Neal Pollack on rebounding from massive hype and six-figure deals to online publishing
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In Money Matters, creative people discuss what they’re not supposed to: the intersection of entertainment and commerce, as well as moments in their lives and careers when they bottomed out financially and/or professionally.
The artist: Neal Pollack appeared in the national consciousness as part of the talented group of writers and editors that gravitated to McSweeney’s, Dave Eggers’ publishing empire. In 2000, The Neal Pollack Anthology Of American Literature—a collection of satirical pieces centering on the fictional “Neal Pollack” persona, a larger-than-life spoof of macho world-beaters like Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer—became the first book published by McSweeney’s publishing arm. (The book was later re-published by HarperCollins.) A satirical rock novel, Never Mind The Pollacks, followed in 2003, and was followed by 2007’s Alternadad, a memoir about his experiences raising his son. Alternadad generated tons of publicity and human-interest stories about hipster parenting, in addition to generating interest from the television and film industries. But the book’s sales failed to match its buzz, and television and film adaptations didn’t pan out.
Pollack published a yoga memoir, Stretch, in 2010, but over the past two years he has devoted much of his time and energy to writing mysteries for new publishing paradigms. In March of 2011, Pollack self-published the Kindle release JewBall, a period basketball mystery that attracted the attention of Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer mystery imprint, which reprinted it as a download and a paperback. Pollack followed it up with another mystery for Thomas & Mercer, in this case a yoga-themed book called Downward-Facing Death that Amazon released in serialized installments; it’s now available in its entirety as both a Kindle release and a paperback. Sequels to both mysteries are in the works.
The A.V. Club: What was your relationship to money as a child?
Neal Pollack: When I was 7 years old, we moved to Paradise Valley, Arizona, which is a very wealthy suburb of Phoenix. In fact, I’d say it’s a very wealthy suburb of Scottsdale. And this wasn’t the Paradise Valley that was described in—this is a very dated movie reference—Pump Up The Volume, the Christian Slater movie. This was the town of Paradise Valley. In the movie it was called Paradise Hill. The town of Paradise Valley that attracted such exclusive real estate that there’s not commercial real estate in it to this day. It’s best known as where Camel Back Mountain is, and there may be a couple of boutiques on one of the streets and then there’s the Barry Goldwater Memorial. So that’s where I grew up. My father was a hotel executive and, at the time we moved there, there were no paved roads in the section where we lived. Every house had to have acres of desert land, and that’s still the case. Not our immediate next-door neighbors, but the family down the dirt road were the heirs to the Campbell’s Soup fortune. They were billionaires, multi-billionaires. My family wasn’t anything like that, but my dad had a very good corporate executive job.
Then, in 1979, he lost that job. We suddenly went very quickly from being upper-middle class to really struggling financially. And that had a big impact on me, because I watched my parents really struggle with having to pay bills and buy groceries and find work. My mom got a job as a public-school teacher and my dad, with some investors, bought a failing charter bus company and didn’t really save it. So I spent the part of my childhood I could remember watching my family struggle with financial problems and watching my father struggle with his identity as a man as he made his way in the business world. In addition to that, we had these extremely rich neighbors, so there was this big dichotomy between what we had and what everyone else had. It’s not like we had nothing. We lived in a nice house in a super-exclusive neighborhood, but compared to everyone else around us, we weren’t at the top of the pyramid, if that makes sense. So I didn’t grow up poor, but I did grow up with a lot of financial anxiety around me.
AVC: It seems that people who were bumped down a social class as kids tend to be more self-conscious about money and anxious growing up, because there’s always that fear the bottom will fall out and you will plummet down the social ladder.
NP: Yeah. Class anxiety was just part of my childhood, and that’s because I went to grade school and high school with some kids whose families were extremely wealthy and some kids whose families had nothing or not much; kids who lived in mansions and kids who lived in townhomes. My best friend in grade school, he lived with his mother and brother near the school on a dirt lot in a house made of cinder blocks and painted pink. And this was my best friend. They really didn’t have much, so I was always acutely aware of class status, but because I came from this family that had success, and I had relatives that had money and I had other relatives that didn’t have any, so I was always nervous about it.
