The writer and musician Michael Patrick Welch, one of Fuck or Swim‘s earliest readers, generously took time to conduct a Q&A with Jules about the book.
MPW: Tell me about the significance of the title.
JB: When I worked on the islands off the coast of St Petersburg, Florida, an extremely unfunny joke I heard constantly at dockside bars was this idea you’d take somebody—usually a woman— miles out on a boat and then tell ‘em, “Fuck or swim.” It’s a rape joke. It’s a very frightening idea, and in the case of this novel, I thought it expressed succinctly the characters’ relationship to power. Certainly the choices people have within capitalism, but just in general the options available to people like PJ, the book’s protagonist. I love boats, but a giant, fancy boat is definitely an ostentatious expression of power. It signifies a level of wealth attainment—the sort of wealth, status and power held by the men PJ fucks for money. So, fuck or swim, serve or starve, prison or death… hideous choices made under threat. This book is partly about the options people have, the versions of freedom we’re permitted.
Who is this book for? Who would want to read this book?
In a real way, Fuck or Swim is for anyone interested in a crime thriller about a male sex worker in the outer suburbs of Miami, Florida. It’s fast-paced. It’s not unsentimental, but it’s unstinting. More broadly, I think the book has a lot to offer anyone interested the ways wealth and power affect how we relate to one another, sexually and emotionally, even in cases where neither party has very much wealth or power.
Miami is a very interesting place, both bright and sparkly and extremely dark.
I think Miami has its own distinctive allure—that megacity promise of success and ‘You can be a star!’ that’s expressed differently place to place. Hollywood offers its timeworn version of that promise, New York City has various versions of that promise. Atlanta has, I think for black folks in particular, its own versions– that this is the place where you come to make it big, to blossom into the overachieving megastar you deserve to be. And Miami has its very own distinctive slant on that, being a Caribbean city, an international city. Fuck or Swim is—among other things—exploring what underpins that, day-to-day. For anyone who’s ever watched a hip-hop video set in Miami and thought, for instance, I wonder what the lives of those backup dancers are like, when everyone goes home. The apartment complexes people really live in, the neighbors they hang out with, the corner stores at 3 am.
The book’s focus on power dynamics is not dissimilar to a lot of the journalism you’ve done that’s gotten so much attention and commentary in New Orleans.
In terms of subject matter, yeah. Stylistically, to be blunt, I’m not sure how much overlap there is—the people who’ve read this book and who know my nonfiction were like, “I was hoping there would be more funny rants.” There’s a lot of dry humor in the book, and maybe a familiar simmering rage underneath, but no wacky rants or piles of big adjectives.
Are there writers you were thinking of when you wrote Fuck or Swim? It doesn’t seem indebted to anyone in particular, but…
I do approach my writing as a craft, like carpentry– meaning I improve through the process and the practice, learning from people who’ve been doing it longer and are better at it. I study. I look for approaches or techniques I think I could twist to my own ends, and I keep myself open to others’ suggestions, which I’ve learned are often very good.
As a crime writer, if I strive to achieve the kinds of effects I experience from reading someone in particular, it might be the pulp writer Jim Thompson– though I hasten to add I’m not comparing myself, only citing him as a big influence. One of things I appreciate about Thompson is how he plays upon the reader’s desire to be titillated, the reader’s desire for access to secret, dirty things, by then serving up a far fatter slice than anybody could handle. Thompson went completely different places than I do, but speaking as a reader, he always stunned me… You want a peek into the abyss? He chucks you in bodily. You lean in for a sip and suddenly he’s on top of you, holding your head under. It’s exhilarating, the way near-death experiences are, and it’s something I try to replicate.
I think on the surface, people might compare Fuck or Swim to maybe Bret Easton Ellis, but I think here you have drawn more sympathetic characters.
That’s flattering– but among the ways I’m way weaker than Ellis is that you don’t have to go down many layers with me to discover what a sensitive softy I am. I can be caustic, but my basic operational mode is tearful compassion, so it’s important to me that all my characters, even the spectacularly sadistic ones, are recognizably, relatably human. Part of this book is about how we’re sometimes able to reposition ourselves within an unhealthy dynamic– that the abused can become an abuser. And that’s called success, or empowerment.
