“Since the Epstein news broke, the Rabbit has been different, though, quiet and hungover, careening toward some bad ending. Daffy is fairly sure he was a little drunk when they were filming the building inspector scene with the Pig. Something about his carriage, the way he kept on flubbing the monologue.”
— from “Duck”
I had the privilege of interviewing Dave Housley to talk about his new collection, Looney, out now from HAD. It’s a phenomenal book—funny, weird, and sad, perhaps the three greatest descriptors of fiction in the English language—and you really really really need to read it. That is all.
I feel like we need to start with the premise of these stories, all written from the perspectives of various Looney Tunes characters. How did this project originate? Which of these stories came first, and was there something specific that prompted the idea initially?
I actually remember exactly where and when this idea arrived, which isn’t always the case for me. Usually it’s more that I’m kind of stewing on an idea, or an image, or something over a period of time and eventually the beginning to a story might emerge. This one was very specific. Here in State College, Pennsylvania, where I live, they have a tradition that every December the little restored theater in town plays Looney Tunes for free on Saturday mornings. It’s delightful: a room full of little kids and parents and older folks and super stoned college students enjoying the old school Looney Tunes together in this lovely little theater on a Saturday morning with the holidays coming soon.
One note here: the old school Looney Tunes are intense. There’s a lot of drinking, smoking, violence. There’s a fair amount of suicide, literally cartoons that end with one character putting a gun up to its temple and looking at the camera and then BOOM THAT’S ALL FOLKS. Looney Tunes are fucked up.
A few years ago, I was at the State Theatre on a Saturday in December watching them with my son and an Elmer Fudd came on and I just had this thought: what would it be like if this was real? And then just realized how trippy and wild everything in the cartoon was, how absolutely fucked up it would be for you if you were Elmer Fudd and this was all actually happening to you.
I’ve done a fair amount of this in my writing—this idea of “what would it be like if this was real?”—and the Elmer Fudd idea just got stuck in my head. It’s kind of a psychological horror movie if you think about it—he’s stuck in this space with this gun and some kind of duty to hunt this rabbit, but the rabbit keeps on morphing into these other things, keeps up turning everything back on him, and it just keeps on getting worse. I just kind of took that idea from his point of view and started writing
On a similar note, how did this collection come about? How did you go from writing one story about Looney Tunes characters to writing nearly twenty?
I like to have a writing project, or a few of them going on at any given time, so once I wrote the first one I had the idea in my mind that this could be something that turned into one of those weird little projects. At the time I was writing most of these I was also working on my novel The Other Ones (which I’ll tell you more about below), so these very short, very weird, super elastic stories made a nice counterpoint to that project, which was a novel about people who are working together in an office (not short, kind of weird, not as elastic). After I wrote maybe four of them, I thought, well I should probably keep on going here until I have enough for this to be something, which is a thing that I do, in terms of writing stories around an idea or a collection. If I get to a certain point, I guess I always pass go and look to write a full book, or at least a collection that can kind of hang together.
One of the threads of the stories are the frequent references to Jeffrey Epstein throughout. Bugs in particular frequently invokes this name, and we know that he's visited Epstein's island once or twice. I find it absolutely fascinating; can you tell us a little more about how this developed as you wrote?
Okay, here’s where I have to admit something pretty weird: I got super into QAnon during the last stages of the last election. Not, like, as a full on believer that (warning: kind of a summary of QAnon coming here) Donald Trump was going to save us all from an evil, child-blood-sucking cabal that has ruled the world for centuries and includes everybody from Bill Gates to Sean Green and literally everybody in between, including JFK and JFK, Jr. who are both coming back any day now or may have come back already but who will definitely make Donald Trump president again any day now, that all the dead celebrities are alive, that all the alive celebrities are clones/dead/Kennedys wearing masks, that everybody is communicating through numerology and time stamps and the White House Christmas Tree and where a toy plane in the Oval Office is positioned at any given time. God, that’s exhausting. And incredibly stupid. Anyway, I got pretty into following QAnon, mostly on Twitter, mostly because something about how absolutely batshit they were/are helped me feel better the political situation in this country, that the other side was really as bonkers as I felt they were. It was fascinating and honestly still is. The goalpost moving, the not-dead Kennedys, the angels, Illuminati, chemtrails, the sun is different now, Paul Walker was killed because he had information about the Clinton Foundation, the kraken—whatever you got, QAnon has room for it. Honestly, I could have gone on for three thousand more words. In that space, you can imagine that Epstein took up a fair amount of bandwidth. The story fit right in with a core set of their beliefs, so it was very prevalent and like all things Q, very adaptable to whatever direction the wind was blowing at any particular moment.
When I was writing the rabbit portions of this book, the Ghislaine Maxwell thing was happening, and the Q people were on full burn about Epstein. To be fair, they are always on full burn about everything. Still, it was kind of in the air, and I was in this paranoid space, and under the extreme influence of Jeff Chon’s great book Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun (more on that below), so it just kind of made sense to me that if Bugs Bunny was real, he would be the kind of celebrity who would be in that Epstein orbit. I loved the idea that it was making him nervous, that maybe he was guilty of something and was worried about the association, and then finally that under all of that, there was this other thing that would be bothering him even more: that there was this other realm, a door labeled “humans only,” that still wasn’t accessible to him. I had this idea that the other characters are jealous and fearful of him, that he’s basically the sun around which their planets are spinning, but that he’s also deeply unhappy and unsatisfied at his core. The Epstein thing just kind of fell into place and felt like it worked for all of those things, so I just kind of kept on going with it.
