The Neal Pollack Interview

December 13, 2002

Today is the day to to walk on somebody's back in high heels.

What do Neal Pollack, Janice Dickinson and I all have in common? Well, you must read my book review and this interview to find out.

I had a hard time coming up with today's interview, and today's interview introduction, without sounding sycophantic and just slobberingly stupid, but here goes. I am absolutely thrilled to have Neal Pollack as a interviewee on my site, and not just because he a.) has sexy photos of himself b.) has spent extensive time in my home town of Evanston, IL and c.) is quite the big effing deal to me as a writer. He's also a thoughtful interview subject, a nice guy and has piles of success coming his way. Maybe you know Neal Pollack, or maybe you know "Neal Pollack." If you know one, I hope you get to know the other, and if you know neither, well, my friend, enjoy. If you know both, then you should just retire and move to Florida.

The Neal Pollack Interview: Just Over Twenty Questions

The number-one gift on everyone's Wish List this holiday is undoubtedly your new book, Beneath The Axis Of Evil: One Man's Journey Into The Horrors Of War, published by So New Media. What inspired it? Is it at all similar to The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature? Magazine and newspaper writing, previously my main target, has gotten even more pompous and more self-deluded since September 11. Every Tom Dick and Byline now sees fit to pontificate to us about the state of the world, from every angle. I don't mean to make fun of hard-working AP reporters who put their lives on the line so we can get the news, but rather columnists and magazine writers, who suddenly are experts on geopolitics and global terrorism. I'm suspicious. Too many writers turned too quickly, on too small a dime. So my parody had to turn as well. I still use the Neal Pollack "character," but now it's also in service of political satire, rather than mere satire of authorial self-aggrandizement. These are political times, at least in my head, and I write these satires as a way of sorting out my own thoughts about the mad world into which we've all been unwittingly plunged. I dislike the Bush Administration, but I also dislike Al Queda. I hate Saddam Hussein, but I also hate Ariel Sharon. So the book is an outlet for my bile, and my bile takes the form of narrative jokes.

Much hay has been made about you being the first book published with McSweeney's; why did you decide to publish with So New Media? How did you hook up with them? And, to what extent do you anticipate I may ride on your coattails when my own SNM book comes out? Well, while I still love what McSweeneys is doing, I'm not really involved with them anymore. And I see a lot of energy in So New Media. It's at the forefront of the next generation of indie publishers that are picking up where McSweeneys left off. Ben Brown obviously has the itch to be a writer and publisher, which I can identify with, and he's got a punk-rock angle. It just seemed like the perfect fit. I met Ben on the Internet, and when I moved to Austin, putting out a book with him was easy. He's got a good business sense, he works fast, and he's willing to try anything. And as for my coattails, you can ride them as far as they'll take you, which is probably to the corner store.

You've also got a new book coming out with Harper Collins. Moving on to larger publications, have editors and publicists been treating you more like a commodity or hot shot? Are there more perks, like getting to meet favorite authors or finer cocaine and hookers?
There aren't that many perks. Well, on my last book tour, I got to stay at some pretty nice hotels, but that's only because my sister works for a chain of pretty nice hotels. My editors at HarperCollins treat me very well. I'm not their marquee author, but they don't ignore me either. And if they treat me like a commodity, so what? Books are a commodity. I hate it when people pretend they're not.

At your punk shows, you have been known to spit, throw yourself around, and shred books. What have been some of the more memorable reactions from fans and/or critics? And how do you choose which books to shred? The reactions to my book shredding have been met mostly with laughter, but also with stunned silence. In Chicago, I shredded To Kill A Mockingbird, which was supposedly the book that the whole city was supposed to read that spring. I like the book, but I think the idea of one city, one book is really stupid, so I tore it up. People gasped, like I was shredding City Hall or something, and in my own sad metaphorical way, I was. So I guess I choose the books to shred if they're bloated and pretentious, if they're considered quality literature, part of the new canon, or if they're lauded by the literary elite beyond their actual worth to the culture. The other books I've shredded have been Everything Is Illuminated and Underworld. Some guy took a shredded page of Underworld, had me sign it, and sold it on Ebay for $20.

