"Self proclaimed greatest living author" ("Neal Pollack’s words are fists. American fists. He beats us senseless even as we wallow in his majesty. Without him boredom would swallow the Republic whole." Norman Mailer), somewhat acclaimed humorist and sometime rocker (the driving force of The Neal Pollack Invasion) Neal Pollack grew up in Arizona and attended Northwestern University, intent on a career in journalism. He was a feature writer for the Chicago Reader and is currently a contributor to Vanity Fair. He has published the Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature: The Collected Writings of Neal Pollack, Beneath the Axis of Evil: One Man Journeys into the Horrors of War and Never Mind the Pollacks: A Rock and Roll Novel. Neal Pollack lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and young son, which he believes validates his rock and roll credentials. He is at work on his next novel, Balls of Summer.
Oh yeah, he also has a website.
Robert Birnbaum: How seriously do you take the enterprise of being funny?
Neal Pollack: I take it very seriously. I study satire, the history of satire, both in terms of literature and terms of movies and [also] radio comedy—I take very seriously the stuff I satirize.
RB: Sounds like hard work.
NP: Well, I wouldn’t call it hard work. But it is work. In order to be funny—and not everyone thinks what I do is funny—those people that do, I just want you to know in order to be funny you have to study comedy and study how humor is constructed—what makes for a funny scene, a funny character and what makes for appropriate satire. I am a very serious student of it. I read Erasmus and I read Voltaire and Twain and watch old episodes of early Saturday Night Live, [read] old issues of the National Lampoon. I run the gamut.
RB: As I was trying to decide where to place you between Voltaire and Swift, I realized I couldn’t remember what Voltaire’s first name was. Do you know?
NP: It was Jack.
RB: Your Never Mind the Pollacks could be read as some kind of Voltairian/Swiftian journey.
NP: Well that’s flattering. I did construct it to be a satire of the contemporary historical novel. The reviewers haven’t picked that up—either because I didn’t succeed or because that’s not what they are looking for.
RB: On page 194 a section begins where ‘Neal Pollack’ types out the word ‘I’ for a few pages and you say that this is an example of contemporary personal or ‘me’ literature.
NP: Right. Really, I am parodying the writing style of my contemporaries. In addition to making fun of rock criticism and the history of rock and roll, the way the book is structured narratively was intended to be a parody of the way contemporary novels are structured—with the pretentious prologue. And it begins with the character remembering—I repeat ‘remembered’ three times. I hate it when a book opens and there are three pages in italics and then the narrative starts. Just tell me a goddamn story! I don’t need three pages of italics.
RB: And your annotated discography. Is there one authentic recording there?
NP: I don’t think so, no. I think it’s all fake. These are the types of records [listed] that would have appeared.
RB: It seems that you had to have done some serious research—some of the material predates you. And even the contemporary material is relatively obscure. For instance, have you ever actually heard Trout Mask Replica [by Captain Beefheart]?
NP: Yes. I bought a copy of it.
RB: For the purpose of writing this book?
RB: How or why did Captain Beefheart/DonnVan Vliet become necessary to this book?
NP: He is the kind of guy that rock critics listen to.
NP: So when I started coming across albums I hadn’t heard before— I had heard of Trout Mask Replica, but I hadn’t heard it, I immediately ordered it.
RB: It’s still available?
NP: Oh yeah. Pretty much everything is still available, one way or another. And I would order ten CDs if I were researching a section. When it came I would start listening to the music and read the liner notes and sort of pick up the ambience of the time I was writing about. I am not really a rock guy. I am not that familiar with the music. I am not an underground guy—I guess I am now, but I wasn’t when I started. I hadn’t even heard Iggy and Stooges.
NP: That’s not something I am proud of. I didn’t own a copy of Raw Power [by Iggy Pop]. And that was like a key album to the book for me—
RB: Do you find in that world of rock criticism there are these obligatory touchstones—isn’t that what you are parodying, these relics that are deemed necessary to be paid homage to?
NP: Yeah, these obligatory things that are essentially throwaway documents of alcoholism and drug abuse and silly youth culture. The rock world is extremely self-reflexive and self-indulgent and self-absorbed. And also pretty great. I do prefer it to the literary world.
NP: The people know how to have a good time.
