Please welcome Shane Kuhn to The Qwillery. The Intern's Handbook, Shane's debut, is out today from Simon & Schuster. Please join us in wishing Shane a Happy Publication Day.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Shane: Thank you for having me. I love what you’ve done to the place. Very Philippe Starck.
I started writing when I was eight years old. Growing up, I was kind of a creative dissident in my house. My father was an irretrievably practical man of German descent who was raised on a farm and pursued a career in physical therapy and rehabilitative medicine. I was his only son so he had constructed a careful narrative for my future. I was going to be a star athlete and then a physician and compromise in either area was never up for debate. Unfortunately, his plans for me were utterly inharmonious with who I was as a person. I had no interest in or talent for science or math and, even though I was a good athlete, I was bored to tears in the world of team sports. So, I rebelled a great deal as a child and when I was eight years old, I committed the first deadly sin – playing with matches, followed by the second – lying. This resulted in a two week grounding in the middle of summer! My backyard solitude was too much to bear and I had what I can only describe as an existential crisis. At the height of that crisis, I had no choice but to find a way to express myself or go stark raving mad. So, I started writing in a journal and quickly realized that I could pour everything into those pages without fear of consequence. Over the years, as I fought to be understood and released from the burden of inauthenticity, my journal was absolutely critical to my survival. Eventually, when my mind matured, I began to see the page as more of a powerful creative canvas and writing helped me to graduate from survival to thriving as an artist.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Shane: Both! As a creative person, my mind naturally travels in unstructured, tangential patterns. I have had to train myself to focus it, like magnifying glass focuses sunlight. Going to film school and studying screenwriting was instrumental in helping me to do that because the two-hour structure of a script demands at least some detailed plotting. Also, I do believe that story in general is most powerful when it follows a somewhat archetypal structure. However, I also value the spontaneity of the guts and the heart and always leave room for new ideas to show themselves and find a home in my work. In fact, I have been known to completely restructure a story based on a spontaneous thought that I found too powerful to deny. Bottom line is that plotting and pantsing (sp?) is a balancing act for me. I need a narrative spine to stay focused on completing a work but I also need ample room to be open and creative and channel inspiration.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Shane: Finding the time to write. I have a wife and family. I have a very demanding day job. I still do film assignment work. And I’m in a band! When I sat down to write The Intern’s Handbook, I committed to finding a time that was always reliable and could support a routine. That time is from 10:00pm to 2:00am –ish. It’s perfect because it’s very quiet and the outside world places no demands on me. Staying awake is sometimes an issue but that’s why we have espresso.
TQ: Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?
Shane: Because my household was not particularly “literary,” I didn’t have parents that helped to shape my love of books. As a kid, I discovered books at garage sales. The paperbacks were always dirt-cheap and I would consciously attempt to acquire a very eclectic mix of whatever seemed interesting. That’s how I came across Kurt Vonnegut. And Judy Blume. And, one of my most treasured discoveries – Roal Dahl. Ever read My Uncle Oswald? I read that before I was even aware of James and the Giant Peach. I was introduced to Wifey before Margaret. Eventually, I began to gravitate to the authors whose work fed the darkness and wit in me – Kerouac, Burroughs, Dick, Hunter, Dahl, Vonnegut, Hemingway, O’Connor, King, Proust, Camus, Dostoyevsky, Asimov, Bradbury, Stein, Woolf, Steinbeck, Parker, Bukowski, etc. The writers that marked me the deepest creatively are Hunter Thompson, Chuck Palahniuk, and Irvine Welsh. I love music, especially rock n roll, and they made me see that writing can be like performance. It can have the same dynamics, hooks, and riffs of a great song and inspire similar emotions. Also, they made me see that humor can be an incredibly powerful narcotic that can be infused in even the most serious narratives and make prose more deeply human.
TQ: You are a writer, director, and producer. How does writing for the entertainment industry influence (or not) how you wrote The Intern's Handbook and the prequel Casual Friday?
