Josh Bazell's first novel, Beat the Reaper, introduced readers to Pietro Brnwa, a former mob hitman who's doing his best to turn his life around in a New York hospital—but finds it difficult with his patients trying to kill him.
Casually violent and consistently hilarious, sequel Wild Thing doesn't make Brnwa's life any easier. He has been hired as a bodyguard to paleontologist (and sexual demigoddess) Dr. Violet Hurst, and they're headed into the Boundary Waters to investigate an urban legend on a killing spree. Tied up in their endlessly entertaining backwoods adventure is the promise that humans are all about to die, whether it be from the oil crisis, global warming or meddling billionaires.
And so, Bazell's just the guy we wanted to talk to . . .
Beat the Reaper gave shape to Pietro Brnwa by providing plenty of backstory and flashbacks, but Wild Thing tends to use the present to foreshadow our sad future. Do you think this story is more about Pietro or a message?
I’m not personally that emotional about the fact that humans are rapidly making the only planet we’ll ever have unfit for humans. Or even that so many people who should or do know better are contributing to the process for short-term profit. Humans are mortal, so why shouldn’t the human race be? But with Pietro I’m always looking for situations in which the corrupt are leading the naïve to slaughter, and climate-change denial clearly is one.
Thanks to your handy footnotes, Beat the Reaper dove into problems with the healthcare system. And thanks to those footnotes and sources, Wild Thing is much more than a literary thriller—it’s a warning, focusing on the steps we are taking to our own demise. Do you plan to continue to use Pietro to delve into major issues?
Like I say, for me it’s more about a character responding to corrupt situations. In Beat the Reaper, I hit Pietro with the mob and the healthcare industry. Here I hit him with con artists and politicians. He’s a fun character to do that kind of thing to, because he thinks he’s completely cynical but in reality he has enough idealism left to find out again and again that the world is even worse than he thought. At least as long as anyone cares, and probably well past that point, I’ll keep doing it to him.
Pietro has enough idealism left to find out again and again that the world is even worse than he thought.
Wild Thing moves away from the medical thriller genre, as here Pietro is more bodyguard than doctor. Do you have plans for Pietro to be a doctor again?
There’s a lot more medicine in the next one. But it’s still very different from both Wild Thing and Beat the Reaper.
Speaking of those footnotes, have they always been a part of your writing style, or is this something that you developed for Pietro’s stories?
I use footnotes with Pietro because I found them in so many mob memoirs, usually as a disingenuous “reformed” voice occasionally interrupting the gloating nostalgia that mobsters always have for the time when anyone respected them. With Pietro the footnotes aren’t meant to be exactly that, but they are meant to provide a later, more reflective viewpoint from which Pietro can comment on the action.
To avoid spoilers, I won’t name the well-known political figure who makes an appearance in Wild Thing (with a sword). Going into the story, readers will probably have a strong view of this person—either extremely positive or extremely negative. Why did you include a character about which people already have a strongly formed opinion?
If that’s the only thing people have strong opinions about that they feel annoyed at Wild Thing for bringing up, I’ll have failed.
Is your intended audience for Wild Thing the same as for Beat the Reaper?
I’m not quite smart enough to figure out what people want to read and replicate it, so I tend to be stuck figuring out what I want to read and replicating that. I do sometimes explain references that I worry will be too obscure for anyone else to understand. But only sometimes. On the plus side, I almost always like people who like my books.
What is it about Minnesota that seems to incite murder in so many books?
Whom the gods would destroy they first give lots of exportable natural resources. Is my guess.
Your sources are extensive and seem to come from every direction—what is your research process?
These days the challenge seems more to be to stop researching, particularly from low-grade sources on Opinionmart, I mean the Internet. For Wild Thing I tried to mostly use physical books. Not only do they usually involve one person trying to present a complete argument and the evidence for it in one place at whatever length is required, but they’re so damn quaint.
Is there one urban legend that you like to believe in?
That doing what you love leads to success.