Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Failure is Fun! - An Interview with Justin Sewell of

Today's guest is Justin Sewell of, author of the Lose Your Own Adventure book, Who Killed JFK?

What made you found
The three of us who founded Despair (Lawrence Kersten, my twin brother Jef and myself) formerly worked together at a Dallas Internet Service Provider. We'd joined in '94, when there was only a handful of employees, about a year before the dotcom gold rush started. At the time, the cash poor founder of the company was offering promises of stock in the company for early employees willing to work the crazy hours for little pay. Long story short- after the dotcom goldfish started in '95, the founder had investors throwing money at him left and right and retroactively changed his deal. He gave real stock to friends and overpriced stock options to the rest of us. But then company was acquired in '98 by a national ISP planning an IPO. We figured, "Well, at least we'll get to participate in the public offering…" But once again, the founder changed the rules, and forced stock option holders to sell their options to the company before the IPO. The IPO made the founder a deca-millionaire. The average payout for non-stock holders was four digits. 

Somewhere in the middle of all that double-dealing, I, as the Marketing Director, ended up on a Successories mailing list. And when I got a catalog of motivational posters, talking about Success, Teamwork, and Integrity, I showed it to Jef and Lawrence, and we all started riffing on how inappropriate all the topics were for a workplace like ours. It wasn't long before we'd grabbed a stock photo book, scanned in images, and started printing out negative versions that applied to our own workplace. Failure, Mediocrity, Burnout. Coworkers and friends encouraged us to start a company. When we got our payout checks a couple years later, we decided we could either all buy ourselves nice Vespas, or pool our money and start a company. So we decided to start

What was your favorite Choose Your Own Adventure as a kid? 
Oh, that's a tough one. I've several favorites, all of them by Edward Packard, who really kept pushing the genre boundaries of the series and the CYOA format. I'd probably say "Hyperspace", which has all kinds of zany, kid-mind-blowing stuff– like a plot that has you actually ENCOUNTER Edward Packard himself, or a plot with a CYOA-book-inside-a-CYOA-book. File under: Teaching-Young-Readers-To-Meta. (Plus, it sees the return of Dr. Nera Vivaldi, one of the few recurring companion characters in the series. We, of course, had to include a veiled-reference in our book for the hardcore CYOA readers.)

But I'd have to add- the illustrations in "Hyperspace" are a real letdown. Lead series illustrator- and under-appreciated genius- Don Hedin (Paul Granger) didn't do this particular title. And it suffers greatly as a result. It looks like a kid illustrated it. And not a particularly talented one.

What made you begin the Lose Your Own Adventure series?
That's funny. If you can believe it, we pitched the LYOA series idea to Simon & Schuster books in New York in the year 2000! They thought it was funny conceptually but were pretty skeptical of its chances at retail. "If it looks like a Kid's Book, adults won't even pick it up." Fair points.

But we still strongly felt that a resurrection of the CYOA format- with all its attendant corny retro-touches- aimed at once bright-eyed, now cynical adults would just be hilarious reading. So many of us Gen-Xers used to dream of being astronauts, spies, scientists, rock stars (and there's a CYOA for every one of those fantasies) and we now find ourselves, as adults, just trying to scrape by. Cynical about our politicians, the economy and just "The American Way" in general. So the books are meant to tap into that feeling of unease most of us have. 

In the case of JFK, the subject is American history. In the next planned book, the subject is workplace sexism, a topic our female customers have asked us to address for over a decade.

Who killed JFK?
Robert Kennedy, Jr. (son of John Kennedy) told Charlie Rose earlier this year that the Kennedy family had always been skeptical that Oswald acted alone, if he acted at all. But it was a touchy subject then, obviously profoundly painful and fraught with unimaginable geopolitical consequences. My own view, after spending a few hundred hours on this book, is that the best case is, in RFK, Jr.'s words, "Rogue CIA". That doesn't mean Oswald was lily-white, or unconnected to the assassination. 

But I'd like to emphasize, though we tackle a lot of different theories in our book, it's really meant more to be experienced as a Choose Your Own Adventure parody, the best we could create, and not a JFK assassination research book. It's our jaded take on "Who Killed Harlowe Thrombe" (though with thrice the text and twice the illustrations).

What's your favorite JFK-themed book or movie?
 For those interested in the assassination topic, I'd strongly recommend the book RFK, Jr. endorsed heartily, "JFK and the Unspeakable", by James Douglass. The author, a non-violence activist, is about as far as you could get from the tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorist. And his book, with its twin narratives of the doomed Kennedy and Oswald, presents the most coherent view I've read of an assassination theory.

