The Todd Zuniga Interview

April 19, 2002

Today is the day to calm the f. down.

Opium Magazine looms large in the existence of It was one of the first to publish my writings, and has taught me a lot and helped me meet tons of cool people. Thus, it behooves you to read the interview with Todd Zuniga, Associate Editor of Official Playstation Magazine and Editorial Director of Opium Magazine. He is smart, quite charming, and you will like him a lot.

Ever-So-Slightly-Less Than Twenty Questions: The Todd Zuniga Interview

Why should people read Opium Magazine?
When Opium started it was Cedric Stines and I scribbling on napkins to decide how the site would be laid out. After a year, it’s Cedric Stines, I, Jennifer Simon and 200 pieces of poetry, art, fiction, and musings. I came from a middle-class family, from parents’ striving to be rich and important. But I was one of eight (I was the last), and there’s no getting rich under those circumstances.
I don’t know what any of this has to do with Opium, except for the parts about Cedric and I and the work on the site, but it’s just something I was thinking of. I think Opium’s a place for people to publish their bastard children. It’s generally short, and each piece, rather you like it or not, gives you something. And these something’s cost you nothing.
Alternately . . .well, I was going to say something about how we tell you how long it takes to read and make a joke that incorporated the Change Bank of America skit from an early-‘90s Saturday Night Live, but it doesn’t seem like it’ll go over very well. So I’ll just say that Opium’s fun to read. The contributors are richly talented, and they deserve great praise. I’m flattered that they trust us with their work.

Who are three famous people you’d like to see contribute to Opium?
I don’t know how famous these people are, but the first two are easy: Tobias Wolff and George Saunders. These two writers, along with Richard Ford have meant as much to my writing as paper. And they are my favorites. I think Saunders would make the site sing, and I think Wolff would make me more proud of the site than any other writer could.
As for a third, I’d like to stick these people’s names into a hat, and whoever gets picked, writes: Amanda Filipacchi, Larry David, Richard Ford, T.C. Boyle, Dave Eggers, Mark Strand, Paul Cody, the people reading this interview, Woody Allen, Dennis Miller, Spike Lee, Arthur Kretchmer, Ethan Coen.

Who is the best character you’ve invented of late?
The best character? Ben. He's fallen into the role of being Elvis' biographer, in 2002. Elvis is still alive. The story has little to do with Elvis, and more to do with Ben, who's wife has left him with their daughter, Savannah. Ben is kind and awkward and lovable. But he's only lovable because of how sincerely he loves his daughter, and how innocently, even for a grown man, he looks at the world.
Ben expects good to happen. I think all of my narrator's are like that, when it comes down to it. They endure pain with the sense that good will eventually happen. Some people would probably call it naïveté. But these people also deal with the kind of humans that don’t ever think of anyone’s feelings, and live unexamined lives.
Just yesterday I worried about that facet of my fiction, that the characters were too capable of joy. And then I quit worrying. I think I’ve been very lucky to write about characters who see life as good and worthwhile. I know I certainly feel that way about life. I’ve always had a sense that I’m the luckiest person I know, and I’m hoping my luck and that feeling continue. I try to share that with all of my character’s so that they can be heroic on the slightest scales.
I’m fascinated by the ability for people to work for and believe in a gentle and faultless world. I don’t know why I do it myself. I hope that it's an antidote to the kind of idiotically angry people that don't want to figure out how wonderful it is to be alive.
Just now I’m realizing there’s a really religious undertone, a great conclusion, to my recent work. But I’ve never intended it that way. But it’s something I’ll be more aware of now that you’ve asked that question.
Ben, also, isn't me. Which I always like in my characters. But he is me, of course, at the same time, which gives me a chance to see his/my folly from a distance.

What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of being at the end of the alphabet?
When I graduated from high school, right before Kelly Zurmuehlen, people were already throwing their stupid caps. And I had to rush back to my folding metal chair to do the same. At my graduation they told us not to throw our caps more than five feet in the air, for picture’s sake. My brother, Joey, told me to throw it to the ceiling when I got the chance. So I did. Which was independent of the Z in my name.
There is a benefit though: Z’s stick out. Sadly, my Z is followed by an absolutely unmemorable mess of letters, so I’ll likely live much of my life without even the mildest fame.

