As the self-described "Greatest Living American Writer," and a popular contributor to Dave Eggers' McSweeney's web site and magazine, Neal Pollack satirizes the rampant egotism and macho bluster of larger-than-life literary icons like Ernest Hemingway, Gore Vidal, and Norman Mailer. In 2000, many of Pollack's parody essays were collected as The Neal Pollack Anthology Of American Literature, the first book published by Eggers' McSweeney's Books. Pollack's cult following grew as he toured the country, giving memorably unconventional readings that fused literature, performance art, and music. In the last few months, he's published an expanded paperback version of Anthology through HarperCollins, recorded an accompanying set of spoken-word CDs, and signed with Chicago's esteemed insurgent-country label, Bloodshot Records. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Pollack about cult literary stardom, fan fiction, and why he's the voice of the Dawson's Creek generation.
The Onion: Around the time The Neal Pollack Anthology Of American Literature came out, you were quoted as saying you were going to "kick the ass" of big publishing. Now that you've signed with HarperCollins, is it safe to say those plans have been delayed?
Neal Pollack: I think I actually said, "I'm going to kiss the ass of big publishing." It was a typo. I guess it's been delayed to some extent. Although I am coming out with another book on McSweeney's sometime this yearwe're going to publish a poetry book of mineit's really hard to make a living publishing books through an independent press. I did okay with the McSweeney's book: I made about $40,000 over the last year and a half, and that's okay, but it's not a ton of money. I learned an important lesson, which is that book publishing is dominated by large corporate publishers and chain bookstores, and you're going to have to tango with them to some extent if you want to make a serious living as a fiction writer. You can publish some stuff with independent presses and get away with it, and even prosper from it, but in the end, there's no way in today's book-business environment that you can make a real solid living. You have to supplement your independent habits with some kind of teaching or some other sort of job.
O: So getting into bed with the majors is a necessary evil if you want to make a living off writing?
NP: I think so. There's not too much of a choice. I've actually been really surprised at how accommodating the big publisher has been. There is some bureaucratic bullshit I've had to deal with, but they've pretty much let me plan my own book tour as I want to do it, at independent bookstores. They've pretty much let me say and do exactly what I want with my book. And they let me do this three-CD spoken-word box set without really demanding a pound of flesh in return. If I had something to complain about, I'd be complaining, but it's been a good experience. I know not everyone can be lucky enough to get the kind of gig I've got with them, especially since I still get to do these readings at independent bookstores, which is kind of a key element to what I'm trying to do. If you can keep the independent bookstores alive, then there's more of a chance for young writers to break through, since they're often the ones that push new careers forward.
O: How did McSweeney's come to publish The Neal Pollack Anthology?
NP: I had a bunch of pieces that I'd written for McSweeney's that were popular in the context of the McSweeney's worldthey had kind of a good, solid indie fan baseand I wanted to have a book, so I shopped the book around to big publishers, and no one was interested at all. Believe it or not, there was no interest in loosely connected, snarky parodies of literary journalism. So I sat down with Dave Eggers, and I knew he wanted to start this book-publishing venture at McSweeney's, and we sat at his then-apartment in Brooklyn for a couple of hours and came up with various ideas of how to make this a book. That was in March 2000. And by May 2000, I had finished a draft of the book and some extra stuff to glue it together, and by September, I was on my book tour. None of us knew what we were doing. Dave had been on a book tour, but he'd never sent someone else out on one. He had never published a book before. No one had done any book publicity or publishing before, so it was a very hastily thrown-together little experiment.
O: You put a lot of thought into your book tours, which not a lot of writers seem to do. Why do you think so many book readings come off as predictable and boring?
