Interview With A Vegan Author: Jan Smitowicz

Kimberly's picture

I recently read Orange Rain, a novel by Jan Smitowicz. Orange Rain is a revenge story about a suicidal, heroin-addicted paraplegic Vietnam veteran with leukemia caused by Agent Orange. He teams up with a Mai, his favorite Vietnamese prostitute from a massage parlor to go on a cross country adventure to destroy Monsanto, the evil corporation responsible for destroying Max's health and for poisoning Mai's forest village.

Orange Rain is a fun, fast-paced, often super-gross read with a vigilante vegan point of view. With its gratuitous sex and violence, Orange Rain was right up my alley. Luckily for me, I just happen to know the handsome, articulate author who took time from his schedule to answer some questions about his self-published novel:

So Jan, first thing's first. Can you pronounce your name for me? Is it Polish?

How’d you guess?! (laughs) Well, I mainly descend from Polish Gypsies—Smitowicz actually isn’t my birth-surname, but it is the name my ancestors had before it was “Americanized” at Ellis Island, and I’ve reclaimed it as my pen name. I pronounce Jan with what in linguistics is the “dz” sound. I like to tell people, “J-A-N, not like Jan Brady but like Jan and Dean.” But if I’m with European people they pronounce it something like, “yawn,” and I’m fine with that too.

What inspired you to write a novel about a legless Vietnam vet on a revenge mission against Monsanto?

I’ve written six full novels now, and I seem to do it in an unusual way. I don’t get an idea—even a fleshed-out one—and then start writing. I wait, let the idea percolate in my head, sometimes for as much as two to four years. I take notes, I think about characters, I listen to what the characters are saying to me, but I don’t actually begin the book for a long time. This is my convoluted way of saying that I don’t remember what inspired this particular one. I will say that it started with learning how loathsome and vile Monsanto is, and becoming politically radicalized. From there I probably decided, Who better to want to destroy Monsanto than a legless Vietnam vet who came back with leukemia from Agent Orange, and a Vietnamese villager-turned-American-prostitute who lost her entire family to Agent Orange? And I like vigilante justice against abusers and oppressors. It gives me a warm fuzzy feeling inside.

You seem to know a great deal about the challenges faced by people with disabilities, including the stupid comments and questions they have to put up with from non-handicapped people. What experiences or research did you have to do in order to write so well about what it is like to be handicapped like Max?

I’ve had serious, often debilitating knee problems for over a decade now. Five knee surgeries. Now I’m disabled with severe nerve pain from all the trauma and injuries and cutting. In 2005, I spent three months in a wheelchair. So basically, I took from my own experiences and extrapolated and hyperbolized them. I actually face more disability-based issues now than when I was in a wheelchair; but if you think about it, it makes sense. Able-bodied allies need to remember that people can look completely fine on the outside while experiencing agonizing pain on the inside that they’ve been feeling for so long that it no longer necessarily manifests itself externally.

Max is confronted by some WWII vets in Orange Rain who are just as mentally and physically broken as he is, though their attitude is "Vietnam was a pussy's battle." Why do you think it was so much easier for men who fought in WWII to buy into the cultural zeitgeist of war being inherently right?

That’s an interesting question. I don’t know if any WWII vets really do feel that way—I just thought it would be a funny scene, and, as I often do, I unpacked or created the social relevance after coming up with the amusing idea. But you’re right—WWII vets got and get more respect, and they got more help, than veterans of Vietnam. Maybe it has something to do with WWII’s having been seen as more just and appropriate a war. The two wars also definitely were surrounded by a different zeitgeist; in the WWII era, the attitude was heavily tipped toward, “My country, right or wrong.” But in the 1960s and early 1970s, this tremendous social upheaval of accepted norms and values was happening—people were questioning things to a huge degree, taking mind-expanding-and-altering drugs that furthered this social upheaval, and the whole cultural backdrop was different during Vietnam.

Rapists always get their just desserts in Orange Rain. If you made the laws, what would be the punishment for rapists? I know my punishment for rapists would involve a length of rope, an amorous bull, and a wooden fence. How would you handle them?