Even though you're a very special interviewee, you are not the first Northwestern University alum. Did any experiences there, or afterwards, as a reporter in Chicago, mold you as a writer? What are your thoughts on creative writing schools in general? Do you think good writing can be taught, or a lot of it is pretentious pap that doesn't make a difference? (A certain editor is considering getting a degree in journalism or creative writing, but isn't sure if it is worth it.)
At Northwestern, I didn't learn much except how to copyedit. I also learned that I didn't want to be part of the Copley Newspapers "team," or the Gannett "family." Medill, the journalism school, is basically a training ground for corporate lackeys. My time at the Chicago Reader, on the other hand, was invaluable. If someone is inclined to be a writer, I highly recommend that they work at a newspaper for a while. I had to write regularly, almost every week, worked with great editors, and had a variety of experiences and met types of people whom I would have otherwise been closed off from by circumstance or ignorance. Good writing can be taught, but it also can be learned outside of school, by reading and just working at it. But I guarantee that a creative writing school won't have you doing a 5,000-word profile of a guy with Tourette's Syndrome who sings opera on the Chicago El as a creative outlet. For stories like that, work for a newspaper.

You have some extremely sexy photos on your website. How would you describe your sexiness, i.e. "smoldering passion," "boy next door"? Also, between those and the fan fiction, have you encountered anybody who loved Neal Pollack too much?
I haven't had any real problems, though I did get an email from a guy in New York who invited me out for a drink next time I was in town. He said I was just his type, hairy and slightly flabby. Thanks a fucking lot, pal. A woman said to me one time that my "naked cat" poster brought back dark early childhood sexual memories when she was turned on by a Burt Reynolds photo. So I guess that's where my intense sexuality lies. In hairy remnants of the 70s.

What made you decide to start your blog?
I needed a daily outlet for my political bile. I also wanted to establish myself as an Internet "presence" outside of McSweeneys, because I'm not really working for them anymore. It was just time for this bird to leave the nest.

On said blog, you sell yourself heavily as willing to speak to college campuses. What experience would said students receive from seeing you?
Hell, Michael Moore can tour and get paid and people think he has something to say, which he doesn't. So why not me, for pity's sake? There are innumerable charlatans out there making great livings speaking at colleges. It also gives me a chance to parody certain self-righteous campus circuteers, like Moore and Cornel West on the left and many, many people on the right. Do college students really think they're gonna be touched by the wisdom they receive at a lecture? What a load.

There are honest-to-god literary groupies out there, people who love to drop names such as yours and Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith and so on. Do you think that this movement, of the young writer as a sort of lit-pop-star-figure, is a positive one, or something that takes attention way from the writing itself, and writers who do not travel in such circles?
I don't think it takes attention away from the writing, because for every groupie, there are 10 people who don't give a damn and will judge the writing on its own merit. But I DO think that a writer without a self-promotional gene can get lost in this shuffle. There's not much I can do about that, though. There's a writer as minor rock star element to the culture right now, and I'm just trying to ride that wave while mocking it at the same time. This too, though, shall pass, and writers will retreat again to total obscurity, as opposed to the only partial obscurity that even the most famous writer lives in now.

From For Common Things to September 11 to this, much has been made about the apparent death of irony and satire. Is there such a thing, or are people just getting stupid and or confused (such as the confusion as to whether you were actually Dave Eggers)? These are the most ironic times, the most open to satire, in human history, as far as I'm concerned. Satire thrives in hours of darkness. And man, it's pretty dark right now. As for the confusion about my identity, that was just stupid. Some dumb-ass reporter made the claim, and then it spread on the Internet. I don't think I'll ever be able to totally slough the rumor off, but there's nothing I can do about that.

On that same note, Saturday Night Live once, I think, did a scene once on comedy killers, things like cancer, rape, and so on. In your mind, is anything untouchable?
No. Nothing is untouchable. Michael O'Donoghue, one of the founding writers of SNL, had no boundaries in his satire, and either does The Onion. Rape may be a "comedy" killer, but there's a difference between comedy and satire.