RB: [laughs heartily]
NP: In the book culture— that’s not the case. I am a writer, and I will continue to be a writer. This rock project that I’m doing is going to come to an end. I’m thirty-three years old. I am really at the very end—
RB: Why do you think that’s the end? Need I point out other examples of the elderly in rock music?
NP: That’s true. I’ll still perform. But I am not going spend the rest of my life traveling around the country with a bunch of musicians for hire in a van. I have a wife and kid. I can’t live that way. That’s not feasible. But I enjoy putting on the show, and I’ve had a blast, providing an actual example of rock and roll on the tour. It’s been really fun.
RB: Who is coming to see you?
NP: Who is coming to see us? Well, it just kind of depends. Literary types. With my initial McSweeney’s book, I built a fan base of nerdy literary hipster types. And then with the rock book it is broadening a little bit. So rock and roll people are coming out. In general the audience has not been enormous.
RB: Are these paying gigs?
NP: Yeah, I hired a tour booker. We are playing clubs. I get handed a little wad of cash at the end of the night. We are selling merchandise. I have to pay these guys salaries. It’s a whole different thing than a book tour. A book tour—writers who get to go on book tours are very pampered. They go from city to city. They have their author guides, their nice hotels. They live extremely well on a corporate credit card budget. Whereas I am living like a worm on the road.
RB: [laughs] Would your publisher have put you on the road for this book?
NP: Their initial plan was to send me to five cities: New York, Boston San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago. I would have done one or two bookstore readings in each city and that would have been their publicity for the book. I said, "It’s not going to work for the book. I have this album. I have this band. Give me the same amount of money you would have spent to send me to those five cities (and fly me around, hire me an author guide, put me up at a nice hotel) we’ll do twenty cities and I will create a lot of hoo-ha." There are two parts of writing a book. I write the book, and then as soon as I send off that first draft, I start planning the tour. The rewrite—sometimes you can’t do them for six months, it takes them that long to get them back. To me the promotion is equally as important. I am not afraid of commerce like many writers are.
RB: Well, yeah. That’s a big subject.
NP: Yeah, we don’t have to go there.
RB: I’m tempted. Fresh in my mind, I was thinking about Michael Wolf [New York magazine media writer], thinking he has a new book and he is part of group trying to buy the magazine. He was interviewed by the Times last week, and one of his key aphorisms is, “The media is about being noticed by the media.” Today his story in New York magazine is called a "Rogues’ Gallery" in which he included himself —all who were mentioned were media creations.
NP: That’s ridiculous. What wankery, you know? Is there no end to the self-indulgence? Most people just don’t think like that. That’s a really perverted New York way of looking at things.
RB: That’s what happens in New York. On one end of the spectrum you have phenomenon like this woman, Elizabeth Spiers—
NP: She’s a friend of mine, actually.
RB: Is she? How did that happen? She’s from Alabama and now New York and you are in Austin?
NP: I just started emailing her.
RB: You became friends via email? Okay, so she is on the other end of the spectrum. She had no greater and perhaps no less talent than a lot of people who are doing web logs, and within six months she has moved from total obscurity to running New York magazine’s web log.
NP: She worked hard. Had an original point of view and was amusing—
RB: I don’t think it was (is) original.
NP: She wrote as an outsider, basically, who through circumstance became inside. I think her writing is funny. It’s true—I don’t think Elizabeth would say anything different—nothing is more self-reflexive and self-indulgent and less important than the New York media world. It’s always turning in on itself. For me, it’s really important to live outside of New York, to work outside of New York and to build an audience outside of New York. I recognize the majority of my books are going to sell in New York, and that’s not going to change. That’s where the most readers live. That’s where the literary culture is based. But I way prefer the challenge of trying to build an audience in a city like Baltimore or Pittsburgh or Austin. Cities that aren’t generally—that have literate populations but are generally left off the map. I operate under a grassroots assumption—you make friends in cities, you build culture from the ground up. In New York you are imposing it from above. I believe strongly in trying build a grassroots literary culture—local scenes with bands and literature.
RB: Aren’t book tours, seen in their best light, supposed to be that—the hand selling of books by the author. Ten or fifteen or whatever number of people are favorably impressed and they tell friends and so on—
NP: Exactly. My approach is, to do a rock show. But my name is still attached to it, and I bring local bands, other readers. And for me, I want to sell books just like any other writer, but I also want to be part of a vibrant literary culture, and I don’t think the mainstream literary culture—I think it’s dead. Not the books themselves, there’s always interesting books, but the actual literary culture is really flat, so I started this festival in Philadelphia, the 215 Festival and that was so much fun.
