“I Love Tense Shifts”: An Interview With Jeff Chon

Jeff Chon

Jeff Chon’s debut novel proves the need for psychologically dense, overlooked characters in our fiction for the present moment. With Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun, Chon has chosen a very forward-sitting scab to pick at on the forehead of America. Set four days before the 2016 presidential election, Chon’s characters frame our cultural moment in urgent and unforgiving ways, and his dark satire wrestles time and again with humanity’s injurious existence. Bouts of conspiracy rampant and rewriting our present tense, Chon is able to pen these unpopular glooms with a sly humor befitting his all-too-relevant tragicomic study of modern egos.

Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun follows Scott Bonneville, a cynical Korean-American and former teacher, as he harbors violent delusions he aims to lose on an unsuspecting pizza restaurant workforce. See, Scott is convinced of the evil theories he researched on the internet, but his planned exorcism gets foiled before it starts; hailed as some kind of folk hero, Scott stops another shooting in progress, saving the lives of those he hoped would surmise their grievous injustices. Right place, right time, conflicts with nastier motives as we weave in and out of the life Scott has tread, adopted son of a white evangelical fanatic, Scott corrupting his incel student Blake Mesman along the way as he plays terrible boyfriend to Blake’s mother, Lisa.

This is an important book fraught with meaning and invention. Grab a copy, two: one for your friend. The correspondence you see below comes from many emails with the author.

The structure of the novel is non-linear, perhaps chiding 24-hour news cycles, proprietary algorithms. What drew you to this kind of storytelling?

The honest truth is, I got bored. I tried to write on a linear timeline (mostly because I felt that’s what you were supposed to do), but it was really dull and flat, so I decided to do whatever I wanted. A friend compared the book to a magic eye poster, and I think that’s fairly apt. At the end of the day, it’s still a fairly traditional story. It still has a beginning, middle, and end after all that. 

As a writer, and a reader, I love tense shifts. I actually find them thrilling. When people drop a tense shift into a story, like from present tense to past perfect, I become that Pointing DiCaprio meme. Every prolepsis in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is pure magic to me. I’m pretty sure Slaughterhouse Five was the book that introduced me to nonlinear narrative, and I will say that both Vonnegut and Muriel Spark were on my mind as I wrote this book. There’s a sense of playfulness that doesn’t feel overbearing in those books, and I hope I was able to get some of that feeling across.   

Do you think satire is saleable in this new world of alternative facts?

I think there are always going to be people who don’t want to laugh at how ridiculous the world is, and those people aren’t my problem. 

The Catcher in the Rye. I’d personally never heard of the deep conspiracy involving Salinger and governments before, but I’m curious about your feelings toward the book.

I enjoy it immensely. The writing in that book is really sharp. The section where Holden is walking around the museum is some really lovely writing. The book definitely has a bad rap, but I think that’s because it was required reading in high school, the time when we’re all just as angrily cynical as Holden is. So you either end up relating to him, and enjoying it, or not relating to him, and hating him and the book. 

One thing I find interesting about that book is it’s about a kid dealing with the psychological trauma of losing his brother, and of being molested. He’s an angry kid lashing out at the world, but you can’t really blame him. People seem to look at him as some kind of whiny dork, as if they were so cool and put-together when they were that age. It’s a wonderful novel, and people can be as mad as they want.

The conspiracy theory stuff involving Catcher is fun in that twisted way all conspiracy theory stuff is fun. Granted, they’ve tied every crazy narrative to horrible tragedies, and I don’t want to make light of those, but there’s something fascinating in watching the way the wheels turn in someone’s mind, and watching them make wrong turns. 

Were you aware of #GoodGuyWithAGun on social media prior to writing your book? When did the title take root in your mind? 

I assume it was a hashtag that already existed. I honestly don’t know because if it did, and it most likely does, I’m sure it’s attached to some horrible takes I don’t ever want to see, and I do make fun of that a little in the book. It would be funny if I did end up usurping that hashtag, and the thought did cross my mind during those flights of fancy you have while you write a book, but realistically I don’t know if there will be any material change to that hashtag now that my book’s out. 

I enjoy the psychological complexity of Scott, our titular Good Guy—though I wouldn’t declare him (totally) unlikable. One moment you’re in the trenches with him, almost agreeing with his literary analyses, recalling his hard life growing up with a white evangelical fanatic as a father, wondering why Lisa left him, but then the next moment Scott’s contemplating moments from the vantage that he was never wrong, how no one likes him because he was never wrong, or is plotting how to raise up a protege like Blake through his class lectures. What was the hardest part of writing such a character? Did you develop any strategies for coloring inside the lines, so to speak, to make him more plausible than spectacle?

I hope he’s more plausible than spectacle for sure. I really enjoy characters who just don’t get it because it’s really sad to watch them come up short. They have just enough self-awareness to get them to the finish line, but not enough to get them over it. One of my favorite short stories is “Rock Springs” by Richard Ford, because it’s about a guy who struggles with the fact his actions and his intentions never match up, and I think he does a really good job conveying that. It’s a story I thought about a lot with Scott, this idea that “between the idea and the act a whole kingdom lies,” which is one of my favorite lines in fiction. Part of the challenge of writing Scott was I honestly didn’t like him very much but, because of my dislike for him, I enjoyed watching him lie to himself over and over again because it was like dirt falling onto his head. The complexity that’s there is probably just me working out my feelings for this Poop Emoji of a human being. Maybe because most of my early successes came from essays, I’m used to dealing with a narrator who’s no walk in the park. 

