NEAL POLLACK WIPES HIS ASS WITH YOUR NOVEL: AN INTERVIEW WITH NEAL POLLACK
"People expect me to impersonate the character, but I wouldn't even know where to begin. I also rarely answer email questions or other questions in character. Once in a while, sure, if I'm in the mood, or if the reporter doesn't have anything better, but that would get tiring pretty quickly. I'd rather answer questions like a human being, because like most human beings, and most writers, I rarely have actual sexual escapades and I rarely live life in the literary fast lane, an oxymoron if there ever was one. Anyone who kept up the sexual pace of "Neal Pollack" would be dead in a week, and that's all part of the joke."
Jim Ruland interviews Neal Pollack
COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
3AM: Why do so many readings suck?
NP: Because writers dismiss them as unimportant. Most readings are either bookstore book tour junkets, which many writers disdain as a necessary evil, or paid lecture gigs, which many writers phone in because no one expects much from them. But the publishing industry is really to blame. Most book tours are organized so unimaginatively, and with so little attention to detail in terms of the presentation of the material, that they're almost doomed to fail. Then the audiences don't expect much, so you often get a roomful of stiffs, and the dullest segment of American popular culture plods on and on...
3AM: What are you doing to change this?
NP: I am doing any number of things. First, I take my book tours very, very seriously. For me, the book is like the studio album and the tour is like, well, the tour. I want people to come to my readings knowing they're going to get a SHOW, not just some guy reading from his book and then answering questions. The show is not always a rock and roll show, though sometimes it is; sometimes the evening resembles a traditional book reading, only slightly off-kilter. And it doesn't always work. I've had some shows that have gone completely off the rails, because the other performers didn't mesh well with me, because we didn't rehearse enough, because I lost control, or because of any number of other reasons. But I've had other shows that have been absolute magic. The idea is that people come out not knowing exactly what to expect, and the evening doesn't necessarily have that much to do with my book.
I worked very closely with my publisher on this last tour, and the results were evident. A lot of writers just put themselves in the hands of publicists and author escorts without ever getting to know them. I blow off the escorts entirely; I can find my own way in from the airport, and if need be, I'll have a friend drive places. And I get to know the publicists so we're friends and colleagues. Authors need to realize that this is a business, and they need to conduct themselves as such. The art of writing is separate from the art of doing a book tour. Writers are not above commerce, and if they think they are, they're wrong.
3AM: In your estimation, what other writers "get it"?
NP: There are a few other mainstream writers who have figured out that performance helps sell books. Dave Eggers was a pioneer in this regard. He doesn't have to dance around and scream like a monkey, like I do, but he has stage presence. Sarah Vowell, who, again, is not loud, still performs well. I've seen other writers, like Jonathan Ames and Jerry Stahl, who put on excellent shows. But for the most part the writers who get it are not published by major houses. They are slam poets and small-press fiction authors, writers who are not lauded by the establishment in any way. They are the real soul of American literature, and they rarely get recognized. I read in San Francisco with two writers, Beth Lisick and Jon Longhi, who were two of the best literary performers I had ever seen, and until City Lights Bookstore sent me their books, I had never heard of their work. Yet they rocked, and hard. There are people like them all over the country, slogging away at local scenes, dreaming of breaking through. But the publishing industry has no infrastructure for them.
3AM: What are the rewards of going on the road to promote your books?
NP: You develop an audience, you make a lot of friends, and you have an adventure. I prefer touring to, say, reporting, because with reporting I always felt like I was picking the meat off the bones of other people's life stories. With touring, I can live my own life story. The road can be frustrating, even humiliating, but there are moments of transcendence, too, and those moments are worth all the hours waiting at airports, sitting in traffic, or stumbling around drunk.
3AM: From a financial point of view, can a writer expect to make any money from touring or are they break-even at best propositions?
NP: If your book sells, you can make a middle-class living in the long run. As for reading out, I rarely get paid, and when I do, it's not much more than running-around money. Once in a while I'll score a plum gig, but even when those happen I don't have any illusions. Except for a very lucky few, running a literary career is like running a small business, and not one with a high potential for profit. Like anyone, I wouldn't mind getting rich, but I have few illusions. I do this because I love the art.
3AM: Speaking from my own experience, putting "reading" in a flyer or advertisement can be the kiss of death, especially when there's a cover charge. So you try other things like "spoken word," "rants," etc. but these words have their own baggage, too. Should there be a new name for what you and others do? Oral performance? Readings that don't suck?
NP: The only solution is to market it as rock and roll. I know I can rock. Now all I must do is get the people to believe it, too.
3AM: Recently in McSweeney's, you outlined some dos and don'ts. What advice would you give to a young rock and roll writer braving the hazards of the road?
NP: Look, getting bookstore gigs isn't hard if you start calling four or five months in advance. You'll be able to find something, particularly at independents. Publicity is a tricky mother. I don't even know where to start. But the best suggestion I can give is BUDGET. Get a Triple-A card. Get an "Entertainment Book" and accompanying card. Because that way, you can get cheap rental cars and cheap hotel rooms when you're not able to stay with friends. Buy food at grocery stores and prepare it yourself. The last thing you want to do is find yourself facing down, as a writer friend of mine once did, a $800 rental-car drop-off fee. Have a reliable cell phone with a good calling plan. You are a traveling businessperson, and the more responsibly you conduct yourself, the better off you'll be. That way, even if your book doesn't sell a ton of copies, you at least won't be horribly in hock when the tour is over.