This is a tough one, because I’m an anarchist and I know (both ideologically and firsthand) how broken and racist America’s criminal “justice” system is. I’m digging your idea, or at least how I imagine your idea to play out! I guess if it can be proven absolutely (through physical evidence) that a rape occurred, life in prison is appropriate. More appropriate, maybe, is first giving the victim a fully loaded Glock-9 and a hacksaw and letting her (or him) decide what to do, with no legal reprisal. I do know one thing for sure: One of my family members was stalked and raped, and the cops did nothing, so her father beat the living shit out of the scumbag with a wrench and his fists. He’s a hardcore Jesus-freak now, but I still think that was an act of commendable and apt heroism. And he paid dearly for it—3.5 years in a maximum-security prison.

The media pulls a sinister blackout when Max tries to take his first real action against Monsanto. What real life events in the news (if any) inspired you to write about this sort of payola-for-censorship?

This is one of the few things in the book where I can point to real life and say, “That’s where I got the idea for that.” A team of journalists for a news channel in Florida (I think it was a Fox affiliate, but I’m not positive offhand) did an exposé on Monsanto’s rBGH, recombinant bovine growth hormone—what it was doing to the cows, and the dangers it posed to humans who drank the milk. Monsanto threatened to pull their advertising; first the story was edited and watered down, then it was further edited and watered down, and when the journalists refused to further compromise on this horrific information they’d found, the news piece was pulled altogether. I would be willing to bet vital parts of my anatomy that this happens all the time—we just happened to hear about it in this instance.

White racism against non-whites is an overarching theme in Orange Rain and seems to get worse when Max, Mai, and Andre travel south of the Mason Dixon line. Do you think racism in the North is equal to what is found in the South?

I’d have to ask one of my well-traveled brown-skinned friends. My sense is probably—although white privilege is everywhere in this country. I was incarcerated in Illinois from 2010-2012, and I can tell you specific numbers for that northern state: blacks comprise 13 percent of the state’s population, but 76 percent of its prison population. Stop and read that again, please. But I can also tell you that all my black friends in prison would much rather be incarcerated in Illinois than, say, Texas or Louisiana…

The men and women of the Warehouse seem to be very effective in their resistance against the military-industrial complex. One could argue their approach of amassing a large network of people and working to effect young people is more devastating to the oppressor than Max with his Monsanto-wrecking agenda. What lessons do you think the people of the Warehouse offer to those who might want to see Orange Rain beyond its sheer entertainment value?

I would say there are many lessons that can be gleaned from the Warehouse residents, but the main ones might be:

1) Resistance can and should come in many, many varied forms.
2) Building wide alliances is paramount to the struggle against industrial civilization’s stranglehold on the planet.
3) We should try to learn ways of being more self-sufficient, of not breastfeeding on the System for our every need, even if it starts in small, easy, simple ways. We have to start somewhere.
4) All oppression is connected—that is why the Warehouse is all vegan.
5) Child-bearing is a detriment to any real liberation struggle. That’s why none of the Warehouse residents have children. They’re serious, and if we’re serious about our lives being a monkeywrench in the gears of this sick industrial machine, we shouldn’t have kids either. That’s why I got a vasectomy at age 25 (three-plus years ago).

How long have you been vegan?

Over 7 years now. 11 months of being vegetarian before that. I grew up a meat-lover, so it was a dramatic change. I didn’t even have any other vegetarian friends when I went vegan! I didn’t know any other vegans! And the funniest part is, I didn’t even know there was much (if any) cruelty that went into egg and dairy production—I learned about it after I was already vegan for a couple months. It’s like I decided that it was ideologically the right thing to do before I knew it was morally the right thing to do! (laughs)

Are there any books or films that influenced Orange Rain?

Honestly, I don’t know. Your question below gets me thinking, since I’ve loved the movie Falling Down since I was a child, that it was an unconscious influence. Oh—I have to say that Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of the Earth, edited by Steve Best and my friend and colleague Anthony Nocella, was pivotal in the development of my radical and biocentric views. So in a way I feel obligated to credit that book as being influential to pretty much everything I’ve written after reading it.

Orange Rain reminds me of the movie Falling Down as reinterpreted by Quentin Tarantino. I hated Falling Down because of its crappy, half-hearted ending. If you wrote the screenplay for Falling Down, how would you have ended the film?

Well that’s a flattering comparison! Although I think you’d have to agree that my writing has more of a political/social/moral conscience and message than either that movie or Tarantino. Maybe Falling Down as reinterpreted by Tarantino if he were married to, and heavily influenced by, somebody like, say, Assata Shakur (laughs). As I said, I still love that movie even though I agree with you. It has creepy, stupid overtones of domestic violence and stalking that detracts from the great things about it—like when he takes out those gangbangers, kills that Nazi scumbag, and pulls an automatic weapon in a fictional McDonald’s-type place. It’s funny, I actually watched Falling Down again maybe a month ago! Okay. I’ll try to imagine how I’d end it. Clearly Michael Douglas has lost it by the end of the movie. Instead of having him go after his ex-wife all creepy-like…there’s this scene where he calls her from the Venice Pier complaining about how they’ve turned what used to be their favorite little ice cream stand into some cultural-appropriating American Indian ripoff-shop. In a way the pier is a symbol of the changes to the world that have made Douglas’s character lose his shit. So maybe I’d’ve had him close off the pier and then demolish it as a sort of twisted love-message to his ex-wife, then kill himself. I like making my readers feel all warm and cozy like that.

I have a pet theory ten percent of people or one out of every ten is a sociopath or a psychopath. The narrator of Orange Rain seems to concur. What do you think is the actual ratio of psychos to normal people?

Violence, aggression, patriarchy, oppression and mechanized brutality toward nonhuman animals is considered “normal” in this sick culture. I would honestly say that anyone who lives in an industrialized culture as a member of that culture is psychologically/emotionally pathological to varying degrees. Our disconnection from nature in industrialized nations is driving us nuts. So really, to me, it’s all just degrees of obscenity, pathology. Are you starting to understand yet why I have bad chronic depression? (laughs)

What made you decide to self-publish?

Honestly, I find the vast majority of what is published by big houses today to be absolute drivel—unreadable cookie-cutter genre trash. There’s so little integrity left. The biz has become hyper-capitalist (out of necessity, but that doesn’t make it any less sad). Here’s a fun example: at one point during my incarceration I was put in segregation for two weeks on a trumped-up disciplinary violation; there were maybe 10 books the whole unit had access to, as they take away all your personal property when you go into seg. There were bestselling books in there, ones you’d see in the front of Barnes and Noble, that were so bad I chose to stare at the walls rather than read them. I had a few sheets of paper and a stub of pencil, so at one point I made this hilarious chart, where I took the titles of about 30 Dean Koontz books and showed how the titles could be placed into one of just three categories. After getting out of prison, I eventually posted it as a blog, called, “A Brief Examination of the Sorry State of Modern ‘Literature’, As Seen Through the Lens of and Epitomized by the Book Titles of Dean Koontz.”

So to finally actually answer your question, I came to the realization that a book like Orange Rain was even more unlikely than normal to get represented or published traditionally. I just want to get my ideas, my stories, my politics out there. Schopenhauer said, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.” I really like that. I’m no genius and have no pretensions as such. But I’m aiming as high as I can, because I’m out to change the world, and why not? I think even people who loathe me or this novel (or both) would have to agree that it is sui generis.

How can we find Orange Rain a.k.a. how do we buy it and in what forms is it available?

At the moment it is only available through Amazon Kindle; but their website has a download/app where you can read it on your iPhone or Android or even your PC/laptop. I also plan to release a FREE “audiobook” download of Orange Rain, read by me (I’ve been told by many different reasonably cogent and sane women that I have a sexy voice—just an added bonus), within a couple months. And I’m really hoping to get a print edition out this year, or by early next year. Stay tuned!

Orange Rain can be found at Amazon.com or via Jan's blog, The Rewild West.