NP: I don't quite understand that. I mean, I love touring. I think it might have something to do with the fact that a lot of writers don't actually like to appear in front of other people. But you do hear an inordinate amount of whining about being forced to travel around the country with a corporate card, stay in nice hotels, do radio interviews, and appear at bookstores. You hear a lot of whining about, you know, the people with the bags of books, or who want to get their manuscript published and are asking inane questions, and I'm thinking, "That's great! What the hell else do you want out of life? These people respect what you're doing, they appreciate it, and they want to be like you." When writers complain, it's like, "Don't you remember when you were hungry? Don't you remember when you hadn't had your books published? Or were you always just destined for literary greatness?" I consider myself to be like the people in the audience. You know, if a schmuck like me can get his book published, anybody can. I don't understand the aversion to book touring. Unless they're painfully shy, in which case it's understandable, writers should approach book touring like musicians approach their own touring. Which is to say, the book is like an album, and the tour is the thing that builds interest in your art.
O: I remember reading, in The New York Times' "Writers On Writing" column, a piece by Ann Beattie, where she basically treats touring as this incredible indignity.
NP: God forbid. You know, I'm starting a book tour next week, and I get to go to Boston, Austin, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, and all kinds of places that I love, and where I have a lot of friends. I'm going to have a party. I'm going to have a good time and I'm going to force people to have a good time with me, whether they want to or not. I'll answer any question, delivered to me at any volume. I don't care. It's not an indignity. I don't know, maybe Ann Beattie is a little bitter because nobody gives a shit about her anymore. It's like, "Oh, no, I'm sorry you're being forced on this Bataan Death March of publicity." Give me a break. She should be grateful that anybody wants to talk to her at all.
O: Reading the piece, I kind of wished that she could experience what it's like to be, say, a coalminer, so she could have some frame of reference.
NP: Or even delivering pizza, or any kind of work. I love being a writer, and I see it as a privilege that I get to go into my little room and make up funny stories and answer e-mails from people who like me. It's like, "Thank God." It's a gift, not some kind of birthright.
O: At one point, she even complains about charities wanting stuff from her.
NP: I'll send people my used condoms. I'll French-kiss a moose. I don't care. Anything to sell my book.
O: So there's a bit of the carny barker in you?
NP: Yeah, there's a carny barker, but there's also kind of a desperate, Willy Loman-like quality to my endless hucksterism. "Attention must be paid, people must like me. Don't you see who I am? Look at me, look at me."
O: Don't you think there's a bit of that desperate need for attention in all writing?
NP: Of course. Especially with the kind of writers I make fun of, there's this desire to have people acknowledge what brilliant thinkers and reporters they are. I just have no shame about admitting it.
O: It seems like writers associated with McSweeney's are expected to have a certain amount of integrity other writers aren't necessarily expected to have.
NP: I guess so, but I don't think anyone expects me to have any integrity. I'm a person who holds book readings in the bathroom of a train station. That has about as much integrity as masturbating on the Bible. That didn't make any sense. It has no integrity. That wasn't an act of integrity, it was an act of desperation. I don't think McSweeney's writers are necessarily expected to have any more or less integrity than anyone else. People are looking in the wrong places if they expect writers to have integrity.
O: It seems like there was a bit of a backlash when Eggers' book [A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius] came out.
NP: You mean for not "keeping it real"? That comes from a very small segment of the population. They're vocal, but they're the same people who criticized Nirvana for getting a corporate record deal. It's the same phenomenon on a smaller scale. My thoughts on it are, "What are you going to do? If someone offers you a lot of money to publish your book and offers you complete creative control, you're going to take it." If someone offers to fly you to do some prestigious workshop at a big university, you're going to say no because it's against your indie ideals? You're going to spread your gospel the best you can. I don't know. I'm sort of publicizing this paperback and these CDs and this tour as sort of my "Sellout Tour." Because the idea that I could sell out, and that anybody would care, is absurd. Very few people know who I am. Even fewer people care who I am. Who cares if I sell out?
O: Well, it seems like the cast of Dawson's Creek cares about you, don't they?
NP: Well, I have a very deep following among the cast and crew of Dawson's Creek. My friend Gina [Fattore] writes for the show, so she wrote my name into one of the scripts. That was my moment of ultimate triumph.
O: What was the context of your name appearing on the show?
