At one point or another, rock music fans have asked themselves, “What if Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix or Elvis Presley had lived? Where would they have taken their vast musical talent? What would they have done with their lives? What would they be like today?”
Southern California author and musician Scott Tatum tackles those questions head-on in Mr. Mojo Risin, a satirical and oft-hilarious romp that pulls the equally mysterious worlds of the CIA, FBI, Mafia and Yakuza together — along with the White House, Pentagon, Las Vegas police, and a traveling club of retirees. Amidst these elements, set in the late 1990s, he drops in Jim, Jimi and Elvis by bringing them back to life in a conceivingly plausible way: by ghosting them in a secretive CIA program. This ends abruptly when an invisible Jimi walks away… only to soon find himself with Jim and Elvis on a cross-country trip.
From there, all hell breaks loose — often — as we follow the three resurrected legends, now somewhat ordinary people that the author masterfully presents in their most day-to-day human selves (besides Jimi, who remains invisible). He deftly overrides the images of the tortured rock gods whose songs we’ll forever listen to. The relationship between Morrison and Sparkle (Think The Doors’ classic song “Love Street” manifesting in the flesh), Elvis’ indifference to his own look-alike contests, and the various adventures feed an ever-building plot that culminates in the group’s attempt, along with the elite SEAL Team 13, to prevent a U.S. takeover of Jamaica.
Like all good novels with satirical streaks, Mr. Mojo Risin’ offers a quite serious undercurrent to this book: the government, run by a President well over his head, surrounded by corruption and self-serving politicians and military leaders.
Mr. Mojo Risin’ is a true send-up, the kind of sweeping novel into which we all love to escape. It is also the first of four planned novels by Tatum, who also is a songwriter, musical and short story author. As he sat down with us, a mischievous twinkle in his eye, he broke down one of the more original novels to cross our desk in years. You can find more on the book, including entertaining back stories on characters — and a few select song lists — by going to http://www.mrmojorisinbook.com.
WORD JOURNEYS: Mr. Mojo Risin has more twists and turns than a Grand Prix course in a hall of mirrors — and each is equally farcical, hilarious, informative, and cautionary in its own way. Can you briefly take us through the story?
SCOTT TATUM: You can get a lot of mileage if you cast three back-from-the-dead rock icons as your protagonists, especially if one of them chats with God and another is invisible. But that will only take you so far. Conflict drives stories. In Mr. Mojo Risin, Morrison and company have many worthy adversaries: a bumbling President, his vainly incompetent Chief of Staff, a ruthlessly ambitious four-star General, a sleazy Mafia hitman and a seductive Yakuza assassin — and that’s before tossing the CIA, the FBI, homicide detectives, and a Navy SEAL team into the mix.
WJ: Jim, Jimi and Elvis are together again – in a way no one will expect. What gave you the idea to come up with a novel about the three as members of a ghost CIA program?
ST: When I settled on Morrison, Elvis and Hendrix as my protagonists, I had to come up with a shared experience to account for their deaths. The CIA ruse worked because it gave an almost plausible way to account for their public disappearances and subsequent resurrections.
WJ: How did this story come together? What prompted you to write this book, and the eventual series?
ST: Like all stories, this started with a couple questions. The first: If Jim Morrison (and eventually Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix) didn’t die, what really happened and what would they be up to now?
The second question reared its ugly head during a TV piece about the legalization of marijuana. Watching a demagogue wax poetically about the dangers of pot as a gateway drug, I wondered, ‘What if marijuana provided a strategically important advantage to the military?’
WJ: What were character aspects you embraced as you imagined Morrison, Hendrix and Presley still kicking around some 25-30 years after their demises?
ST: In Mr. Mojo Risin, Elvis references his earlier “resurrection” (starting with his 1968 TV special) as a cautionary tale, warning Morrison that if he’d hung on any longer, he’d have wound up fat, fringed and strung out in Vegas doing two shows a night. Morrison, who makes several references to his extended adolescence, understands that being away from his old life as a rock god gave him the space to grow up. Morrison, Elvis and Jimi are painfully aware of where they came from and hopeful of where they’re headed.
WJ: The story is a real send-up, and in many ways, parallel to some of the dysfunction we see in the White House today. Yet, you draw out something quite serious: what happens to a country when someone takes charge who is way over his head. Can you talk about that sub-theme?
ST: Sadly, those lessons are either self-evident or they’re not. Most people understand there’s an astounding level of dysfunction in Washington in general and in the White House in particular. The rest appear pathologically incapable of figuring it out.
The Trump presidency has dramatically raised the bar on what’s out-of-bounds politically. In the book, the Hartley-Thibodeaux campaign platform had to be re-written because what I wrote in the original draft, though it seemed outrageous at the time, has become the new normal.
WJ: We’ve got corrupt politicians, resurrected rock legends, old girlfriends, renegade warriors, Mafia and Yakuza interests … How did these character choices factor into the way you wrote the book?
ST: Michelangelo said every block of stone had a statue inside, and the task of a sculptor was to uncover it. I try to create intense, wacky characters then get out of their way and let them tell their story. It probably contributes to the wild ride that I tend not to write linearly.
WJ: As you wrote the story, what surprised you most about how Jimi, Jim and/or Elvis changed?
ST: Actually, what surprised me most what was not how they changed but why. The book wrote itself. The story took some unexpected twists and turns that forced the characters to react and adapt.