RB: Why did you start it in Philadelphia?
NP: I was living there. I was making friends with some writers—there’s a lot of writers who live there. It’s close to New York, and it’s relatively inexpensive. I made friends with people who were interested in some of the same things I was. There’s a really good reading series at the Free Library. A couple of good independent bookstores and a lot of rock venues that don’t have a lot of stuff coming through, necessarily. The infrastructure is there. There is a center core. People can get around real easily. It worked beautifully this year.
RB: This was the second, the third year?
NP: The third year. It was called the McSweeney’s festival first, but my association with McSweeney’s has faded a bit. This year it was five days and nights—constant events. Patti Smith headlined. We had Jonathan Lethem and George Saunders and Toure, who’s a great writer. My band played. A bunch of other bands played. It was a mix of the silly and the serious. But the most important thing is that readers get to associate with the writers. People who I met on tour three years ago, they were college students and aspiring writers—now they are starting their own magazines and having their own literary showcases and getting bands to join them, and it is really kind of exciting.
RB: What is your evidence that mainstream literary culture is flat? What do you mean by flat?
NP: The events are really dull. A writer appears onstage, is introduced as some god of American prose. Jonathan Safran Foer, for instance. Young Mr. Safran Foer—the merits of his book aside, the way he is presented as a writer and the way he presents himself, to me is antithetical to what I think the literary culture should be—his book aside. His book is a very interesting and entertaining book. And that in the end is what matters, but it’s not all that matters. I don’t think that’s a good model for young creative writing students to try to aspire to. God knows I am not asking people to be like me. Please, no.
NP: But—God no, help us. The God appears on stage, reads from the great work, and there are a number of questions, [they] sign books and disappear into the night. I prefer the idea of—there is a reading some questions, beer drinking, you hang out and you get to know—
RB: Isn’t that what Dave Eggers began, with his own book tours?
NP: Most definitely. When he was first starting out, he did a lot of this kind of stuff. He was very revolutionary. He would hire a bus and take people to a bar or coffeehouse or whatever. He doesn’t really do that so much anymore. McSweeney’s was the seedbed for that, and I kind of took it and ran with it. I was the first book they toured around. I had a really, manic, fun crazy book tour. Just getting people involved. Have people personally invested in a scene, not just books. I get criticized for it sometimes, but at the same time for me it’s a much more fun way to run my life. And I think it’s more fun for the readers too.
RB: Sure. I like the European model where someone talks to a writer in front of an audience.
NP: It works really well if the interviewer is good. I’ve been to some literary festivals in Europe there are author interviews, then rock and roll and drinking, and then you go back stage and there is amazing theater and a full buffet and they give you all the drugs you want.
RB: They give you all the drugs you want?
NP: Well, I ask for all the drugs and they give them to me.
NP: Writers are treated like rock stars in Europe. And in America they are not, at all. I’m not saying they should be, necessarily. There is money for literature there. There is no money for it here.
RB: There’s no money for a lot of significant things here.
NP: Like funding the reconstruction of Iraq. Very important. It’s very important that we bring freedom and democracy to the Middle East. We’re doing that, converting one village at a time. I think we are doing a great job.
RB: No you don’t.
NP: Sorry, I am ranting. Of course I don’t.
RB: Do you have any intention of getting seriously serious?
NP: Not really. I did that. I was a serious reporter in my twenties, and I did work that I was really proud of. The satire is the way my mind works. I can do real reporting. I have done it in the last couple of years, and I will do it for money. I was writing parodies when I was six or seven years old. It’s the way I process the world, satirically. So I don’t see why I should change.
RB: Besides going to Northwestern, what was your contact with Chicago?
