“James Gunn,” the protagonist of James Gunn’s first novel, The Toy Collector (Bloomsbury, 304 pp., $23.95), sells dope to finance his jones for robot toys from the ’70s. The book is half Denis Johnson’s druggy Jesus’ Son mixed with Lynne Reid Banks’s Toys ‘R’ Us kids’ classic, Indian in the Cupboard. The episodic novel crosscuts between James’s and his brother Tar’s adventures pursuing flesh, drugs, and collector toys. Their lifelong joy of toys gives the otherwise seedy book a kind of crazy innocence.
Currently conquering Hollywood with monster scripts like Spy vs. Spy and Scooby Doo, Gunn will also star this fall in a dark comedy film he wrote, The Specials, about X-Men-style superheroes on the skids.
The protagonist of The Toy Collector is James Gunn. Is he you? Yes and no. Everything in the book is my experience stretched out in a fun-house mirror. When I went through the text for the first time, I used search-and-replace to change James Gunn’s name to something else. But it felt dishonest.
Have you really shot your seed on your buddy’s thigh? [Laughs] That’s the kind of question I can’t answer.
Do you still collect toys? I have a bunch of robots. Fisher-Price stuff. I continued playing with toys until I was about 12.
How did you get from being a two-fisted St. Louis toy freak to an M.F.A. student at Columbia? I went to Columbia to finish this stupid thesis—the novel—which started as a series of prose poems called Stories to Fit in a Dirty Hand. Then my second year at Columbia, I was hired by Troma Studios.
You chose movies over literature? I think movies chose me. I needed money. I met Lloyd Kaufman, who hired me to write Tromeo and Juliet. I had a cameo in the fourth sequel of The Toxic Avenger.
Do you still go to church? Every week. How did that come up?
Obviously God loves you more than the rest of us. Also, the James Gunn in the novel is a lapsed Catholic, and your press release says you were trained by Jesuits. I stopped going to church for a long time, but started again after I met a great priest out of St. Louis who told me I could make up what Catholicism was and believe what I wanted to believe.
What’s a St. Louis upbringing like? Very provincial. I gave a reading of The Toy Collector there and my mother sat in the front row while I read a passage about heterosexual anal sex. She was doing her best to keep up the smile. St. Louis is 75 percent Catholic. There has to be one Catholic who says, “Listen, I’m a fan for anal sex.”
Does your mother have to forgive you for this book? I think my mom is actually pretty proud of me.