Interview with Alex Osman
June 9, 2022
MM) We both crossed paths at wildly different times in our lives. How did you find expat? Where have you lived and where are you living now?
AO: When I was still on Facebook, I became friends with Kevin Rutmanis of Cows, hepa.Titus, Lords and Lady Kevin, etc. He turned me on to Amphetamine Sulphate after recommending Christopher Zeischegg’s The Magician, and through AS I found kiddiepunk, Infinity Land, and Expat. At the time, I was working on an experimental psych-horror novella that I planned to submit to AS, but shelved it for a while after the unexpected death of my dog sent me into a horrible depression. I went totally nuts, holy hell. But I was reading entries on the Expat site while going through all of that. I loved every piece, the site felt like a home for people I’d love to hang out at a McDonald’s and break some TVs in a parking lot with. Then I decided to submit one of the poems I wrote months before, one thing led to another, we developed a friendship, and now here we are. I grew up in the trailer parks of Albion, PA, and then my family moved to our own double-wide in a more secluded area on the outskirts of Albion. Beautiful, weird ass town. We were poor as shit, but it was a lot of fun living out there. I have a whole book’s worth of stories from that time. Then I moved in with my friend in his house that used to be a morgue, and my bedroom was where they stored cadavers. After his internet was canceled, we went on walks all day every day. On one of the walks, some guy grilling hot dogs grabbed a gun from inside his house and shot a full round in the sky, because he thought we were going to break into his house or something. He was like, “That’s right, you kids are walking!” No shit, Dick Tracy, that’s what we were doing in the first place. Shortly after, I moved to Edinboro, PA, back to Albion, over to Erie, PA, spent some time in Conneaut, OH, and then back to Erie. I’m moving to Austin, TX this month.
MM) You previously printed only one copy of Problem Child for John Waters. Did he receive it and say anything? Why John Waters?
AO: It’s a weird situation, because I made the mistake of sending the package the weekend before Christmas, so the postal service inevitably lost it among all the other lost Christmas gifts for like a month. They eventually found and delivered it, but I’m unsure if it was all still intact. I sent him Problem Child and a plush doll of Michael Jackson’s monkey Bubbles, I hope the doll alone made it down there. I never heard anything from him, but even knowing (or at least hoping) he owns the book is too cool. John Waters is one of my biggest idols, he’s one of the people who inspired me to write when I was in 8th grade and just beginning to discover the avant-garde, surrealism, and “weird films.” I mean, it started with R.L. Stine in 1st grade, but I never REALLY wrote until John. His book Shock Value was like my bible, I carried that thing around with me everywhere. But I wrote these stories and short film scripts about weirdos in bizarre situations, and some of my classmates would borrow them and pass them around at lunch tables. My 12th grade English teacher read one of my stories called “The Skank Who Spanked the Spaghetti” (now long-gone, R.I.P.) in the middle of a class and put his hand to his mouth before yelling, “Alex wrote an X-rated story!” Thanks, John Waters.
MM) You collect cultural relics and ephemera like home video. I’ve often said collecting things makes me happy so I relate. Do you derive comfort from it?
AO: Oh yeah, totally. I love coming home from a thrift store or a yard sale with something new to add to my collection, and decorating my space with the items that interest me. A lot of the stuff I own, I had no idea existed. Like, I found Bill & Ted trading cards, Goosebumps pogs, an Ozzy air freshener/bobble head, Robert Crumb “weirdo badges”, a talking Ernest doll, a Willie Talk doll (essentially the Dollar Tree version of Howdy Doody), the Wayne’s World VCR board game. I passed on a porcelain Charlie Chaplin doll because I didn’t have the money at the time, and I’ve been beating myself up over it ever since. Collecting has been a part of my life since childhood, though. I owned the Kiss dolls, Three Stooges plush dolls that I would hide around the house and think it was the funniest thing in the world when someone found them, and I obsessed over the idea of owning a Freddy Krueger glove, who I wrote stories about in 1st grade where I pretended we were best friends. Man, my teachers were pissed.
MM) Tell me about some things you’ve recently picked up while thrifting and driving around.
AO: Recently, I found a talking George W. Bush doll, a photograph of Marion Byron, the script for Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, a VHS tape of a sonogram, Austin Powers postcards, the Buster Keaton autobiography My Wonderful World of Slapstick, and a porcelain rooster. There’s this used toy store that has the full Peewee’s Playhouse playset that I would kill to own, if I had the money and the room for it.
MM) Your online persona has sometimes come to precede your actual self, to the point where someone recognized you as Shitglove at the last expat show. I would say your presence online abounds with wit, absurdism, cultural erudition. One definitely gets the sense that you’re into cool things. Does being an enthusiast make you want to create things people will be enthused about?