NP: I grew up in suburban Phoenix, and I went to Northwestern for journalism school. I was deadly serious about becoming a great newspaper reporter. Deadly serious. Journalism school was good, but it was very strait laced, with a few exceptions. I found myself a bit alienated from it. I worked at the Chicago Reader for seven years. I was a staff writer, ’93 to 2000. I covered mayoral campaigns, a lot of political articles and urban-scene type pieces. I was really into Joseph Mitchell and AJ Leibling in those days. I still love their writing, but I was like, "I’m going to be the Joseph Mitchell of Chicago in the 1990’s." And I kind of was to some extent. And the people who liked my writing then don’t understand what I am doing now, at all. It’s very different. And then I met Eggers through a mutual friend. He was going to the University of Illinois and a friend of his was at Northwestern. I was vaguely in touch with him. I wrote a couple of short terrible things for Might magazine. And then in 1997, early ’98 somebody forwarded this email to me saying he [Eggers] was starting this new magazine, did anyone have stuff to contribute? I had been writing these parodies that later appeared in the anthology. I was reading them at coffeehouses around Chicago on spoken-word nights. And he liked them and he published them. And from there I saw how McSweeney’s was taking off, and I was like, "Well, this seems fun and interesting and vibrant. I want to be a part of it."
RB: At the Reader, you hadn’t thought of —
NP: I did some humor occasionally. Tiny little things. But I had that muscle that I exercised occasionally but not consistently. I was in improv troupes in Chicago, as is everyone, in Chicago.
NP: How many nights did I waste watching bad long-form improv? I studied with Del Close. I wasn’t one of his star students or anything, but I took several classes with him. He was a great comedy master, and I am probably one of the few people who studied with Del Close and Joseph Epstein. [both laugh] Weird combination, to say the least. Both very influential.
RB: That makes you a bit of a hybrid. How far ahead do look in your life? Do you have a plan?
NP: I’m working on my next novel; it’s called the Balls of Summer— a baseball novel but also a political thriller. Set during the War on Terror.
RB: Which one?
NP: The current one. The just war without end — [with] which we must make the world safe for freedom. So Balls of Summer is a combination parody of baseball writing and also supermarket political thrillers.
RB: Who’s the main character?
NP: The first-person narrator is unnamed. But the opening scene is a direct rip, not rip off—but a direct parody of John Updike’s famous piece "Hub Fans bid Kid Adieu," that piece that he wrote for the New Yorker. In every baseball anthology it’s always the lead piece, widely hailed as the greatest baseball piece of all time. Ah you know, wank, wank, wank. But it has some beautiful sentences in it. And then Roger Angell is always fun to make fun of—a great writer but—and George Will, for god’s sake, George Will, he’ll be the main target in the end.
RB: It’s time for my regular confession that I have read but a few sentences by Updike.
NP: It’s funny when I was a teenager and in my early twenties I was reading the literature that I thought I was supposed to read: Roth, Updike, Mailer, Vidal blab, blah. Now I read Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith. Why the hell didn’t I get this stuff in college? This stuff is so much better. I read an anthology of crime novels from the ’30s and 40’s. They Shoot Horses Don’t They and Paradise Alley. Thieves Like Us, The Postman Always Rings Twice. These are better novels.
RB: You write, you’ve done journalism. You do magazine work.
NP: And I do political satire on the Internet.
RB: You have your web log. And you do music.
NP: And I really want to direct.
RB: [both laugh] I was going to ask. When you go to Hollywood you say, "I just happen to have a treatment."
NP: I’ve written a screenplay that I am trying to shop around in Hollywood. It’s a country music musical called Honky Tonk Zeroes.
RB: You do have filmmakers in Austin?
NP: I have people in Hollywood. There are film people in Austin and the movie is set in Nashville and Austin. I’ve had a couple of funny weeks driving around Hollywood pitching to people. I was sitting in the office of the guy who produced Big Daddy, the Adam Sandler movie. He was a smart, nice, laid-back guy. He spent almost an hour apologizing to me for having produced Big Daddy. Basically the person who is running my business in Hollywood wanted me to meet various kinds of people and get a sense of who I felt comfortable with. I sat in an office with one producer and we spent an hour and a half—way longer than we were supposed to spend, talking about Sam Fuller movies. She said, "I really want to do a remake of White Dog." "We could do a remake of White Dog. I’d love to." I happened to have seen that movie once at the University of Chicago. So I had some great moments and other horrible moments where I was like staring at these two dudes and their white linen suits, they were younger than me and they were examining me like I was a piece of meat. I’m like, "Fuck that. Fuck you guys."
RB: You have someone running your business in Hollywood?
