Over the past few years, writer Drew Magary has risen above the din of the Internet echo chamber as an outspoken critic of the mainstream sports media (particularly ESPN) and as a leading voice at the sports blogs Deadspin and Kissing Suzy Kolber. In his writing, Margary frequently mixes profanity and poop stories with acerbic, irreverent humor, traits not necessarily associated with a science-fiction novelist. But with the recent publication of The Postmortal, his second book and first foray into fiction, that’s what Margary becomes. Exploring a world in which a cure for aging has been discovered, The Postmortal is an enthralling, sometimes thrilling book that also offers readers another view of Magary as a writer—skilled, nuanced, and occasionally poignant. As The Postmortal hits shelves, and Magary prepares for his Dec. 1 appearance at The Book Cellar, The A.V. Club talked to him about the inspiration for his book, the crossover between sports and pop culture, and how he’s aiming for an audience beyond those who love jokes about Hitler and poop.
The A.V. Club: With your popularity as a writer online and your first book being sports-related, why did you decide to go the science-fiction route?
Drew Magary: The first book I wrote, it was… I don’t know if you would call it a “success,” because I got a nice advance for it—which was great, because I could buy stuff with it—but it didn’t earn any royalties beyond that. I think it sold maybe 10,000 copies. It was okay, but it didn’t shoot to the top of the bestseller list. I wanted to write a book that maybe had the potential to go beyond the Deadspin and KSK [Kissing Suzy Kolber] readership. There was a review, I think it was about my book—but Mike Tunison, who does KSK with me, also had a book out at the same time—where the reviewer basically said that it was all new material, but it was very similar to the writing that we give people every day at those sites. It’s not different enough, but it’s a fine book. So we had to do something different in order to get people to plunk down $10.
It was important to me to get people who didn’t read KSK or Deadspin to read the book, and get an audience beyond that. I think it’s the next thing, getting out of the comfort-zone readership, that at some point you have to try and break out of that and see if you can go in new directions. I wanted to do something that felt a lot bigger than a book that’s going to sit on a toilet. With toilet books, people don’t review them that much. They don’t really pay much attention to them. It’s just like, “Oh, okay. I’ll put this in your stocking.”
AVC: You’re popular on Deadspin and KSK, given the profile of the places you write for now, but there are people who might have been turned off by some of the more profane things you’ve posted over at Deadspin. How much of a concern was that?
DM: No, I wasn’t concerned about that, because I think that there are so many people who haven’t heard of KSK or Deadspin that it’s not that big of a deal. I think I’ve been recognized in public a grand total of one time, and I didn’t have this enormous grand reputation I had to overcome with this. For a lot of people, this is the first thing they’ve read that I’ve ever written. Then they go back and read KSK, and they’re like, “What? This is the same guy? What the hell is this?” [Laughs.]
The other thing was that the book was written because I had the idea, and the idea just sort of led me, and I didn’t concern myself too much with perceptions or audience anticipation or anything like that. I just wanted to follow the idea and go be a slave to it for a couple of years and see where it took me. I’ve always found that the best things I’ve ever written, or the things I like the most that I’ve written, are things where it’s a pure idea, and you just follow it and put it down and see if it works.
AVC: Where did the idea of anti-aging come from?
DM: It’s been around for a while. After I wrote the book, someone told me there was a Kurt Vonnegut short story that tackled the same thing—which is typical of these short-story writers. They take all the good ideas and hoard them in their little short stories. They’re idea-hogs. They’re terrible. “Oh yeah, I just tossed that off. Yeah, it’s a brilliant idea; I’ll just put that in a short story. That’s a minor idea, for me.”
The idea for me came when I was watching a 60 Minutes segment about resveratrol, the chemical in red wine that lets you live longer, supposedly. And they were like, “Who knows, maybe one day it will help to cure aging.” And I thought, “Well, if they did that, we’d all kill each other.” And then I laughed, and then I thought about how precisely that would happen. That’s how the book came to be.
AVC: How did you maintain the level of writing at Deadspin and KSK, both the quantity and quality, while also working on your first full-length novel?
