I feel like I use humor as a tool the same way my characters are using it: as a flotation device, a defense mechanism, a point at which to rest or energize. What can’t humor do, really? I like taking risks in my writing, and using humor is kind of based in risk—it can sometimes be dismissed as lacking intellectual rigor, and worse still be seen as lowbrow. I think all good theater and literature should run the zodiac of feelings: Some of it should be sad, some of it profound; some of it should be boring and some of it should jump completely off the cliff. Whatever vehicle I’m using, I’m always trying to arrive at a certain sense of balance.
Weiss-Meyer: Some of the funniest asides in your writing are also the most cutting: on the gentrification of San Francisco, for instance, or white neoliberals. Do you see your fiction as a form of social commentary?
Purnell: I’m really, really Black and really, really gay so by design anything I write becomes “social commentary.” It’s sooooooooo exhausting. I have always wanted to have Walter Cronkite’s very specific white-man privilege; they literally called him “the most trusted man in America.” Like, whatever came out of his mouth was the honest-so-help-me-God truth. I would really hope that’s where my social commentary would vibrate someday, at the same pitch as that. That said, I would also like to quote a writer friend of mine and say, “I’ve done too much petty hustling to be wildly credible”—again, truth. As for my relentless attack on whiteness, I can assure any offended white neoliberals that I have only about as much contempt for white neoliberal fundamentalism as it has for me.
Weiss-Meyer: Antonio is a struggling actor who’s nearly ready to quit the field. He wants applause, but has grown uncomfortable with direct attention. Is that dilemma primarily a professional one, or is it playing out in his personal life too?
Purnell: Strictly professional. All plot and drama aside, he’s really just like any person who has come to hate his job. This story is about an actor, but could have easily been about a teacher, a pilot, a professional skateboarder, a tech engineer. He’s a marijuana grower by trade, which is seasonal work. He’s reexamining the seasons in his life, and deciding he has to make a change if he wants to grow and be happy.
Weiss-Meyer: The phrase early retirement implies a choice to voluntarily walk away from one’s profession. In Antonio’s case, the final blow to his career comes when he gets drunk and blacks out during a performance—his “onstage retirement party.” Is there a sense of joy, or liberation, to be found in the ruins of a career?
Purnell: I think sometimes that we as people can behave like shook-ass octopuses in times of distress—like, totally gnaw our own arm off to get out of a situation. That said, though his exit was violent and bloody, I think Antonio mostly feels a liberation or a weight let off his shoulders.