NP: Like a manager, a literary manager. There is a whole new breed of people in Hollywood because the freelance producer era is over. There are many smaller production companies and there is a lot of studio stuff. What you have, instead of these freelance producers looking for talent—you have in-house literary managers at the smaller production companies—these financing places. And their job is to find literary talent that the studios can then masticate. I am not ashamed to say that I will take a check. Also I have a guy, a separate guy who—there are also people in Hollywood whose job it is to sell books to the movies.
RB: Do you have a product-placement person too?
NP: No, but I have someone developing an action figure.
NP: No, but the thing is— a lot of writers have this arrangement. They don’t talk about it. I think it’s important for people who aren’t in the middle of it all to know how the business works. They are too secretive about it.
RB: Why do you think so many writers are anti-commercial or anti-commerce or if they aren’t, why the secrecy?
NP: I don’t know. There is this weird thing in literary culture that some how literary people believe that literature is the last bulwark against the twin evils of commerce and celebrity that have corrupted American culture. And I’m thinking, "That’s just totally absurd." It’s just a different kind of commerce and celebrity.
RB: It’s arguable that they have corrupted culture?
NP: There is lots of good stuff being made. And there’s lots of good commercial movies being made. And lots of good commercial music as well as dross. I just don’t I understand the attitude, the snotty attitude.
RB: Well, look Arnold whatever his name is, is the governor of one of the US’s largest states— in the main because he is a celebrity.
NP: That’s true, but c’mon we are talking about writers here.
NP: I mean Norman Mailer ran for mayor of New York. Gore Vidal ran for Congress. Don’t give me that, don’t give me that. Why shouldn’t a writer be a part of the world at large? Why should they be insulated? Writers are smart. Why shouldn’t they engage the world on its own terms?
RB: The argument is that occasionally or with regularity these worldly games are dirty.
NP: The world is dirty, why should writers be insulated from it? I covered Chicago politics. And l lived in Chicago and Philadelphia—the skids are greased. And they are greased in literature. A lot of writers, who may be good writers but they become famous because of their connections, they have the right teacher in college. Or their parents knew an agent etc. etc. So I am saying writers shouldn’t pretend that stuff doesn’t exist. And they do. They live in some kind of abstract reality.
RB: Okay, here is one good reason to put commercial concerns aside—which is that it requires a certain kind of concentration and energy that may be at odds with one’s ability to be creative.
NP: I totally disagree. But that’s just me. That’s just part of it. You do your art and you do your marketing.
RB: What I am saying is that some people just don’t have the whatever you want to call it, energy or focus, to do their own marketing [whatever that is]. Are there people who are dishonest in commercial transactions?
NP: Of course.
RB: Can’t you see it being daunting and sickening that people will lie to your face?
RB: Some people handle it better than others. I find it to all to be terribly discouraging. I saw the film on Robert Evans the other day. And all I could think of was this guy is really thick skinned and totally self-centered.
NP: Yeah, but you know he—I would rather stare the devil in the face. I have seen every trick in the book, every excuse. I’m just not going to let it stop me.
RB: Not to dwell on Evans. I know what he produced, and as you saw in the film he claims that he and Paramount helped the Godfather be written, for what it’s worth, Love Story. Do you think he had some special talent?
NP: I have no idea. Yeah, probably. Maybe he was just lucky.
RB: My take is that he is incredibly thick-skinned and took a lot of shit.
NP: A lot of books get published because an editor champions them—agents or someone. I have developed a very thick skin myself.
RB: [laughs] Because?
NP: In my self-image, I have a fairly strong one—I see myself as someone who had a couple of breaks. I happen to know Dave Eggers, and I got published by McSweeney’s. It’s not like that has made my life easier. There was a lot of buzz, but I also had to go on a self-funded—I spent $10,000 of money I didn’t have, to sell my book and go around the country selling books out of a van.
RB: You came away less encumbered than if you had been published by a regular publisher, didn’t earn back your advance —
NP: I agree. But the paperback of the anthology didn’t do that well. It was remaindered quickly. All I am saying is that I have had good breaks but I have also had—
RB: Are the parodies in Never Mind The Pollacks—are they actually songs?
NP: Yes, yes, I have an album. We’re selling it at the shows. And it’s for sale in record stores.
