Ron Tanner’s new novel, Kiss Me Stranger, is a short, but powerful exploration of the absurdity of war and of the consumer lifestyle. Its bellicose undertone is dressed in a light-hearted and hilarious arpeggio, allowing Tanner to address serious issues about modern life while entertaining the reader. The narrator, Penelope, and her 14 children live in a small country built atop a landfill. With Civil war raging around them, with her husband Marcel and eldest son Lon drafted by opposing factions, Penelope and the children must fend for themselves in a world where resources grow increasingly scarce and, as in any war, the rules around them keep changing. Centered by a strong moral core, despite the chaos erupting around them, Penelope desperately tries to hold her family together.
Tanner, known to some as the drummer in the musical group Jazz Caravan and to others as a writing professor at Loyola University, has won numerous awards for his fiction, including a Faulkner Society Gold Medal, a Pushcart Prize, a New Letters Award first prize, a Best of the Web award, among others. His stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines and his collection of short stories, “Bed of Nails,” won both the G.S. Sharat Chandra Award and the Towson Prize for Literature.
Tanner sat with Rosalia Scalia to chat about Kiss Me Stranger, writing, and life:
Rosalia Scalia: At a recent reading in Baltimore, you said that you wrote this while going through a horrendous divorce. Was there anything else going on that inspired the focus on a civil war?
Ron Tanner: Bosnia. That’s only one example. Then there’s Rwanda, Dafur, Sudan. It’s mind boggling that people keep allowing megalomanics to rise to power—and keep it. They are often absurd, their rules as silly as they are inhumane. While going through my divorce, I got the idea that divorce is like a civil war where, in many cases, one spouse is like the maniacal dictator imposing silly, absurd rules on the other, who accepts all of them in the hope that things will return back to the way they were. But they will never get back the way they were.
RS: Is this how the character of the The President came about? The man who makes up silly rules and everyone goes along with them?
RT: Yes, the maniacal president keeps upping the ante and everyone tries to follow them even as they grow increasingly impossible. This selfish, stupid man issues decrees that suck the people dry while he lives a lavish lifestyle, and this happens again and again around the world. Sad to say, as I was reading an excerpt about The President of my little fictional country last week, I couldn’t help thinking of the mad man of the hour: Moammar Gadhafi. You couldn’t invent a nuttier character than that.
RS: Talk to me about The President’s fixation on Gregory Peck, which is hilarious by the way.
RT: If you’ve seen any of Gregory Peck’s movies, you know that he was a beautiful man. When he played Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mocking Bird,” he played a hero, someone who does the right thing, no matter the hardship. The President in my book wants to be like Atticus Finch, the character played by a beautiful man like Gregory Peck. This aspiration, of course, gets it all wrong: you don’t imitate a movie star to fulfill a moral role—Peck is simply an actor playing through a fantasy, after all.If you want to aspire to good examples, look for real people who did real good, like Ghandi. At bottom, all my President is reaching for is glamor.
RS: The President seems to blur the lines between what is real and what isn’t.
RT: Yes, he has his own TV show, which features one of his pets, “a wonder dog.” My Presidnet is just an actor and “acting” like a leader, except he’s no Atticus Finch. Or Gregory Peck.
RS: How did you keep all the characters of Penelope’s 14 children straight?
RT: They’re sort of like a pack. I highlighted three or four—gave them distinguishing characteristics to keep things from becoming too confusing but for the most part, they are a pack. Still, I did consult a chart to keep them straight in my head.
RS: And Penelope’s hopefulness?
RT: That’s the important part. Penelope had to be the voice of reason and hope, to keep showing her children what is and isn’t acceptable and humane even as everything else around her is in chaos.
RS: Can you talk about point of view in this book?
RT: It’s from Penelope’s point of view. But I wanted to work in both Lon’s and Marcel’s point of view too. So I did that by having Penelope dream about Lon and Marcel and in those “dreams” we see Lon and Marcel’s stories and have access to their thoughts.
RS: Yes, but you still keep the Penelope’s voice and sometimes have her offer commentary even as we’re living through Lon’s or Marcel’s experiences. I remember at one point, Penelope seems to recognize somebody—the woman sergeant —that she saw in a dream about Lon.
RT: That’s right, the dreams are contrivance that act as a kind of report from the front and you’re meant to understand them as real. That’s why we see the woman sergeant later—she’s not just a dream. You could say that Penelope intuits what is happening to her son and husband and her intuition—her savvy guesses—are very accurate: she pretty much understands and accurately imagines everything they are going through.
RS: Tell me about the illustrations—how did this become an illustrated novel? The illustrations add to novel’s light-hearted tone.
RT: I did a few illustrations and then kept going, not knowing whether they’d make it into any published version of the book. Then when the [publisher’s] editor called to say they had room for more illustrations, I kept on going.
RS: Despite the chaos, despite the civil war, the absurdities of it, this is a hopeful book.
RT: Yes. In the end, Penelope shares the scavenged car with everyone in the neighborhood, her husband comes home, and she prevails in holding her family together—the power of the love saves them.
Ron Tanner is currently on the Kiss Me Stranger book tour. You can hear him read in Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and more, or buy the book here.