DM: Back in 2009, right before I started writing it, I was writing for KSK and Deadspin, but I also had an advertising day job. I was writing in-house during the day and squeezing in doing a Deadspin or KSK post when I could on top of that. But I got laid off, so I had to make the transition from an advertising career to this weird blogging/writing career thing [Laughs.] and seeing if I could pull it off. I had some time, even though I was still doing Deadspin and KSK. You’ve seen KSK posts—it’s not as if every word is carefully chosen.
AVC: Peter King gets that attention.
DM: That’s right. I can do those things and still have time. I took time in the day to write as much of the book as I possibly could. I didn’t write too much at night, because I don’t like to—I’d rather watch TV. [Laughs.] The other thing is that sometimes it’s nice to have a couple of different projects going on at once, so that if you get stuck in one thing, you can say, “Oh, fuck this. I can just go write a KSK post, and then I’ll come back to it.” I’m sure hopscotching around helps me, because I don’t have much of an attention span, so it almost helps to be juggling two things at once.
The other thing is that it’s pretty obvious that I’m a blogger, and the book is in that blog form. It was so daunting, the idea of a real novel, I copped out and gave it this blog structure, so it’s something I can update every day as it were a blog, except it’s not real. “Okay, if I update it for 100 days—hey, that’s a book!” It helps to break it down. Otherwise, if you think it has to be this 300-page novel, then you just want to kill yourself. I see these books by Stephen King that are 1,000 pages, it just seems impossible to me. I just don’t know how that’s humanly possible. That just doesn’t make sense to me. It completely blows my mind. Just the thickness of the book blows my mind, that one person did that.
AVC: In the notes, you mention that you re-wrote the second half.
DM: I did, because the second half, originally, was bad. The son was a terrorist and they have a Mexican standoff at the end, and it was very stupid. My agent looked at it and he’s like, “No. This is not a good ending.” So I had to go back and rewrite it. Rewriting is always horrible, because you do a first draft and you’re like, “Oh, I’m done! Thank God I never have to do that again!” And then someone’s like, “No, you should rewrite it.” And you’re like, “Oh, no! I have to do it again! I don’t want to do that. Don’t make me.”
I realize that it was much better for it. It made the book into an actual novel. You can see, toward the end, there is some purpose to a lot of the extemporaneous stuff, the articles and stuff like that. They fall away as we get toward the end. There’s a lot of straight narrative, which was done on purpose. It was me learning to write a novel by writing a novel. I just thought it’s a weird process because—it’s like trying to put together a puzzle, but you have to make your own pieces. It’s amazing, the sort of rules you set up for yourself and end up boxing you in, and you get all pissed at yourself, like, “Ah, why can’t he be at two places at once? When I cut this character here, he needs to be at the pawn shop.” It’s amazing that as you write it, there start to be these rules of the world that you can’t violate, and you find yourself pissed off, because there’s times when you need to violate them when you’re not sure what to do.
AVC: When you were rewriting that second half, how much did that change the first half of the novel?
DM: A good amount. I did have to go back and change some stuff in the first half, but the core idea was always the same. The idea was never in doubt, so it was never like I had to change the whole philosophy of the book. That’s always the worst, if someone reads a book and they give you revisions and you hope the revisions are typos, but instead, they’re like, “Oh, hey. Can you make it a bit lighter?” And [it] just ruins it. “Hey, can you make it a completely different book?”
AVC: The tone of the main character walks this fine line, where there are humorous aspects reminiscent of Deadspin/KSK, but at the same time genuine, almost poignant. How much crafting did you have to put into that voice?
DM: It came out easily, but I had to make sure that… the whole story arc is that everyone’s happy in the beginning and ecstatic at this discovery, and then things progressively get a bit more grim after that, so the narrator had to follow that arc. I found that life for me gets a lot more serious as you get older. You start off young and happy and smiling and “Wooo! I’m having fun!” And then you get married, and that’s very serious, and you have kids, and that’s very, very serious. So as you get older, you start thinking about passing away, and that becomes extremely serious. I think the story has this depth to it and becomes very serious and very deep. I think that needed to be reflected in the character. He needs to start off, frankly, a bit shallow in the beginning of the book, and he needed to progress and become a bit more humorless, a bit more serious in his doings, in the way the seriousness of the situation calls for. There was a deliberate shift in tone.
