every case is that the target of the satire was a specific part of the population. Most satire seems to target Washington DC or politics in general. But that’s such an easy target. And my target was much broader.
Dr. Strangelove, possibly the greatest satire of all time, focused on political and military leaders. Another excellent satire, which should be better known, is the movie Network. It was released in 1976 and was way ahead of its time. In some ways, it still is. It’s a very subversive story that not only showed us the corporate takeover of media, but of basically the entire political system. But still, the target was corporate power.
But my target, ultimately, was “all of us.” It might actually be more accurate to say that the target was something like “the assumptions underlying our society” or “our cultural paradigm.” But that’s too abstract. So what I tried to show was how that paradigm manifests in “all of us” – whether politicians, voters, business owners, environmentalists, parents, the religious community, and as regular people just trying to get by. But since nobody can change that paradigm except for us, that brings us back to “all of us” as the target of the satire.
I found very few examples of that kind of satire. There’s Kurt Vonnegut, whose target is often “all of us,” but his style is so unique and particular that it really only works for Kurt Vonnegut.
The closest example I knew of was the brilliant play The Visit by Friedrich Durrenmatt. It shows, in a very clever and darkly comic way, the power of greed to subvert our values. Not just politicians and corporate CEOs, but everybody. Although I couldn’t really use his story as a role model for my own, I was definitely inspired by the “spirit” of the story.
Coming up with a story to satirize “all of us” was extremely challenging. And added to that challenge was the usual challenge of trying to create an engaging story with interesting characters. Also, I wanted it to be funny. After the first draft I told friends that writing the story destroyed my mind. I was only half kidding.
Why did you make Amy so young?
The story couldn’t have worked with anyone other than a young, idealistic, perky, teenage protagonist. A 36-year-old policy wonk camping in a wetland would probably just get arrested. But a perky teenage girl camping in a wetland is newsworthy, which is what gave her the media attention that made everything else possible.
No, it wasn’t realistic, but I feel like it worked very well satirically. It’s much more effective, satirically, to have a perky teenager battling against the forces of environmental destruction. How can you not root for such a person? Which makes the ending – well, I don’t want to spoil the ending.
At the end of the book, I didn’t know if I felt like laughing or crying.
Isn’t that how satire should leave you feeling?
Dr. Strangelove is a perfect example. What many people don’t realize is just after that movie came out, there was another film called Fail-Safe, starring Henry Fonda. Both movies were based on a novel called Red Alert. What’s interesting is that the plots of both movies are nearly identical. But one is a deadly-serious drama, and the other is one of the funniest satires ever made. This made me realize that it doesn’t take much to twist tragedy into comedy.
Actually, Dr. Strangelove began as a serious adaptation of the novel. But as Kubrick envisioned the scenes, he had to keep leaving out things that were absurd to keep the story serious. But then he realized that those absurd comic elements better conveyed the reality of the situation. So he decided to turn the movie into what he called a “nightmare comedy.”
Friedrich Durrenmatt called The Visit a “tragi-comedy.” The story had to do with an entire town murdering one of its citizens, which might not sound funny.
I’m not sure it’s possible to draw distinct lines between “satire” and “tragi-comedy” or “black comedy.” It’s probably a continuum. But in all cases, humor is used to target the absurdity of something that’s not funny. So in my view, mixed feelings are part of what makes satire.
How did you come up with the plot of the book?
This was my first novel, so I did a lot of research into plot creation. I figured out that I wanted the story to begin as a comedic “center and eccentrics” plot. And to deliver the satirical punch, I needed to transition to the dramatic “one against” plot. The idea was that the comedic plot draws you in, and then the dramatic plot delivers the message.
I was desperate for examples of how to do this, so I wasn’t picky. I was willing to take from whatever I could find to get useful ideas. The movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was useful, as was – believe it or not – the western High Noon. I’m not crazy about admitting it, but I even found some useful elements in Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde. I was looking for stories with the plot “young woman overcomes all,” which is what led me there. My character of Katherine Bliss was partly based on the character played by Sally Fields. I suppose this admission means I’ll never be taken seriously as a writer.