You work for Official Playstation Magazine. Which has scored you more chicks, that office or the office as editor of Opium?
It’s strange. The way I’ve played it, it’s kind of like a jab and a hook. I set them up with the professional, so they know I’m hip and make enough money to survive. Then I throw the literary knockout punch, which sends the ladies reeling.
This translates to: If it weren’t for my hair, I’d never score.

Are there any plans yet for the next Opium Magazine event? Fill in our readers on what they missed with the last one.
Another event? I’d like to do one, but there’s a concern that the turnout will be low. With these things, that’s always a concern. I think you just do it and hope people want to be entertained, and you invite enough readers that will guilt their friends into coming.
Last Fandango!, there was a toaster giveaway, people were given Black Power Afro picks, people laughed, no one cried, and a few people got drunk and slept together. I’d like to encourage people to show up at Fandango! 2 just because there are so many like-minded people you can’t help but find charming, hot people that are talented and funny.

Why do you excel at 12-inch softball, yet, according to you, suck at 16-inch? Why do those 4 lousy inches make such a difference?
I’m thin, and I have a baseball swing. When I was young I learned that I could have whatever I wanted if I worked hard enough. A baseball swing was a metaphor for that. Plus, I have very by-the-book mechanics with my swing. So clubbing a ball that weighs more than me, as a 16-inch ball does, really stinks. I’m thrown backward and the ball dribbles to the pitcher.

Fill us in on the film you’re working on.
I want to write one film. Part of me wants that film to be clever and worthwhile, but that film would take away from my fiction. So I say fuck it. I’m going to write a film based on a Saturday Night Live skit. It’s true. And I’ll be co-writing, which is important. Because no one man can tackle the power of a SNL skit conversion. I’ll be Cedric Stines’ wing-man.

You recently tried your hand at boxing a few weeks ago. What are some other sports/activities you’d like to dominate in the near future?
I almost knocked out a guy who weighed 20 more pounds than I. At the start of the second round, I taunted him. I was the only man in the world for that round. He was my punching bag. Later I was his, and he won on points. But I didn’t go down. I fought later and Ben Silverman beat me. He’s a tough sonofabitch, and a great guy. If I’d have handpicked someone to beat me I’d have picked me, then him.
Other sports? I’ve never skied. I’d like to take my 0-2 boxing record to the slopes.

How can you call yourself a man and still be afraid of snakes?
I’m afraid of lots of things, and I still have a penis.

Who is Dunston Procott?
It’s funny you ask that. It’s a legend in my mind and my mind only: Dunston Procott is a guy who lives in Vancouver. Dunston Procott is one of my best friends. Dunston Procott is a newscaster for a small television station in Milwaukee. Dunston Procott is of Tazmanian descent.
Here, let me start over. Okay, when Cedric and I were in that bar sketching out Opium, I started a rough template and started doing the “Last 5 Things” part, and had to fill it in with names and pieces so that I could see it on the page. One of those names, fake and off the cuff, was Dunston Procott.
At the site’s start we were (too ambitiously) committed to publishing five pieces a week. This is before anyone had even heard of us. We were scoring 80 hit’s a day and thinking we were really making a difference. So instead of having my name up twice in a week (gauche), I took his name as my own. His writing was different, but as the secret about his/my identity leaked out, so did his voice. Now he’s a ghost that I plan to kill off, so as to warrant publicity.

You’re a ‘tell it like it is,’ shoot from the hip kind of guy. Has this ever gotten you into trouble?
I know we made fun of people who say these things, and it gives me great joy that you’ve asked this. People who “tell it like it is” are white trash. People who “shoot from the hip” make an average of $40,000 more than I do every year. I, on the other hand, am a “straight shooter.”