3AM: Conversations about performance-oriented prose and poetry readings typically lead to slam poets, which are like milk: when it's good it's delicious and tastes pretty much the same every time you drink it, when it's bad, it's rancid. Are you at all reluctant to have your work associated with the slam scene?
NP: I like the slam scene. I think that slam poets live more classic "writerly" lives. They tend to hang out in dumpier bars and know a lot more fringe characters. They are the garret-dwellers of literature, and they should be respected. At the same time, 90 percent or more of slam poetry, when you see it on the page, turns to shit. I think there needs to be a balance. Most slam poets are never going to be hugely successful published authors because they're already pretty close to rock and roll or hip-hop, which is why so much slam poetry sounds good put to music. So they've got that ground covered. What needs to happen next is for more published authors to develop a performative aspect to their work. The first author who is successfully able to fuse the best of slam and the best of traditional literary culture (well, not the first, because there already are some writers who do that, but they tend to stay in local scenes. I guess I mean the first national figure), is going to be a HUGE success.
3AM: Now that you've had time to reflect on your tour, which city gets the Neal Pollack Award for being the Least Literary City in North America?
NP: Definitely New York City. It's impossible to get noticed as a writer there.
3AM: You have a spoken word album out. How did this come about? Was it something someone approached you about or did you pursue it?
NP: I pursued it. Jon Langford of the Mekons, the Waco Brothers and so many other groups, said some nice things about my book, and I worshipped him like a god. He agreed to do the album, and somehow we conned Bloodshot Records into putting the album out. Now they deeply regret their association with me. I have destroyed these people's lives, from the inside, like a horrible cancer. No, seriously, I have a lot of respect for Jon Langford, and Bloodshot, and Sally Timms, and everyone I've worked with. Why would people like them let a putz like me put out an album of questionable taste and value? I vow to pass on that karma, but I won't call it karma, because I'm no fucking hippie.
3AM: What will I find on the CD I won't find in the book?
NP: Music. Lots of music. Fiddles, actually. And live poetry. This album could sell dozens and dozens of copies.
3AM: Fiddles? That's not very punk rock. Not unless you destroy them.
NP: Hey, man. Who are you to say what's punk rock and what's not? Besides, after hearing the record you'll want to destroy them.
3AM: You haven't mentioned sexual escapades or life in the literary fast lane. Are you moving away from the "I am the greatest living writer" shtick?
NP: Not in my writing so much, but I've never really done the shtick on stage. People expect me to impersonate the character, but I wouldn't even know where to begin. I also rarely answer email questions or other questions in character. Once in a while, sure, if I'm in the mood, or if the reporter doesn't have anything better, but that would get tiring pretty quickly. I'd rather answer questions like a human being, because like most human beings, and most writers, I rarely have actual sexual escapades and I rarely live life in the literary fast lane, an oxymoron if there ever was one. Anyone who kept up the sexual pace of "Neal Pollack" would be dead in a week, and that's all part of the joke.
3AM: You're from Phoenix, resided in Chicago and recently moved to Philadelphia. So what's with the Tennessee Titans football jersey?
NP: I like the Titans. So sue me. I also like the Eagles. But blue is my favorite color.
3AM: "I Wipe My Ass with Your Novel" is hilarious and a crowd favorite. Are you in a position to know if any of the authors you have lampooned have responded favorably to it?
NP: Honestly, I can't imagine it would be on their radar, and even if it were, they wouldn't care. To "serious" writers, I am nothing, I am Pauly Shore or Carrot Top.
3AM: Is Kazuhisa Ishii the next Fernando Valenzuela?
NP: Well, keep in mind that I haven't seen Ishii pitch, either in person or on TV, but I don't think so. Fernando was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, in shape, demeanor, and style. Here was some fat dude from a dusty nothing Mexican hamlet who somehow could pitch like a dream. Ishii is a good pitcher, but he's from Japan, hardly the land of baseball obscurity, and he is a normal-looking guy. That said, I hope he wins 20 games and the Dodgers make the playoffs. It's gonna be tough in that division.
3AM: Tell me about your famous poster that features you and a furry feline, both naked. Were any animals harmed in the photo?
NP: Dave Eggers and I both thought it would be funny for me to pose naked on a leather couch, with a cat covering my privates. It serves as a great parody of author photos. My cat Zimmy was not harmed, in the long run, but she had a lousy time the day of the shoot. Also, they greased me with oil, and she got some oil on her.
3AM: What's next for Neal Pollack? A Neal Pollack-Ghost Rider comic book? A literary cats wall calendar? A novel?
NP: Bingo. I'm writing a novel called My Life In Rock. It's a fictitious history of rock and roll told from the point of view of two rival rock critics. It will have an accompanying album with songs that I have written, songs that are included in the book. It's sure to sell hundreds of copies.
The pictures of Neil Pollack were taken by Elizabeth Malby. Buy Neil Pollack's The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. As for Jim Ruland, he lives in L.A. and writes for the punk rock fanzines Razorcake and Destroy All Monthly. The Discovery of America, a punk rock picaresque, is presently being serialized at Sweet Fancy Moses. Jim writes a regular column for 3A.M. called Message From the Underworld. Please visit his site, Lazymick.