AVC: When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
NP: I was in seventh grade, and I was in an advanced-track English class, for what that’s worth. We had these vocabulary words every week, and our teacher assigned us to write a paragraph about them. The first week we had that assignment, it was “words with Roman roots.” I was a history dork, so I wrote a little short story set in my idea of ancient Rome. My idea of ancient Rome was largely derived from TV miniseries and comics. But I set it there, and I enjoyed it so much that I decided to write a sequel to it the following week. Then it sort of snowballed from there to where I was writing serialized fiction with an audience of nothing more than my English class, my teacher, and my friends. But I loved it so much, and I realized that that’s what I want to be doing for the rest of my life. So I kept writing these serialized fiction pieces all year with different characters and different kinds of words, and it was such a source of joy for me. I decided to do it for the rest of my life, and it’s remained pretty consistent since then.
AVC: Did you have a sense of what kind of writing you wanted to do? Was it journalism specifically, or was it just that you were driven to write?
NP: Well, that was the fiction-writing inspiration. I started working on the high-school newspaper when I was a freshman, when I was 14. I also enjoyed that. I didn’t come from a particularly whimsical family. People in my family worked, so journalism was a profession. I wasn’t discouraged from fiction writing, but it didn’t seem like a career path. Whereas journalism, there were a lot more people making a living and supporting their families through journalism than fiction writing. Fiction writing was an art, journalism was a craft. So I started pursuing that. I was on the high-school newspaper; I was a teen correspondent for the Phoenix Gazette, a now-defunct afternoon newspaper that, I believe, was published on green newspaper because there was a little trend of publishing on green newspapers. Not environmentally green, but actual green paper. So I did that in the late ’80s. I went to journalism conferences, and I enjoyed talking to people and listening to their stories, the same reasons anyone wants to get into journalism. Then I went to journalism school. I got accepted to Northwestern’s undergraduate journalism program, the best journalism program in the country, and it was a vehicle for my ambition. I wanted to write fiction as well, but oftentimes, that professional ambition would tug at me as well, so I was always conflicted with that professionally ambitious part of myself and that creatively ambitious part of myself.
AVC: Did you think you could make a living as a journalist? It’s such a different world now than it was 20 years ago.
NP: Daily newspapers as a vehicle for professional advancement is very limited. But I still know a lot of people who try to make a living as a journalist. There are, I know, a lot of people who work for Buzzfeed, for instance, or other online institutions. It’s not The Washington Post. It is mutating, but I don’t think it’s any less. I mean, I went to journalism school and, within 18 months, I had a staff-writer job at an alternative weekly, which is not something that happens anymore because alternative weeklies, in that form, don’t exist anymore. But I still feel like if you’re a person who wants to be a newspaper hack or an online hack, there’s an avenue for you.
AVC: How long were you at The Chicago Reader, and how do you look back on that job? Were you overcome with the romance of journalism?
NP: I loved that job. I was a staff writer at a newspaper that, I won’t say [it was] at its absolute height, but was certainly in its heyday. Great paper, great editors, I got to work at home, make my own hours, and I had an enormous amount of creative freedom to just hang out with people on the subways or go into neighborhood bars and just listen to people telling me their stories. I spent two months hanging out on a pier talking to old Polish fisherman.
AVC: You got to be Mike Royko for a little while.
NP: Mike Royko, Joseph Mitchell. I was really into Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker in those days. Chicago is a real city, and it allowed me that experience of hanging out with urban weirdoes and just listening to their stories. And, in addition to that, I got to cover mayoral campaigns and labor disputes and other kinds of political issues. And I didn’t make a lot of money. My starting salary was $25,000 a year and, even in 1994, that wasn’t a ton of money. But my salary was only a few thousand more than that when I quit. But I was a bachelor; I lived in a one-bedroom apartment. A pretty large one-bedroom apartment, and I paid $500 a month in rent. I didn’t own a car, and I had one credit card that I always paid the balance off of. I never had a ton of money in the bank, but I was able to take vacations to foreign countries and pay them off on my own. Life was pretty easy in a lot of [ways], maybe not my personal life, but in my professional life and my financial life. It was a romantic time.
AVC: How did that segue into the McSweeney’s “Neal Pollack” stage of your career?