RB: The Parliament Funkadelic song?
NP: No, the more punk rock sounding songs—it’s a punk rock album and I am touring with a punk rock band.
RB: You look a little clean to get on stage as a punk rock type.
NP: I am not wearing my rock and roll clothes.
RB: Are they dirty?
NP: They are now. They weren’t dirty when I started the tour. Boy, do my jeans stink. Holy shit, do they stink. I am actually living an indie rock experience. On the road in the van with the band everyday pulling in to the gig, unloading the gear. Waiting around, drinking free beer. Just kind of hanging out hoping people will show up.
RB: Where does your web site fit into all of this?
NP: It’s the key component as far as I am concerned. I had an aesthetic—not a personal—falling out with McSweeney’s. Dave Eggers was doing this tour with They Might Be Giants—doing readings in front of two thousand people, and I wanted to be part of it. And he said he didn’t want me along because my stuff was much more confrontational and in your face and aggressive and loud and profane. He wanted to take McSweeney’s in a more respectable direction. And then one day I woke up and my link was off the site. And I wasn’t a McSweeney’s guy anymore. Overnight. My main conduit for communicating over the Internet had been removed, so I had to start my own site. Plus, I started it last fall when the build up to the Iraq war was starting and the necessity for political satire was very high. So I started doing a parody of political blogs—Andrew Sullivan, the kinds of evil creatures that lurk on the Internet, trying to provide some intellectual justification for this massive swindle. I hate the intellectual pretension surrounding the War on Terror. If they would just admit it was Teapot Dome writ large on a global level—but they won’t. So I started making fun of that—amazingly, built an audience. A new audience.
RB: Why amazingly?
NP: It’s always kind of amazing when people say that they read your stuff, for me. People know me through that who didn’t know me through McSweeney’s. It’s nice and helps me exercise the writing muscle everyday. So if I am not working on an article at least I have the blog everyday.
RB: I wish someone would come up with a different verb.
NP: You can say ‘column’ or ‘website.’ I finally have a column everyday. I really enjoy it. It’s not great everyday but I really enjoy it. I lived in Chicago, where Mike Rokyo was the esteemed character. He wasn’t great everyday. Once every couple of weeks he’d have a beauty. And I’ll hit on themes that people like. Also, I have been able to do political protest. When there is a 1ST amendment issue—there was this web site being sued by Michael Savage because he claimed they were appropriating his image for commercial purposes blah, blah, blah. Like he’s one to talk. So we did a Make Fun of Michael Savage day. There was the Al Franken thing, which didn’t need my help. But it was still gratifying to see the whole Internet turn into this fair and balanced tableau and that was really popular. Also when Dick Cheney and Lynne Cheney were trying to intimidate this humor site called White House.org. I did a Make Fun of the Cheneys Day. On those days I have twenty thousand readers as opposed to my usual two or three. And [the Internet] has been an excellent political organizing tool. Howard Dean’s campaign is a total creature of the Internet. There is a lot of interesting dissent out there, and it is somewhat self-contained, but it’s got to be somewhere, and it’s a safe space where people can protest and organize protests. It exhausts me, and it bores me; it also invigorates me at the same time. I’ll do a selected two or three links in each piece, but it’s not about "check out what so and so is saying." That’s really boring. I do an original piece of humor and/or self-promotion everyday.
RB: Do you have any following in Europe?
NP: None. The Anthology came out in Holland and Belgium and Spain. And I have not sold the foreign rights to Never Mind The Pollacks yet.
RB: Is your sense of humor distinctly American that perhaps does not translate well?
NP: That’s what the Europeans tell me. I don’t know, the Dutch seem to get it okay. I have really cool Dutch publisher.
RB: I don’t know—I would place you somewhere between audacious and [not in a bad way] bombastic.
NP: Yeah, well ain’t that the truth.
RB: I wouldn’t think Europeans would get that.
NP: They are more reserved.
RB: Except for the Dutch?
NP: They are reserved, but I just like going to Amsterdam.
RB: [both laugh]
NP: I do whatever I can to insure that.
RB: We should explain our laughter. Why do you like going to Amsterdam?
NP: It’s a beautiful city.
RB: It’s very clean.
NP: Clean and full of nice literate people. And it’s just a Paradise of Earthly Delights. So what the hell, man. It’s a great place. I won’t deny that I enjoy the finer things in life.
