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The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt on not becoming a Russian novelist

Photo courtesy Cesar Padilla.
Photo courtesy Cesar Padilla.

In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.

As the frontman of The Magnetic Fields, Stephin Merritt produced some of the wryest pop songs of the late ’90s and ’00s, most notably with the three-CD set 69 Love Songs. Not one to be confined by a single band name, Merritt has also released music as The 6ths, Future Bible Heroes, and The Gothic Archies, the latter of which wrote songs for each audiobook of Lemony Snicket’s Series Of Unfortunate Events. (Daniel Handler, writing pseudonymously as Lemony Snicket, has also played accordion with The Magnetic Fields.) Known for lyrics that both exemplify and mock bubblegum pop music, Merritt has now taken his love of words to the printed page. His new book, 101 Two-Letter Words, is illustrated by long-time New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast and is filled with irreverent poems are as funny and teasing as Merritt’s lyrics, all based around the two-letter words allowed in Scrabble. Merritt is currently on tour with two November dates in Chicago, including a rare solo performance at Old Town School Of Folk Music on Saturday, November 8.

Stephin Merritt: I’m just waking up. I haven’t had any caffeine yet. If I fall asleep during the questions, just politely cough.

1. What’s the worst job you ever had?

SM: There’s a few of those. But the worst job I ever had was working at Cinema 57 in Boston. I don’t remember why the 57. The managers were not… competent, and they wanted us to clean the bathrooms, but there were no tools to do that with.

The A.V. Club: So what did they expect you to do?

SM: They didn’t think that far. Essentially they expected us to magically make the bathrooms clean with our minds.

AVC: How long did you last at that job?

SM: Only a few weeks. And I don’t think anybody ever cleaned the bathrooms at all.

AVC: Did you at least get to see any good movies?

SM: Well, they played the same movie again and again. So I got to see little parts of an Indiana Jones movie.

2. What did your parents want you to be?

SM: I grew up with a single mother, and she wanted me to be, essentially, a Russian novelist. She was an English teacher, and the highest thing one could do in the world would be to write Crime And Punishment. Or I guess the second highest would be an Irish novelist. I needed to be either Dostoevsky or Joyce.

AVC: Are you either Russian or Irish?

SM: You know, I’m partly Irish. No parts Russian. Now at least I’m a published author. The first half-century of my life I was not even a published author—merely a musician. My mother told me at 14 that whatever I did, I must promise her not to become a professional musician.

I never set out to become a professional musician. I wanted to be a filmmaker. I went to film school. I was terrible.

AVC: How far did you get into that career?

SM: No farther than school.

3. Who would be your pop culture best friend?

SM: This is a difficult question. I didn’t feel like I understand what the question means. And from reading other people’s answers, I still don’t understand what it means. What does it mean to you?

AVC: Somebody you think you would be friends with—like a fictional character. Your perfect best friend.

SM: I guess Ned in Holiday. I’ve always liked him best. He’s sort of extraneous to the plot, but there’s Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant—the main characters—and there’s a scene—there’s Ned—we don’t really know much about Ned except that he has been creatively squashed by his domineering father. So I guess my role in Ned’s life would be to lead him back to his—to get his creative juices flowing, whatever that means.

4. What game show do you think you’d be good at?

SM: Well, the only game show I know of is Jeopardy! I have a friend, Jason Keller, who was the No. 6 Jeopardy! champion of all time, and I’ve seen him play Jeopardy!, and it looks like a lot of fun. But sometimes I think the answers are incredibly easy and would be known by any civilized person. And then sometimes I don’t really even understand what the topic is.

AVC: What category would you easily win?

SM: I’m good in the arts. And completely hopeless in sports.

5. How would your enemies describe you?

SM: Well, I’ve gotten a lot of bad press. So my enemies have described me as racist, motherfucker, all sorts of things. Asshole, jerk, Asperger’s—which might actually be closer to the truth—but I don’t know that there is an objective truth to that. Or the rest of them, really. And I’ve gotten a lot of criticism for being short. That’s always fun. And gay. Internet trolls like to be openly hateful.

