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March 14th, 2007 Paige Richmond | Books
 

World Leader Pretend

His novel might take place in a made-up world, but Portland's James Bernard Frost is the real deal.

     
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World Leader Pretend (St. Martin's Griffin, 336 pages, $13.95) is as addictive as the Realm, the MMORPG (massive multi-player online role-playing game) that enthralls the novel's characters. But this debut work from James Bernard Frost, a former journalist for Wired, isn't about gaming; it's about the discomforting but all-too-relatable lives these gamers try to escape. There's Xerxes Meticula, a bankrupt dot-com president living in his parents' basement; Gek-Lin Troung, a 14-year-old Thai orphan about to be sold into prostitution; Dietrich Bjornson, a recently married playboy living in Antarctica; and Tres Rawlings, a one-time downhill-skiing Olympic hopeful now paralyzed from the upper jaw down. WW sat down with Frost—who moved to Portland almost three years ago from the Bay Area—to figure out how a genre-bending novel like this comes about. PAIGE RICHMOND.

WW: All the characters who play the Realm seem emotionally or physically damaged. Are you trying to make a statement about gamers?

James Bernard Frost: I don't think it had to do with any statement I was trying to make about gamers in general. I think it more had to do with this sort of alternative world where you could not be damaged, where you could just be you. Because gaming in this novel is just a metaphor for me trying to talk about these characters.

So the Realm is a metaphor for society today. Was that something you intended?

I liked setting part of the book in Arizona, because it's so kind of raw and not a gamer's world. Even Xerxes himself is really a weird character, because he's really into mountain biking but also into games. You think about gamers as these people who just sit in their rooms and obsess about games, but they also can be obsessive about other things. I don't think I'm answering the question, but that's what you drove me to think about. What was the question?

Well, I'm wondering to what extent you use the Realm to point out flaws in our modern society.

One of the things that freaks me out is that Second Life [an online game virtual world that mirrors real life] stuff. It is the most horrible game I have ever seen. It's just a really worse version of capitalist society today. Everyone is just buying and selling all this real estate in the game -- and I would never play that, because it's exactly the opposite of what drove me to gaming in the first place. I think that with this book I was trying to point out -- with my characters -- that they were escaping to the Realm because they felt that they could be leaders, because something kind of came in their way and prevented them from being in charge of their own lives. Xerxes spent all this time creating these programs for this company and the company went under, through things he had no control over. Here's Gek-Lin, this 14-year-old orphan, and she's forced to live in this orphanage with this scummy guy, but she can be this powerful man in this virtual world.

What do you think makes Portland receptive to this kind of book? Is it our view of society?

I've lived here for two and a half years now, and I came here from the Bay Area. I was driven to Portland because it was -- at the time, anyway -- a very cheap place to live and had a really strong support for artists and writers. But even so, one of things people don't realize that's so cool about Portland is that the corporate taxes are so high that none of the corporations can get in here. Some people complain about there being no jobs, but for me that's absolutely lovely, because it keeps away the sort of lemming-like people who would take these corporate jobs and make good money and screw over the artist types who are trying to do their own thing. As far as this book -- it's funny, because when I wrote it, it was a Bay Area book, and even somewhat about Phoenix, when I was doing readings there. But being here in Portland, I think it fits into this city, too. I think my characters are trying to create something outside the norm. Certainly I get the feeling people in Portland are trying to do that.

Did you live in Arizona?

My parents live in Arizona. So when I was writing this I lived in the basement of their house.

Just like your character, Xerxes -- he moves back home after his dot-com company goes bankrupt. Is there a similarity between Xerxes and yourself?

Well, no... but he's more me than the other characters, kind of obviously. I was never as a dark and disturbed as he was. And also, you know, I was really using the game to write the novel, so [the game] had more of an outside purpose for me than it did for him.

Is the Realm based on World of Warcraft [the world's leading subscription-based MMORPG]?

I played a game called Utopia. It's a really weird sort of text-based Web game that has a very strange insular culture. It's not broad, I guess is what I'm saying. Maybe 20,000 or 30,000 players compared to World of Warcraft, which is worldwide. [Utopia] is a crazy game because it's time-based, so it never ends. At 4 in the morning, shit was happening in your kingdom and if you were one of those people who was totally committed, you were awake at 4 in the morning.

You include lines from R.E.M., Modest Mouse and Neutral Milk Hotel in the text. How did these songs become part of the soundtrack of the novel?

As I've been writing, I've been less musically involved. But with this novel, I was really into the indie-rock scene in Bay Area in the late '90s. It's a bummer that it took me so long to get this out. No one ever heard of [Modest Mouse] back then, but now they're sort of big. It's different now using them in the book than six or seven years ago. I had kind of escaped to Arizona to write this, and I missed a lot of the music I'd been listening to, because there wasn't anything there for me to listen to. I was just kind of listening to songs over and over and over again. It sort of just became part of the novel. The whole Two Headed Boy thing [Tres Rawling's alter ego in The Realm] I just pulled out of my own mental imaginings of what Neutral Milk Hotel was singing about.

What about the alternative sticker you and Dave Warnke designed for the cover (see Scoop, WW, Feb. 14, 2007)? Do you think this idea works better for your novel than it might for others?

I think so. Every character in the book has two personalities, and the book has two personalities now. And I just kind of think it's cool for the author to slip something personal into the novel. And the book is unusual. I think an alt sticker with this book is fitting because it's not really mainstream. I could be wrong, but that's my own perception—just that the book is a little off-kilter and to have a sticker cover says a little bit more about the novel.

You've mentioned that you have ADD. How did that affect you while writing the novel?

Oh, god. I mentioned that to my publisher one day and they printed it on everything and I never asked them to take it off. I just don't like labeling and that sort of thing. For example, I've never held a real job for more than nine months; I just get too frickin' bored. But one of the reasons I was able to write all the way through this book is because I have nine different characters I'm interweaving through the whole thing. Whenever I got bored with one, I just moved on to the next one. The whole book just changes perspective as you go along—sort of fitting in with me never wanting to be bored with what I was writing.

Are you working on another book?

Yeah, it's coming on three years, because I had to edit [WLP] in the middle of it so there were a lot of breaks in the action. I'm hoping in April to get started on it. It's a Portland-based book. The narrator is a zinester. I'm interspersing zines in with the novel, but I'm not sure how I'm going to package it yet.


Frost reads from World Leader Pretend at Reading Frenzy, 921 SW Oak St., 274-1449. 7 pm Thursday, March 15. Free. Read a full Q&A with the author on wweek.com.
 
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