NP: Well, the Reader wasn’t a persona; that was my life at that point. That was the journalism side of me being dominant. But that fiction side of my personality was still with me and I still wanted to write creatively. For a while, I did improv, I studied with Del Close at Improv Olympics and I was in a troupe called The Free Associates where we did long-form parodies of literary genres. I don’t think they’re still around, but I think some of the people I performed with still do improv together around Chicago. So that was my creative outlet, but then that just stopped and bottomed out for me. And then I just started writing these parodies of bad magazine articles that I was performing at these spoken-word nights around Chicago. And I did several performances in the basement of this place on Milwaukee Avenue called Poop Studio and other spoken-word venues. And I never had any ambition of publishing them, other than maybe in a zine or something, and I never really had any hope. But then one day, I got an email forwarded to me from my friend Todd Pruzan, an email from Dave Eggers, who was, by then, an editor at Esquire. And he was looking for content for the first issue of this new magazine he was publishing. On a whim, I compiled some of these parodies and sent them to him and he liked them and packaged four of them together and it became a piece in the first issue of McSweeney’s, which then became this huge New York publishing phenomenon. Then, when he started the website for McSweeney’s, I wrote more of these pieces and those started to catch on. Suddenly I’m getting these emails from readers I didn’t know who said they liked my work, and that never happened at the Reader. I almost never got letters from readers; I almost never got feedback from readers. It was intoxicating that people were enjoying my creative work for the first time since I was a kid.
AVC: Did you get the sense that this could be the next phase in your career?
NP: Well, yeah. It happened gradually. I went to New York, because there was this publishing party, I don’t remember if it was the first issue or the second issue of McSweeney’s, which I was also featured in. And I went and, in retrospect, by New York publishing standards, it wasn’t really all that glamorous. They had a Mr. Softee truck as its food vendor, and it was just a bunch of people standing around drinking cocktails. But it felt very upscale and new to me. And I met people who were in positions of relative power compared to people I knew. Suddenly, my ambition sparked and I got the sense that something was actually happening and people were starting to realize who I was. My ego started to grow, for better or for worse. And it really took off when Eggers said he wanted to start publishing books and he tapped me as the first author to be published by McSweeney’s. In a very short period of time, I started compiling these pieces that went into the Neal Pollack Anthology Of American Literature, and I started writing more pieces and, almost overnight, I was a published author. And that changed everything, obviously.
AVC: Ego is obviously a key component, or a primary component, of the “Neal Pollack” persona. Was it tough separating your real ego from your fictional ego?
NP: Well, the ego of the character in that book is different from my actual ego. The ego of the character in that book, that’s the ego of someone who is very successful who is looking back on his career with some satisfaction. My actual ego was that of someone who becomes an overnight success, whose book is published to, maybe not great acclaim, but certainly great attention. He gets a prominent review in The New York Times Book Review. And I was like, “Fuck this. I don’t need a job anymore. I’m a famous writer.” So I quit my job without much of a safety net, honestly. I made some money off the anthology, but I didn’t make a shitload. I made in the five digits, but I quit my job and almost, completely inexplicably, my wife and I moved to Philadelphia and bought a little townhouse in a marginally gentrifying neighborhood. Those were the spoils: Suddenly I was living in Philadelphia. [Laughs.] That’s what being the “greatest living American writer” got me.
AVC: Why the move to Philadelphia?
NP: You know, to this day we’re still not sure, exactly.
AVC: Was being closer to the publishing industry a major factor?
NP: Being on the East Coast seemed appealing at the time. We couldn’t afford New York at the time, but, in retrospect, New York in 2000 seems like a bargain compared to now. So I wanted some proximity to New York because I felt my career was taking off. I wanted some proximity to publishers and events, and, to some extent, I did [get that]. I was in New York City at least twice a month doing readings and taking meetings with editors and whatnot. But it didn’t lead to a lot.
AVC: So there were some tangible benefits, but not as many tangible benefits as you would have liked.
NP: There was a disconnect between my perceived status and my actual status.
AVC: What do you mean by that?
NP: I was still just a guy with one book under his belt. And a book that, despite all the attention it was getting, sold maybe 10,000 copies. It wasn’t some sort of international publishing phenomenon. It was, at best, sort of a moderately successful indie-rock project. So I still had to do stuff like write promotional copy for Weight Watchers to support myself and pay my mortgage, which was relatively small. The year I quit the Reader, I made almost no money. Maybe $30,000. And I thought, “Aren’t I supposed to be a famous writer? Is this it? A drafty townhouse in Philadelphia?” So that pattern established itself for me over the years; I’d have a little success, let it go to my head, and then make some outrageous move to try and capitalize on that, and the move would come crashing down on my head. I would always get a little overexcited.
