Monday, October 5, 2009

TAKE TEN: Author Johnny Rico

Author Johnny Rico seems to live his life moreso in the moment than by a regimented calculation like some. The 33 year old American who now lives in Longdon,England is a self-professed Athiest who finds himself fascinated by Religion, doesn't consider his style of writing that of a journalist but of someone just recording what he has experienced. Of his three acclaimed titles, BORDER CROSSER caught my attention the most because of its addressing a controversial issue that divides people of all backgrounds and political affilliations.

Conversations' wide-ranging discussion with Rico both surprised and impressed me. He talks about 1)how he views his work as opposed to how others characterize it, 2)why he does what he does, 3)the things Americans might not appreciate about those who try to enter the country illegally, 4)what readers can expect next from him, and 5)why aspiring writers should be careful about what they choose to write about.  


Thank you for taking out the time to talk with Conversations. Before we get into your latest book BORDER CROSSER, let's talk a little about yourself. How would you describe Johnny Rico?

I'm someone with fairly bad people skills which is, I think, why I was attracted to being a writer.  I'm an intense introvert and wouldn't have it any other way.  Spiritually I'm an atheist.  Politically I'm a hybrid mix of Libertarian and far-left liberal. 

I'm fascinated by a myriad of topics, but what really captivates me is studying  the human condition and the depths of its dysfunction. I'm enthralled by religious cults, serial killers, criminal behaviour, mass hysteria, politics - and by the way, I include myself within that dysfunction, my interest isn't as one who considers himself immune to the behaviour I study.

When you look at the impact you have had around the world just through your words can you believe you have been given such a powerful gift?

Let's get two things straight.  First, my words have not had any impact whatsoever.  There's dozens of books released each day, week after week, month after month, year after year.  I've been fortunate enough to have authored two of them.  But that doesn't mean that I've made an impact on the world in any meaningful way.  I'm quite sure that, like most modern forms of communication, my own message, whatever it was, got lost in the tsunami of information overload like almost everything else that we consume these days.  Do you remember a blog you read last week or a book you read last year?  I don't.  I consume too much information to remember the particulars unless a book was exceptionally spectacular.

Second, I think I can be a decent writer at times with brief explosions of artistic genius, but by and large, I'm sure there are thousands of writers out there, yet undiscovered, that are infinitely more talented than I am.

I have always believed, Johnny, that the mark of a great writer is someone who is an avid reader. When did you first realize you had a love affair with words?

I don't know if it was ever a love affair with words.  To be honest, I'm more attracted to the hours that the working writer keeps than any love of words.  But I would say that I owe my appreciation for words to my parents.  When I was born, my parents got rid of the family television and started reading to me almost as soon as I was born.  So, as a child, reading was a pretty big staple in my household.  I remember being in the first grade and while other children were still learning to read, I was re-reading Tolkien for the third time.  Doesn't mean I was exceptionally intellectually gifted, just that my parents made it a priority for their children to be readers.

BORDER CROSSER tackles some topics that are ripped directly from the headlines with one of the major themes being the politics of imigration. What inspired the interest in the topic and the decision to write the book?

I'm fascinated with the difference between subjective and objective perspectives on what are otherwise normative human processes.  Illegal immigration, for example, is a normative human behaviour.  Humans have always and will always seek to migrate from poor conditions to better conditions.  Similarly, those who live on the other side of the fence, in the place where the migrants aspire to arrive at, have always and will always become protectionist, feel violated, attempt to defend and secure themselves.  Which, ultimately, is a futile gesture.  Any fair examination of history tells us that countries change, cultures change, ethnicities change, demographics change and it's something we can't stop.  What I think is fascinating about the issue of illegal immigration in America is that the opponents of illegal immigration, the virulent ones, the Minutemen and such, they're angry about illegal immigration, but they're also angry about a changing culture, about a world of complex economics and globalization that they don't understand, they're worried about changing cultural norms like gay marriage.  Illegal immigration is only one facet of their worldview that seems tangible, that they feel they can make a difference in affecting.  So there were interesting actors on the periphery of this issue, and that's just on the U.S. side!  And in Mexico you have poor migrants dying in the desert and drug cartels.  It's an issue that's political, economic, racial, social and it cuts a lot of interesting ways.  My job was just to drive through the middle pointing out interesting observations wherever I could.

When looking at what is said about illegal immigration today, what do you think is the major misconception about those who choose to enter a country illegally?

In the U.S. I think we tend to forget how dangerous it is for so many of the migrants to come here.  We forget that they have to save for years to pay the coyote to take them across the border, and that they have to make multiple attempts, and leave behind all the family they know, and risk life and death in the desert, and the fact that they would risk so much is testament to how bad economic conditions were or are in Central America.

What has surprised you the most about the response you have gotten from the book?

I've been pleasantly surprised that everyone has found it to be so funny.  Yes, I am writing about intense issues of life and death, but that's no reason not to make it funny, and people seemed to have responded well to the humour.

Johnny, it seems from reading the book that you seem to think just as much about getting to the bottom of the story as you do about your safety. Would you agree with that assessment, and if so, do you think that is a quality that we don't always see in journalism today?

I don't know if my desire for safety has anything to do with getting to the bottom of a story as much as just a basic need for survival.  I also don't feel qualified to speak about journalism as I never claimed to be a journalist, I never studied journalism, or was trained in journalism. I was just a  guy who wrote about a crazy combat tour in Afghanistan in Blood Makes the Grass Grow Green and was suddenly given this label of immersive journalist. Which, technically, I don't know if that's even journalism.  I just like to immerse myself in an experience, write about it in a colourful and interesting way, and hopefully along the way tell a funny and amusing story.  My aspirations extend no further than that.

What do you have planned next for your readers?

I'm working on a book where I spend a year infiltrating and joining religious cults.  I just got back from a cult in Slovenia and it was a terrifying and exhilarating experience, one that ended in an episode of mass hysteria.  Crazy.  Religion is my true passion, so of all the projects I've done, this is the one I'm looking forward to the most.

Because of your success, I know that aspiring writers must contact you all the time looking for suggestions that they can apply to their own careers. What advice would you give someone looking to write a book about a subject that interests them?

I joined a local writer's group here in London and while some of them are very talented, they're each attempting to break into publishing by writing that next great literary novel which, of course, means that they will all fail.  There's just not that much room within the marketplace or that much demand for literature, and to be successful with literature, you have to be really good.  You're, in essence, relying on your imagination to provide the story, the characters, the plot, the pacing, and the central crisis.  My recommendation is to instead live a real life story. The world is filled with potential stories just waiting to happen as long as you're willing to put yourself in the wrong situation.  And I think that is the key to finding great stories, too many of us live life attempting to make safe decisions, and that just doesn't typically lead to great stories.

Last summer, some friends of mine and I drove from London to Mongolia for an article for Penthouse magazine.  I didn't have to imagine or create a single part of the story, the story, and it was an amazing story, told itself.  One of these same friends, despite being married and straight, worked in a gay sauna, he got an article out of that.  There's a big demand at the moment for stories of journalistic immersion, stories where people tell an unusual story, or approach a news story through personal experience.

So my advice to your aspiring writers would be to go and become homeless for a year, or track down the family members of serial killers and interview them as you visit all the places where the crimes occurred.  Just don't pick crossing the border illegally from Mexico into the United States, because I already did it.

It's a pleasure to talk with you, Johnny. How can our readers find out more information about you online? 

They can't.  I try to remain as obscure as possible.  Although, I have recently signed onto Twitter ( , but no promises, I don't really Twitter much.