So, first and foremost, I wanted Fuck or Swim to be a compelling read, gripping and psychologically real. Fuck or Swim is full of sex, crime, money, drugs, yachts, guns, stuff that sounds like the trappings of glamour– but it’s not a glamorous book. I’m not interested in a glamorized portrayal of my characters’ struggles. For instance, there’s a fair amount of violence in this book, and I wanted it to hurt, to be upsetting rather than cathartic. PJ, the main character, is someone other people generally perceive as a sissy. He’s not a brawler or a video-game hero; he’s sympathetic in other ways.
How is PJ sympathetic?
What PJ wants out of life is happiness, stability. He and his girlfriend together have a dream, a little story they’ve built between them about how they’re gonna live. He’ll go back to college… he sees himself climbing a ladder. In his mind, he’s working towards something. We’d all have a hard time getting out of bed if we didn’t have a goal, whether or not we’re actually making any progress towards it on a given day. PJ has those goals, and when his sense of his own trajectory is shattered, he’s forced to confront the realities of his position– where he is on the ladder, and how far those upper rungs are out of his reach unless he’s willing to stretch himself in some dangerous new ways, which is what drives the book’s plot.
PJ is very good-looking, and he’s used to being able to trade on that, either explicitly, as a sex worker, or just in terms of flirting, or even bullying people who have a little crush on him into helping him out. He’s used to other people doing things for him. And the journey he takes over the course of Fuck or Swim tests the limits of that, and makes him more the prime mover in his own life. He tries to wrest control of his destiny from the people around him, and in doing so discovers his actual relationship to the money and power he’s previously been allowed proximity to. For instance PJ has the keys to the service stairs of this really nice condo building— but where can you really get from the service stairs? That’s very different from owning a condo in the building. You can use the pool, you can use the spa, and if that’s all you want out of it, that’s fine. It’s once you try to go beyond that that you find out the realities of where you stand and what your options are in this world that’s not exactly yours— it’s just a world you’ve been let into conditionally. What are those conditions, and what happens when you start pushing them?
John Smurf seems like an even more sympathetic character. Who is he to PJ?
John is PJ’s coworker and friend. Some of his affection towards PJ is romantic, but he really does care about PJ’s happiness. And John isn’t a great advocate for himself; he’s one of these people who sort of throw in the towel on their own lives and relegate themselves to a role of caregiver and supporter of others, which is poignant. I mean, it’s also a role he draws power from– in a world that can be demoralizing, it gives John something to feel good about, a source of psychic sustenance. But he’s a genuinely sweet person, which I think makes him an attractive character.
He cares more than PJ does about others, despite that he’s dealing with many of the same problems as PJ.
Yeah. I also think John Smurf is living with fewer illusions. He’s a serious drug addict, and feels guilt about it, which limits his aspirations for himself. John’s arc within the book is trying to figure out whether he’s worthy to seek his own happiness. He has a lot of empathy for others; he also cares very much about his brother Matt, who is difficult to love.
To say the least… John Smurf’s brother is more or less a psychopath. They’re quite a contrast.
The Smurf brothers are very, very loosely based on two real-life brothers, one of whom is now dead and the other of whom is serving a long sentence in Federal prison. The individual personalities of the Smurf brothers are entirely fabricated, completely distinct from their real life inspirations, but the commonality is that they’re two complimentarily troublemaking brothers from a small, tough town.
Matt Smurf, compared to the book’s other characters, goes quickly to violence. Not only does he not shy away, it’s his preferred approach. The book is written to be a thriller, so it was important to have at least one major character whose default is to get physical. There are different characters who talk tough, but Matt Smurf is actively gratified by hurting other people; it does something for him, or it quiets some of the noise he has going on in his head. Someone’s gotta bust down doors and bust heads, because PJ isn’t like that, though over the course of the novel he discovers his capacity to be on the other side of the equation of violence. I wanted Matt to be someone who is frightening but human– a plausibly violent person.
What are you willing to tell us about your actual time in the sex industry?