AVC: That was a dynamic that kept playing out.
NP: I was going to say instead of methodically going about my business, which is probably the smart way to go about doing things—you methodically go about your business and gradually make a little bit of money—I kept looking and waiting for that big score.
AVC: The Neal Pollack Anthology Of American Literature was picked up by another publisher after McSweeney’s, right?
NP: Yes. It was picked up by Harper-Collins and published in paperback form, and I got a small advance from them. And that was followed by Never Mind The Pollacks, which I got a bigger advance for. That was the era, before the recession, where publishers were handing out large advances to writers. I’m almost embarrassed to say it, but I got a six-figure advance for Never Mind The Pollacks. Low, low, low six figures, but it was there.
AVC: That’s still impressive.
NP: It is for a book that has sold, to this day, maybe 4,000 copies. And, in retrospect, that advance seemed good at the time and it paid some bills at the moment, but was actually kind of bad for my career. Because it set up my reputation as someone who couldn’t sell fiction, whose fiction was something that nobody wanted to read. So, in reality, it was ill-conceived. I still love that book, but who’s going to want to read a satirical novel about Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus? [Laughs.] Some people! But it’s a limited audience.
I’m not going to go into the whole ordeal about how I started a band. I did start a band and we recorded an album and went on tour. But that was kind of its own separate disaster. I didn’t lose any money on it, but that was its own separate hobby that ended up not really going anywhere. Basically, that all led to Alternadad, which is another book for which I got a six-figure advance. A low six-figure advance. And, again, that was a book I got a huge advance for and got a ton of publicity for, but it still didn’t sell that many copies.
AVC: I think the public perception is that it did really well. How a book was perceived to have done and how a book actually did can be violently at odds.
NP: Alternadad got more publicity than two-dozen books combined. I was on Nightline, and they did a piece on my family life. That book was everywhere and did a ton of press. But, again, it sold only 10,000 copies.
AVC: Why do you think that is? What was the disconnect between the amount of hype and the actual sales?
NP: Every book fails for its own reasons, right? I don’t consider the Anthology to have been a failure; it did what it was supposed to do. Never Mind The Pollacks failed because it was a novel about a topic that not a lot of people were interested in at the end of the day in terms of novels. Alternadad flopped—
AVC: That’s your best seller you’re talking about!
NP: Was it?! I don’t remember it being. It was on a couple of regional bestseller lists for like a week. Because I went and did a reading at some bookstores and sold 50 copies. Alternadad was published by Pantheon, which is a division of Random House that publishes Toni Morrison and other quality authors. And even though I feel like they got me a lot of publicity and they did a great job in that sense, there wasn’t a lot of support from below in the company for that book. I don’t think the match of author and label was exactly right on the money. It wasn’t in stores, and there wasn’t a lot of publicity beyond the initial marketing push. God knows I did everything I fucking could to get that thing in people’s hands and get people interested in it. It didn’t quite hit, you know?
And I did a couple of really stupid interviews where I said unbelievably outrageous and moronic things about being a parent.
AVC: What kind of stuff?
NP: I don’t think you remember this, but there was this article about “Grups” [contraction of “grown ups”] in New York Magazine about adults who refuse to grow up, basically, and I just blathered on and on about how I play punk rock for my toddler. Eight years down the line, when every parent is doing that, it seems kind of normal. But I was just extremely stupid in the way I talked about it, and it made me the source of a lot of mockery. It turned Gawker on me; Gawker started considering me the spokesman for a generation of hipster-asshole parents, and it didn’t work. Alternadad, in its essence, is about someone trying to find his way through adulthood and creative people trying to remain creative through the course of this life-changing event. It just became something else. It turned into being a marker of a new generation of assholes. I think that hurt the book, honestly. It turned people off to what was really just this sweet, simple story.
