We’re super honored to have Travis Sentell guest blogging with us this week!
A Los Angeles-based writer, Travis is one half of the duo responsible for the critically acclaimed book In the Shadow of Freedom. The book details the true story of Tchicaya Missamou, a child soldier from the Congo who dares to stand up against tribal expectations of death and violence. His escape to America and transformation into a highly decorated U.S. Marine is a harrowing example of both the price and value of freedom.
As a guest of this illustrious blog (thanks to all involved for allowing the following ramblings to appear in this format), I thought I’d engage in the “Deb Interview” and answer a series of revealing questions here, in plain sight. As a result, expect less cohesive narrative and more divergent revelations. Let the exposure begin.
Full Disclosure: I got to pick my own questions and had more than enough time to consider the answers, so this isn’t really a Couric/Palin “gotcha” situation. Sorry to disappoint.
Based on the concept of the site, the only real way to begin this post is by discussing the perks of being a writer. Besides the obvious benefits (constant isolation, relentless consumption of Doritos, the ability to work sans pants), there are deeper joys that accompany the world’s third oldest profession. Us writers get to inhabit other people’s brains – to writhe in their discomfort, breathe their joy, share their tears.
It’s (arguably, after the Doritos) the best part of the gig. For this recent book, In the Shadow of Freedom, I was allowed full access into the mind of Tchicaya Missamou, an incredible, relentlessly driven man. On the surface, Tchicaya and I share nothing in common – I’ve never killed a gorilla (nor even petted a goat at a zoo), never experienced the brutal assault of a loved one, never been shot, never killed, never been forced to flee from institutional oppression, never served in the Armed Forces. The mantra “write what you know” has never applied less to a project.
And yet, from the first handshake, I’ve felt a curious understanding, a common humanity with Tchicaya. Building on this thread, I was granted access to a new life, a new experience, a new brain. To write from the first person perspective about an individual with literally no shared experience was the biggest perk I’ve yet encountered in the writing profession. In a way, it’s the core of why I write, both novels and non-fiction (Full disclosure: I desperately wanted to extend that statement to the universal, ie, why we ALL write, but refrained).
The biggest perk of my job is that I am allowed into the most fascinating minds in the world. I am encouraged to dig around, to ask questions, to probe and poke until I am confident I truly understand. That is an amazing gift given to all writers. So much better than Doritos.
Onwards. Here’s a question I will not be answering: “Which animal would you like to be, and why?” I won’t be answering it because A) it’s an obviously silly question, and B) the answer is clearly “cheetah.” Instead, I’m going to (briefly) discuss a book that made an impact on me. If I were to answer based on quantity, this would either be the 200+ Star Trek novels I read as a child, or the formulaic discoveries of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.
But… if I answer based on quality, the only real response is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Just as Back to the Future is one of the only perfect films, Confederacy is one of the only perfect novels. Exquisitely paced, the novel tickles that need for creative language without becoming a Tom Robbins mess, shows us characters that are pushed to the point of hyperbole without losing their humanity, and clearly demonstrates that great writing can wrap itself in comedy, only to plunge knife-like into tragedy. It’s a master class in pacing, language, plotting, comedy, pathos, and vernacular language.
The book impacted me personally in two distinct ways: It was the first “literature” (Toole won the Pulitzer posthumously in 1981) I encountered that felt like an escape as opposed to a chore, and it was the first book that left me feeling complete (this was soon to be followed by The Lord of the Rings, to the constant chagrin of my literary agent). The novel leaves no loose ends, never flags, never diverts, and always entertains. Additionally, much like Arrested Development, I constantly waffle about which character in the work is my favorite – a great sign if there ever was one. I can’t say enough glowing things about this book, and always aspire to create novels that have something in common with it. Sadly, I have yet to achieve this… but hope springs eternal.
Now clearly, I won’t be answering “What is your advice for aspiring writers?” (write), so I will instead answer the dangerous duo of questions Have you ever met someone you idolized? What happened? This is not a pleasant story, nor will you come out of it thinking better of me. So, if you are enjoying the post thus far and want to maintain whatever image you’ve constructed of my personality, please skip this paragraph. It does NOT make me look cool. Cough.