There are some out there who believe that humorous writing isn't 'real' writing. As the author of much satire and parody, what do you say to this? Does 'serious' writing have to be serious?
Yes. It absolutely does. There is no place for irony in the canon of serious writing. Just ask Voltaire, Swift, Twain, Evelyn Waugh, or Dorothy Parker.

Any advice for self-promotion? How to get attention without getting too gimmicky or losing focus? Or, is any attention good attention, as long as they spell your name right?
If you get your name in the paper, unless it's as a sex offender against children, it's good press. Shoplifting was the best thing that ever happened to Winona Ryder's career. I mean, I made my name as the guy who gives readings in the bathrooms of train stations, poses naked with a cat, and destroys novels on stage. But I don't think that has anything to do with the actual content of my work. Self-promotion is an essential part of any career, and you can do it to any extent you wish as long as you don't become enamored of your own myth. The second I start actually believing that I'm "Neal Pollack," I've lost.

Are there any certain styles or genres of prose that turn you off? Also, are there any kinds of writing that you think have gotten overplayed or overused in the small publication or internet literary realm?
There should no longer be books about the Holocaust, mothers trying to find their children, children trying to find their fathers, slightly overweight single young women trying to find love, American history, painters, the paramours of painters, Asians, baseball, or the alienations of suburban family life. In terms of the small publications or internet world, I never want to read anything ever again about temping, working as a phone-sex operator or dominatrix, road trips, plane trips, visits home for Thanksgiving, or interviews with scientists.

Why do you live in Austin? Is it because you couldn't decide which you loved more, Phoenix or Philadelphia? And, is Austin going to become the new literary hub? Austin is already a literary hub for Texas, which isn't saying a ton, but it's good enough. There are lots of writers down here, and, more importantly, lots of readers, I moved here because it's laid-back and fun, and I love barbecue. My dream is to live here AND in New York, but that's a few years off, I think. Also, I want to live in Amsterdam, but that's for another lifetime.

You have been blurbed on several authors' books; were there any dream authors and/or celebrities that you wished you could have gotten for Beneath the Axis of Evil or the forthcoming Harper Collins novel?

On that note, are there any authors, editors or publications that have not yet gotten their big break that you would endorse here?
I endorse writers by giving them guest-hosting weeks on my blog. Besides, no endorsement from me is going to help someone's career. You should all read more Patricia Highsmith, though.

As a former Chicago reporter and current music aficianado, if Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune and Jim Derogatis of the Sun-Times were to have a fistfight, who would win? Who would you cheer for?
God. They would pummel each other senseless but no one would win. That's a metaphor for rock criticism right there. I like them both, actually.

You're living the dream of many aspiring writers; your writing is your job. Do you have any advice on how to get to this point, for those of us who are less than enamored of our day jobs? Also, when you get to be late-night-talk-show circuit famous, are you going to relate any stories of horrible day jobs you had to endure before hitting the big time?
I got really lucky. No matter how talented I am or think I am, if Dave Eggers hadn't started McSweeneys when he did, and if my friend Todd didn't forward me an email from Eggers saying he was looking for submissions, I never would have been "discovered" in the way that I have. All I can say is: Work hard. Don't worry about being famous or not. Wait for your opportunity. And when it comes, grab that opportunity by the hips and shake it until it screams with ecstasy. Mine happened to come when I was about 30. Others may see their opportunity sooner or later in life.

One thing we have in common is, um, a less-than-smoldering love affair with poetry. Do you think that incarnations such as "Def Poetry Jam" make poetry more accessible, or is it still material that's only interesting to those interested, with the backing of Russell Simmons?
I cannot believe that Def Poetry Jam is a Broadway show. Almost all slam poetry is garbage, talk-show confessional delivered in a loud hip-hop style. I'm sorry. It just makes my eyes glaze over, even the stuff that's good and funny.

Mr. Pollack, I apologize, but not even you are exempt from this question: How does it feel to be the 36th person interviewed for
How does it feel to be the 36th person selected for anything? It's like, oh, goody, I'm on Survivor 3, after the world's stopped paying attention.