Did I mention that I was desperate?
Why the diary format?
I outlined the story assuming a fairly standard multiple-third-person point of view. But a curious thing happened when I actually started writing the first draft. The story felt plodding and uninteresting. And I was pretty sure that if it seemed dull to me, it would seem dull to a reader.
I can’t recall what made me think of trying the diary format, but it was exactly what the story needed. It allowed the character of the Amy to come alive in a way I never could have done otherwise. Instead of having to contrive lengthy conversations to express her thoughts and feelings, she could simply tell us.
Also, I could easily show what was happening in society by including things like newspaper articles. Instead of contriving ways to convey that – for example – environmental problems were getting worse, I could just have Amy paste in some articles about environmental problems getting worse.
This saved a lot of time. And as a reader who hates to have my time wasted, I didn’t want to waste the reader’s time.
Did you have examples for writing in a diary format?
For writing fiction in a diary format, my best reference was the early books in The Adrian Mole Diaries series by Sue Townsend. In the first book, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13-3/4, the protagonist was close to the age of my protagonist, which was very helpful.
Those early books were hilarious, and much of the humor was based on Adrian being unaware of the implications of what he was writing. This was very helpful, because it was necessary for Amy to do that and I didn’t know if I would be able to accomplish it.
Is humanity doomed?
It’s not a question of when the collapse is going to start, because it’s already happening. Not just environmentally, but economically. Of course, many people deny environmental problems, or don’t think that they’re serious. And hardly anybody realizes that our financial problems are directly related.
Our addiction to economic growth is a pyramid scheme, and the losers of the scheme are growing every day. All pyramid schemes eventually collapse, but it starts from the bottom and works its way up. That’s what we’re seeing right now.
But we can’t change it because we’re dependent on it. We don’t know what’s happening, so we keep defending what isn’t working any more. That explains why we’re seeing the losers of the pyramid scheme defending the winners.
We find ourselves getting mad at people who demand a decent wage because it will drive up prices and bankrupt the companies and increase unemployment.
We accept the destruction of the earth to prop up an economic system that’s screwing us over. The answer of “more economic growth” has become the solution to all of our problems. And infinite economic growth on a finite planet is impossible: It will destroy the planet before it destroys itself.
In other words, we’re fighting to preserve what’s killing us.
We can’t even imagine alternatives. And our educational system seems specifically designed to stifle debate about alternatives. It’s in a lot of people’s best interests to have a stupid population. Also, it’s much easier to have a trouble-free life if you’re willing to remain stupid. Welcome to Idiocracy!
Consider that oil is running out, and that our economy and infrastructure is entirely based on cheap oil.
As a premise of the novel, I have us drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It’s going to happen. The politicians keep trying to pass it, to slip it in as a rider or amendment. And one of these times it’s going to work. There will be some sort of innocuous bill that gets widespread bipartisan support – something like healthy lunches in public schools. The bill will say something about “fresh vegetables for all children,” then somebody will slip in the line, “and also drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”
Or else we’ll become so desperate, on the verge of economic collapse because we failed to start preparing 20 years ago, that it will be passed openly with bi-partisan approval.
I have no doubt we’ll drill the refuge. We’ll drill every possibly place we can find, wage more wars for oil – anything but actually change our lifestyles.
How could anybody possibly be optimistic? But don’t get me started.
This is just getting started?
Invasion of the Dumb Snatchers – Author Q&A
How did this book come about?
Like many people, I’m alarmed by what seems to be an appalling lack of intelligence in this country. This country is facing some incredibly huge and challenging problems, and many Americans consider Donald Trump to be the best candidate to lead this country through them.
