Talking Satire with Jeff Lee
Jeff Lee is not the first writer to contact me through my Google form in order to request an interview. But he is the first writer to offer a look into writing satire, a genre that is getting a workout in our current times even as its death is declared every other Facebook post. I invited Jeff to talk more about his work, to include his writing, his “day job,” and the time he pissed off a dining facility full of combat engineers …
Q: Please share a brief bio (100–200 words) encapsulating your military experience, as well as touching on your writing credits.
Only 200 words? I’ll try, but my life is one long shaggy dog story. Graduated college in 1971, with a BA in Radio, TV & Film Production, and a Draft Lottery number of 20. Got sworn into the Calif Guard the same day and 2 months later, ended up at Ft. Ord for Basic and AIT. Where the Army decided to train me to be a cook. Now, I didn’t do any writing about my Army experiences, then. But, I did collect a ton of them. Like inadvertently giving a whole combat engineer company a raging case of salmonella. At the same time, I started my career as an advertising copywriter and creative director, and that formed the basis for my writer’s voice. Fast forward 40 some-odd years. I’m now retired from writing ads & commercials with a very wise-ass sense of humor. But I still love to write. So, now I write satirical novels that poke a lot of fun at the L.A. life, crime, murder, sex and the movie biz. And, in almost every one of them, I manage to stick a character or a scene that has a ton of fun with some aspect of the military. Like three middle age women in a humongous RV, who get into the mother of all hissy fits with the Air Force colonel in charge of base security at Area 51. I also introduced a character two novels ago, who’s an ex-Army MP with 2 combat deployments, a ton of weapons and hand-to-hand experience, and a case of PTSD that can instantly turn her into a raging tropical storm. There are now five books in my ‘Adventures in La-La Land’ comedy/crime series. With, hopefully, more to come.
Q: “Comedy” and “political thriller” are two words readers don’t often see together. Combine them with “satire,” and I’m pretty sure you’ve invented your own genre. How did you combine these disparate ingredients into the delicious satire casserole of your books?
It’s not that hard at all. We expect our villains to be serious guys who demand to be taken seriously. But, with just a little minor tweaking, you can make them even MORE memorable as comic fall guys (and gals). Think back to Dr. No, the megalomaniac villain out to destroy both the world and James Bond. Give him a hairless cat and a habit of chewing on his pinkie finger and you have Dr. Evil. Drama is all about conflict. But the funny thing is, maybe with the exception of Jack Reacher, our heroes tend to be polite, well-behaved guys you’d want to take home to meet the folks. So, you have a strong requirement for your villains to be memorable and unique (Hannibal Lechter, Captain Hook, DeNiro as Al Capone). Actors prefer to play villains because there’s a hell of a lot more meat there, and more chances for them to have more fun. I just take that and spin your usual good guy/bad guy plot a little on its ear. And we wind up with situations and characters like a big-time, Evangelical man of the cloth, who produces Bible-themed porn to hawk to the faithful. Or a height-challenged, powerful L.A. lawyer, who employs a hitman who loves his job and talks like Marylin Monroe. You can take almost any dramatic cliché and turn it into something unforgettable by just having a little fun with it. But, now I’ve given you all too much info. And we all know what happens to characters who know too much. <Evil laugh>
Q: When you’re writing satire, do you find any personal political philosophies seeping through? Do you embrace them, or do you try to write for people on all the sides of the political spectrum? Who do you find mostly enjoys your novels?