Are you a “political” writer? I’m of two minds on the idea, but I’m always interested to hear how writers immerse themselves within their work.

It’s tough, right? I don’t necessarily see Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun as a political book, but ultimately, sure—there are probably political aspects to everything I write, but there are also political aspects to everyone’s work from Jane Austen to George Saunders. And everyone in between and beyond. I just don’t know how you escape politics, because we write about the world around us. My protagonists are mainly Korean-American, so anything that’s happened to them—even if it’s “off-screen”—is still a part of who they are. So these are Americans who’ve lived through Reagan, the Gulf War, 9/11, and all the horrible xenophobic crap we’ve had to deal with just by being Americans—for me, it’s hard to discount that. Even those G.I. Joe cartoons I loved as a kid were super political, you know? But I think there’s a difference between examining injustice and engaging in moral issues, as opposed to the horse race aspect of political punditry or electoral politics. I’m not a political satirist or anything, but there’s no short answer to this.

Well, I could’ve just said, “Yes,” too. 

How did you research for the novel, if at all? What was left out of the current book in edits?

Funny thing is, I feel like a lot of the “research” I did went out the window. Because I was writing about incel culture and that sort of thing, I went on some horrible message boards and felt really sick about it afterwards. I also realized I was just parroting what these guys were saying instead of speaking through my characters, so a lot of that ended up on the cutting room floor. 

In the book, there’s this 4-Chan style site called “RE/Serch” that was played up a lot more prominently in earlier drafts. RE/Serch is still there, but it’s mostly mentioned in passing now. It was such ugly stuff, mostly what I was getting from messageboards, that it sucked the humor out of the book. Plus, parroting these misogynist anti-Semites (they’re all anti-Semites, by the way) made me feel really dirty. Now there’s only one part of the book that makes me feel that way, which I’ll never tell anyone about.

Some of the other stuff, I just picked up along the way and would make a note on how to use it, but not a lot of formal research. Just fact-checking certain things whenever necessary. I don’t know how good I am at research, which is ironic, considering I’m writing about people who constantly crow about “doing the research” online. 

One thing I did cut, that part of me regrets, is I had an epilogue set at the Women’s March. It just didn’t ring true. I don’t regret cutting it, because it was actually bad and tied too neat a bow on the whole thing, but I regret that I couldn’t make it work. Highlighting all those pages and hitting Backspace felt like a failure. 

What’s a conspiracy theory that you might have trouble denying? What should the layperson do when confronted with misinformation in this day and age?

The pee-tape. I want so badly for that to be real. 

Okay, so earlier I said I didn’t really do much research, and that was inaccurate. I did go down several rabbit-holes, which ended up being the fuel for this book. Maybe not in terms of content, but in terms of my intent as a storyteller. Back when I was still on Facebook, I used to see people share from these stupid wellness accounts. It used to drive me nuts because what these things they were saying were demonstrably false. So I would go down the rabbit holes by seeing who these “alternative medicine gurus” linked to, and who those people linked to, and invariably, I’d end up in one of two places: one was 9/11 Trutherism, and the other was Holocaust Revisionism. It became this sick game I’d play with people at work. We’d find one idiotic post on Facebook about vaccines or how rubbing raccoon piss on your skin cured cancer, and we’d slowly start clicking links before we got to a site that pushed literal Nazi stuff. I know I sound like a conspiracy theorist right now, but this is true. There’s a reason why so many female QAnon adherents are also online wellness influencers. It’s because these people tend to run in the same crazy circles. How that for a conspiracy theory I believe?

Have you seen the HBO docuseries Q: Into the Storm yet?

I got about three episodes in. I’ll finish it eventually. It’s weird, but I stopped because Jim Watkins is a horribly creepy man. His voice, his face, everything about him felt skeevy. 

How is working with Sagging Meniscus Press?

I laugh when I remember I once had an agent who pitched this to Big Five/Four/Three/however many publishers are left at the time this is published. I’m very lucky to be at Sagging Meniscus. I feel like this book was nurtured and treated with loving care from acceptance to publication to right now. Being at a small press that deeply cares about the amazing books they’re sending into the literary community is a wonderful feeling and I wouldn’t trade being published by Jacob Smullyan for anything in the world. I’m very lucky to be associated with great writers like M.J. Nicholls, and Lee Klein, and Jesi Buell. Could you imagine knowing that cryptofascist thinktanks are laundering money through your publisher by buying up copies of Josh Hawley’s memoir in bulk or whatever? I don’t ever have to deal with that, and I’m sorry for every writer who does.  

What are you working on next, if I may ask? Where else can people read your work?

Right now I’m working on my second book, which is about motherless sons, the self-loathing that’s imprinted on Asian-American men, UFOs, unpacking the trauma of suicide attempts, alternate timelines—it’s kind of a mess right now, to be honest. Would you believe this is a novella? 

I don’t know how different it’s going to be. I’m still writing it, so whatever strengths I have will shine through, and whatever deficiencies I have in the eyes of some will also be there. I hope it’ll feel a bit more intimate and personal—even with all that weird stuff going on. But who knows? Maybe I finish and then end up scrapping it for parts because it doesn’t work. These things happen.  

I’d love to get a short story collection out some day. Hopefully there’s a market for that. 

I was just published in the latest issue of King Ludd’s Rag, which is a fantastic journal run by Malarkey Books. Super jazzed to be a part of that because they don’t play around. I’m also going to be in The Best Small Fictions 2021 anthology from Sonder Press, which was a really nice cherry on top of a pretty good year in my writing life. 


Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.