Acclaimed New England author Joseph Souza got his start writing short stories in the crime genre before an idea for an apocalyptic horror story inspired him to pen his first novel, 2012’s The Reawakening, which won Souza the Maine Literary Award. Continuing the story in a pair of follow-up novels, 2013’s Darpocalypse and 2014’s Darmageddon, Souza explored the difficult choices characters are forced to make in a world on the brink of collapse before he returned to the crime genre with 2015’s Unpaved Surfaces, the gripping tale of family torn apart by the disappearance of their nine-year old son.
But it’s not all darkness and pain for Souza. He has a lighter side as well, one that is on full display in his most recent work, Fujita’s Itch & Other Stories.
Released in November of 2015, Fujita’s Itch & Other Stories blends the styles of Don DeLillo, George Orwell, and Elmore Leonard into a mesmerizing cocktail of humor and pathos. In the title story, a troubled journalist is tasked with diving headfirst into the world of tornado chasers, only to quickly realize that not everyone he meets along the way is quite who they seem to be. And in the book’s other stories, Souza introduces the reader to a pair of mobsters who embark on a dangerous heist that quickly goes awry, and a honeymooning writer and his wife who become the victims of an exceptionally-strange terrorist attack.
In addition to being a talented writer, Souza has also been employed as a teacher, a bouncer, a cab driver, a truck driver, a garbage collector, an intelligence analyst at the DEA and a barber. To learn more about Joseph Souza and his work, visit him online at josephsouza.net.
In your younger years, who were your biggest creative influences?
Like most writers, I read a lot as a kid. I remember coming home from school many days and rushing to my room with a good book. Of course, that was back before video games and cable TV, when books provided a genuine escape for a kid. As I got older, I came to appreciate the far flung story-telling of John Irving, and his impressive scope. The novels of Martin Amis left me dazzled with their original and inventive use of the English language. And of course the crime writer George V. Higgins demonstrated to me the power of dialogue to propel a plot. There were many more writers that influenced me, but these three stick out.
How does one become an intelligence analyst at the DEA? What initially inspired you to pursue that path, and why did you leave that job?
There’s a long process involved with getting into the DEA. There’s the application process and then the long, drawn-out background check. I didn’t stay in that job long because I realized that, in the end, it wasn’t for me. I think in the back of my mind, I always wanted to be a writer. Because of that, I needed a job that would allow me to write in my off time, and I realized that this wouldn’t be possible working undercover trying to snag major drug dealers in the Colombian cartel.
What were your goals with Fujita’s Itch & Other Stories?
The main story in this piece, “Fujita’s Itch,” was inspired by the fiction of George Saunders. I mostly write mystery and crime novels now, but I wanted to write the type of surreal, bizarre fiction that I really enjoy reading. In these stories, there’s a heavy satirical component. I wanted to totally push against the boundaries of accepted behavior, something that’s hard to do when writing crime novels. People who read “Fujita’s Itch” usually come away from that story shaking their head. It’s over-the-top, hilarious, mind-blowing and allegorical all at the same time. It’s Kafkaesque. In fact, many people who’ve read it think it’s the best work I’ve produced. I know I certainly had a lot of fun writing it. And when you find out about the source of the itch in “Fujita’s Itch,” it will either gross you out or have you on the floor laughing. One thing’s for sure, you’ll never view tornados in the same way again.
How much research do you typically do for stories such as those included in Fujita’s Itch & Other Stories?
I had to do some research on tornadoes, but it was relatively light for “Fujita’s Itch.” Most of that story germinated from the dark, dark recesses of my mind. But for the story “Queensland,” I did end up doing a decent amount of research. The story takes place in England when a group of Islamic terrorists unleash a viral bomb on the motherland while a young American couple is honeymooning there. The intent of the virus is unknown at first, but as the story continues it becomes evident that this virus affects men’s sexuality. The speculation is that it turns them gay. In my research for this story, I happened to discover that, at one time, the United States was actually developing a gay bomb for military use. Of course they disbanded the project. But while doing my homework on viruses, I happened upon this unlikely fact. It was quite a revelation. Could you imagine the effect a gay bomb would have on Muslim countries, and in groups like the Taliban and ISIS? On the Christian Right? The consequences would be startling, from a cultural point of view. Would certain religions accommodate such a radical shift? That was the genesis of my story.