Interesting question. I spent more than 40 years writing ads and commercials. And when a client is paying for your time, you don’t always have the luxury of a set of beliefs you won’t EVER violate. Sometimes, you have to argue for the side opposite to what you really believe. So, when I started writing for just myself, that was a line in the sand I was just NOT going to stomp all over. I’m basically a tree-hugging liberal, and my personal politics are probably a skoshe to the left of that. And if you read any of my stuff, it’s all right there in my choice of villains and how I portray them. I love to ridicule the rich and powerful. And right now, they all tend to play for the Republican team. In my latest book, SCROTUS: The So-Called Ruler of the US, I had a field day eviscerating every Republican from the Oval Office Squatter, to his cabinet, to their members of Congress. Now, if you’re one of his followers, you may not find the book so entertaining and hysterical. But if I feel like making a particular point, I will. One thing about writing wise-ass ads and commercials for all that time, it taught me to be fearless about what I write. Like Shakespeare said in Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” Probably the best advice I can give anyone thinking about stringing words and thoughts together for a living.
Q: As a veteran writing political satire, do you ever find that your military experience informs your work? Why or why not?
Ok, I just said I was a tree-hugging liberal. But that comes with a caveat. I also happen to think the military — all branches — and the police are the good guys. Anyone who is willing to go in harm’s way to either protect and serve their community or defend the Constitution from all enemies both foreign and domestic, is ACES in my book. So, when cops or the military show up in my novels, I’m bound and determined to get it right. Funny, too. But first and foremost, I want it to read and feel right. And, being a veteran, I’m also sensitive to members of the government blowing smoke when they talk publicly about their commitment to our veterans. I remember how uncomfortable it felt to walk around in my fatigues in public during the Vietnam era (and Hell, I was still stateside, so I never saw combat.) And my blood still boils whenever I see members of Congress hiding behind patriotism, and then voting to eviscerate VA benefits. So yeah, my attitude about being a veteran probably comes through in a lot of what I write.
Q: What are some of the common narratives concerning veterans that you’ve seen in the news/entertainment media? Do they coincide with your own?
I think the one common theme throughout our history as a species has been the ingenuousness of it all. We sell our youth the warrior ethos, and motivate them to join up, put their lives on the line and go in harm’s way for the romance of fighting the good fight and being a warrior. And, over the years, millions of our best and brightest have sacrificed their time, their families, body parts and even their lives, fighting for the old men who sold them on this myth. And when they return from battle, many are damaged physically, or mentally. Many others fly home with the Stars and Strips draped over their coffins. Returning to a government that thinks they’re expendable at best, disposable at worst. And doing their best to deny those who’ve sacrificed so much, the healthcare and even the home they’ve paid for many times over with their own blood. Our veterans deserve better. And we, as a people, deserve better.
Q: What advice would you give to veterans who are interested in writing their own stories?
If you’re interested in writing your own stories, do it. No one deserves to tell your story to the world more than you do. BUT — there are a few things you should know. One, be prepared to do a ton of work on it. No one has EVER pulled a sheet of paper out of their typewriter read it and then decided it was great. Be prepared to write a good first draft. Then rewrite it a few times until you feel like it’s perfect. Then, give copies to a few people whose opinions you trust, and have them read it carefully. Then, edit and rewrite it again, if you agree with their comments and suggestions. The thing is, every time you toss out what’s on the page and start over, you’re getting closer to perfection, and being the writer you want to be. Make no mistake — writing is freakin’ hard work. No great writers EVER stopped at their first drafts and said, ‘this is it’. When it comes to writing, the GENIUS is in the editing and in the re-writes.
(And, when you’re done with that, then you have to get an agent or a publisher.
And start marketing your book. And, that’s a whole other level of fun.)
Q: Who are some fellow military/veteran writers you might recommend? What makes you recommend them?
There are hundreds of veterans who’ve written about the military. Even a few satires, too. If you haven’t already done so, check out CATCH 22, by Joseph Heller — a satire about World War 2 bomber crews. Or, M.A.S.H. a satire about Army medics during the Korean War, written by Richard Hooker (Hornberger).
Q: Anything to add?
Ok, out of fairness to your readers, I don’t want to add anything more to what’s already a ton of words to wade through.
But I do want to say this: If you ever raised your right hand and took the oath of enlistment, you have my respect. And my most profound thanks for your service. Thank you ALL.