AVC: But do you think the Internet trolls are your true enemies?

SM: Well, my true enemy is dead.

6. If a deli named a sandwich after you, what would be on it?

SM: I don’t do favorite things, but I do have a favorite sandwich that might as well be named after me. It’s peanut butter and banana with honey and sprouts on marbleized bread.

AVC: Sprouts?

SM: Just a few. And the peanut butter is crunchy, which I don’t usually like, but the combination of two different kinds of crunchy—and these aren’t the little sprouts, these are the bigger sprouts that are actually crunchy.

7. What was your first big, grown-up purchase?

SM: I guess my house in Hollywood. I bought a pink house in Hollywood, a block from Sunset Boulevard. I sold it two years ago, but I had it for a few years.

AVC: Most people say their car. A pink house is a nice change of pace.

SM: I gradually got more and more invested in cars, so it wasn’t a sudden thing. Whereas I suddenly bought a house. There wasn’t a precedent for my buying a house.

8. What’s your go-to karaoke song?

SM: Well, as a singer, I regard karaoke as off-limits because I would be performing for free, which would make me a scab. What I will do, though, is wrong-words karaoke, which is much more fun anyway—you sing one song to the tune of another. So I’m pretty good at singing “Hound Dog” to the tune of “Love Me Tender.” [Sings to tune of “Love Me Tender.”] “You ain’t nothin’ / but a hound / dog cryin’ all the / time you ain’t nothin’ but a / hound cryin’ all the…”

AVC: That must get tricky.

SM: That’s why you need the lyrics scrolling in front of you. You just sort of count off the syllables and let them fall where they may. It’s fun. And, yes, it’s tricky.

9. What’s the worst living situation you’ve ever had?

SM: When I first moved to New York, I was living with my boyfriend in his more-or-less ex-boyfriend’s apartment, and with the ex-boyfriend’s new boyfriend, who had just come out of prison, where he had been put for assaulting one of his prostitution clients with an air gun. I think he was threatening him. I don’t think he actually shot him. And his new puppy, who was in a cage, and didn’t like it and cried all night long. And the ex-boyfriend’s cat, who did anything she wanted. And thousands of cockroaches. And we were sleeping on the floor.

AVC: The cat didn’t take care of the cockroaches?

SM: No. I think the cat encouraged the cockroaches. So I was eating lots of bagels, back when bagels were 35 cents if you didn’t order the cream cheese on them.

AVC: So… your boyfriend’s ex-boyfriend was in jail?

SM: No, my boyfriend’s ex-boyfriend’s new boyfriend. There were four people in the apartment. It was basically a love square.

10. Who could you take in a fight?

SM: No one. I’m a true pacifist; I’ve never actually hit anyone. In a fight with someone paralyzed, they would probably win. I suppose I could take a coma patient.

11. Do you have anybody’s autograph?

SM: I don’t have anyone’s autograph. I have some signed first editions. I don’t know if that counts.

AVC: Are any of them of Russian or Irish novelists?

SM: They’re all of either Daniel Handler or Neil Gaiman. Or Peter Straub. I know so many novelists! [Laughs.] I have a lot of signed first editions, actually.

AVC: Whose autograph would you want?

SM: I don’t know. I don’t know what people want autographs for. I mean, why is the original different from a reproduction of it? I’ve never gotten that.

12. The bonus question is from comedian Jonathan Katz, and I really apologize that I have to ask you this. Jonathan Katz wants to know, have you ever had sex with an animal?

SM: Humans are animals. So yes.

AVC: What question do you want to ask to the next person?

SM: “What’s the worst interview you ever had?”

AVC: And what’s the worst interview you ever had?

SM: I had an interview with someone who had never done it before, and she had, in her nervousness, a vocal tic of trailing off at the ends of sentences, so that I didn’t hear what she was asking. And also putting all the information in the question at the end of the sentence—inaudible. So, “What’s your favorite… [Mumbles.]” “How long have you… [Mumbles.]” So there was no way of me actually answering these questions. And it didn’t get any better.