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Interview: Author Cameron A. Straughan

Author Cameron A. Straughan

Today we have an author interview with 2023 Cadmus Book Award Winner Cameron A. Straughan. His book, "The Surreal Adventures of Anthony Zen", won the Humour/Satire category.

These twenty-three interconnected short stories dissect the chaos of modern life with a unique brand of off-the-wall humour. Anthony Zen pokes fun at the idea that our bosses can be pigs, our parents can be embarrassing and absent-minded, time is relative, justice is blind, and the foundations of our relationships might not always pass the inspection of a team of geologists.

In Anthony’s world, the mundane becomes fantastic. EVERYTHING is a target for satire. Are these illustrated stories just a good laugh - some silly fun - or do they deep dive into the minutia and machinations that manipulate our daily existence? YOU decide!

We were lucky to speak with Cameron and learn about his journey as an author. Full interview below. 

Congratulations on winning the 2023 Cadmus Book Award for Humor/Satire with "The Surreal Adventures of Anthony Zen." How does it feel to receive this recognition for your work? 

It feels FANTASTIC and I was very pleased and surprised to have won. Historically, I’m not a big trophy winner, so it was a big accomplishment for me. It feels great to be appreciated, since writing is a lonely art and at times it seems I am alone without an audience. So once again, a big thank you!

What inspired you to take on this unique and off-the-wall approach to humor?

I didn’t want my stories to be like any other stories out there. I wanted to play with structure and shock my readers. I wanted to play with language and literary norms. I didn’t want traditional plots; I wanted to take everyday mundane occurrences and make them the story. Essentially, I was writing “stories about nothing” long before Seinfeld became a “show about nothing”. I also wanted to use the clean, matter-of-fact description of fantastic events that I had developed by keeping a dream journal for years. Lastly, my approach was inspired by three main “isms” – surrealism, absurdism and autism. I was diagnosed with autism late in life and I think it goes a long way to explain my particular sense of humor and absurd view of life.

How did you come up with these whimsical and satirical concepts?

I often get asked where my ideas come from. Sometimes I’m not sure – I’m just glad I have them. I think one source is I’m just very observant, being a former biologist. I seem to notice things and have a unique take that others do not. I think a lot of it stems from being autistic as well. Being autistic, I always feel like “The Man Who Fell to Earth” so I guess it is only natural that I observe neurotypical life around me through an outsider’s lens. Some concepts came from hurdles I’ve overcome. That’s how I choose to deal with my problems – through humor. My dreams are another source of concepts. I’ve kept a dream journal for years now. Lastly, before I even knew what surrealism was, I was using automatic writing (which they practiced back in the early 1920s). Luckily, I seem to be very in touch with my subconscious!

Humor often serves as a mirror to society. How do you see your book contributing to the reflection of contemporary culture, and what messages or insights do you hope readers take away from it?

I think the cover sums it up – breaking the chains. To an extent the book is about freedom, finding peace and comfort amongst the chaos of everyday minutiae. I think most people struggle with this but it is even more prevalent when you are autistic like me. I think the book is also about maintaining a child-like sense of wonder – a sense of fun and humor in face of the absurdities of everyday life. Lastly, I want to show that being autistic doesn’t preclude having a good sense of humor, despite this being a subject of some debate (annoyingly).

How did you approach the structure of the book to maintain a cohesive narrative while exploring different facets of modern chaos?

That was a challenge, especially since the book does rely heavily on surrealism and each story was written as a standalone – but with reoccurring elements. I took a chance, basically, and put faith in the readers. My stories are open to interpretation, if you choose, or they could just be some silly fun. I think you have to look for a cohesive narrative, but I think the structure of my book is more reflective of real-life. Not only the content, but also the structure, was meant to mirror the absurdity of real life – which does not have a traditional plot structure, of course. However, that said, I did put the stories in the order that I thought made the most sense and hinted at a narrative.

Satire has a unique way of highlighting societal issues. Were there specific themes or aspects of modern life that you were particularly eager to satirize in "The Surreal Adventures of Anthony Zen"?

I think having to conform is one. At the time I started writing these stories, I was a university student and a gothic punk, so I was very much against the status quo. Anthony is bombarded by strange events yet does not conform or change; he remains true to himself. I think the book satirizes almost every aspect of modern life, but I think I focus on materialistic tendencies – which are everywhere. I’ve never been motivated by money or made purchases to prove my worth; so I set out to critique that. I’ve had struggles with relationships in my life, so I also chose to satirize them, rather than just complain about them or share banal fantasies.

In a world that can sometimes feel overwhelmingly serious, how important do you think humor and satire are in literature, and what do you believe they bring to the literary landscape?

I think satire is crucial and a sign of a strong, functioning democracy. Satire is a barometer and a mirror – if left to do its job without interference. It should be measuring societal change and reflecting back our foibles. Humor is a survival mechanism – part of our evolution. Humor is a shared experience that brings us together. It helps heal and overcome hurdles. More than any other art form or genre, humor defines us and in many cases determines who we choose to associate with. In my life, sense of humor has trumped musical taste as an indicator of who I can get along with. I think that, for such a small genre that I feel is neglected and poorly represented, humor punches way above its weight class. This is why it is often under attack – because it has power. Hollywood seems reluctant to even make comedies anymore, so I think it is up to literature to fill the gap. Indeed, things are far too serious; we need to lighten up, share a laugh, reflect on our issues and continue to evolve.     

Were there any comedic or satirical influences that inspired your writing in "The Surreal Adventures of Anthony Zen"? Any authors or works that you admire in the humor/satire genre?

Actually the main influence who started me writing was neither comedic nor satirical – H.P. Lovecraft. However, when I was creating the stories, I did have Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the back of my mind. It wasn’t until Anthony Zen was well under way that I discovered Voltaire, Vonnegut, Kafka and Richard Brautigan – who I thought came closest to my style of writing. I grew up on a diet of British sitcoms, SCTV, classic Saturday Night Live and Mad Magazine, so maybe some of that bubbled up as well.

Can you give us a glimpse into your creative process? How do you go about crafting such unique and humorous stories?

I never have writer’s block. I have what I call writer’s flood – too many ideas! I think that is a strength of my autism. How I write can vary. Sometimes I start a story not knowing where it will go; it’s like automatic writing – I write whatever comes to mind then go through and edit it so it flows. Sometimes I use my dreams in stories; for example, I used to have nightmares that I’d be running to school - not wanting to be late - only to get there and discover that I wasn’t wearing any pants. I keep an open mind and carefully observe the world around me; that’s where most my ideas come from. There is also an autobiographical element in that experiences that left a mark on me – at times traumatic – become the substance of a story. So, writing is the perfect therapy for me.

Do you have any advice for any of the aspiring writers out there?

I would say write more than one thing. Don’t focus just on fiction, as an example. I’ve done science writing, technical writing and journalism – in addition to writing fiction. If you want to survive as a writer, you need to diversity and write in different contexts. In return, that writing will improve your fiction writing. For example, my science and technical writing developed the clean, matter-of-fact writing style of my fiction.

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