Shane: Being from that world gave me two very important gifts that made it possible for me to write The Intern’s Handbook and Casual Friday. The first is FRUSTRATION. I think we only really change our situation when it becomes absolutely intolerable. In the addiction world, it’s called rock bottom. I had hit rock bottom creatively with the entertainment business. I had experienced some minor successes, but NEVER felt like any of my work was an authentic expression of me. It was all art by committee and people wanting to capture the magic of some other successful movie or show. Casual Friday was kind of my bitch session about that. Have you ever seen Barton Fink? Watch it. It absolutely nails the life of a Hollywood screenwriter. And also read “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” by William Goldman. Spot fucking on. So, while I was languishing in my angst, driving my wife crazy, I had an epiphany. I realized that I had to return to the way I used to write when I was younger – that stream of consciousness journaling approach that tapped into my visceral self. I knew that a book was the only way to do this in order to avoid the “committee” and a total evisceration of my work. Intern’s had been living in my head for awhile so I just went for it. Which brings me to the second gift – STORY STRUCTURE. I received an MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute and the best thing I learned there was story structure. I actually used the 3 act structure of American Cinema to outline my book and it really worked. I highly recommend it to other writers. For me, having a structural framework gives me the freedom to really be creative on the page. If I’m always trying to figure out what happens next, it becomes too distracting.
TQ: Describe The Intern's Handbook in 140 characters or less.
I love what Lisa Lutz wrote about it:
Shane: Dexter meets Office Space--the blackest and goriest office comedy you could imagine, with an intern-slash-assassin in the starring role.
TQ: Tell us something about The Intern's Handbook that is not in the book description.
Shane: This is the first of a series.
TQ: What inspired you to write The Intern's Handbook?
Shane: This book is a love child created by two of my obsessions: Assassins and Corporate America. For a long time, I have wanted to write an assassin story. Assassins are literally blank slate characters because they play by their own rules so they are not constrained by normal society. This is why you see such diversity in that role. Just look at The Professional, then compare Jean Reno’s character to La Femme Nikita (the French version), then watch the movie Hanna. The sky is the limit on what you can do so I had been waiting for the right inspiration to create my own assassin. Then, while all of the wholesale theft (without consequence) was happening on Wall Street, I started thinking quite a bit about corporate America again, wanting to get into that world. I love underdogs and unexpected characters so I was thinking, “who would anyone least likely suspect to be an assassin in the corporate world?” And then it hit me…the quiet, unassuming office lackey known as the intern was perfect. I have been an intern and I was always blown away by how lazy people were and how I would basically do their job for them-even though they could NEVER remember my name. They were always calling me Shawn! Also, it was amazing what kind of access I had to everything. So, that anonymity and access struck me as the perfect cover and it just unfolded from there.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Intern's Handbook?
Shane: First off, I verified several times that law firms use interns. I have read a few comments out there where readers are claiming law firms don’t use interns. I researched this before I made the setting a law firm. I even spoke to lawyers to verify and every single one had done an internship. As you can see, authenticity is very important to me. Speaking of which, I did a great deal of weapons research through several reliable sources, including speaking to gun experts. And, all of the medical content of the book was vetted with two ER docs, one a military flight surgeon with actual combat experience. Finally, I am obsessed with whiskey so I was proud to find a bourbon whiskey that is made in Scotland. Very unique.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why?
Shane: John. I am a lot like him. I don’t share all of his views on things and I am not homicidal in any way (can’t stand it when I accidentally step on an earthworm), but I observe the world in the same way – in great detail and with humor – and I am passionate about expressing myself in an impactful way. So, writing him really flowed for me.
TQ: Give us one of your favorite lines from The Intern's Handbook.
Shane: “The shortest distance between truth and bullshit is six feet straight down.”
TQ: Why did you choose to write a Thriller? Do you want to write in any other genres or subgenres?
Shane: Because I worked in movies, I thought of the book as more of the literary version of an action movie. I like that it’s a thriller, but I didn’t really think of it that way until my editor at S&S called it a thriller. Nevertheless, I love that genre because its edgy and full of drama and darkness and it’s a lot of fun. In other genres, I have plans to write a very dark and twisted “romance novel,” and there are some music-oriented comedic stories I would like to dig into.