I worked for two and a half years in different aspects of the industry. In terms of who I’m speaking for, I think it’s important to stress I was never a sex worker– but I worked with and in collaboration with sex workers, specifically outcall escorts. I came into the business thinking I was already jaded, but the reality of the lives sex workers lead showed me that I was actually naïve. It was way rougher than even my most paranoid imagination. At the same time, sex workers themselves are great company. I would say, and this is for me a rare generalization, that they’re people I actively enjoy spending time around. I also think sex work in a lot of ways is capitalism and commerce stripped down to its absolute fundamentals. Year by year, more and more work becomes absorbed into the service economy, and sex work is as basic as the exchange gets. It’s at the root of most service jobs; its simplicity is profound. It’s protean in that when you spend time in the sex industry, you start to see everything else as just a metaphor for sex work–or sex work looks like a metaphor for everything else. It provides a very compelling lens through which to see most jobs and even most human interactions, whether or not someone finds it a pleasant view.
Personally, I am not intrigued by social media, and so do not enjoy when people make it a central question or central character in any form of entertainment—not to mention when newscasters quote tweets and shit. I find reading about the internet tedious as hell. For that reason, I was impressed how you managed to make social media an interesting part of Fuck or Swim, especially in terms of PJ’s girlfriend.
Regardless of my feelings about social media, as somebody who writes in a realist vein I can’t deny its ubiquity. So, one of the things social media lets us do is develop a separate persona– a completely exteriorized self. But the story we’re telling others about ourselves on whichever social media platform is a narrative we are also ourselves consuming, and our personae inevitably begin to shape our other, more private selves. In the case of this book I was interested in how this performance of self becomes an obligation, and how that social-media self takes on a heft or a momentum of its own.
Why is it that, while PJs girlfriend is really into social media, PJ himself is not?
Why are some people alcoholics, while others can take a drink or leave it? I think that PJ’s lived experience is so intense that it scratches that itch for him. He already puts a version of himself out there, a sexual self he markets for money. Rather than craving additional exposure or attention, what PJ wants is to withhold himself from the world more than he’s able to, more than economic necessity allows him to.
So, as far as genre, you consider Fuck or Swim a thriller?
Yes– more narrowly, a crime novel, which to me sounds attractively disreputable and French. But not a mystery, not a detective novel. To me the crucial distinction between a detective novel and a crime novel– a distinction some could better observe– is that in the latter, there’s no white knight trying to restore status quo. There is no normalizing templar figure, no cop-type who beats up the baddies for daring to scare the reader. While Fuck or Swim is written to be accessible for general readers, it’s important to me there be no Virgil showing the path. People’s lives are important, and I want the reader to engage the characters on their own terms instead of seeing them in a zoo with a tour guide.
To you, does this book have a resolution or a happy ending?
It definitely has a resolution. Some will find it satisfying and some will be upset by it. To me it’s a resolution about understanding; the events of the conclusion are not only brought about by the action of the book, but complete PJs internal journey in terms of his movements through the world that he’s in, his understanding of his position and his possibilities within his own life.
Since we’re doing this interview for the benefit of possible publishers, I will ask: Are you willing to change the title of Fuck or Swim so it doesn’t have the “f-word” in it?
Yeah, sure. I’m open to other titles. If one is suggested to me that’s as good as or better than Fuck or Swim, I’m not dogmatic about it.
How is Fuck or Swim different from the books you plan to write in the future?
Well, there is a tone and style in Fuck or Swim that I worked on and developed expressly to suit this story– a sort of flattened, disassociated presentation. It’s a mix of two elements: my attempt at the written equivalent of this low-contrast, pinky-pale visual aesthetic I associate with certain neighborhoods of tumblr, and the feeling of having been outside in the sun too long. It’s not something I’m going to maintain in other novels. Also, Fuck or Swim is probably shorter than most of the books I write.
More importantly, while I’m proud of Kym [PJ’s girlfriend] as a character—I think she’s great—she is the only major female character in this book. Future books, including the new one I’m working on now, will have more female characters, more centrally positioned.
What Fuck or Swim has in common with my books to come is that it treats as valid and important the lives and experiences of people living outside the law, people who aren’t conventionally, materially “successful” and whom fiction has underrepresented… and seeks to portray those people, honestly and nonjudgmentally, as human beings.
Interviewer Michael Patrick Welch is the author of books including The Donkey Show and New Orleans: the Underground Guide. His work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Vice, Salon, McSweeney’s and many other publications. Follow him @mpatrickwelch