Interview: Jade Salazar
You know how every time you tell someone outside the metro area that you live in D.C., they always ask you about the monuments and think you wear pants suits and go to bed at 9pm? Well, author Marcus Bird has finally brought light to the real nightlife of the nation’s capital in his new novel, “Sex, Drugs & Jerk Chicken.”
The Jamaican once-D.C. resident tells the story of three young men struggling to find themselves among the backdrops of row house parties and Adams Morgan dive bars. Though currently living in Japan, Bird has traveled half way around the world to perform his first reading this Thursday at The Wonderland Ballroom in Columbia Heights. Brightest Young Things got the chance to talk with Bird about his journey, influences and exactly how much of this fiction book stems from his real experiences in our crazy city.
Brightest Young Things: It’s a pleasure to be able to speak with you. Please tell us a little bit about your novel, “Sex, Drugs & Jerk Chicken”.
Marcus Bird: I like using what someone posted in a review actually. “It’s a cynical post-modern view of immigrants in a big city.” I like to emphasize that it’s not an immigrant story. You know, like the poor family that comes to The States with nothing. It’s not that kind of story. It’s a story about three guys who are from Jamaica originally but they’re different kinds of people. One is a playboy type that’s gotten lost in the nightlife. Another guy is sort of a trust fund kid who is dealing with the death of someone close to him. And the third guy is a romantic whose ex-girlfriend just moved back to the city and came back into the social scene. It’s about these guys dealing with these issues. The title can make it come off kind of light but it definitely deals with some dark stuff as the book progresses.
BYT: When was the last time you were in D.C.? How will it feel coming back to the city that is the backdrop of your novel?
MB: I was here briefly in 2011. I’m actually living in Japan. I went to school in D.C. for a couple of years; I went to Howard. It seems.. bizarre. Especially at Wonderland. There’s also another big reason. I’m a blogger and I wrote this article called “Neal Strauss, Chuck Klosterman and Plastic Sheets”. Basically a couple years ago, I met a girl who went to a reading that Klosterman did at Wonderland. So I was reading his book and I liked his writing style. It was similar to what I did and a couple of years later, I’m doing a reading at Wonderland.
BYT: So is that why you chose Wonderland?
MB: I chose Wonderland because it represents what the book is about, in terms of people’s circumstances. It’s lots of bar conversations and restaurant conversations. For a while it’s like a rolling set of party nights in D.C. following a lot of different people. One character is the partier but anyone who lives there knows what it’s like on a Friday or Saturday night. Almost anything can happen. Wonderland represents that for me the most because the first few times I went to Wonderland I just had an epic time. It just felt like the right place to do a reading if I could. It’s a very mixed crowd and it’s a dive bar, ya know?
BYT: Living in D.C., I am very excited to read this novel. How do you think the rest of the D.C. audience will react to this book and seeing places that they hang out and hearing stories they can relate to?
MB: I think a lot of people that live in D.C. will find it interesting. Basically because it’s like a guide book. A lot of times people don’t really get the perspective of young, 20-something guys in that situation. Like I said, the three characters are Jamaican but they’re not too culturally different from anyone else. It could be three Irish guys. The situations they deal with are rarely cultural. I show a lot of D.C. in the book. I try to mix it up. One character has a love interest that’s from Barcelona. Bishop, the trust fund kid, he’s half-Chinese and he dates a half-Japanese girl for a while. I try to show the different Burroughs in the city too, but mostly nightlife stuff.
BYT: I know this is a fiction piece but exactly how much of this story is based on real events?
MB: Oooh nail on the head right there. I’m still not entirely sure how to answer that because it’s not entirely based on me. I used to write a blog about D.C. because I was out all the time. I’d meet interesting characters and would write about these situations. At the same time, I would write about how I felt. I was feeling very low about a couple of different things and when you’re trying to balance your social relationships and deal with your emotional issues at the same time, it’s very difficult. What I did with these characters was go to the extremes of certain situations that I lived. So let’s say I met a girl at a bar and had a nice conversation and then we talked and went home. Maybe in the book I would add more to that. I meet the girl and we go back to her place. More would happen, probably darker but different. I just tried to tweak all of these scenarios and situations but not just the nightlife, the emotional stuff too.
BYT: Are these three characters different sides of yourself and your stories, or are they a blend of the experiences you and people around you have had in D.C.?
MB: Honestly, these characters, I wouldn’t say they’re all me. They account for parts of me at different times. I started the book 3 or 4 years ago. Elements of me are in all the characters but I’m not really like them. The three characters represent amplified aspects of myself to an extent but they are definitely individuals. I made them very different; they don’t blend. Sometimes when I read a book the characters all blend. I gave them a personality trait that’s similar to me but then I gave them their own history and background.
BYT: I know you are from Jamaica and live in Japan and traveled all over, why did you pick D.C. as the setting for your first novel?
MB: I hate starting something and not finishing it. I make a decision and go through with it. The D.C. novel is something that I started and I got most of it done in about 3 months and then left it alone for a long time. For three years maybe. Then I went to Japan but the D.C. novel was still hanging over my head. The thing is, when you have a certain voice in a certain point of time as a writer, you really want to capture that. As your writing evolves people can see that. You don’t want too much time passing. These characters are pretty fleshed out and the book was almost done. That’s why I stuck with that one. I do have a Tokyo based novel that I’ve started but I didn’t want to really get into that one until I finished the D.C. novel.