Another common theme throughout is paranoia—particularly from an increasingly bitter Bugs, who drinks wine out of travel mugs and is living in Johnny Carson's old mansion and off of a steady supply of cocaine. What was the inspiration for the darker tone to these pieces?
Part of it is, like I said above, where my head was at when I was writing those Rabbit pieces. I wrote most of these (non-Rabbit pieces) in a kind of slow roll over maybe three years, and then wrote the Rabbit stories all at once over the course of a few weeks. At that point, the Ghislaine Maxell thing was happening, and also I was reading Jeff Chon’s book Hashtag Good Guy With a Gun, which I think does the best job of anything I’ve read of getting into that paranoid headspace and portraying, as our friend Tom McAllister described, “the way the internet is ruining young men.” In that book, a man goes into a pizza shop with the intention of shooting it up, and then finds another man in there already in the midst of an attempted mass shooting. Something very similar happens in this book, or at least the circumstances are similar, and that is definitely 100% due to me reading and really loving Jeff’s book and it’s deep understanding of the ways people’s brains are being fried.
Like I said, I also had this idea in my head that the Rabbit was not going to be a happy, successful celebrity. I mean, there’s no fun in that. As I was writing the other stories, he kind of loomed over the other characters. They fear him and resent him and know that their place in the Looney universe is in proximity to him, wherever that is.
Maybe because of where my head was at the time, and maybe because I’m just interested I the idea of nobody ever being truly satisfied with their station no matter what that station might be, I had the idea, even before I started writing the rabbit sections, that he was going to be a deeply unhappy, paranoid version of a celebrity. A figure who has it all but is happy with nothing. I liked the idea that there’s the bridge he can’t get across – he’s a rabbit, so they just won’t ask him to host the academy awards, there’s this part of Epstein island that he can’t get into—and its bugging him even in the immediate wake of Epstein’s death. He’s this very accomplished, very intelligent, extremely successful and self-aware rabbit who just will never be able to get over these perceived slights. Something about that felt right to me.
I'm fascinated by how different writers can have very different approaches to their work. What does your writing process look like? When/where do you write? Do you set word count goals? Do you write a quick rough draft and then revise over many drafts, or do you try and get it right as you go—so that when you finish a draft, it's essentially done?
I got started writing late in life, around 30, and I’ve never not had a full-time office job when I’ve been trying to write, so my writing practice has been intimately tied to my work schedule. Up until two years ago, I mostly wrote over lunch hour and on the weekends. That’s changed a bit in the pandemic, so now I mostly write either before work, at the desk I work at, basically until I start getting Microsoft Teams messages about work, or at the coffee shop over breakfast on Saturday and lunch on Sunday.
I think of writing a lot like exercise: there are times when I’m going good and I’m in good habits, and times when I’m, well, just not. It’s easier when you’re going good, but I try not to beat myself up about it when I’m not. Incidentally, right now I’m not, but when I was writing these pieces and the novel, I was going pretty good, so I know I can get back to that place, and that like exercise getting back there is just 100% on me.
I work differently with short stories and novels. For novels, I generally do a first draft and just work on the idea of “only forward progress.” I write a real shitty first draft but I try to get myself to that first draft. The idea is that I’m going to give Future Dave something to work with, but that thing may be super shitty and have a million flaws in a million different ways. For stories, I do basically the opposite, I write a sentence and then circle back and edit it, improve it, cut things, then write another, then another, then I go back to the paragraph and edit, rewrite, cut, write, over and over and over again. It’s a workable, if frustrating way to write short stories.
Fuck/marry/kill: Looney Tunes edition. Who do you got?
Oh shit it is getting real now. Sheesh. Okay.
Fuck: I know we’ve cancelled Pepe LePew but he’s just so damn horny, he seems like the obvious choice here.
Marry: Daffy Duck. He’s the best, the second best, the one who is fine at being second best. Daffy Duck will be there for you when the small things go wrong, because that is literally his backstory.
Kill: I’ve said too much about Bugs to not put him in this space. He was not storming the capitol on January 6 only because he thought it was above him, probably sat in his mansion waiting for a text back from Jared Kushner all day long. Definitely funded the law fees for the QAnon Shaman.
I know your new novel, The Other Ones, recently came out (congratulations, by the way!). Can you tell us a bit about the novel, and what are you working on now?
Thanks for asking! The Other Ones is a novel about a group of people whose co-workers win the lottery, and the way those people react over the next year, as they shoot off in various, mostly bad/weird directions. I hope it’s sad and weird and funny.
I’m currently working on a weird sprawling sci-fi-ish project that is pretty different from anything I’ve written before. I just read what I have so far and I still like it, which is kind of a blessing and a curse? A blessing because it’s not as shitty as I thought, but a curse because I’m still not sure if it’s any good, but now I feel like I need to finish that fucker up.
$10 for HAD Chap #2: Dave Housley's LOONEY
$15 bundle for both LOONEY and Evan Williams' Claustrophobia, Surprise!