James Othmer On The Spot

After more than 20 years in advertising, James Othmer left his post as executive creative director at Young & Rubicam in New York last November to devote his writing talent to fiction instead of ads for clients like AT&T (“Can your network do this?”) and Accenture (“I am your idea”). “I was doing something I liked but didn’t love anymore,” the 45-year-old says. His first novel, The Futurist, is a satire of modern America as a society obsessed with knowing the future, and is scheduled for release in June. He expresses no regret about leaving the agency business. Q: Your book is described as a satire. What was the target of that satire?

A: It wasn’t a send-up of the ad industry or marketers. I didn’t want this to be an ad guy writing a novel that skewered the ad industry. That’s been done and tried and sitting in drawers in agencies all around the country. I think it’s just a satire of the times and a certain kind of attitude that has set in amongst Americans everywhere. It’s a satire of a society where the future has become paralyzed by the present.

How did you get the idea for the book?

I had the line, “The futurist never saw it coming,” and I had a character of a futurist that I had been playing with for quite awhile. I like the idea of playing with a futurist as a protagonist because, as you know, in advertising you are often so absorbed in what’s next, what’s the hot new trend. I was sitting on him for quite awhile. Then, I had this insight that he shouldn’t be good at what he does but still be championed anyway, so he was this kind of sham. I thought that would be an interesting premise. I played around with that and wrote the first chapter. Not until Sept. 11 hit did I start to realize that it would be interesting if this futurist missed one of the biggest events of our time. I wanted him to be a metaphor for America.

Do you believe it is impossible to predict the next big thing?

No. I think there are people who are incredibly good at it and are able to track trends and have their finger on the respective pulse of society, but I think there are a lot of people who are getting paid large sums of money to blow hot air. I got a kick out of that.

Why did you choose to use some real names, such as Faith Popcorn?

It lends an aspect of authenticity. People like to hear pop culture touchstones sprinkled into certain types of fiction. It adds to the vibe of the book.

Is the city Bas’ar a reference to Baghdad?

It is and it isn’t. It’s a recently democratized nation. I have a nephew in the Marine Corps, my brother is a New York City fireman, and I understand there are a lot of passionate opinions about all this. I really didn’t want to offend anyone.

Is it a metaphor for Iraq?

Absolutely. It’s definitely inspired by and influenced by what Iraq is, but I took liberties to make it my own country. Plus, my wife wouldn’t let me go there to do research, so I had to invent my own country.

Why did you leave Y&R in November?

Things crystalized for me when my agent was calling me to say he had three offers for the book within 24 hours. I was in my office and there was an account executive waiting outside the door to tell me about the 17 millionth proposed change for a small packaged goods commercial. I closed the door and called my wife and actually started to cry when I told her what was going on with the book. I realized that as much respect as I had for advertising, as much as it helped me get ahead in life, I had to make the move and I had to switch and write fiction for a living. I would never say never to advertising. I’m leaving myself open to everything because I know there may not be another book. This book may not be successful. Advertising has always been good to me.

Who influenced you the most creatively?

There’s an ecd at Y&R named James Caporimo. I think he is the closest I had to a professional role model. We only worked together briefly but I would watch him, the way he conducted himself. He’s talented, smart, even-tempered, tough. He has the respect of his creatives and his clients. He seemingly had a life. He wasn’t one of those psychos who thought the only way to do good work was to live at the agency.

Name one person you’re dying to work with.

Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter. He writes a lot of Spike Jonze’s films. He’s actually looking at my book right now. I’m really excited about that. He’s looking at adapting it into a screenplay. I may work with him on it, or he may do it himself.

Give me three words to describe yourself.

Interested. Fair. Subversive.

How about three words that describe how others perceive you?

Cynical. Nice. Probably a little flaky.

How do you get past a creative block?

I go to bookstores. I go to galleries. I try to use the kind of original thinking of others. I would look for unpredictable sources, from a paper by an MIT media lab person to a strange novel where a strange tone of voice was used. I would just look outside of advertising for my inspiration.

What do you consider the greatest accomplishment of your life so far?

Working in advertising for 20 years and being married for 22 years simultaneously.

What is your biggest fear in life?

That I would let my family down. That I wouldn’t be able to do everything that I want to do for my family, to be there for them and provide them as much as I could.

What is your dream assignment?

That one’s easy. Drive daughter to school. Take bike ride. Write whatever I want for four hours. Goof off for two. Fix something outside. Have guests for dinner. And repeat until I have 300 pages of something I like.

What is your biggest pet peeve?

People who claim to know more than they do and feel obligated to have an opinion about everything.

What’s on your nightstand?

“Democracy in America” by Alexis de Tocqueville. Evelyn Waugh’s “The End of the Battle.”

What was the last CD/music you bought?

A group called the Ike Riley Assassination. The album is called “Sparkle in the Finish.”

What’s the most important thing you learned from your parents?

From my mom, the power of story telling. She was a great storyteller. From my father, the importance of putting in a hard day’s work no matter where you are.

What do you do when you’re not working?

I am, literally, just hanging out with my family and traveling.