WJ: You have a real talent for spotting the farcical in people, their lives and their situations. In what ways did that help you with the hilarious scenes and conversations that pepper this book?
ST: I think that springs from a mix of my personal experiences and how I look at the world. When people asked, I used to answer, “I was a righter”. Along the way, part of my process was learning I can’t fix the world. We live in nonsensical times. All I’m doing is going with the flow and creating a read from my perspective.
WJ: Since Jim Morrison is one of the characters, you do something to show the heartful side of him – putting him with Sparkle. He was like this before, too, at times. Tell us about your love of The Doors, and why you chose to bring out the soft side of Morrison in the book.
ST: Like I said, hopefully, eventually we all grow up. When I first met my wife, I realized she was too smart for me to fool very long. I had to become the person I pretended to be. For a guy set in his ways, that’s hard. Like Morrison when he meets Sparkle, I was so in love with her, I was willing to go through the process. I think it’s something most men can relate to. If you’re a man and can’t, either God bless you ‘cause you got it right the first time, or you’ve got a lot of work to do.
WJ: Another highlight is the fast-paced, tough-talking, colorful dialogue between the characters. That must’ve been a blast to hear all these colorful, crazy characters talking through your head while writing.
ST: One of the experiences I share with Jim Morrison, is as the son of acareer military officer, I moved around a lot as a kid. In the second grade, I went to four different schools. I was in the eighth grade before I went to the same school two years in a row. Learning how to fit in became an emotional survival skill. One of the chameleon-like abilities I unconsciously acquired was mimicking speech. Take the Mafia hitman in Mr. Mojo Risin, Many of the details of his life – Saint Rose’s of Lima in Flatbush, Newkirk Ave, the Cadillac dealership on Long Island – are familiar to me. His voice in my head rings distinctively Brooklyn. I hope it reads that way as well.
I always work dialogue out loud and standing up. I act out each scene as I edit. Several characters have catch phrases that help identify and define them, like Gladys Little’s “landsakes” or her husband Elmo’s “we better skidaddle before the blubbering starts.”
One quirk I didn’t catch until later, is that Morrison, Sparkle and Moby always say “going to” while the rest of the characters say “gonna”. Morrison and Sparkle were both English majors. Moby, as we find out in Agnew on Mt Rushmore, has his Ph.D. from Cambridge. I did that without realizing it just by keeping everyone in character.
When I first met my wife, I warned her anything she says or does is fair game for a book and she strongly influenced Sparkle. I frequently take notes whenever I hear or say something I think I can use. Sometimes I try out dialogue on her to see how she reacts. Little tricks like that keep each character’s speech authentic.
WJ: Tell us about the mother-daughter dynamic of Sparkle and Honey, and how that plays into both Morrison’s opening and the story itself.
ST: As a man, writing from a woman’s perspective is hard. I didn’t grow up with a sister. My grandfather was one of thirteen children and had two sons of his own. His only sister died before he was born. When my parents got married, he presented them a bottle of Napoleon brandy to toast the first female addition to the family line in over half a century. But my mom and dad had sons. My brother has two sons. Another half a century later, after I had three sons, my wife and I found out she was pregnant with a little girl.
Not surprisingly, I relied heavily on the relationship between my wife and our now teenage daughter in crafting Sparkle and Honey’s characters. Because Sparkle was a teenage mom herself, they grew up almost like sisters. It’s hard, particularly with a mother and daughter so close in age, to be friends and still set boundaries. That dynamic is a telling part of their story.
WJ: Mr. Mojo Risin’ is the first book in a series you are planning. Tell us briefly about the stories to follow.
ST: You can get a lot of mileage if you cast three back-from-the-dead rock icons as your protagonists, especially if one of them chats with God and another is invisible. But that will only take you so far. Conflict drives stories.
In the second book, Agnew on Mt. Rushmore, Morrison and company confront a thermonuclear weapons designer who rolls into Vegas with a trunk full of suitcase nukes and a plan to extort billions from Uncle Sam. Along with his co-conspirators, a deranged U.S. Senator from Mississippi and the Prince of Darkness (Satan’s spent the last two decades moonlighting as a Vegas lounge singer), he’s threatening to turn southern Nevada, including some very expensive casino real estate, into ground zero.
In the third book, The Boys From Pahrump, lingering questions surrounding JFK’s death are answered when our heroes match wits with the love child of Marilyn Monroe and Adolf Hitler. Neither the Cubans, Kremlin, Mafia nor CIA were involved in the assassination. There was no sinister conspiracy. In my story, JFK got caught up in a good, old-fashioned love triangle, cuckolding a sociopath with a silly moustache. Meanwhile, Adolf and Marilyn’s son is poised to fulfill his father’s dream of world domination. He’s smuggled thousands of vials of frozen Fuhrer sperm from a super-secret CIA vault, the first step in his master plan to breed an army of baby Hitlers and create the Fourth Reich.
I’m thinking about writing the fourth book (working title Erebus ex Machina) from Gladys Little’s point-of-view. That way I can shamelessly steal Vonnegut’s opening line from Cat’s Cradle (that he shamelessly stole from Moby Dick):
Call me Mother. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me Gladys.
I’m only a hundred pages in, and the story’s still writing itself, but I will tell you it ends with a burning Viking ship sendoff in the Bellagio Fountains.
I hope readers enjoy reading my books as much as I enjoy writing them.