What aspects of being a writer come easiest to you? Which do you struggle with?
Sitting down and writing come easiest for me. It’s hard work, but lots of fun making up new worlds and inventing characters. The hardest part for me, being an introverted extrovert, is going out and dealing with fans and conducting readings and doing interviews. Being alone much of the time, I find it often difficult to shift into the role of “larger-than-life public author.” And sometimes it’s hard to convey to people that what you write isn’t you, and that it comes from one’s imagination. People who read “Fujita’s Itch” must come away thinking that the author of that story must be a raving lunatic. Well, I am, sort of. But just in my own head. I like to think of that story as Blue Velvet meeting The Wizard of Oz.
Do you read reviews of your own work? If so, how do they affect your approach to writing?
I do read every review of my work, and let me say that bad reviews totally suck. They hurt, and I wanna go all Frank Booth on their asses. But I do try to learn from the well-written negative reviews. A lot of times there is some merit in them, and if it helps me become a better writer, than I’m grateful for the feedback. But then there are reviews that are plain nasty, and you can tell that the writer of the review is an asshole and just trying to inflict pain. A reviewer once gave me a one-star because he said the book was too liberal. But the book had nothing to do with politics. That idiot made me chuckle. Those reviews I just laugh off, because in the end, you can’t please everybody.
When it comes to marketing your books, what methods have you had the most success with?
Finding the right publisher! LOL! I know this sounds like I’m being evasive, but I’m not. The right publisher will market your books and get the word out, allowing the writer to do what he or she does best — to write! After a smashing start out of the gate, my first three books languished in writers hell. The publisher had changed hands, and the new publisher stopped marketing my books. My current publisher has been the best at marketing my novel, and because of that my latest novel, Unpaved Surfaces, has been a bestseller with nearly 180 reviews on Amazon and almost 250 on Goodreads. I can’t wait to see how they publish my new crime thriller, Need to Find You, which will be coming out in February/March, 2016.
If a zombie apocalypse were to break out tomorrow, do you have a survival strategy in mind? If so, what is it?
I live near the ocean in Maine and plan to ferry my family out to one of the islands out in Casco Bay. There, we’ll make fishing poles and live off the sea. We’ll build a house and cut down firewood. Build a fence around the island and grow crops, and eat all the lobster we can catch. Hopefully, zombies can’t swim. I’m really hoping they can’t.
What’s the story behind your most prominent scar?
I was a young kid and my father was the cheapest guy in town. In the summer, he always took us to this ghetto beach that was located next to an industrial plant, and spewing all kinds of toxic shit. The beach was like something out of an apocalyptic nightmare. It had crap lying all over the place, and when you got out of the water, you usually had a screaming headache from the chemicals bleaching into the water. He warned me not to go down the end of the beach which, for a young kid, has the complete opposite effect. We climbed up these massive beams and I slid down one and impaled my leg on a large metal spike. Blood everywhere. The scar is still there today. Of course my mental scars are much more prominent and debilitating, but I think I’ll save those for my autobiography some day, if I ever get around to writing it.
What are you working on next?
Just sold my crime thriller, Need to Find You, which is a cross between The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Possession by A.S. Byatt. A secret manuscript by a famous dead author sets off murder and mayhem in town. The novel I’m currently working on is called Bring Me Closer and it’s told from three different points of view. It involves murder, kidnapping, craft beer, memory, infidelity and racial and sexual identity. It’s set near a small, New England campus and is unlike anything I’ve ever written. I’m nearing the halfway point and can’t wait to reveal who the culprit is.