NP: It was actually the first episode of Dawson's Creek that I had seen. Katie Holmes' character has kind of a crush on her English professor, and she runs into him at the campus bookstore and is looking at his novel. And she's reading quotes on the back, and she notices that one of them is from Neal Pollack. And she goes, "Wait a second!" and he goes, "Yes, it's from America's greatest living writer," and that makes her even more attracted to him. To have my name uttered by Katie Holmes on television, I think that's pretty much the ultimate. I don't see how my career as a writer can advance any further than that. That's probably the closest I'm ever going to get to winning a National Book Award. But it's better.
O: Do you think it's safe to call you the voice of the Dawson's Creek generation?
NP: Yeah, absolutely. There is no question about it. The values that I expound on in my writing are completely and totally reflective of the viewership of Dawson's Creek.
O: McSweeney's Books seems pretty busy these days. Do you think it's building enough of an infrastructure that its writers might not have to "sell out" to make a living?
NP: I don't know. It's doing fine. I mean, there are books coming out, and it's still publishing issues. It's still publishing books. Dave Eggers just opened a big tutoring center in San Francisco, and they just opened a store in New York, and the web site is still read by 25,000 people a day, so the culture is still alive. It's more Dave's project than mine, so I can't speak to how long it's going to be around or anything, or whether the infrastructure is going to be built up. But I can say that the buzz surrounding it has died down, and people don't care about it the way they used to. It still exists and still has a solid following. It's still at the core of what I do, even if my book is being published by HarperCollins. I think that its spirit lives on, but it's not hot like it was, which is actually better in the long run.
O: How did this big sellout come about?
NP: I had an agent, and we shopped the book around and asked people to buy the paperback rights. There was no magic formula. The book had had some press and we had some sales figures, and people knew who I was a little bit more, and publishers are like sheep, and I gave them some tasty grass, and they ate it.
O: It wasn't a matter of them saying, "You with the integrity, sign with our giant book company"?
NP: No, no, no. If anything, they had to be persuaded that I was a product worth investing in. Really, they pretty much did whatever I wanted. They put out this three-CD spoken-word box set.
O: How did you manage that?
NP: I don't even remember. I wanted to do it, and they bought the audio rights, so I figured, "Let's just do it and make it interesting." There were some cool people in the audio department, so it just happened. I guess I had some designs, but they could have just said no. They certainly don't need me to do it.
O: It seems like the comedy album is kind of a dying medium.
NP: Yeah, well, I kind of reconfigured the audiobook as a concept comedy album. Which I think is going to sell hundreds of copies. It's an absolute boondoggle, but I'm bringing it back. I'm bringing it all back. This is Lenny Bruce as seen through the lens of Ernest Hemingway and, uh...
O: On acid, with David Lynch.
NP: Exactly. On acid, with David Lynch directing. With music by Philip Glass.
O: On your web site, you mention that you received $22,000 from HarperCollins. Why did you feel the need to publicize that figure?
NP: Well, I just think that people should know the price for which I can be bought. I also think that it sort of removes the aura of mystery from it all. Because, in the end, nobody really cares that I went from McSweeney's to HarperCollins. It doesn't really matter, so why not tell people that kind of stuff? I guess what I was trying to get across was that even if I'm being published by a corporate publisher, that doesn't really mean anything. Selling out for $22,000 is not selling out. It's not enough money to make me want to change anything.
O: What are you going to do with all that money?
NP: With the first payment, I bought a lot of horse tranquilizers. And then I gave them to my horse, which I also bought with the money. Then, the second half I just used to pay off some old law-school loans, and to get a swimming pool put into the patio of my townhouse. And I went out for a really nice dinner with my wife.
O: What's with all the nudity? It seems like you are far and away the nudest writer on the Internet.
NP: I think writers in general want to be naked. Most of them write naked, or at least write in their underwear. The author photo is always sort of a bad come-on. They've always got their hand on their chin, or they're leaning against a tree or gazing dreamily. So I thought, "Let's take this to its farthest extreme. Let's let it all hang out, literally." So far, it's been extremely successful. I got a letter from a guy who said the next time I was in town I should stop by for a massage, and that I was his typehairy and slightly flabby.
O: It seems like you've gone out of your way to make yourself accessible to the masses. Has there been any downside to that?