RB: How is it that such a well-organized, well-structured seemingly conservative society can be so indulgent in certain areas [like drug consumption and prostitution]?
NP: They are that well organized. And they have a time and place for everything. They are also extremely anally retentive. I had reserved my Amsterdam cherry pop, so to speak—my anthology came out at the beginning of this year. And I went over there in January for a whirlwind three-day tour. I did a lecture for high-school students and as that was over I started to get blissed out on drugs. And found myself reading during Dutch National Poetry day. Following the big National Poet of Holland. The first thing I did was pour a pitcher of water over my head. And they didn’t like that so much.
NP: And then I was playing the bombastic American,
and this lackey poet stormed out, in furious protest.
RB: [laughs] How did he couch his protest?
NP: He just stormed out. I tried to exchange emails with him. He seemed to be blaming me for the sanctions.
RB: You poured water on yourself and he stormed off?
NP: Once I get on stage there is no telling what is going to happen.
RB: Have you considered doing a talk show?
NP: Yes. But that opportunity has not yet arisen. It could happen.
RB: Is that something that you would aspire to? Is there something in storytelling or performance that you wouldn’t do?
NP: I would try anything.
RB: Would you get into a Lucite case in Trafalgar Square for 40 days?
NP: No. But I am not a magician [laughs]. I have no fear of being on radio or television. Gore Vidal said, "One should never pass up an opportunity to have sex or appear on television." I hold true to that dictum. Without the sex part, necessarily.
RB: I asked before about your future plans. Would you run for office?
NP: If the right office came up. If it were a real opportunity. I wouldn’t want to run for office as a gag candidate like Arianna Huffington. For the most part if you are going to want a political career you have got to seriously work from the ground up—be a town councilman first. I don’t really want to be a politician. I don’t have a plan to run for office right now. I am very adept at taking whatever opportunity comes my way and kind of riding it. One of the things that I am doing on this tour is that I was approached by a not for profit— Music for America started by these well-meaning young liberals from New York and San Francisco who are trying to make political events more interesting and entertaining. And I am traveling as their spokesman—doing a mailing list for them and distributing their materials and stuff. And they funded my tour in part. So there is a political component to my work. And I am starting to talk to people who are organizing punk rock bands to do anti-Bush concerts next year. My website is very political. In general, writers are not engaged enough in the greater society in which they live in. People respect them and they have something to say and I admire a writer who says it—even if I disagree with them. Arundhati Roy is a great example. She has taken her literary celebrity and used it as springboard for opposing dam-building projects in India and nuclear proliferation. And it’s admirable. And she still writes books. Walter Mosley, a writer who I greatly respect and revere, wrote a political tract that was probably read by 17 people. But you know he gave it a shot. He tried to present a case for Black America opposing the War on Terror and showing how it is destroying the black communities in a lot of ways. The writerly presence during the protests to the war on terror except for those horrible poets against the war—with their terrible poetry. Writers for the most part were absent from the debate. After September 11 most writers of my generation were just simpering wimps.
RB: Who are writers of your generation?
NP: I’m not going to name the simpering wimps. Jonathan Franzen and younger. Franzen and Foster Wallace are the older members of the generation whatever, X and then you head on down, Jonathan Lethem, Zadie Smith and Dave Eggers. Safran Foer—Any writer in their ’30s or ’20s right now—anywhere from 25 to 42. Any writer younger than that who happened to have their book published –it’s kind of like the pain of growing and learning to have sex. Which is all fine and good. So that’s my generation I feel like I have very little aesthetically in common with those writers. Even if I am lumped in with them. In my mind I consider myself a throwback to a different time.
RB: The Enlightenment [laughs]?
NP: The Enlightenment—even to the Dawn of Time. Where guttural sounds were the purest forms of communication.
RB: To the darkest reaches of the desperate streets of America—
NP: Yeah, I have kind of emerged from the primordial swamp of American letters, full born. Like a golem.
RB: Do you intend, in the presidential election year, to engage yourself more directly—perhaps endorsing a candidate?
NP: I won’t endorse a candidate—as one writer said, "I’d vote for Count Dracula over George Bush." I am going to start battering away again on the blog. There is no force on earth that is going to keep me from protesting the Republican National Convention in September. I am going to be in the streets, in the middle of it all. Hopefully, there will be some performances and I will be part of one of them and helping rally people and trying—trying desperately to persuade people that Bush is a monster.