Opium recently began distributing awards to its best writers. What inspired this? It would seem that being published on Opium would be its own reward.
The awards were something we thought up a long time ago, because no literary-type place pits their pieces against one another. And for good reason. How can you really do that? It’s a dumb thing, but we said “what the bizzbop, let’s give it a shot.” So we tried it. It was weird because it was a matter of taste, but it was done so people would look back at some of the great pieces of the year and remember the times when they read those pieces.
I remember reading "Three AM," a short story by Paul Cody in Story Magazine in 1997 (if you‘ve read this story, please e-mail me now). It was the first short story that ever made me cry. I was sitting on the church steps at DePaul University and I was sobbing. I’ll never forget that moment. Maybe someone was reading Will Roby’s “Portugal” and remembered their long-forgotten flame one last time. Maybe someone read your “Occupational Haikus” and, once again, asked if Carson Daly was, like, you know, seriously, 40.
Plus, it was a stunt to show people that we were going to start publishing regularly and we were willing to take some chances. It worked like gangbusters. People love awards, and rooting for a story to win because they’re attached to it.

On the subject of identity, there is a wild rumor going around that Todd is not actually your first name. Can you please clarify, and why Todd is now your adopted first name?
My name is Adrian. Adrian Todd Zuniga. A.T. Tag was my rap name in 8th grade. Another kid, Adrian Ledquies (pronounced Legurdes, say what?) was my friend. My first black friend. We had “Adrionics.” I thought he was the coolest dude. I found out he killed himself when he was twenty and that was a very hard thing to deal with, because I didn’t know if I should care or not. I get this very minor ache when I think of him. It’s happening right now. He was into drugs and he loved a girl from high school that I don’t remember the name of. She was pretty, but very thin and pale. Her name started with a C or a Ch. I never knew her, really, but I’d like to now. I wonder if she loves him, still. If she thinks of him often.

Your hair is a work in progress. When is it at its best?
It’s at its best when it’s a work in progress. I once wrote an essay called “Self-Portrait at 25.” It’s basically a hair to Adam’s apple vision of how I perceive myself. “My hair is a tidal wave of Elvis influence.” That’s the first line. It’s not true anymore. Now my hair’s a floppy mop of Elvis’ insobriety. But I think it’s my best feature. Along with my throwing arm.

Picture it: you are being profiled in Vanity Fair as one of the country’s hot young editors and authors. Since they tend to bestow grandiose titles such as “The Ingenue” or “The Golden Boy,” what are some examples of titles you see them granting you?
“Todd.” I used to hate that name as recently as my freshman year of college. But now I resent my last name, since it came from people who were horrible people (my father’s parents). So I’d like to be just “Todd” for awhile. Not the way Prince is Prince. But just a friendly way to know me.
Also, Mr. Thin, The Rainmaker, Holy Shit, It’s That Guy.
Truly, I’m not qualified to answer this question.

Other than the obvious issue of tangibility, how is publishing in print different from publishing online? Would you prefer to be published in a lesser-known print publication or a more widely-known site?
That’s really the debate. Do I go to the biggest online place, or do I ease into small journals? I’m a journal man, myself, because that’s what I was raised on. I’ve had to get used to the net, and the idea of immediate feedback.
But immediate feedback sometimes turns into the same thing as waiting for praise after you’ve sold your R2-D2 telephone on eBay. You want to see: “A++++++++ buyer!” and you salivate for that, which is so dumb, because the praise is so thoughtlessly written.
Which isn’t to say praise is thoughtlessly written when someone reacts to a story. In fact, I love responses to my writing, good and bad, but it’s like the crack cocaine. So I limit myself from publishing online, so I don’t get addicted; if I get addicted I’m afraid I’ll let myself slip into wanting to get published over writing a really great story.

What’s the difference between being gauche and being rude?
Gauche is a form of ignorance. Rudeness is when you’re just too stupid to stop yourself.

How does it feel being the fifth person interviewed for
It feels like getting a birthday card, even at the age of twenty-seven, with a dollar in it.