1. What inspired you to write
Misfits?  

Misfits draws on my long experience as a journalist and documentary
filmmaker. I write fiction to discover truths I failed to see or understand at
the time I was filming or experiencing them. For example, “Mute,” the second
story in the book, is about a family coming to grips with a son who has autism.
I spent five years producing a video-intensive website on autism—www.interactingwithautism.com—but felt there
was still more I wanted to explore about this subject. “Tikkun Olam” grew out
of the four years I spent writing and directing Foster, an HBO
documentary about the foster care system in Los Angeles. As a filmmaker, I
believe in Jean Luc Godard’s dictum that a good film is the answer to questions
properly posed.  The questions that haunted me after I after finished my
documentaries, the ones that kept me awake at night, required a different
medium to answer. So I turned to fiction. As Don DeLillo has remarked, a writer
“learns to ride his own sentences into new perceptions.”
 

2. What exactly is it about and
who is it written for?

The stories in this book depict fraught
encounters between young and old, people from different races, backgrounds, and
ethnicities. A depressed accountant stumbles on a teenaged eco-terrorist in a
parking garage. An illegal Salvadoran immigrant tries to keep the embittered
old woman she is working for from starving herself to death. A middle-aged
psychiatrist buys a drink for a seductive young artist during a flight delay.
An out-of-work journalist recruits Chicano gangbangers to help a desperate
tennis partner.  A troubled biologist runs into J. Robert Oppenheimer in a
Santa Fe hotel. A well-intentioned white lawyer tries to aid a delinquent Black
foster youth who doesn’t trust her. All these charged situations have
unexpected and startling consequences. Most of the stories take place in Los
Angeles, a city where I’ve lived for the last 50 years and that I regard as the
Ellis Island of the 21st century, a microcosm of multicultural America. The
issues my characters are coping with—climate change, inequality, uncertainty,
and personal pain—are ones many of us are grappling with at this moment in our
very divided country.
 

3. What do you hope
readers will get out of reading your book?
 

We’re all looking for
connection and meaning in our lives.
 I hope that readers will identify and empathize with the
characters in this book as they struggle to find their place in an
unpredictable and rapidly changing world. The situations in these stories may
be unusual, but I believe readers will relate to most of these protagonists.
Although the conflicts they face are often grave, the people in these stories
find surprising answers. I hope readers will too.
 

4. How did you decide on your
book’s title and cover design?

Misfits is the title of one of the stories in the book, but it also
describes how many of my protagonists feel about themselves—they’re out of
place and adrift in a precarious world.  The great design team at
Atmosphere Press designed the bold cover, a reference to another story in the
collection, “The Cactus,” in which an unlucky Hollywood stunt man
steals a succulent in an attempt to change his fortune. The lone cactus on the
book’s cover conveys the sense of isolation of many of my characters, but also
their prickly beauty.
 

5. Were there experiences in
your personal life or career that came in handy when writing this book? 

Every story in the book reflects some element of
my personal experience, but “Trail’s End” is 

more autobiographical than the others.  I,
too, was sent away to summer camp as a seven-year-old, dumped there by my
parents when they went to Europe, and bullied by other campers. A compassionate
counselor took me under his wing and taught me how to fight back against my
tormentors.
 

6. How would you describe your
writing style? Which writers or books is your writing similar to?

There are many writers I
admire. Raymond Carver is one of them. His spare, precise style has certainly
influenced me.  I find less is more. I try
to avoid using two words when one right one will do. But I’ve also been
influenced by the Nobel Prize-winning writer Alice Munro, particularly in the
deft way she connects the past with the present in her stories.
 

7. What challenges did you
overcome in the writing of this book?

The greatest challenge I had in writing Misfits was
finding the time and attention to devote to the stories that they
deserved. I also wanted to ensure that
there was enough wit and humor and surprise to keep the reader engaged.
 I
wrote these stories over a period of several years, in between my
filmmaking.  During Covid, when it was difficult to make documentaries, I
had more time to write.  Eventually, I found I had enough stories to fill
a book. 
 

8. You have a pretty
unique background — an Oscar-winning documentarian, a Harvard grad, an
award-winning children’s book writer, and a journalist published by the
Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post, and TV Guide. How did you
come to writing adult novels?

My documentaries have focused on critical
social, political and historical issues.  Once asked to describe my films,
my son said, “If it’s genocide, call my dad.”  I’ve made films
about the Holocaust, slavery, and the humanitarian crisis in Sudan; I’ve
dealt with child labor, child poverty, child abuse, child neglect, and teenage
murderers.  I’ve also documented revolution and war in Ukraine and the
complicity of doctors and psychologists in torture in Iraq and our military
prisons. “Doctors of the Dark Side” is the title of Martha Davis’s documentary
that I wrote, and you might say that most of my films deal with the dark side
of human nature— cruelty, hate, exploitation, oppression.  But in my
films, I always looked for hope, resilience, the possibility of reform and
redemption.  It’s probably why I also wrote five novels for children.
Despite all the horrors I’ve documented, I still believe we can build a better
world for future generations. My children’s books also explore difficult
subjects like divorce and homelessness.  Although children don’t create
any of these problems, they have to cope with their wrenching consequences. In
the past I’ve told these stories from a child’s point of view.  At this
point in my life, I wanted to examine some of these critical and formative
experiences from an adult perspective.  Misfits is a
natural outgrowth of all the documentaries and children’s books that came
before.
 

9. If people can buy or read
one book this week or month, why should it be yours?

I think Misfits speaks to the
precarious world we live in today, the many problems we confront, the search
for connection and belonging we all seek. My stories offer insight, humor, and
empathy for these struggles. I hope people will be engaged and moved in reading
them.

 

About The Author: Jonathan Harris is a Los Angeles writer/filmmaker who
has published essays, award-winning children’s novels, and non-fiction books.
He has also written, directed, and produced numerous documentary films,
including three which won Oscars.  Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories
of the Kindertransport, 
one of the Academy Award-winning documentaries
he wrote and directed, was selected by the U.S. Library of Congress for
permanent preservation in the National Film Registry.  An Emeritus
Distinguished Professor at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of
Southern California, he led the documentary program for many years. Misfits,
his first collection of short stories, extends his exploration of many of the
themes of his prize-winning films and children’s novels. For more information,
please see: www.mjharriswrites.com

 

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Brian Feinblum should be
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