AVC: You wrote a post for Large Hearted Boy where you described a playlist that inspired you. Besides those songs, were there other books or films that directly inspired you?
DM: I think World War Z was the big influence because, obviously, the way he did that book, which is an amazing book. I think anybody else that tried to do it would have failed, because no one would buy it. I think you would find it too episodic, because there’s no central character. He made it work because he’s such a genius. It gave me the idea of how you could actually tackle a novel, if you think about how this one thing impacts everything. You have to go into every single facet of how the world’s going to be affected.
60 Minutes is a big influence. Most of the interviews in the book are structured the way 60 Minutes segments are structured, with the TV person giving a top line and going into the interview, and the narration chiming in. Certain blogs, Huffington Post-type blogs and anything like that. I tried to have as many non-book influences there as I could, so it doesn’t quite read like a straight novel.
I’m rambling a bit, but when I read a book, I like to feel like I’m not reading. I like it to be so effortless, like the movie in my brain starts playing, and then it stops when I close the book. That’s what I was trying to do, and hopefully I succeeded, but that totally depends on the readers.
AVC: Between this and your first book, Men With Balls, which did you prefer writing?
DM: I think I liked writing a novel better. Obviously, it’s more rewarding. It’s that marathon thing where it sucks when you’re doing it, but you’re proud of yourself at the end, and you’ve done it, and at the very least, nobody can take that away from you. This book almost wasn’t bought. It was rejected by 18 editors. It was only published because Tom Roberge, who was the editor at Penguin, pushed hard for it. If he hadn’t, it would never have gotten published. I had to be happy with the process of writing it and taking joy in immersing myself in my own little head-world for a while and getting my kicks out of that, and not worrying about the rest. Ultimately, that ends up being pretty cool, and it’s cool to think that you’re able to do it. Men With Balls, I like that book, and I’m happy I wrote it, because it proved I could write a book, even though it was a book full of penis pictures. Each step you take is more rewarding than the one before.
AVC: How much of a role do you think blogs like Deadspin and KSK have played in the growth of where sports and pop-culture cross over?
DM: I think that all goes back to [ESPN’s Bill] Simmons. I think that he probably is the one who gets the credit for being the progenitor of a lot of… sports writing is a lot more pop-culture savvy, I guess. Deadspin was born more out of where The Daily Show comes from, looking at how sports media is covered. That, to me, was the beginning of pulling that curtain back. It was the first site I had seen that said shitty things about people on ESPN. I was so happy, because I have hated so many people at ESPN for so long. I was like, “Oh, thank God there’s somebody that doesn’t like Stuart Scott. I’m so happy!” It was nice to have that counter-balance to ESPN. That, to me, has always been Deadspin’s larger role, as opposed to the sports and pop-culture thing. I think that, frankly, it’s growing a lot more strained. I think Grantland exists for this, like, “Hey, this team is like the cast of Saved By The Bell.” You can see the strain. It’s not the same as making a pop-culture joke, where you’re talking about a shitty football game or something like that. It’s strained to constantly compare one team or one player to some aspect of pop culture. Sometimes you feel that strain, you see it on the page, and it’s like, “Stop trying so hard. We get it. You watch TV. You’re hip.”
AVC: Do you think this strained sports-and-pop-culture crossover will go away?
DM: No. I mean—that people are going to stop making the comparisons and stuff, or the writing style will go away?
AVC: Both. People are going to get tired of some of those comparisons, like comparing World Cup teams to a Simpsons character. But also in terms of the style, because it seems to be the stereotypical view of what blogging is, like dropping the pop-culture wisecracks.
DM: I don’t know how a culture is going to evolve, but I think the way the Internet works now is, people go to the Internet to laugh and have a good time. That’s why Tumblr feeds and I Can Has Cheezburger and memes get thrown into the blender with real news and sports news and politics and that stuff. I think it’ll all stay blended together now. Some ways it will be executed well, and some times it will be executed poorly, and you’ll say, “Oh, not again. Not the fucking LOLcat with Michele Bachmann.”
AVC: At what point do you think Deadspin grows so popular that it becomes part of the “establishment?”
DM: That they become the old boss? I think that that’s already happened. I think that started with the Favre thing a year ago. Up until the Favre thing, if I told you I worked for Deadspin, I’d get blank stares. But now it’s like, “Oh, the Brett Favre penis people!” I think it’s becoming entrenched. Will there ever be some site that pokes fun at us? Yeah, of course. They already exist. There are plenty of people who say, “Deadspin sucks. It’s just TMZ with sports.” Well, no shit!
AVC: You’re fine with that? You’re fine with that direction of blogging?
DM: The biggest change at Deadspin was Nick Denton at Gawker saying, “Listen, we can’t just be commentators anymore. We can’t just take news stories and comment on them or bitch about them or anything like that. We have to have news generators.” He gave that charge to A.J. and all the other editors, and A.J. had to essentially turn Deadspin into something of a newsgathering organization, which it now is. That was a very hard transition, but it shows that Denton was right. The site has grown because they were able to get things like Favre and the Rex Ryan foot-fetish story. That’s where it’s going now, and that’s basically what they’ve had to do in order to survive as a site, because they weren’t going to grow otherwise. Without that growth, it would’ve been problematic for Deadspin to continue as it was.
AVC: Is that part of what’s contributed to the non-sports content on Deadspin?
DM: Yeah. That was done on purpose, because it was becoming clear then that Deadspin was not only for the sports fans, but men in general. And [Gawker] didn’t have any sort of men’s general-interest site. So that’s when they came up with the Deadspin XY tags, which aren’t as visible on the site as they used to be, but that was like, “Okay, this is a manly topic. Not necessarily sports-related, but this is a men’s topic.” So it became a men’s general-interest blog. That’s where Deadspin is right now, between sports and men’s general interest.
AVC: There have been stories, like the most recent Roethlisberger rape allegation—that ESPN held back while Deadspin and other blogs were running with the story. There’s also Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer, who’s broken NFL news and Yahoo! Sports, who had a recent investigation of the University of Miami. ESPN never would have touched the Favre penis-photo story. Do you see the future of sports journalism as a time when something akin to Deadspin is the leading voice, and ESPN is left behind?
DM: I think ESPN is already left behind, because ESPN is so in bed with the leagues and the people who have the rights to broadcast games, and they are extremely limited in how they can cover sports. And that’s not to say they are essentially a PR organization for the NFL, but they’re getting that way. They’re so big and so corporate and so huge that it’s so bureaucratic and fucked-up that they can’t execute things that—not only things that are taboo—but they can’t touch stories where they might have to sell off their rights to people, because that’s their priority. That’s how all their bread is buttered. They are more in the business of presenting sports on television than they are being a sports-news organization. That’s done. They don’t do that anymore. So you’re going to have Yahoo! and places that don’t have rights being much more aggressive in how sports news is covered. That’s happening now. A lot of the big reports come from Yahoo! with the Miami story, or from Jay Glazer at Fox. Fox has rights to things, sometimes it gets in the way, and sometimes it doesn’t. I think that ESPN is too big and too fucked-up to reverse the course and go back to where they were.
AVC: Any thoughts on Grantland?
DM: I don’t know. It’s like any other site. There’s some good stuff and some bad stuff. I get the feeling that it’s a vanity project, and it’s a bunch of writers jerking each other off talking to each other. That’s not so good. I don’t like it when writers get all writer-y. [Laughs.] I feel like that site, it’s this cool idea of being a writer. There’s not much of an idea behind the site itself—someone was like, “Okay, what’s Grantland?” It’s sports and pop culture, but wasn’t ESPN already that anyway? If you never read Grantland and you saw that TV ad, would you know what the fuck they were talking about? I don’t think you would. I think it’s an ill-defined site right now. I don’t know what its purpose is.
AVC: Would you ever write for them?
DM: No. I saw how they treated Craggs. I’ve seen how ESPN has treated people I know, how they’ve brought them on and then left them for dead instantly. Once ESPN leaves you, and you don’t have a foothold anywhere else, you’re done. It’s very hard to do anything else, because in some ways, they’re the only game in town. So no, unless they paid me a gajillion dollars, gave me a lifetime contract, paid my health insurance, and let me make a Hitler joke.
AVC: Do you see yourself being taken seriously in holding these guys accountable even though you’re sharing poop stories?