TQ: What's next?
Shane: I have written the sequel to The Intern’s Handbook and I am starting work on another standalone thriller. It’s my goal to write at least one book a year and I’m committed to taking my writing to the next level and creating a body of work that can be my literary legacy. And some day I’m going to direct another movie. I directed one when I was in film school and co-directed one a few years ago, but I consider those films failed visions. I love cinema and I need to prove to myself that I can make a good movie.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Shane: Thank you!
The Intern's Handbook
Simon & Schuster, April 8, 2014
Hardcover and eBook, 288 pages
JOHN LAGO IS A HITMAN. HE HAS SOME RULES FOR YOU. AND HE’ S ABOUT TO BREAK EVERY SINGLE ONE.
John Lago is a very bad guy. But he’s the very best at what he does. And what he does is infiltrate top-level companies and assassinate crooked executives while disguised as an intern.
Interns are invisible. That’s the secret behind HR, Inc., the elite “placement agency” that doubles as a network of assassins for hire who take down high-profile targets that wouldn’t be able to remember an intern’s name if their lives depended on it.
At the ripe old age of almost twenty-five, John Lago is already New York City’s most successful hit man. He’s also an intern at a prestigious Manhattan law firm, clocking eighty hours a week getting coffee, answering phones, and doing all the grunt work actual employees are too lazy to do. He was hired to assassinate one of the firm’s heavily guarded partners. His internship provides the perfect cover, enabling him to gather intel and gain access to pull off a clean, untraceable hit.
Part confessional, part DIY manual, The Intern’s Handbook chronicles John’s final assignment, a twisted thrill ride in which he is pitted against the toughest—and sexiest—adversary he’s ever faced: Alice, an FBI agent assigned to take down the same law partner he’s been assigned to kill.
John Lago is 25 years old, an intern, and an assassin with an impressive kill list. He works for HR, Inc., which sets up individual like John as interns in companies, law firms, etc. to kill people that are well protected. These people are targeted by unknowns (at least to the reader). John is the 'writer' of The Intern's Handbook. He is about to retire and apparently wants to help those who come after him understand what they are getting in to. While he covers the basics of the job and some of his prior jobs, The Intern's Handbook is also his confessional. John's story is absolutely fascinating. Honestly, while I abhor much of what John does I actually don't dislike him, which says much about the writing of debut author Shane Kuhn.
The Intern's Handbook includes a cast of fascinating secondary characters as John interacts with a his boss and the people he is working with at a law firm on his last assignment. The writing and pacing are terrific. There is quite a bit of humor in the book as well as some violence, but John's narration of his own story is so matter of fact that the violence is not as shocking as it should be. He's had a rough life and has extreme difficulty mustering any feelings. His 'ability' to interact with others both in work settings and romance has been learned from movies, which makes for some interesting passages in the novel.
I find The Intern's Handbook fascinating on so many levels - as a character study of John Lago the assassin, as a breakneck thriller, and as a mystery that kept me guessing. There are several unforeseen and fantastic plot twists that nearly caused whiplash as the book came to its stunning end. The Intern's Handbook is a terrific, often fun and thoroughly engaging read.
A Short Prequel to The Intern's Handbook
Simon & Schuster, February 4, 2014
eShort, 50 pages
Casual Friday is the story of hit man John Lago’s very first assignment as a recruit with Human Resources, Inc., a placement agency that sends assassins, disguised as interns, to take out high-level targets under cover of corporate invisibility. John will go on to become the most successful “intern” in HR’s history. You can read more about his career in The Intern’s Handbook, a full-length thriller that will be published on April 8, 2014.
Shane Kuhn is a writer, director, and producer with fifteen years of experience working in the entertainment business and advertising. He is one of the original cofounders of the Slamdance Film Festival and is currently co-writing features for Paramount and Fox. He lives and works in Colorado, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area.