I don’t know if this is blathering or if this helps at all, but here’s where the story really takes, financially, its tragic turn: Despite all the ups and downs, Alternadad is about to come out. We’ve moved down to Austin, Texas by this point, living a pretty stable middle-class life. We’ve bought a house, not in a great neighborhood, but it’s a neighborhood that’s going up in value. We have a little house, we’ve done some renovations on it, and we have a kid. Our life is stable. We have friends. Austin isn’t the capitol of Texas “douchebaggery” like it is now, but it’s an up-and-coming place. My wife has a good job at Austin Community College teaching art. It has benefits and an increasing salary. Then Alternadad starts getting interest from Hollywood. Genuine interest from Warner Bros. Pictures. And at the encouragement of—okay, my wife just came in and said she didn’t have benefits, but she was making decent money. So at the encouragement of the people who were “managing my career” in Hollywood at the time, I was encouraged to, basically, move to Los Angeles because Alternadad was about to break huge. And so I did. [Laughs.] I sold my house and moved my family to Los Angeles. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had the sale from our house and then Alternadad got optioned and I got the option money. I also was paid to write a screenplay version of Alternadad even though I had never written a screenplay before. And I did write the screenplay, and no one ever read it, but by some legal machinations I got paid for it anyway and I was able to join the Writers Guild. So, suddenly, there were big checks flying around. And big checks meant $50,000 here, $75,000 there. When you factor in all the percentages people take off of it—
AVC: And taxes.
NP: It wasn’t really all that much money. It seemed like a lot of money, but it wasn’t because I was living in Los Angeles, which is an extremely expensive place to live. We couldn’t buy property there, at least we didn’t think we could. We were renting houses and we were either renting a reasonably nice house in a not-so-nice neighborhood or renting a not-so-nice house in a pretty nice neighborhood. We kept moving around. I don’t know, basically it was the biggest mistake of my life in a lot of ways. I made a lot of friends in L.A., and I had family there. I did a lot of yoga, and I smoked a lot of weed. But in retrospect, financially, it was the most disastrous decision I’ve ever made. Even though the Alternadad movie deal fell apart, I made a sitcom deal and got hooked up with some writing partners. And just as CBS hired us to write a pilot for this sitcom, the writers’ strike happened. Literally, that day. And from there, my career never recovered. I got a couple more deals, but they were half the size of the previous deal.
AVC: Television deals or movie deals or development deals? What were you thinking of yourself at that point?
NP: It’s kind of complicated, but the writers’ strike happened in ’08. And that was, in some ways, the height of everything. I had the TV deal, the movie deal still hadn’t fallen through yet—
AVC: There was still heat around Alternadad.
NP: Yeah, there was still some heat around Alternadad. I had a movie deal around Alternadad, I had a TV deal around Alternadad. It all had a lot of potential. And, honestly, I was not really doing anything. I was mostly sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. I was blogging. I was doing a parenting blog for Parents.com, I was doing a parenting blog for Epicurious, I was trying to start an Internet parenting community, I was trying to turn Alternadad into some massive multimedia empire. And it failed! [Laughs.] I totally fucking failed! Instead of doing what I did well, which was write, I was trying to cash in big time and become some mogul. I either didn’t have the right advice or the right skill set or I just had some bad luck.
This was in 2008, which was the year of the writers’ strike and the year the economy collapsed. And I looked up, I had five figures of debt, I had no appreciable money in the bank, my wife hadn’t worked for two years and, the only thing keeping us in Los Angeles other than our family and friends was my Writer’s Guild membership that provided us with amazing health insurance. And my kid was in a good public charter school. Those aren’t insubstantial things. But even with that, we were having trouble making ends meet. We weren’t living extravagantly, but—yeah, I bought a Prius. But it’s a Prius! A lot of people buy Priuses. And I bought a Sleep Number bed, but I had paid that off. I wasn’t living extravagantly, but we lived in a nice neighborhood in a dumpy old house with no air conditioning or dishwasher. Then we moved to a nicer house, but in a less savory neighborhood. It was the beautiful house on a hill but overlooking some of the most violent neighborhoods. It was really lovely up there, but those were the last two years I lived in L.A. Things were really grim, I wasn’t making any money. I had one more TV deal, but it was for half what the previous one had been. And I was still trying to flog Alternadad. I had the feeling of going into these TV studios and pitching the same idea to the same executives for the fifth time. It was kind of humiliating. I felt like a door-to-door salesman.
AVC: Aren’t those all weird rights of passage? Being destroyed by Hollywood the same way F. Scott Fitzgerald was.
NP: Yeah, but I wasn’t F. Scott Fitzgerald. F. Scott Fitzgerald was one of the most celebrated writers of his time. I was just another schmuck. I get a lot of publicity, I understand that, but I’m not a bestselling writer. In the end, I was kind of dizzy because I wasn’t doing what I set out to do, what I dreamed of doing, which was be a writer. Instead, I was just a salesman trying to sell some ill-conceived idea of a lifestyle. So everything was cut in half. The TV deal was cut in half, I had that yoga memoir, Stretched, that was cut in half from what the deal had been. And, thank God, I was doing yoga and smoking weed because I would have gone insane otherwise. It was just, I don’t know, I was sad and broke. And I kind of realized, “I’m not my father, I’m not an out of work corporate executive, but I was having a midlife ‘Oh shit!’” The world didn’t owe me anything; in fact, I owed it something. And despite all my work and all my effort and all my ambition, I wasn’t getting anywhere. I was just spinning my wheels. I needed to rethink things. I just made a series of mistakes in Hollywood that, in retrospect, I’m kicking myself about now.
I don’t know if this is relevant to this, but I remember thinking I wanted to bring this up today: I’d heard a rumor that HBO was looking to do a show about hipster parents living in Silver Lake. And I remember thinking, “Okay. I wrote a book about hipster parents and I didn’t live in Silver Lake, but I lived near Silver Lake and my kid went to preschool in Silver Lake.” So, for God’s sake, if anyone is going to do this, it’s going to be me. So I had an agent, at the time, at UTA, and I told him, “Hey, man! Get me in. Get me a meeting at HBO. I’m gonna pitch this thing, and I’m gonna nail it.” I begged and begged him to do it, and he got it for me. So I went and pitched to HBO—by myself—and was in a room with Carolyn Strauss, who was the head of programming at the time, and a bunch of HBO executives and she was like, “Tell me about the show.” And I was like, “Well, it’s about hipster parents in Silver Lake.” She said, “Well, what about them?” And I was like, “Well, they’re parents and they’re hipsters and they live in Silver Lake.” And it just went on and on like that. She was like, “Well, who are these people? What’s their relationships with each other?” And I had no idea. I had prepared nothing. I had no characters, I had no storyline, I had no arc, I had nothing. And I had done those things for pitch meetings, but I just totally fucking blew it! If I had put together just a halfway-reasonable pitch, I probably could have gotten a pilot deal out of that. To this day, I’m just kicking myself. Maybe things wouldn’t have gone differently, but I just completely botched it. I mean, really, doesn’t that sound like the opportunity of a lifetime?
AVC: Do you think it was a matter of self-sabotage? Do you think you were sinking yourself because deep down you knew this wasn’t what you were supposed to do or who you were supposed to be?
NP: [Voice heightens.] Maybe!
AVC: Maybe those things are endemic to writers. As a writer you have to have this self-confidence bordering on cockiness in order to succeed in such a competitive field.
NP: Right, but at the end of the day, I should have at least prepared something. It’d be one thing if I had the opportunity and it just didn’t pan out. I remember sitting in the room with my agent and he looked disgusted, like, “I’m representing you.” Then, there were other opportunities where I just fucked them up so badly. And, to this day, I’m not exactly sure why. But regardless of why everything went downhill, I found myself one day at the emergency vet with my elderly Boston terrier in my lap. He was dying. He was about to be put to sleep, and I get a call from my landlord. Our landlord had given us a break on our rent because we were so broke, and she had shaved a few hundred dollars off the rent. And she called to say we weren’t going to be able to renew our lease at the current price and she was going to raise my rent, while my dog was dying in my lap. I was sitting there in this emergency room, and it was there, at that moment, that I knew I had fucking failed. I had fucking failed. Completely. And we needed to make some changes. I had lost my Writer’s Guild health insurance, so, suddenly, that was no longer inexpensive. And all I had was this charter school my son was a student at. I had some tenuous family connections, but everything felt so tenuous. So I went home, and my wife and I decided to pinch it all. Almost overnight, we decided to move back to Austin. It was hard to admit that you’ve failed. We were very much in debt, we had a lot of debt and we had very few resources, essentially. So there I was, older than 40, no longer the bright young thing. It had been a crazy decade, and I feel like I had squandered every opportunity I had handed to me.
AVC: It seems like there was the “Neal Pollack” stage of the career, then you had the Alternadad phase, and it seems like you reached a point where you thought, “Okay, this Alternadad thing isn’t working, so I need to move on to the next stage.”
NP: Yeah. Basically, the Alternadad portion had collapsed. I wrote a piece about that for Playboy, of all places. It was called “Daddy Blogging Ruined My Life.” I spent a lot of years trying to turn myself into a brand because they told us self-branding is a way to success. And I kind of believed the hype. It’s just not true. To this day, I see writers publishing their first book or their second book and I can just see them going overboard with the marketing and getting all hyped up about it. You just have to write. If something good happens for you, post it on Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest or wherever you make your social-media home, but don’t overdo it. Enough with the marketing! Enough with the goddamn marketing already! I’m sick of it.
AVC: It’s tricky because the business is so competitive and so few books succeed, but if you’re too aggressive about promoting yourself, you risk engendering a level of resentment far disproportionate to your actual success.
NP: Basically, I reaped all the detriments of celebrity, but almost none of the benefits. I was attacked by the gossip rags, but that would have been fine if I had been making a lot of money and achieving some real success. I was just vulnerable enough to where it actually hurt me.
AVC: So you moved back to Austin. What happened then?
NP: Well, I wanted to write fiction. My agent, who stuck with me through all this ludicrousness, God bless him, suggested that maybe I should try self-publishing.
NP: Yeah. There had been a little bit of movement around that with a few writers making some hay. And I had this novel project called JewBall that I had been wanting to write. He said, “Let’s publish it. Let’s see what happens.” So after years of thinking about it, I just sat down wrote it in three months. It’s set in the 1930s, and it has the classic noir feel to it, and I had a buddy of mine in L.A. that had this indie noir press, so I had him give my first draft a read and I had my agent give my first draft a read. Then I did a quick rewrite because my first draft was good enough to where it didn’t need a whole lot of rewriting. Then we hired a copy editor, and my editor and his agency put up enough money to where it went up on Amazon.com’s CreateSpace, and within six months of starting the book, it was up for sale on Amazon as a print on-demand paperback and a Kindle book. So, I got a little bit of publicity, and I worked my Jewish network. It was written up in The [Jewish Daily] Foreword and Heeb and Jewcy and Tablet and all the other Jewish places you can get written up. And it got written up in a few other places, but it didn’t get a ton of hype. It did not explode, but it got written up in a few places and I sold, on my own, using my own publicity and social media, 500 copies Kindle and paperback. Which is pretty normal for a self-published book, but I wasn’t willing to die that death. So I used a couple of contacts and got the email of the vice president in charge of Amazon publishing and I said, “Here’s who I am. This is what I’ve been doing. I put this novel up on Amazon CreateSpace, would you be willing to take a look at it?” That was on a Friday, and he wrote back quickly and said he’d take a look at it. On a Monday, he wrote back saying, “I love the book. We’d love to publish it under our Thomas & Mercer mystery/thriller imprint, and we’d like to republish this book and give it all the marketing push we can.” They didn’t offer me any money for it, but they offered to sell the book for me. And I talked to my agent about it and we both decided we had nothing to lose on it and they weren’t going to charge me any money. So they republished it and quickly, very quickly, published it online and, a few months later, as a paperback. It sold 10,000-plus copies since they did that. And it’s never appeared, as far as I know, in a bookstore.
AVC: So every single one of those copies was via Kindle or via on-demand?
NP: Just about. Bookstores may sell it at events, basically. So I’ve made a few grand off of it. Not a ton of money, but I’ve bootstrapped off of it a restart of my career. I made a decision to have the writing career I always wanted to have. And what I like about this is I get to publish, I get to write what I want, but I don’t have to put up with the B.S., like the touring or the numerous expectations layered onto a book launch. There is no book launch: It’s a file on Amazon. Then this serialized fiction that they have—I don’t know if you even know about this project, called Downward-Facing Death. I wrote a detective novel about the L.A. yoga scene, which I had been a peripheral part of. I wrote a yoga novel about that, again sold 10,000 copies. Ten thousand copies appears to be my threshold.
AVC: In the grand scheme of things, that isn’t bad.
NP: I’m not complaining. The difference between now and then is I was complaining because I wanted more, more, more. Now, if I just want to churn out book after book after book that sells 10,000 copies, I’m thrilled because I’m doing what I want to do. So I wrote this serialized fiction and got an advance for it. And it wasn’t a huge advance, but it was enough to give me time to write the book and not be in a constant state of financial panic. And I’m doing other work, which I’ll get to in a second. But it gave me enough money for three months to write the book. And that’s around the time it took me to write 60,000-word book published in serial fashion. Now I have a contract with Amazon to write a sequel to Jewball. The ink isn’t dried yet, but it looks like I’m going to sign to write a sequel to Downward-Facing Death. And they want me to keep writing serialized fiction for them.
It’s basically like I have a new publisher, and its this new model because I’m not getting these huge advances for them, but they’re publishing them very quickly. This isn’t an exact number, but imagine they give me a $20,000 advance, which is a pretty normal advance for a book from a mainstream publisher. But that’s not a lot of money when you have stretch it out for two and a half years. But for four or five months, when you’re doing other work, suddenly, it becomes more of a viable financial proposition. I recognize that not every writer is able to churn out a novel every four or five months more than once, but I am. I have journalism training and I have written a bunch of books and I have been practicing. I’m ready to roll. And my plan—my plans always seem to be thwarted—but my plan is to just pound out as many books as I can and make them as good as possible and build a library on Amazon. This a quote from A.J. Liebling that says, “I can write better than anybody who can write faster and I can write faster than anybody who can write better.” So I want to try and apply that math to my own life. Am I as good a writer as Michael Chabon or George Saunders? No. But I can get my books out there quickly, you know?
AVC: It seems like you’ve found your niche. It’s been very long and arduous, and it’s been a very rocky process, but you enjoy what you’re doing and it seems viable.
NP: When I was 12 years old, I was writing serialized fiction. Thirty years later, I’m still doing it. I’m still doing the same shit I was doing when I was a prepubescent Doctor Who fan: writing pulp. Now, I’m a 43-year-old Doctor Who fan and I’m still in the game. It’s been a fairly tumultuous period, but I’m still in it. We’re still in financial recovery from our excessive ambition, but I’m pleased it hasn’t ended more tragically than it did. I’ve gotten back to doing serialized fiction, but I’ve also gotten back to doing journalism on a consistent basis. Toward the end of the time in L.A., I started doing little features for the British edition of Wired magazine. Also, occasionally, for the American edition. And when I moved back to Austin, we were really broke. We were living off the security deposit from our house in L.A., which we didn’t even get back in full because our elderly dog that had died was incontinent at the end of his life and he started pissing all over the carpet. So we had very limited amount of money. At 11:30 on a Sunday night, I got this Facebook message from this guy who tells me that he is the editor of the automotive section of Yahoo! He had read my yoga book, he was a yoga enthusiast, and he was wondering if I would like to write car reviews for him. So I thought, “Well, it sounds like paying work,” and two weeks later I was on a plane to Europe, driving a Bentley convertible around Croatia. Out of nowhere. It was kind of miraculous and basically, since then, every two weeks or so, I go to these press junkets and drive cars and get paid to do it. It’s not a job job, I don’t get a regular paycheck and benefits, but it’s regular work and having that has kind of transformed my life. Plus, my wife got a job once we moved back here.
AVC: If, nothing else, to make a living as a writer is a victory in itself. That’s something that can be easy to forget sometimes.
NP: Yeah. I’m grateful. I spent a lot of years wondering, “Why am I not doing this?” or, “Why am I not getting this?” or, “Why is this person more famous than me?” But at the end of the day, I have been supporting myself and, later, my family, as a writer for more than 20 years. It’s all I’ve ever done. I haven’t had a job since 2000, which seems like an eon ago. I wouldn’t mind a job. A regular paycheck might be nice. But I have to realize that’s not a failure, that’s a victory. Yeah, I’ve got some credit-card debt; yeah, I don’t own a house; yeah, the house I rent isn’t as nice as the one I’d ideally like to rent. But, I’m still in the game. I’m still playing. And I’ve done it through a lot of tumultuous times and a lot of economic strife and strife in my personal life and in the world, but it can be done. You know, all of the mistakes I’ve made I have to chalk them up to experiences and not a failure.