RB: Do you pay attention to Texas politics?
NP: I try to stay out of it.
RB: Even the redistricting brouhaha?
NP: It’s an interesting story, but I got so immersed in Chicago politics when I lived there, and so it was impossible for me to be objective. I was at a [one] press conference screaming at the Mayor—not good journalism.
RB: You are not a champion of objectivity in journalism?
NP: I would have been a better journalist if I had been objective. To some extent. I was young, naïve, and I didn’t have the perspective. I believed in the Revolution.
RB: What do you call the Revolution?
NP: My thesis in the ’90s was that Mayor Daley was robbing the working people of their city—which to some extent was true. Seeing real monsters in action in Washington now, you have to realize that all Daley was doing was helping out the real-estate business. On the scale of sins, pretty slender. Eventually people complained enough so that public housing was thrown a pretty substantial bone. Let’s face it, Chicago is a much more—I lived in Philly after Chicago. I saw a city that was functioning as opposed to a city that was crumbling under the weight of insane corruption. I hung out with a lot of lefties, and I just got tired of the constant rhetoric of revolution. I just couldn’t friggin’ deal with it anymore—everything in life framed in terms of some kind of class struggle. I just don’t buy into that dialectic.
RB: I am fond of Oscar Wilde’s response when he was asked to join some Socialist group, "I prefer to keep my evenings free."
NP: I wasted a lot of time when I could have been drinking, listening to music and getting laid, instead of just talk with bomb-in-the-pocket anarchists, just spewing their bullshit which was really just a cover to sleep with hippie chicks. I pissed off the left in Chicago because I would do these stories on these causes—and I believed in the causes—but in every story I would talk about how stupid the activists were. They were often really misguided and naïve. I learned my lesson. I thought Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses really captured the hypocrisy of activism.
RB: So you will not endorse a candidate?
NP: What’s the point?
RB: You think that the country’s problems are solvable within a two-party system? For instance a Democrat’s election will have a significantly different effect than a Bush election?
NP: Absolutely, it will. For one, there won’t be the imminent threat of overturning abortion rights, two—the mess in Iraq is permanent, but there won’t be the same general fascistic threat of civil liberties; the rhetoric won’t be as extreme. There won’t be a climate of fear. They have created this relentless fog of fear. My dad was ranting the other day how Gray Davis was recalled because he was a communist. But he’s not alone. People talk like that. And the propaganda would ease a little bit. Things would be easier. I know it would. You can’t get more corrupt than this administration.
RB: More than Warren Harding?
NP: This is the most corrupt administration in history. All of history. The scale of money is bigger. The hypocrisy is bigger—everything they do is wrong. It’s wrong for the people who live here, and it’s wrong for people who live in other countries. It’s wrong for the environment. The War on Terror writ large is a colossal boon doggle.
RB: What’s your explanation for the well-documented kinds of confusions that people have about Al Queda and Saddam?
NP: It’s all deliberate. This White House knows what it’s doing. They have public relations professionals on call 24 hours a day. As soon as the media finally started saying, "Maybe Saddam Hussein didn’t have anything to do with Sept 11," they started backtracking. They start saying, "We never said that." Now that they say they never said it, they never said it. The confusion is deliberate and is sown deliberately and it’s spread willingly by some of their tools. I don’t believe the theory that all corporate media is controlled by the government, but they have a large and popular propaganda network. And it works real well. They managed to elect a legitimate fascist to the governorship of California based.
RB: I don’t think he is a fascist. I don’t think he is anything.
NP: From where does fascism arise? The Nazis are not coming to power in America. It’s a totally different kind of threat. Who knows, twenty years from now we may look back and say, "Well, that was silly." I think there is a lot at stake.
RB: What do you think about the resurgence of progressive books. Joe Conason, Al Franken, Molly Ivins, Michael Moore—
NP: Yeah it’s [Moore’s book] called Dude, Where’s My Country. Nice title huh? I mean, come on. All these books have pictures of the author on the cover. Except for Joe Conason. I thought Al Franken’s book was really funny, but all these books and the books on the right, they are just screaming across the table at each other. To me that’s not literature.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing