Before they used their money to build penis shaped rockets and penis compensating yachts, it seemed like the go-to splurge for billionaires was to buy their own islands. But in his Menippean satirical novel Settlers Landing (hardcover, paperback), writer Travis Jeppesen has his money maker going one step further by turning his billionaire boys club island into its own nation state. In the following email interview, Jeppesen discusses what inspired and influenced this novel, and no, true believers, it does include a certain acronym-loving Marvel bad guy.
Photo Credit: Jason Harrell
To start, what is Settlers Landing about, and when and where is it set?
The set-up is simple and direct: A billionaire named Mrdok decides to buy his own private island, then takes it one step further and declares sovereignty, starting his own country. The build-up to that moment occupies the first half of the book, while the second half, which skips ahead to a few years later, is about what happens on the island in the aftermath of that fateful decision.
It’s set sometime in the present-future; maybe a few years ahead of now? It feels very zeitgeisty in some ways, yet in others, it feels othertimely or otherworldly. I wanted to avoid too many direct references to the hot topics of the day, for one because I wanted to allow the reader to draw their own parallels, and secondly because it would have felt cheesy and heavy-handed to me to make it too, well, intentionally zeitgeisty. (Another reason is because I’ve been working on the novel, off and on, for about twelve years. So I didn’t feel the need to, say, go back and pepper the novel with references to Covid and Trump and the war in Ukraine when I was on the home stretch, just to make it feel “up to date.” Literature is not journalism, after all.) The themes of the novel are rather universal — they’ve happened before and will happen again — and so while it’s recognizably the twenty-first century in some ways, it’s clear in reading it that the time period is not the most essential feature.
Where did you get the idea for Settlers Landing?
It’s hard to recall. Suffice to say it came to me sometime in the early 2010s. Ideas tend to just come to me at random times. This is why I have to carry a small notebook around with me everywhere I go, to capture them, because I have a terrible memory. Back in the 1990s, when I was a college student in New York City, I volunteered for a while at an anarchist bookstore, and they sold a lot of titles by Loompanics, which sold a lot of great how-to books on topics controversial and / or illegal: how to live off the grid, how to shoplift from the supermarket, how to make counterfeit IDs. One of the more outlandish ones was titled How To Start Your Own Country. I think I must have re-encountered this book at some point, and it likely ignited all sorts of ideas.
And is there anything to be read into the fact that the main character’s last name, Mrdok, is really close to M.O.D.O.K.? Y’know, the Mechanized Organism Designed Only for Killing from Marvel comics. And movies. And that funny animated series with Patton Oswalt.
Nope. I really know nothing about Marvel — not my thing. It’s sort of a running joke in the book: characters with missing vowels in their names; two of Mrdok’s former wives are Krstal and Mrtol.
Mrdok, I guess the name came about in a composite way: in some ways it reflects my love of Slavic languages — I lived in Prague in the early 2000s and studied Czech and Slovak, often in those languages you have consonants that almost function like vowels. At one point, another character asks Mrdok where his name comes from, and he doesn’t really know — he says it’s Slavic, but can’t name a specific country — so he’s someone who doesn’t even know his own roots. “Mrd” is also close to the French word for shit, “merde.” The name in English it most closely resembles would be Murdoch — you can draw your own parallels there. Finally, there’s something about the name Mrdok that makes him sound like some sort of demonic villain from an old German Expressionist movie.
In a similar vein, is there a significance that the book, and the island nation for which it stands, is called Settlers Landing and not Settler’s Landing or Settlers’ Landing?
Yes, there’s a scene where they’re engineering the takeover of this island, where Mrdok and his cronies are sitting around a table, and one of the things they discuss is the country’s new name and where the apostrophe should be placed. Someone argues that if it’s Settler’s Landing, people might confuse it with a private island or a dictatorship and not find it very welcoming; someone else suggests that Settlers’ would make it too democratic, which is something they certainly don’t want; none of them understand the rules of English grammar all that well. They decide to put aside the topic and come back to it later, but apparently never do. So the title is ironic, on one hand, and illustrative in a certain dumb blunt sense, on the other: here are some settlers. What are they doing? Landing.
It sounds like Settlers Landing might be a work of political and social satire. How do you describe it, genre-wise, and why that way?
If pressed, I would probably classify it as Menippean satire, which was a mode of parody developed by the Cynics in ancient Greece that took aim more at ideas and social conventions of the era, rather than individual personalities. It’s a highly comedic, often crude form of satire that is also quite heady, since it delves head-on into philosophical ideas that conventional fictional works might just skim the surface of, and is also a quite highly inventive mode that often yields wholly imaginative elements. So it’s not a form of fiction that strives too hard to be realistic or naturalistic. I mean, there are real places in the book — they spend a lot of time in Manhattan, they go to Cuba, to Hong Kong, to Crete — all of these places are evoked, but then are also nonexistent places in the book, such as Sagosia, the island that becomes Settlers Landing.
Settlers Landing is your fourth novel, though you’ve also written novellas, books of poetry and essays, and a non-fiction book about North Korea…
…which some people call a nonfiction novel; so then perhaps Settlers would be my fifth novel.
Right. Anyway, are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Settlers Landing but not on anything else you’ve written?
A big influence was Marc Shell’s book Islandology, in which he discusses islands as a motif recurrent throughout the history of literature. A lot of those works were somewhere in the frontal lobe while I was working: The Tempest, Robinson Crusoe, Moby Dick, The Odyssey, Ulysses….
What about non-literary influences; was Settlers Landing influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
I’m not much of a gamer, but I watch a lot of movies and series. Probably in the length and episodic way the novel was composed, you could see how my unconscious has perhaps been series-ified. There are a filmmaker and actress in the book, which allows the narrative to go into extended summaries of some of the films they’ve made; from that, you can probably gather the kinds of films I like, which vary from high art cinema to trashy B-movies.
You’ve also, as I mentioned, written two books of poetry: Poems I Wrote While Watching TV and Dicklung & Others. Which suggests that you read poetry as well. How do you think writing and reading poetry may have influenced how you wrote Settlers Landing?
I think it makes you more self-conscious about language, its instrumentality, both in terms of meaning and musicality. To the extent that the drama of the language — the way different narrators and characters speak — arguably emerges as one of the central themes of the novel.
Now, Hollywood likes making movies that have a social message. Usually. Do you think Settlers Landing could work as a movie?
Probably. Though given the length, it would work better as a series. Though if someone were ambitious enough to come along and attempt to make a film out of it, I’d probably be game.
And if someone was that ambitious, who would you want them to cast as M.O.D.O.K., I mean R.U.P.E.R.T. [Robot Übermensch Produced for Expert Robotic Torture], I mean Mrdok and the other main characters?
I’ve always liked Jonah Hill [Superbad]. He could easily play Mrdok, though as he’s a great character actor as well, he could perhaps also take on Gordo. I would actually love to see him take on that kind of challenge, as Gordo is so flamboyant, an excessively verbose and manipulative person, a flaming queen who is also, early on in the novel, quite closeted and trying to conform.
It’s an extremely large cast of characters, so for the others, I’ll have to get back to you.
Finally, if someone enjoys Settlers Landing, which of your earlier novels would you suggest they read next?
If you actually make it all the way through Settlers Landing, then you’re definitely wild enough to take up The Suiciders and get something out of it.