AO: There’s so much out there in the world that amazes and fascinates me, and I’ve damn near crashed my car trying to jot down a few notes when I see it so I can write about it later or use it in something. Part of my goal is to hopefully recreate that feeling in others, damn near crashing their cars when they read or view something of mine. I just want cars to crash. It’s important to me that I’m enthusiastic and passionate about what I’m creating, otherwise there’s no point in making it at all. There have been projects in the past where I went, “This sucks, I’m not having any fun. Ehh whatever, I’ll release it anyway.” The response is lukewarm and I usually forget about those projects a week or two after the release date. People can tell when you’re just phoning it in.
MM) Problem Child is comprised of many short pieces which capture something surreal about American lives and Americana, along with actual dream journal entries. Is there a line that blurs between dreams and reality in America? What does the title Problem Child allude to? There’s an almost vaudevillian vibe to these, like each character is given their due to be themselves, perform in a way, and a rejection of the rudimentary nuts and bolts of plot in favor of sweeping vision and episodic characterizations. Were these ideas you had that blossomed, or are these characters and events based on real things?
AO: There’s totally a line. You ever have a dream where a friend died, and you wake up with the urge to text them to see if they’re okay? Those mind tricks they can play where you aren’t sure you dreamt an event or if it really happened. Often, things from real life, including recent events or whatever’s stressing us out, push their way through in dreams. Nervous about a flight, end up having a nightmare about a plane crash the week of. Experience the death of a loved one, that person appears in a dream after the funeral. Vice versa, all you have to do is walk through your neighborhood and you’re bound to see at least one image with a dream-like quality. It stops you in your tracks sometimes like, “Woah, am I dreaming right now?” Swear to God, when I was 15, I rode a bike down the road and saw a little old woman in bright blue overalls and braided pigtails watering some flowers. There was an opening in the trees where a beam of sunlight came through and was shining on the flower patch like a spotlight. She smiled at me and her glasses magnified her eyes x100. It was one of the most beautiful images I’d ever seen, but I kept thinking, “No way is this real. I’m trapped in the ‘Black Hole Sun’ video, I’m dreaming.” Problem Child is the name of a movie from the 90s that I watched obsessively as a kid, but I was also a problem child growing up. I saw the inside of my principal’s office every day in elementary school, disrupted the class, pulled pranks, got into trouble, got into fights, stole items from my grandparents. I stole my great grandmother’s dentures one time, and we had to drive all the way back to her house to give them back. I was a very hyper, unruly kid and hated being told what to do. Much of the material in Problem Child is based on real things, totally. Some of it is direct from my own life and things I saw or heard, some of it is just bits and pieces taken from real-life overheard conversations, events, images, and character traits, all thrown into a blender. Others are more purely imaginary, stream-of-consciousness, or dream-based.
MM) What are some of your favorite movies and what do they do for you?
AO: Vernon, Florida, Streetwise, Harmony Korine films, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Todd Solondz films, Buster Keaton films, River’s Edge, Videodrome, Slacker, Frank Henenlotter films (I wanted to marry Frankenhooker, what a babe), John Waters films, Werner Herzog films, Detroit Rock City, Society, the Sleepaway Camp series, Alice Sweet Alice. There’s so many. Herzog is definitely my favorite director, though. He’s never made a bad film, and every one of them is hypnotizing. My last shroom trip, I threw on Fata Morgana and just sat there like, “Goddamn, what a great film.” I’m trying to go out like the guy in Stroszek: Taking a frozen turkey with me on a ski lift and shooting myself, while my truck runs in circles and the police are trying to stop a dancing chicken.
MM) What is the role of camp and kitsch in what you do? Do you have fidelity to certain principles when writing? Many of these are written from a first person perspective and feel like vigorous gesticulations. What sort of cathartic release is involved in telling these stories of the weird and marginal?
AO: Camp is everywhere. Like, I’ll never forget the image of my drunk uncle in his police uniform chasing us around his trailer with a taser one night, while the music video for “Madhouse” by Anthrax played on TV. “Madhouse” in a madhouse. The president mask-wearing bank robbers from Point Break were also probably an early influence when I was a kid, I loved those guys. I’m obsessed with the stranger than fiction, though. A few months ago, I saw a man riding a dirtbike with a chicken in one arm, and the chicken was wearing a miniature helmet. It was amazing, I damn near crashed my car writing it down. I looked it up, they really do make these helmets for chickens. As far as principles, I don’t really have many, as long as I’m digging what comes out and not trying to force anything. I just enjoy crafting images and characters almost in a documentarian way, whether I’m documenting what’s directly in front of me, or documenting the fictional life of someone I saw on the street who inspired me, or another world altogether. There’s a lot of freedom in the surreal and dream-like, things you don’t see every day. Taking my head to a strange place, existing there momentarily, exploring, and capturing what interests me is cathartic.
MM) Favorite bands?