So. I have exactly three man crushes: Sacha Baron Cohen, Dave Grohl and George Clooney. (Editor’s Note: If you don’t know what a “man crush” is, it’s a non-sexual, purely mental fascination by the “crusher” with the intelligence, career and physical appearance of the “crushee.” Clearly, if one were to analyze me [and by “Editor’s Note” I clearly meant “Author’s Note”], I aspire to be the perfect blend of these three dudes.) I’ve been in social situations with all three of these man crushes, with predictably identical results. Here is the first: I’ve been a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, Bruno, Ali G) since before his HBO debut, as I went to graduate school in Scotland and was exposed to his Channel 4 show (which he shared with Ricky Gervais, oddly enough). He strikes me as socially and politically relevant, funny, charming and humble. And talented. Did I mention insanely talented?
In any case, back in 2006, I’d met a stand-up comedienne named Luenell, who invited me to her birthday party at a dumpy bar in Hollywood. During the invite, she warned me that the soiree was going to double as a wrap party for this movie she’d filmed some months back. When pressed, she said the movie was entitled Borat, at which point I freaked out a little (read: peed a little). I calmly (read: stuttering) asked if Sacha Baron Cohen was going to be there, and she said “yeah, I guess so. Why?” I coughed in response (read: peed a lot).
SO… I went to this “party” at this “bar” and saw “Borat” standing by himself, nursing a beer. The party was extraordinarily sparse, even by LA standards, so this was a primo opportunity to, you know, “hang.” (Editor/Author’s Note: I should mention here that I’m not one to get star struck. Really. No matter how this story looks, it’s even worse than you think, as it’s wholly out of character. Only man crushes move me to idiocy. I did nothing but ooze charisma and spit wicked game to Scarlett Johannsson, I swear.*) I gathered a beer from the bartender, took a sip, and sidled across the floor to stand directly beside Sacha Baron Cohen. He looked at me, gave a weary half-smile, and nodded. I returned the nod gamely, then sipped my beer. We both looked out across the mostly-empty bar. Time passed. (Author’s Note: By “time,” I mean THIRTY FRIGGIN MINUTES.) We finished our beers. I walked away. I got in my car. I drove home. And never… said… a… word to the man. And that’s my story of meeting someone I idolized. Awesome. If you want to know how I met Dave Grohl, you can take the same story, swap out the name of the person having the birthday, and change the word “beer” to “joint.” There you go. True stories. Smooth Criminal.
Lest I overstay my welcome (thanks again to the Debutante God/desses for the opportunity), I will certainly not be addressing the questions about phobias (heights, roaches and apparently anyone I idolize/halfway respect) or the strangest job I’ve ever had (McDonalds’ “team member,” professional mindreader, circus clown, Justin Bieber’s tutor – in that order) and will close by discussing my “next big thing.”
Tchicaya and I have been traversing the country on our self-assembled book tour (New York, Los Angeles and San Diego in August, six more cities in California during September, Atlanta in October, Washington D.C. in November) and it has been an incredibly inspirational journey. If you have a chance to check out the book (<—- shameless plug for In the Shadow of Freedom), you’ll see the absurd obstacles this man has overcome, and the unique combination of drive and humility that marks his every action.
As a result of his nearly constant presence in my life, his focus has inspired me to revisit two previously unpublished novels. As many of you can surely understand, any unpublished work that you believe to be great weighs on your conscience like a toddler left in a hot car – it nags, scratches, begs to be remembered, released, attended to. So I’ll be spending the next few months revising and polishing, hoping to transfer my energies back to the realm of the fictional, hoping to let the babies out of the car (so to speak). I imagine the lessons of Tchicaya’s life, and the insanely enriching task of transferring it to paper has left me in better shape, both as a thinker and as a writer. I have no doubt that his incredible story and his indelible presence over these last three years has left me a better person.
About the authors:
Travis Sentell is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter and novelist. He holds Bachelor degrees in Religion, Philosophy and Psychology from Emory University, and a Masters in Creative Writing, leaving him no other viable source of income aside from writing. In the Shadow of Freedom is his first book, though his short fiction has appeared in anthologies around the world.
Tchicaya Missamou was born in Congo-Brazzaville in 1978 and was a child soldier by 1990. He escaped to America after seven brutal years of fighting, garnering his American citizenship by serving as a highly-decorated U.S. Marine in Iraq. Today, he is the owner and founder of the Warrior Fitness, a high-end personal training facility, and is pursuing his PhD in Education.