SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Living in SOMA, two towns just full of “woke” liberals protesting, advocating and organizing, author Elly Lonon, of South Orange, was surrounded by extreme examples of the Left — some for better and some for worse. From her experiences in the towns, as well as her own crushing disappointment and horror when Donald Trump was elected president, Lonon created the graphic novel, with graphics by Joan Reilly, “Amongst the Liberal Elite: The Road Trip Exploring Social Inequities Solidified by Trump (RESIST).”
“Amongst the Liberal Elite” is a continuation of Lonon’s column in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency by the same name. In the book, hyperbolic characters Alexandra and Michael go on a cross-country road trip to see the world’s largest frying pan — all six of them — and to explore America to see if they can better understand how Trump won the presidency. Their adventure is part preachy, part cringe-worthy, part passionate, part strident — but all the while fun. This book manages to not only express liberal views and skewer the Right, but also playfully satirize and gently mock the vociferous Left. No one is safe in Lonon’s book; everyone’s strengths, weaknesses and hypocrisies are laid bare.
As Michael and Alex traipse across the country, they fight toxic masculinity — even when Michael is the supposed perpetrator; they fully embrace the diverse and fatty foods across the nation — much to the despair of their gastrointestinal systems; and they become one with Instagram, posting witty updates for their many liberal followers to enjoy.
Each chapter in the novel actually begins with an Instagram post, complete with the obviously carefully composed photograph, the belabored caption, the seemingly self-multiplying hashtags, and the likes from followers like “@babyhandsbigdreams,” “@muffinbasket4mueller” and “@patriarchysmashingismyjam.”
“I found myself suffering from politics-induced panic attacks as 45’s inauguration approached,” Lonon told The Villager. “I was part of an online group of writers that had been working to sway undecided voters to adopt a more liberal outlook. One day I popped in there to ask if anyone else had started pulling together a go-bag like I — and I think most of my fellow New Yorkers — did after 9/11.
“As I watched people’s responses roll in — some incredulous, some commiserating — I realized the only thing that would stop me from spiraling was to satirize my reactions,” she continued. “That turned into the first McSweeney’s piece. But these characters, Alex and Michael, just would not stop having these increasingly ridiculous conversations in my head. So I wrote another piece. And another. And then Chris offered me the column — cheapest therapy I’ve ever received.”
When it came time to turn Alex and Michael’s adventure into a novel, Lonon began looking at her delivery. In order to display the full absurdity of her social commentary, she turned to the graphic novel.
“People started reaching out to me asking for more Alex and Michael, suggesting turning them into a book or some other form. But the columns are simply dialogue — no stage directions, no descriptions. I knew they needed a visual element and kept joking that maybe I’d attempt a screenplay,” she said. “But one day playing with my kids I zoned out while Rubble and the rest of the PAW Patrol were organizing a search party with Sir Topham Hatt and my eyes wandered to my bookshelves and the collection of graphic novels housed there. Then I couldn’t put the idea out of my head and set to work finding an artist.”
Once she had her method of writing set, Lonon had to actually do the writing.
“On the one hand, Alex and Michael are the easiest thing I’ve ever written. They have their own voices and foibles, and the conversations practically write themselves,” Lonon said. “On the other hand, this was my first major fiction undertaking. I was completely daunted by researching destinations, mapping their route and figuring out the timeline. But I loved the challenge. The trickiest part was trying to keep it timely with so many significant news stories breaking constantly. I was begging to revise a Scott Pruitt joke the same day the publisher had to release the files to the printers, because he’d just resigned.”
One of Lonon’s favorite scenes to write came in Chapter 11 when the intrepid explorers — specifically Alex — are fighting nasty hangovers.
“That was just plain fun. And to see it come to life with the art? I howled. I’m probably not supposed to admit I howled at my own book, am I? But Joan’s comedic compositions undo me every freaking time. I still pinch myself that I was able to work with her,” Lonon said.
Still though, there were scenes that were more difficult for Lonon to write.
“There were some things that were genuinely uncomfortable to write, things that made me take a step back to consider my own biases. It’s impossible to not have them ingrained in this society. I’m not going to single those out, though. Because I want people to feel which things sit uncomfortably close to their own truths first,” Lonon said.
As for the graphic aspect of the novel, Lonon said working with Reilly was both extremely difficult and extremely rewarding.
“We jelled the moment we met and she completely understood Alex and Michael. Having someone to share them with was a gift — that doesn’t seem like a big enough word but I struggle to find one more apt,” Lonon said. “Creating the character sketches and the proposal was absolute joy. Then she was diagnosed with brain cancer basically the same week we received our contract from powerHouse. Between her medical journey and the tight production deadline to get the book on shelves before the midterm elections, we had to quickly and dramatically adjust our approach to producing the book. Fortunately we found Miguel Yurrita and Theresa Chiechi — two immensely talented artists that dove in to help make Joan’s vision a reality.”
In addition to seeing Joan’s vision materialize, Lonon was pleased to see her own vision of Alex and Michael take form. And she admitted that she certainly writes herself into her characters.
“Oh, there is some of me in both of them. I don’t think we could spend this much time together and not wear off on one another. We certainly share many of the same fears. Jeez, there’s no way to talk about your fictional characters without sounding a little off, is there?” she joked. “But they are also my neighbors organizing childcare for a protest. They are the couple people behind me in line for coffee at the Able Baker talking about finding a cleaning service that doesn’t use paper towels. They are the woman wearing a faux fur in Whole Foods browsing the vegan cheese.”
If anything, writing the novel brought Lonon closer to her two main characters.
“Writing a book-length narrative for the two of them really allowed me to delve more into their motivations and dreams. Before the book it was easier to laugh at them, be more dismissive of their elitism. But over the course of the book and the columns that I write for McSweeney’s monthly, I find myself swayed by their earnestness and embrace their imperfections even more. I suppose you could say they’ve inspired me to be better, too,” Lonon said.
Perhaps Alex and Michael will inspire the reader, as well. You can pick up a copy of “Amongst the Liberal Elite,” published by powerHouse Books, at various bookstores and online at www.amongsttheliberalelite.com. Also, don’t miss Lonon’s appearance at Words Bookstore in Maplewood on Tuesday, Oct. 30, at 7:30 p.m.
“There will be wine and cheese,” Lonon said of her upcoming Words appearance. “Though, full disclosure, I can’t promise vegan cheese. And likely the crackers will have gluten. The cups might even be disposable. Alex and Michael are lecturing me already …”
However you felt after the most recent presidential election, Lonon hopes her novel will give readers hope that a brighter tomorrow is coming, to be heralded in by those working to improve the world around them.
“Hope. That’s hard to type after this recent Kavanaugh debacle. Even after a McSweeney’s therapy session, that one still smarts,” Lonon said. “No, really, I do earnestly hope for hope. I want people to want to be better. To see Alex and Michael making these comical missteps and embarrassing themselves. And as they laugh at Alex and Michael’s mistakes, to laugh at their own, too. Forgive themselves for their own missteps, while inspiring them to do and be more. This is a new world. We’re going to mess up. But it’s going to take some serious miscalculations to mess up as much as these characters do. They keep going. So we can, too.
“Look, do I believe this book is going to change the world? No,” she continued. “But I like to think that maybe it will provide the comic relief, the respite that those people that are tirelessly working to change the world desperately need to keep going.”
Photos Courtesy of Elly Lonon and Lee Seidenberg