DM: For me, personally, it’s almost like it’s not my role at Deadspin, in a way. What A.J. and Craggs do is separate from what I do. [Laughs.] The one time I tried to be used for journalism, I posted some story about the Arizona State baseball coach getting into a fight with an autograph hound, and it was a disastrous thing. The guy rescinded his story. It proved to me that I’m not cut out to be a proper journalist. I’m much better sitting around and making fun of journalists and telling them what terrible journalists they are than being an actual journalist. Craggs is a very respected journalist, and I think people had a lot more respect for A.J. A.J.’s reputation is that he’s the most feared man, and he’s going to take pictures of your penis and put them online or something like that. I think he’s done enough now, and has built Deadspin up so far that I think people give him credit for turning it into a prominent voice in the sports world—not as big as ESPN, but big enough to be heard once in a while.
AVC: You’ve grown in terms of the places you’ve had the opportunity to write. Have you found a door closed to you because of something you wrote online?
DM: I think it’s almost like I wouldn’t know. Like if I burned a bridge with somebody who was going to hire me, they aren’t going to email me and be like, “Hey, I’m never going to hire you.” I haven’t gotten anything where it’s seemingly compromised me. But I know it certainly has come into play sometimes. People are like, “Oh, the guy who swears at Deadspin? No, we can’t use him for X number of reasons.” I understand why, because obviously there’s a lot of profanity in what we do at KSK and Deadspin. There are people who say, “Can he do it without swearing all the time?” Which I do every day—I write for NBC every day, and I’m not allowed to swear there. But I think it’s such an inherent part of our charm at Deadspin, to be uncensored, that people are always a little wary that we’re not in a controlled environment. But it hasn’t hurt me to the extent where I feel as if I’ve killed my career because I posted a poop story.
I wrote the novel because I know there are people who don’t want to read the word “fuck” every other word when they read a book, which is perfectly acceptable. I have no qualms with that taste level. There weren’t deliberate attempts to limit the profanity in the book. There is profanity in the book, but nothing worse than your standard R-rated movie. I didn’t want that to limit the audience.
AVC: Are there any contemporaries whose work you particularly respect?
DM: On the Internet, Spencer Hall at Everyday Should Be Saturday is the best writer in the universe. He’s very funny. They’re jokes about college football, but they come from somebody who’s clearly smarter than the rest of us; it’s always fun to get your jokes from someone who’s a genius. [Laughs.] I’m always in awe of people who can—like J.K. Rowling—create these worlds where every character is perfectly pronounced. I think that’s the hardest thing. Every possible story idea has been thought of, but what people are going back to are really great characters to keep them engaged throughout the story. If you have a great characters, you can always have your character do nothing or do something stupid, and people will still follow them, because they’re so real and so tangible. I’m always amazed by people like David Simon or the people at The Simpsons or J.K. Rowling who can create dozens and dozens of memorable characters. It seems so effortless, and even people who have just three lines in the shows or in the book have a very distinct personality, and you can feel the richness of their personal history. I think that’s an incredibly hard thing to do, and I know that I’m not there yet. I think that’s probably the thing I’ve always wanted to try to aspire to, but it’s hard. Those guys are good.
AVC: As you get older and things get more serious, how has your perception of sports changed—how you engage with sports, how you follow it—especially now that you have kids?
DM: You have to de-prioritize it. When you’re 18, when you’re at college, sports can be your life. You can watch every baseball game, every college basketball game, every football game. Once you have a family and kids, you can’t do that anymore. I can’t watch every basketball game. That would be completely insane. I’ve had to do this triage where I pick what sport is important to me, which happens to be football, so football is what I watch, and I don’t really watch too many other sports anymore. I occasionally get glimpses, but I have to reprioritize, because that’s how it naturally progresses—things like family, responsibilities, and your job all take precedent. Now, my job happens to be sports-related, so it’s like my duty to watch football. It’s my job. But that’s not a change for me. When you’re 18, it’s life and death, because you don’t have a kid, and it’s a much bigger deal when you’re 18. Having a kid—when the Vikings lost the 2009 NFC title game, it sucked, and I’m not happy about it, but my kid is still alive. You have to have that horrible forced perspective that you don’t want. [Laughs.] I’d much rather be a raving lunatic when I watch a game, but I’m not.
Drew Magary photo by Patrick Serengulian