Since my thing is humor and satire, I wanted to figure out how to represent this in a humorous and satirical way. The movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers has always been one of my favorites. The movie, which came out in 1956, inspired all kinds of theories about how the story was a metaphor for McCarthyism or post-war conformity. Since the story deals with universal fears, so it can be interpreted in a variety of ways.
So when I hit on the idea of twisting the story to be about stupidity, it was a natural fit.
You used the original 1956 movie as your source material?
That was my primary source. But I also used the 1978 remake, which people might be more familiar with. But I also used the original 1954 novel by Jack Finney. So I had lots of material to play with. Or riff on, actually. While going through all the material, I scribbled down whatever funny twists I could come up with. If they still seemed funny a couple days later, they went into the novel.
I probably had more fun writing this story than anything I’ve ever done. Also, it was relatively easy. Since my story was a parody, I didn’t have to create everything from scratch.
Did you do any research for the novel?
I did a few web searches for things like “stupid people” and “stupid quotations.” And of course when the topic is American stupidity, I couldn’t overlook the contributions of George Bush. There are several Bush quotes in the story, only one of which is credited to Bush: “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.” There are a few others hiding in there, I’ll leave it to the reader to identify them.
For the sexual dream, I adapted some of the most hilarious passages from winners of the Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction award. I don’t think I would be capable of making up such hilariously bad sex scenes on my own.
Why is the book narrated in the first person?
It was the best way to show the inner workings of really stupid thinking. It’s is a common comedy technique, used a lot by two of my favorite humor writers: Jack Handey and John Swartzwelder.
I really enjoy writing from the point-of-view of a really stupid character. I think it worked perfectly for my novel because the basis of the humor is the same as the point of the satire. I could show what this stupid character thought about the world. So his twisted thinking is not only humorous, it’s also satirical. It reveals why trying to do anything smart in this country is met with such resistance.
Your book has nothing good to say about television. Do you really think it’s that bad?
In the book I had to oversimplify many things. I needed symbols of stupidity versus intelligence, and using “television versus books” was a handy way to represent it.
I recognize there are some quality television programs out there. But even amongst the best of them, the goal is mostly still entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’ll watch the occasional show or silly movie, to relax from thinking. But what too many people do is watch television to avoid thinking in the first place.
Why is stupidity appealing?
I think there are several explanations, and I touch on some of them in my novel.
It should be obvious that “the powers that be” don’t want a population of thinkers. In Aldous Huxley’s book Brave New World Revisited, he outlined the very brief history of an organization called the Institute for Propaganda Analysis. The institute was formed in 1937, as a result of Nazi propaganda. The idea was to teach students the critical thinking skills that would allow them to analyze and debunk the propaganda. The problem was that when the United States entered the war, the government didn’t want anybody questioning our propaganda.
But even before that, there was a lot of resistance to the organization. Teachers didn’t want students who questioned what they were being taught. The military definitely didn’t want soldiers questioning their officers. The church didn’t want people questioning the authority of the church. And corporations didn’t want people questioning the claims of their advertising.
Do you think stupidity is actually increasing?
I think it is. And I think the basic reason is that we need to resort to increasing stupidity to stay in denial.
The human race has done some really stupid things. Such as creating a culture dependent on an unsustainable source of energy. Such as creating an economic system dependent on the destruction of the environment to keep from collapsing. If we were smart, we’d go about changing these stupid things.
But that would mean we’d have to give up the so-called “benefits” of these things. So we’re forced to defend our stupidity with increasingly stupid excuses and rationalizations.
I really do believe that we’re in a race between intelligence and stupidity. And I’m not very optimistic about how intelligence is doing.
Your novel demonstrates all these theories?
The theories I’ve described are just the ideas that were floating around in my mind as I wrote. Some of it came out through the characters.
But honestly, my goal was just to write a book that was as funny as I could possibly make it. I just wanted it to have a satirical edge. I believe a story if funnier if it’s not just trying to be funny. I believe a story is funnier if it’s actually saying something, if there’s an actual point to the humor.