How many books do you have slated for the Lose Your Own Adventure series?
Well, we've been kicking around "Lose Your Own Adventure" titles and plots since 2000- so as you can imagine, we've got a ton of them queued up! We've worked up covers for the first four. The second one we've planned, "The Glass Ceiling", tackles workplace sexism. The pitch quote from the cover is "You're the best person for the job. But you've got one big problem. YOU'RE A WOMAN!". It puts the reader in the shoes of a perfectly qualified, gifted job applicant at "Whyte, Mann & Partners". Frustrations ensue.

Book 3 is called "You Are A Dumbass!". It's a bit of a formula experiment and critic of mindless consumerism, and obviously, a parody of "You Are A Genius!".  

The hook with that particular book is that, as a dumbass, your choices are always frustratingly selfish and idiotic. 

And so on. 

What made you decide to go with Kickstarter for funding?
Well, we have a planned Kickstarter for "The Glass Ceiling" on September 4th. Because the truth is, we spent about $30,000 to bring "Who Killed JFK?" to life. Most of that was spent on the gorgeous and hilarious illustrations in the book (70+). The irony is we're spending a fortune to try to recreate the style that Don Hedin was probably paid comparatively little for, and certainly several times what any new CYOA book spends on illustration! But it's *really* important to us that anyone who reads one of our books feels like it's the best CYOA parody ever imagined. Hilarious, engaging, full of interesting moral and ethical dilemmas, unintended consequences for decisions, and hopefully a lot of insight into the given topic. 

So far, our customers have been rapturous in their praise of the book, and THEY had to wait three years for us to scrounge the money together and crack the JFK nut:

But we're not super-connected in the publishing world. We don't have "Who Killed JFK?" in bookstores, don't have the marketing budget or publisher backing to push the book to the four corners. So the Kickstarter, if it's a success, is our way of trying to accelerate the production on books we feel very strongly about, but can't easily afford to produce since we don't yet have a big readership.

Any demotivatioal speeches for anyone reading this?
Ha! No, I'm depressed enough as it is. I don't want to spread it any more than Despair already does! 

Where can people learn more about, or buy the book?
The best place is right here. ( We're also selling it on Amazon, but most people are buying it directly from us. 

Will an ebook be available? 
YES. We're wrapping it up this week. We're going to launch it on Amazon at the temporary price of $3.99 in hopes that we can crack into the top ranks of JFK Kindle books. Nothing would make me happier than dislodging Bill O'Reilly's turgid, poorly-researched tome "Killing Kennedy" from the top spot. It's a long shot, but everyone needs a goal they can fail to reach. If we do, we've got a few thousand "Failure" posters laying around we can console ourselves with.

Special Bonus Question That I forgot to ask in the initial barrage:  How much research did you guys do for this?  This is the first Choose Your Own Adventure type book that I'm aware of that has endnotes.
To the research question: It sounds absurd, but we spent a few hundred hours on it- split between JFK research and CYOA book read-throughs and illustration scanning. We didn't really need to do that much, but it's notoriously fascinating material. There is so much contradictory evidence, and so many plausible narratives. 

For us, the biggest motivation for going overboard was that we wanted our Texan Encyclopedia Brown protag to be weaving through the events in Dallas in something like realtime, in spirit if not the letter. So we had to know things like when did Dan Rather see of the Zapruder film at KRLD studios? Or when did Helen Markham's notorious police line-up with Lee Harvey Oswald take place? 

Incidentally, for those curious about this kind of stuff, one of the most riveting things we listened to was Mark Lane's debate presentation in a 1964 debate with Warren Commission staff. The entire thing is incredible- Lane devastates the three others so handily. The Helen Markham segment is particularly rich. (

Because so many of the historical events in our book seem pretty outrageous, we also included an EndNotes section, so people understood we weren't making things like that first police lineup. Because it otherwise seems like farce. The bruised Oswald, in his dingy t-shirt, was handcuffed between two suited Dallas cops, with the Jailer beside them. In spite of this, Helen Markham still couldn't state that Oswald was the person she shot J.D.Tippit without being prompted! Witness coaching would've tainted that evidence, had it gone to trial. 

And of course, Arlen Specter and his Freemasonic buddies used secret magic to get seven wounds with a single, undamaged bullet. That was important to note, as well. Otherwise, who'd have believed it?

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