NP: No, there really isn't. I mean, I don't publish my home phone number. I don't have to answer my e-mail right away. I don't know. I don't think writers should be this godlike figure who reads from a podium and signs books while their fans quake before their greatness. Who am I to put myself in that position? I don't like the way the writer is viewed in our culture. I went to a convention last year, and Joyce Carol Oates was sitting at a table, and there must have been 500 people waiting to see her. And I'm thinking, "She's sitting behind a table in a conference center. There's 500 people who want to talk to her and have her sign their book. That just doesn't seem like literature to me. It doesn't seem like culture." I don't know, I just want to do it differently, because the way it's done now is boring.
O: Why do you think writers tend to take themselves so seriously?
NP: Probably too much education, and because the culture is set up to take them seriously. They appear in serious locations and are asked serious questions about serious things. I mean, in reality, being a writer is like being an opera singer in this country. It's respected, and you're perpetuating an art form, but it's not as broadly based as writers might think. Even the best selling author, if they were a TV show, they'd be canceled in a week. Ten million people checking out your product is nothing, at least on the networks. Writers just kind of occupy this weird pocket in the culture.
O: Reading through Anthology, it seems like a lot of the larger-than-life writers you parody are kind of a thing of the past. Why do you think that is? Why do you think today's writers are such wusses?
NP: I think thatand I'm gonna sound like Gore Vidal herethere was a time when more people read, and writers were able to be larger personalities and mean something larger in the culture. They were allowed to take up this iconic status. There are very few writers today who can achieve that. I pay homage to those kind of people, in a way, because today's writers are kind of dorkier and more effete and more cloistered, more insular and neurotic. But it seems like the day of giant minds walking the earth, or even just writers who thought of themselves that way... There are very few remnants of that left. We really look up to television figures more than literary figures.
O: Early in your career, there were weird rumors that you were, in fact, the fictional creation of Dave Eggers. What was that like for you?
NP: It didn't create a deep existential crisis or anything; it was just deeply, deeply annoying. There was absolutely nothing to indicate that I was Dave Eggers, other than the fact that the character in the book is a fictional persona. But why would he choose that fictional name? What purpose could it have served for him to write a book under a pseudonym? There's this assumption that there's only one clever young writer in America. It pissed me off. I don't know if it pissed him off, because he didn't want to be known as me either, since I'm such an annoying weenie. But what can you do?
O: Is there any truth to the rumor that, alternately, Dave Eggers is a fictional character you created?
NP: No. I couldn't create a fictional character as intricate as Dave Eggers. I'm not a good enough writer. Let it be known that he is a real person with real feelings.
O: Your web site has a place where readers can send in their Neal Pollack fan fiction.
NP: I'm looking for fan fiction. I'm not really about trolling for babes on the Internet, not anymore. I used to be. When the first edition of the Anthology came out, I got a few pieces of fan fiction from desperate souls, but they were all pretty good, and they were all written basically in the style of my book, and featured me as a character. But that kind of dried up, and I missed the attention, and I wanted the fan fiction back, so I announced a contest. I haven't decided what the prize is yet. But, you know, my book is essentially one long piece of fan fiction written about myself, and I think fan fiction is kind of an underappreciated art. It's sort of an underappreciated genre of pulp fiction. So I would like people to write fiction about me, featuring characters from various television programs and movies.
O: Is there one specific type of fan fiction you're looking for?
NP: Not really. Most of the stuff I get is kind of Mickey Spillane-ish in tone, but some of them are more literary. I got one recently that was kind of a James Bond type of thing. Someone sent me a piece about airline security that I thought was topical. I don't really care, as long as it's fan fiction. There was a guy who sent me what he called fan fiction the other day, but all it said was, "Dick dick dick dick dick dick dick licker." So I wrote him back and said, "Listen, that's a very nice thing that you wrote me, but I think you're going to have to expand a little bit on your ideas. Maybe you should call it 'Neal Pollack is a dick licker.' Even if it's just 500 words, I'd publish it." I don't care if people write things that are insulting to me. I mean, I deserve to be insulted, and I deserve to be abused, but they've got to flesh out their ideas. That's the first thing you learn in creative-writing class.