AO: Oh man, way too many to list. The Residents, all Mike Patton-related bands, John Zorn, the Melvins, Butthole Surfers, Cocteau Twins, Massive Attack/Tricky, Deftones, Cows, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Ice Cube, Diamanda Galas, Slint, Scratch Acid, Lucia Pamela, The Birthday Party, Death, Oingo Boingo. Too many. I love lyricists like Beck, Nick Cave, Laurie Anderson, and Eric Paul of Arab on Radar. “I heard he retired to an iron lung in Florida” from “My Mind is a Muffler” by Arab on Radar might be my favorite line of all-time. I also got a Residents tattoo shortly after the death of Hardy Fox. It’s the last tattoo I got, and probably the last one I’ll ever get. I don’t know, music rules.
MM) The collection could just as well be poetry as prose. Do you read these aloud? Is poetic expression a way of romanticizing or memorializing?
AO: Many of the pieces in Problem Child were originally spoken word sketches on a dictaphone or tape recorder, where I would sit in a parking lot and really get into it. Taped confessions, radio talk show phone calls, angry voicemail messages, etc. inspire me in that way, where I try to read these aloud as different people on the last day of their lives or shortly before committing a crime or something. Like the woman in “22 Going on 23” by Butthole Surfers, or those Jonathan Caouette home videos of him when he was a kid. Watch Tarnation if you haven’t, it’s heartbreaking.
MM) There’s a lot of exulting and exuberance for idiosyncrasy as well as some scream (nightmare) logic. Does schlock and/or mumblecore influence you? What about grandiose beauty?
AO: I don’t know much about mumblecore, in all honesty. I love schlock, though. All of those movies look like they’re having so much fun. The Dae-Kair section of Problem Child is probably the most influenced by schlock and ‘80s horror, with the guy eating birds in a tree and Ozzie Nelson as a spider-like creature. Dae-Kair was originally a zine I created and ended up only giving out one copy to Kevin Rutmanis, but it was part of a bigger project I was doing with my music/art outlet at the time. I made an album of music the kids made in the daycare one winter while these ‘50s B-movie creatures were eating them up one by one. Further plans for a schlocky miniseries were canceled after Covid hit, I kinda gave up on everything I was developing in 2020. I’m a little influenced by grandiose beauty. I like the complex tunnels in ant farms, tall trees, junkyards, yards filled with lawn ornaments, amusement parks, McDonaldland, and poppy fields and shit.
MM) Mind-altering drug of choice?
MM) Favorite holiday?
AO: Halloween, 100%. Decorating, carving pumpkins, smashing them, and marathoning horror tapes is so fun. Last year, I dressed up as Eddie Furlong’s character from Detroit Rock City, got sushi and a bottle of wine, and watched Frankenhooker, Trick or Treat (the one about the evil record and the asshole rockstar from Hell who ruins everything for Skippy from Family Ties), Phantasm, and Halloween 4.
MM) It’s mentioned that the stories are culled from “notebooks, harddrives, dream journals, zines, cell phones, cassette tapes, hi-8 tapes, DV tapes, and scrap paper.” How do these mediums inform your work? An excerpt became a short film. What’s the story there? Is there something to be said about categories of art being largely imaginary when there’s boundless continuity between them? Are sketches worth being published? This book seems to be the tip of the blade.
AO: A lot of it is just what I had at my disposal at the time an idea came to me. Writing on McDonald’s receipts, speaking into cassette tapes, monologues and short scenes on camcorders and cell phones that were later transcribed. I was surprised at how much stuff was kept on old harddrives and phones that I totally forgot about. It was fun going back and looking through all of it. “Canine Lottery” became a short film after this creative explosion I experienced, just banging out short film after short film. I shot it in like 2 days with some help from my sister. A year later, it was accepted in the Sick n Wrong (now BizzaroLand) Film Festival 2020 lineup. Continuity and synchronicity manage to find their way into everything. Things that don’t seem to connect at first glance slowly form a loose thread. I think about Lynch’s process of creating Inland Empire, where he would wake up, write a scene, and shoot it the same day. As he went on, all of these seemingly disconnected scenes put themselves together and found relation to this scene or that scene and developed something of a plot. The subconscious mind is strange. With sketches, I find them more personal and imagine them as kind of insectual (is that a word? I’m sure there’s a word for it and I’m just an idiot). A fly on the wall only catches glimpses of action before flying away. Bugs are unbiased spectators capturing snapshots. Sketches are like photographs or stories told in brief conversations with people you’ve just met and won’t ever see again. They raise questions, you want to know more, but the fly has already traveled to a different room.
MM) What’s next for you creatively and otherwise?
AO: I recently finished editing two small photo books called Chaplin-based Adultery and Holy Tearer, just waiting to breakdance on street corners to raise funds for those. “Adultery” acts as a sort of companion piece to Problem Child, in the sense that it’s a collection of photographs and film stills from the past 10-12 years. I’ve written a chapbook’s worth of new short stories, and a few others are in their infancy. I’m also slowly taking the novella I mentioned earlier off the shelf and working on it piece by piece. Overall, this is my busiest year since pre-Covid. Otherwise, I’m setting my alarm to wake up early enough for the McGriddle.