BYT: I love the book cover and have read that you really put a lot of effort into making sure it was perfect for the story. Can you tell me about the design and what you were trying to convey to your audience?
MB: I do design as well and when I was in Japan I was doing some design work part time. I was almost obsessing over the cover as much as I was the last chapters. I was really trying to figure out how to get sex, drugs and jerk chicken and not seem cheesy. I do a design style like called “kawaii”, like Hello Kitty, it means “cute”. I figured it’s good to blend what you know and what you want to portray. I had a sketch like a little teddy bear holding a bottle of rum. I felt like it portrayed innocence and debauchery but I decided not to create an adult illustrated version of that. I had a little teddy bear that was old and it looked creepy as hell. I just got an empty bottle and I set up a staging area. I shot some pictures until I got the look I wanted. The reason I put the black bar over the eyes was to let people know it’s not a light-hearted story all the time. There are funny parts in the book but when people are looking at the cover they’re thinking of their lives and innocence lost and they know something dark is in the book. That’s what I wanted to portray. I want people to laugh at the title and then say, “hmmm” when they see the cover. I like the double punch.
BYT: Okay, taking it way back, what originally made you want to become a writer? What were your influences?
MB: Whoa. You threw in the curveball. The easiest answer is English class. I like writing but I always like to see how far I can take something. That’s my basic philosophy for developing a new skill set. I initially take it as far as I can before I decide if I like doing it. I can’t say I want to be a writer if I don’t write anything. Before I wrote this book I wrote about 5 different manuscripts. I got rejection letters from this place and that place but I just still kept writing. I think where it really changed is when I started getting qualified verification of my writing ability. I got an internship in New York with Comedy Central a couple years back and they liked my writing. I also did some screenwriting which turned into a film internship with my script and I thought maybe this really would turn into something. That’s what solidified it more. I would say I started in high school with curiosity and then a couple of internships and working with other writers showed me that I could do this as a career. I see that there are industries that need writers all over the place.
BYT: So just being able to actually see it as a possibility then?
MB: Yea when I was in school, I was confused about the direction I was going in. Design, film, everything at once. Now with things like Amazon and social media, you can do a lot more to self-promote. You can really get a buzz going. I have a few projects and I decided to just keep going and see where it leads.
BYT: I heard you studied film when you went to Howard University. Are you planning on one day turing “Sex, Drugs & Jerk Chicken” into a film?
MB: I think it would be a cool film. I did study film at Howard and on youtube I did a bunch of videos. I try to show people different locations and give people a look into my world. As far as this book, who wouldn’t want their novel to be turned into a movie? I think it could work. A D.C. art culture low-budge film maybe.
BYT: Speaking of your other passions, you have your hand in a lot of other creative endeavors. Tell me about what else you’re doing at the moment.
MB: While I’m in The States my main focus is the book. I also am exercising my youtube thing, birdimus prime. I would love to get more followers on twitter, @marcusbird. And my Tokyo novel is my second book hopefully coming out at the end of this year. I also have a website so people can check my updates, marcuskbird.com.
BYT: What can we expect as an audience from Thursday’s reading? Any particular excerpts fro the book that you want to make sure and share?
MB: Well this is the first reading of the book that I’ve done. I want to show people different layers of the book. It starts out kind of interesting with a guy hooking up with a girl at a party just to give you the tone of his character. The book; however, does deal with some harder stuff. It deals with suicide, isolation, depression. It even covers abuse for one of the characters and I’d like to show a few of those parts there. There’s even a Wonderland part of the book. I gave Wonderland a cameo, after a creation vs. evolution party we had a rabble of people go to Wonderland. I also want to read about the darker stuff so people know what the book is about. You think “Sex, Drugs & Rock n Roll” and you think about going through life in a blur of bad decisions. One guy in the book does take on drugs, one guy has a lot of sex and the other, he’s not a foodie, but he represents the extra parts of life that represent the jerk chicken. I’m going to try and reflect that.
BYT: How does it feel to be in the promotions stage? To have this book that you’ve written and trying to get your stories out to as many people as you can?
MB: It’s kind of weird because I was completely burnt out after the online book launch. I did all the design work and a lot of the design formatting for kindle so I wasn’t even thinking about the book. When you’re pushing your own book, you’re the marketing team and the PR team, you’re everything. But even talking to you right now, we’re talking about a book and it’s like, “We’re talking about a book and I wrote it.” I think everyone should make something of value that they can market. When I talk to people, it comes up. I tell them I have a book I wrote and I’m doing a reading and they think it’s really interesting. It’s cool for people to look at you and see that you’ve done something interesting. It feels good but I don’t know how I’m going to feel after the reading. That’s surreal to me. I’ve been doing all the promotion by myself so to do this next step is very crucial at this stage in the release. To do a reading six weeks after the book release is pretty incredible.
BYT: I realize you have a lot going on at the moment, but what are your future plans? What else can we expect from Marcus Bird?
MB: I’d like to write a few more books. I’ve been trying to produce an online TV thing for a while. I went to Japan, Korea, I’ve been to a couple of other places and I am trying to pocket that stuff for TV. I like the journey and the adventure in my lifestyle. I want to make that a reality. I also want to make a series of books. I want to write about three different cities. The D.C. one but they Tokyo and Kingston are the places I want to focus on next. I want to give people a different view of these places. If you could read a book and see a place it how I experience it, it might be more interesting.