TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe.
Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?
How the fears of the 1980s—nuclear war, serial killers, Satanists—got inside those of us who lived through it, and how those fears are not only reflected in the pop culture of the time—the music and movies and video games—but we still carry them around with us today.
Which essay did you most enjoy writing?
“Choose Your Own Adventure for ‘80s Kids” was a lot of fun to write, at least until the end. I started thinking about all the dangers that supposedly existed in the ‘80s, like quicksand, strangers in vans, Satanists, drug-pushers hiding out in the park. I asked Twitter and got many of the same answers. It seemed we had all heard the same stories, that these fears had become collective, as if so many of us shared them.
I also learned how many of those fears were unwarranted. The Satanic Panic, which I write about in the 2nd essay, was based on fear, inaccurate reporting, and false allegations. I’ve never once seen a drug-pusher in any park, and it seems quicksand is incredibly rare in nature, and actually quite easy to extract yourself from, allaying all those ‘80s fears of drowning, or suffocating—I was never sure which it would be.
So I spent a lot of time playing with those fears. Like watching a horror movie for entertainment. It seemed we were always being told to watch out for strangers in vans. That at anytime someone could grab us off the street. The nightly news was always talking about nuclear war, and we knew, even at our small ages, that a nuclear war would end everything.
But I know now the Satanic Panic was a moral panic, caused by a too-quickly changing world. We were learning about all the dangers out there: the serial killers and Satanists and Soviets, so every news story stuck. Every child custody case became an abduction. Every drug story was repeated again and again until parents were seeing drug-pushers in every park.
In that atmosphere, it almost seemed inevitable that the world would end. That someone we knew would be kidnapped. Acid rain would fall from the sky. The missiles would, finally, start to fly. So I made all the choices bad, the way it seemed we had little hope in a world waiting for the end.
The real choice comes at the end, though.
[See below for a link to this essay.]
Some of the essays are older, written before I even had the idea for a collection. “Left Turn at Albuquerque,” for example, was dropped from my first collection, because it didn’t quite fit in with the other essays, so I shelved it. But then I wrote a few more essays—“The Full Moon,” comes to mind, as well as “Candy Cigarettes”—and started to see a pattern.
The last two essays I wrote were “Choose Your Own Adventure for ‘80s Kids,” and “The Satanic Panic.” I had planned for the whole collection to be about the Cold War and our nuclear fears, but after those two essays I realized there was a lot more fear going around—or maybe a better way to say it would be that the fear of nuclear war made us so much more afraid of everything else as well.
So, very late in the game, I slightly shifted the focus, going from mainly a fear of nuclear war, to a fear of everything. The Cold War is the big shadow over everything, but there were all these other fears as well. I don’t really have a high or low publication story, but it was strange to be very nearly finished, and then rethink the whole thing again, with publication already in sight.
To me the only piece of writing advice that matters is to keep writing. Without that, no other advice really means anything. Voice, structure, whatever—doesn’t matter if you aren’t writing. My undergrad professor, Michael Gills, told me writing had to be a habit, just like smoking or drinking—something you can’t quite quit. I’ve always remembered that. It’s a workmanlike attitude toward writing that felt like the correct way to approach it—if I just worked hard enough, I would make it. That was important for me as a young writer, the idea that persistence will get you there, because at the time I certainly didn’t have anything going for me except persistence.
I say this only a little jokingly—I’m surprised we survived the ‘80s. I am answering these questions on the morning of September 11th, , which I briefly mention in the essay “When Buckwheat Got Shot.” That essay is a list of all the tragic events we watched, either live or on replay shortly afterward—the Challenger disaster, the Berlin Wall coming down, the First Gulf War. The Oklahoma City bombing, the Atlantic Olympic bombing, 9/11, the “Shock and Awe” of the Second Gulf War.
What surprises me is how so many of us share a collective memory—the same fears and hopes and dreams. It surprises me how many tragic events we have all witnessed. It surprises me how many of us are messed up because of all the things we’ve seen in our short lifespans, and it surprises me that many more of us are not also messed up.
But what is the most surprising—and I realized this through the process of writing, because while I am writing about our collective ‘80s fears, there is hope in the writing process—is that I still remain hopeful. Why else write, if there’s no hope?
How did you find the title of your book?
The title comes from the Modern English song “I Melt With You.” It’s a song about a couple making love as nuclear war begins. I’m not asking the reader to make love to me, but what is more intimate than the end of the world?
We’re also in this together. If one of us melts, we all melt. I am asking the reader to relive all the meltdowns of the 80s—the wars and rumors of wars, the shows and movies about the end of the world, the way the nightly news told us all the things to be afraid of. How the pop culture we consumed kept us afraid. How those fears are still inside us today.
That last part is the most important.
READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: https://linktr.ee/paulcrenshaw
ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR PILE: https://ohiostatepress.org/books/titles/9780814258828.html#:~:text=Blending%20the%20personal%20with%20the,guy%2C%20how%20Bugs%20Bunny%20cartoons
READ AN ESSAY FROM THIS BOOK, “Choose Your Own Adventure For ’80s Kids”: https://www.craftliterary.com/2021/12/08/choose-your-own-adventure-paul-crenshaw/