"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
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.
and then the narrative starts. Just tell me a goddamn story!
I don't need three pages of italics.
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
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
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
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
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
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—
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
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
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
RB: At the Reader, you hadn't thought
and self-absorbed. And also pretty great. I do prefer it to
the literary world.
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,
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
Epstein. [both laugh] Weird combination, to say the least. Both
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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.
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
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
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
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