A Fuckboy’s Own Story: A Conversation with Sean Thor Conroe

By Alec GewirtzMarch 9, 2022

A Fuckboy’s Own Story: A Conversation with Sean Thor Conroe
DEBUT NOVELIST Sean Thor Conroe’s mesmerizing Fuccboi reads like a string of inspired DMs from a high school weed dealer with a hidden love for Bolaño. Our narrator’s slangy bravado may be a little cringey and his hypermasculinity just a bit sus, but he is also endlessly charming, particularly in his willingness to mock his own swaggering persona. Each paragraph is brief and peppered with bro-speak and internet slang (“bruh,” “thank fuck,” “lowkey redpill videos”), while accommodating an unexpected poetry: “Sun all but dipped, elongating things.” 

A work of autofiction, Fuccboi follows Sean Conroe’s relationship with his parents, his body, and his art during the early years of the Trump presidency. The book was edited by the late Giancarlo DiTrapano, publisher of the pathbreaking Tyrant Books, whose titles include Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish and what purpose did i serve in your life by Marie Calloway.

Conroe, born Kamura Sho in Tokyo in 1991, was raised by a Japanese single mother in the United States, attended Swarthmore College (where he played basketball), and recently graduated from Columbia University’s MFA program in fiction writing. We met and spoke in Brooklyn and continued our conversation via email.

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ALEC GEWIRTZ: Toward the end of Fuccboi, you describe being put through a “slang-learning, accent adopting gauntlet” as a kid and adolescent. You were born in Tokyo, moved as a young kid to Scotland, came to the States, and then moved every two years or so between regions and different kinds of neighborhoods here. Could you describe how this shaped your voice?

SEAN THOR CONROE: For sure. So, my mom’s Japanese, dad’s American. When I was growing up, I don’t think I ever felt full fidelity to either side of my identity. I moved every two years till fifth grade — Sacramento, Scotland, Upstate New York, back to Sacramento, then to Santa Cruz. Moving every two years is a kind of schizophrenic way to grow up. I have audio from when I was in Scotland with a full-on Scottish accent. Then I played sports growing up. I got recruited for basketball in college — I was a hooper, a full-on hooper — and I played on competitive soccer teams in Santa Cruz, where I was the only non-Mexican kid on the team. Everybody, all the other parents, called me mijo, we damn near spoke Spanish. And then just hooping competitively in high school, on an AAU team in San Jose. The voice in the book is really just me getting to a point with my writing of wanting to let all the ways I talk in the world live on the page.

The underlying intention with the book, and with the narrative voice, is almost epistolary, insofar as this story came after trying to write a lot of different books without a clear intention of who I was writing for. This book was really written for a couple of friends, telling them the stories, and employing the range of slang from our spoken repartee and texts and DMs. Writing like that, it not only clarifies the voice but helps you know what to cut, imagining your friend reading it and thinking of the point where they’d check out mentally. What I realized with this book was, fuck tryna write a Great American Novel, I’m gonna investigate the things I wanna investigate, in this intimate immediate way, in the voice I would use with a friend. In a tradition of oral storytelling, like Scott McClanahan and, I mean, when it really comes down to it, damn Faulkner. In terms of writing the world how you hear it.

I love how the book captures the perspective of a kind of overeducated guy who’s forgotten what he’s been taught. For example, you write, “Like: I love you; you love her; by that one math concept, I should also love her.” Obviously, the voice is a big-time rejection of the arch, formal style of most books that we might have encountered in high school, and I’m wondering if you could talk about your thoughts on the education you received.

Totally. Before I speak on education, I will say that vulnerability on the page, inviting the reader into someone trying to express something, has been privileged over more coldly exacting expert-language in this project. I’d have chapters where I’d describe something with my van and be like, “That little metal thing on the damn bottom.” And my cousin would read it and be like, that’s called a so-and-so. Then I’d change it, before being like, “No, it was better the other way.” I like doing that, inviting the reader in. You’ve gotta be declarative, you’ve gotta authoritatively lead the reader, but … sometimes witnessing someone trying to describe something they can’t is more interesting, less oppressive, than being spoken down to by someone claiming to know it all.

The thing with education is, there’s a naturally occurring exclusionary process to it. There are class aspects that bar entry, and then those who continue with it get further and further alienated from the world, start speaking in these insular codes. That’s why the rants about the literary world being out of touch, in the book. On a personal level, I got a full, need-based ride to undergrad, but then, when I finished college, I didn’t graduate. I’d overlooked a credit I needed, and my financial aid had run out. When that happened, those feelings of exclusion got ramped up. I ended up completing my degree two years later, in 2015, through this affordable UC extension program I found, but I continued to feel bitter toward and slighted by academia for that. But then, when I got into the MFA program I went to, in 2019, they ended up being super good about meeting my financial aid requests. I mean, the loans were abouta be a problem once I got out. But nah, it’s been a journey, for sure, navigating how I feel about all that.

On one level, Fuccboi’s narrator is upset about where he feels his education might have misled him. Like it led him to be concerned with the wrong things. But also, if he has any kind of religion, it’s in reading. In books. He’s out here reading books. And his education taught him the value of that.

One of my favorite dimensions of your voice is its cheerful sensitivity to the absurdity of life. What nourishes that dimension of your personality?

Gian [Giancarlo DiTrapano, publisher of Tyrant Books] had this hard rule in his editing, where he generally nixes all exclamation points. And some of his early edits were like, “Go through every exclamation point in the book, and make sure it belongs there.” And we might’ve nixed three or four. But over time, he was like, you just do exclamation points different. That enthusiasm. I think the thing that makes writing, a stretch of prose, go for me, is turns, turns of tone or voice or type of narrative mode — just constantly turning it. And tonally, going enthusiastic, or getting earnestly excited, if well-timed, can effectively cut the heaviness, the seriousness books be getting bogged down with. And I mean, you’ve gotta laugh at yourself. When shit gets bleak, you’ve gotta turn it back onto yourself.

There’s that Lil B rant in the book, and Lil B is a good example of that, that levity. When an artwork has a self-deprecating lightness, that’s when it gets next level for me. In music, too. Young Dolph just died, and he was one of the funniest rappers. His ad-libs are so crazy. That giddy feeling. I just want to give you a giddy feeling sometimes. To remind you that, no matter how serious shit gets, we’re still just watching this dumb-ass fuckboy wild out. Turn it back to that after I drop some bleakness on you.

What was your relationship like with Giancarlo DiTrapano?

From the moment I sent Gian a first draft of Fuccboi, simultaneous with my first MFA workshop in the fall of 2019, Gian was the one who understood the project and encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing. I met him that December after he’d read the first draft of the book, sent him a super bloated, 93,000-word draft in January 2020 — to which he was like, “Nah, that’s too long, make it a book, then send it” — and then I mailed him a completed, printed, and bound draft in April 2020, with a handwritten letter. Then he flew me out to Italy in December 2020 to finish editing the book with him in person. He was the first person I shared the book in full with, was the one who convinced me it was worth sharing with the world. He was guiding me and the book the whole way, and he’s the reason it’s coming out now.

When he came out to New York City last March, the plan had been to do everything one does to properly put a book out. He wanted to get the new press he was trying to start right, so he had meetings lined up with investors. He threw me a contract at the start of the month and referred me to an agent to vet it. He said, “Wait till they get back to you before signing, we’ll get everything else done in the meantime.” We went and saw the cover artist, Derek [Gabryszak], who’d done three rounds of covers already, to see what he’d come up with. When we saw the cover that the book has now, we were both like, “This is wild, this is it.” Both super psyched about it. That was our last hang together, the last time I saw Gian, the week before he passed away. The agent he referred me to had read the book and had gotten back to me and was in the process of vetting the contract with Gian’s lawyers when he passed away. The cover is what it is because of that, to honor Gian’s vision. My new editor, Jean [Garnett], at Little, Brown, has been really good about that, about honoring Gian’s vision for the book.

The outlook Gian and I shared was this simultaneous intense belief in the importance of literature and literary tradition and classic literature on the highest level, on the one hand, and also this energy toward contemporary literature of, Fuck you. You’re not actually giving people what they want. That’s what we connected on immediately. It wasn’t all fuck you, and it wasn’t all high literature. It was both. Like he was simultaneously in my ear telling me to double down on my energy, to not let the program sanitize my writing, while also assigning me things to read. And we were friends. We were tight. It was a unique relationship we had.

You write at length about this pretty intense full-body skin problem that the narrator has, and toward the end of the book you discuss theories of how “that which concerned the body was what completely, necessarily, belied words.” What have you learned about the challenges of writing about the body?

Writing about the body is important to me because, unless the literature you’re reading or the education you’re getting is being used as a tool to live better, unless it’s being used in a tangible way to confront the things you’re going through in your life, it’s useless. And the body is the barometer, the foremost barometer, of whether what you’re doing, the thought patterns you’re thinking, are helping you in life.

But in terms of what I learned. Exactly. There are things you can’t say. There are completely private experiences that you just have to sit with and handle alone. And the body wilding out like his does is an example of that. The ending of the book is also about that. The railing that the narrator does against this distinctly Western outlook, this kind of language idolatry — the idea of, as long we say the right things, we’re good, putting words on a pedestal like that — he gets caught up in raging out against that. But the way he works through that rage is by remaining silent. Only your actions matter. This understanding he comes to is connected to how his experience with his body humbles him.

Could you talk about the relationship between autofiction — the subgenre that most Americans will recognize the novel to occupy — and the Japanese I-novel?

The decision to give the narrator the name of the author initially came from reading books that do that, from enjoying and wanting to recreate the feeling of intimacy books with those parameters have. The autofiction conversation in the US is, like … Knausgaard, and that’s it. But that actually comes from a much older tradition of the Japanese I-novel (which actually stems from the even older German Ich roman, but…). The interesting thing about the I-novel is that it shares those same parameters: the narrator shares the name of the author, it’s a confessional form, it goes into the unspoken sides of the author’s life and society. Like a teacher having an affair with a student, stories like that. But what’s interesting is, in Japan, the first-person pronominal, there are a half-dozen, used depending on context. Watashi is formal, boku is for a boy, for example. So there are, linguistically in Japanese, multiple “I’s.” The idea of a narrator sharing something confessional about their life doesn’t hold the same weight as it does in the West, because there isn’t that Western notion of the self as some rigidly fixed, discrete, contained thing. In the I-novel tradition, a narrator sharing some shameful thing doesn’t have the same sense of some telling secret being revealed, since the self who tells the story is just one of many selves, which themselves change throughout the day, depending on who one is performing it for. There’s an understanding of each self being a specific performance.

At the same time, it should be said that this whole genre was a direct reaction to the West’s influence, this emphasis on the “I.” That wasn’t a thing before the West’s influence, because in Japan, in the Shinto outlook, the idea of selfhood is much more amorphous, we’re each part of the whole, there’s much less sense of the sovereign individual. But even still, if the first-person pronominal is changing depending on context, all the time, it’s a different understanding of how the self changes, a different consciousness.

Do you feel like you were able to capture some of that fluidity of first-person narration in the book, without the first-person pronominals of Japanese?

Every chapter had two titles initially. One was the name of the version of the self narrating each chapter — Outdoor Dude, Postmate, Broke Boi — and the other was the name of the person who the chapter was a portrait of — Seymour, Side Bae, Boss Man, say. There was always some interplay between who the narrator and the subject of each chapter is. Gian had me clip them down, pick one title for each chapter. But the intention remained: we have different sides. We can change. We can be different in different contexts.

The writer Sam Pink wrote a piece accusing you of copying his writing style. You pay homage to Pink in the book and in the acknowledgments section. What did you think of the essay?

I cite Sam Pink as an influence in the book. We were friends, he read it early, he was encouraging and supportive. Unfortunately, we had a falling out.

There are a lot of references to rap music and hip-hop culture in the book, and some of the slang in the book seems to come from the music you’re listening to. What do you say to people who criticize the narrator’s voice for cultural appropriation?

The idea that drives the notion of cultural appropriation is racial essentialism — that we each have this core racial identity that defines us. For someone who is multiple races, split right down the middle, and especially if they moved every two years growing up, into vastly different communities they had to adapt to survive, that notion is nonsensical. I realize that’s a unique way that I came up, and that for those who didn’t come up like that, navigating different codes, they might have difficulty grasping that. But there are those who move through the world ambiguously like that, with fluency in different spaces, and to me, that’s a unifying thing, to let multifaceted voices live on the page and be seen as legitimate. Were I to write in ways I don’t speak in the world, I could see that as being suspect, but that’s never the case. I write how I speak in the world — in all the different ways and in all the different contexts that I speak.

So, in that sense, I wouldn’t say that my language is “from rap.” It’s from how I came up, growing up how I did, moving in the circles I moved. From working jobs in the world and talking how I talk. That being said, I do view and have always viewed rap as legitimate an art form as any other. I think any art form that helps me live better, I put on the same level as any other. And rap has. There’s this cultural attitude toward rap that’s sort of like, only certain people can do that music, and it’s only okay in those specific contexts. And that impulse, to me, is super dismissive and condescending. I don’t even think about that distinction. I read a book that helps me, I listen to an album that helps me, and it’s the same. It’s just about accepting rap as a legitimate art form. How people read the book, I can’t control.

Language is ultimately to communicate yourself as best you can. Expressing yourself in the most thesaurus-ass way isn’t always the most effective way to get your point across. I say what feels natural to me to get my feeling and point across. And what allows people who generally don’t hear themselves in literature to feel heard. A big test for how my bars sounded was, when I first pulled up to NYC, I was working, set-building, and rewriting my chapters during my shifts, and on a break being like, to a homie, hit this stack. And if they’d fuck with it, that’s how I knew it was good. Like, they’d be surprised that what I was writing even counted as “literature.” Let’s open literature up to different languages, different codes.

At one point in the book, the narrator describes how he’s “tryna write for people who don’t read. Who don’t give a shit about books” — which is similar to what you’re expressing now. Could you say more about what you mean by this?

What I mean is, go outside. Start talking to people. Once you’re outside, talking to people, think about how obtuse, highbrow literary talk sounds — the type that, when spoken in a classroom, everyone feels pressured to act like they know exactly what’s being spoken about, even if they don’t. Outside, in the world, no one feels any pressure to know anything they don’t know about, according to some unspoken code academia, the literati, have decided to valorize. It’s like, what I mean is, put most simply: get a fucking grip. Are you saying something for people in the world, or aren’t you? That’s what I mean.

Writing this, something I thought a lot about was, what’s a distinct faculty of this art form, “literature,” that’s specific to it, that other forms lack? Feeling like, bro, I’ve committed my life to this writer idea, but looking around me, who the fuck is reading books who isn’t already in literature? We’ve got music, YouTube, TikTok — all this much more palatable media on our phones. Y’know? So, it began with thinking about what the distinct faculty of writing is. For me, it’s about finding strength in being quiet, being alone, being still. Literature does that not only because, when reading, you’re required to do that in order to be able to keep reading, but also because, through the page, you’re communing with someone who is in that quiet, still state they had to get into in order to have written what you’re reading. Whether you’re aware of that being what’s happening, that’s what’s happening, and that does something. No matter how much I moved around growing up, how many different ways I’ve had of being in the world, that private, strength-building internal experience has always been a part of my life.

There are whole groups of people to whom, for whatever reason — maybe school — books aren’t relevant. Like young boys. This book is for them. Just wanting to share that internal experience with them. That’s why it privileges a kind of intimacy on the page. Opening up that private, silent reading experience to people. It’s an important thing, to me, for people to cultivate, in order to be stable, be good with themselves. That’s what we’re trying to do here. Help people. This is a damn self-help book, that’s what people don’t know.

Did you find the process of writing autofiction therapeutic in any way?

This book came out of a half-decade stretch where I’d been kinda spiraling. Emotionally, health- and life-prospect-wise. Financially, I was damn near dead. During that time, the book was my purpose. I needed to write it in order to be okay. In that sense, it was therapeutic.

How much critical distance do you feel now from the autofictional Sean Conroe in the book? When you recorded the audio version of the book, for example, how foreign to you did he feel?

I’ve felt critical distance from the narrator of Fuccboi since I wrote it. The novel is called “Fuccboi,” and it’s an investigation of that idea. To embody a fuckboy’s concerns, capture how a fuckboy speaks and thinks. Once a piece is written, the self who wrote it is dead. It’s a character, moving through a fictional world, in ways I direct him to, in order to investigate the things I want to investigate. Me naming him Sean, and having some biographical details overlap, was just something I did to make the reading experience more exciting for you. I sacrificed myself, merked my government name, for each and every one of you.

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Alec Gewirtz is a writer based in New York City. He has a BA in Religion from Princeton University and he was a Fulbright Research Fellow at the University of Toronto.

LARB Contributor

Alec Gewirtz is a writer based in New York City. He has a BA in Religion from Princeton University and he was a Fulbright Research Fellow at the University of Toronto.

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