A quick update before we begin. This interview was held the summer before James responded to a question on Reddit with a short story called Rome Sweet Rome that has since earned him a deal with Warner Brothers. We decided to leave the interview below as is, rather than add more than this blurb. I like it as a time capsule – James’ life and geekery before he got famous. For the record, what I say there at the end still stands.
“You know, Roald Dahl was a British spy,” James says to me, about midway through our interview.
“James,” I reply, “You know this is the point in the conversation at which I accuse you of making things up. Next, you will surely say something reassuring to convince me you are doing no such thing.”
“No, no. This is absolutely true,” he says.
“There it is,” I respond.
Let me explain. James Erwin is a very smart man. He is, no lie, a two time Jeopardy champion. I’m OK with this. I have no inherent Midwestern distrust of intellectuals. The thing is, James has a particular affinity for information that misses the mainstream. He finds and absorbs facts that often seem so improbable that, I have to admit, back in our college days, before the age of The Google Fact Check, I carried doubts about many of James’ stories.
I’m ready now to admit, I stand corrected on all such doubts. Here’s the Roald Dahl link, if you want it.
As near as I can tell, all of my research points to the fact that James is a very smart man. Oh, and he’s about as geeky as they come. So much so, it was hard to know where to begin, so lets just dive right in.
Well, for one, he’s been published in McSweeny’s. That’s pretty cool. He was also a theater nerd in college, wrote scripts for No Shame Theater at his alma mater, The University of Iowa, and had a significant role in a zombie movie to which he claims he no longer has the link.
But, there are bigger fish to fry here.
James has written not one, but two encyclopedias. You know those books they charge you $100 for in college!? James writes those. The first, Declarations of Independence: Encyclopedia of American Autonomous and Successions Movements, was finished and published in 2006. The second, Encyclopedia of US Military Actions, was finished the very day I interviewed James and is due for release April, 2012.
It weighs in at 650 thousand words, 2300 pages. For real. James read 800 books during his research and averaged something like two pages of writing a night. That is a hell of a reading to writing ratio, and sounds like exhausting work.
What prepares a man for this kind of work!? One, as I may have mentioned, he’s super smart and he loves this stuff. Two, he has a supportive and brilliant wife who understands his mania. Three, his day job is as a writer of software manuals.
Which brings us to major geek cred point number two.
James writes software manuals. Try as I might, I have no idea what this means. I understood all the words, but no matter how much he explained, everything just sounded like static peppered with phrases like “Fortune 500” and “stock analysis.” Finally, he took pity on me and said, “Basically, I absorb information and regurgitate it for people working on Wall Street. Like a mother feeding tiny birds.” Gross. But at least I kind of get it. And while James finds the work waaaaay less boring than I would (sorry, James), the encyclopedias do provide for more ownership and excitement on his part.
James claims his journey down the Path of the Nerd started like many other young men: he was too shy to talk to girls, “or anyone really,” so he just started reading. I would argue it is more complicated than that. Not all socially awkward boys are reading by the age of two (one has to wonder if he was also trying to talk to girls at this stage and the problem wasn’t that they didn’t like him, but that they didn’t know what an oligarchy was and why they should want to form one at day care), but I’ll go ahead and let him tell it his way.
“If I had been good at math,” he says, “ I would have been a paleontologist, living out my days in a tiny room, under a florescent lamp, slowly brushing the dust off bones.”
Instead, with reading came writing.
His first story, written in adolescence, was something about lab mice, splicing their genes with humans, and the subsequent evolution of humans with mouse DNA. When I asked him if people looked at all like mice, he said, “No, but they are known in their communities as having mouse DNA and therefore treated differently.” Seriously, kid? That’s freaking deep for a 14-year-old.
He wrote mainly Sci-Fi in high school and when I asked if he still has the itch to write fiction now, he responded with an emphatic yes followed by a super cool plot summary that I’ll keep it under wraps for now. Just keep your eyes peeled. He’s got the margaritas ready to go (something he says “help the process”) and I would not be surprised if he’s got something on the shelves at your local bookstore in the fiction sections by 2015.
Diaspora by Greg Egan. This novel takes place in a post-singularity world. “I don’t know if I believe in singularity theory,” says James. “But, I want to believe.”
“What draws people to this kind of life, James?” I asked. I meant the geek life in general. The Sci-Fi and fantasy, the games, the endless possible outlets for that overall nerd mentality. I have spent hours in smokey bars, drinking martinis with James, arguing about the nature of the universe (well, one time I did). I knew he’d have an answer for this that spoke to my own heart.
I can’t tell you exactly how it went, but there was speculation about a sadness or anxiety in childhood that leaves some children open to, in fact craving, the possibility of an alternative; some world more interesting, exciting, and accepting than our own. Or the possibility that this world might be more interesting, exciting and accepting than we realize if we could just get outside our own heads and take it in. We wondered together if all adult geeks awkward kids, feeling somehow on the outside of “normal.”
And then he pointed out something I hope is true for all those kids in their adult lives: James is very, very happy now. All that childhood awkwardness and angst lead him in a direction that has paid off big time. He makes a living doing what he loves, he has an amazing wife and a son that is just too precious for me to even stand it because I just want to pinch his cute little cheeks until they fall right off, and he has big plans for the future.
Some things I will tell you to embarass him.
James is another GOTW that Bex and I know personally. He’s just a funny person. There was a sweet naivete to him in college. He was so smart, yet some things had eluded him. We discovered on a road trip to Kirksville that James didn’t know that women use toilet paper every time they use the bathroom. “I didn’t have any sisters,” he explained. It’s little things like that that make him one of my favorite people.
Stuff we geek out about…
- A Little Something for the Fellas (2)
- A Little Something for the Ladies (9)
- Avengers Boot Camp (9)
- Before the Movie – Trailers (13)
- Editorials and Reviews (135)
- Interviews (19)
- Miscellaneous Geekery (48)
- Nostalgia (17)
- Sandman Re-Read (11)
- Three Favorite Things (4)
What we JUST said…
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- Hemlock Grove-A New Guilty Pleasure
- Deborah Harkness and A Discovery of Witches
- Syfy’s Defiance- Hope They Didn’t Blow the Budget on a Song
- Cover Reveal for the New Liz Long Novel Witch Hearts
- From Gen-X, To Chris Hardwick With Love
- Before the Movie: G.I. Joe Retaliation