Neal Pollack, self-proclaimed greatest living American writer
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Neal Pollack first made a name for himself as a reporter for the Chicago Reader in the ’90s, writing the petty-crime column and other community-oriented features. Originally from Arizona, Pollack became engrossed with the city’s idiosyncratic neighborhoods, especially Uptown and Edgewater. Pollack left Chicago in 2000, around the time he began writing satirical fiction for McSweeney’s, naming his protagonist after himself. That concept grew into his first book, The Neal Pollack Anthology Of American Literature. Pollack has since moved to Austin and written two other books, Beneath The Axis Of Evil and Never Mind The Pollacks, but his most recent project has been editing Chicago Noir, the latest installment in the anthology series by indie publisher Akashic Books. In addition to contributing his own short story, Pollack edited pieces by local authors like Adam Langer, Joe Meno, Claire Zulkey, Achy Obejas, and Todd Dills. Pollack recently spoke to The A.V. Club about Chicago’s growing blandness, writing outside of his “persona,” and living in a dangerous shithole.
The A.V. Club: You say in the intro to Chicago Noir that the city is currently better than the one Daley inherited, but also less interesting. How so?
Neal Pollack: Well, it certainly on the surface is safer to visit, and it’s more amenable to people who don’t live in the city. But it’s true the city has evolved in a way, and it’s adapted itself to the contemporary world. It’s got a shiny new façade, and nice parks, and a big new bandshell, and a spaceship in the middle of Soldier Field. What did you want them to do? Did you want them just to let the city rot? So, in a sense, you just gotta say, “Well, that’s the way government works.” But on the other hand, it didn’t necessarily have to do that while completely obliterating the Maxwell Street Market, at least in its old form, without really acknowledging it existed at all. There’s been sort of a systematic, ongoing attempt to shut down neighborhood shot-and-a-beer bars, which don’t really have much of an appeal to tourists, but they certainly were part of the soul of Chicago. At least while I was there, there were endless efforts by the city government to make the city blander. I can’t imagine that’s changed much.
AVC: How much do you follow what goes on here now?
NP: I obviously don’t follow the neighborhood bar closings as closely as I used to, but I can’t imagine that the dynamic’s any different. Places that have been around for a long time close, and it’s sad, and then they’re replaced by boring, generic places. And it’s the dynamic of Chicago—it’s a dynamic of cities in general. Maybe it’s just the inevitable progression of a city from era to era, but I do think there comes a time in every city’s history where it loses its old character and becomes shiny and scrubbed-down.
AVC: Didn’t you discover when you moved to Philadelphia that some of that isn’t a bad thing?
NP: Well, it’s sort of a fine line, right? I think that there’s a way to preserve old city institutions while not having the city be just completely a dangerous shithole. There’s nothing glamorous about people getting murdered on the sidewalk in front of your house. So there’s a difference between old, weird cities and violent, corrupt cities. The two don’t absolutely have to go hand in hand, you know? And besides, Chicago is still super-violent and super-corrupt. It’s just not old and weird anymore… Crime happens everywhere, and it’s dramatic, and it’s interesting. In terms of the book, I just see gentrification as being a constant. It’s sort of the constant in Chicago. It’s a tension that’s always on people’s minds, and people talk about it a lot.
AVC: You wrote for the Brooklyn Noir anthology. How did you approach that, having lived here for so long?
NP: I’ve never lived in Brooklyn. In that story, I did something that fiction writers call “using my imagination.” It’s a new sort of trend in the MFA programs. I wrote something that was completely outside of my personal experience... I wrote a story about Coney Island, and I’d always been interested in Coney Island, and I was sort of thinking about how annoying it is that hipsters have co-opted Coney Island for their own purposes. That’s kind of what that story was about. The Chicago story was a bit more personal… For me, [the Brooklyn] story was really important, because it was the first time anyone had ever asked me to write something fictional that was outside my “persona.” It helped me break those shackles in a way.
AVC: That’s how you approached the writers who appear in this book. They weren’t necessarily people with noir backgrounds.
NP: Yeah, it’s true. I don’t know a lot of writers with noir backgrounds. I did e-mail a couple of the usual crime-writing suspects in Chicago, but I didn’t hear back from them. The people I did hear back from, who were on my original call list, were literary writers or ’zine writers or whatnot, and I just thought—not “How hard can it be?”—if you’re a writer, and you write short stories with plots, how hard can it be to write a plot with crime or violence in it? A good writer should be able to write about anything at least once. I’m not saying that every writer’s gonna be able to write a series of detective novels—that takes a certain discipline and skill. But I did want to see what different kinds of literary fiction authors could turn out.
AVC: You didn’t really have to convince anyone to do it, did you?
NP: Let’s put it this way: We didn’t pay a lot for these short stories, but we did pay. So when a short-story writer gets an e-mail that says, “Hey, would you write a story? We’ll pay you,” they say yes, they will write a story, because that doesn’t happen that often. So there was that added little carrot dangling in front of them. And the stuff I got was just incredibly good. I wasn’t stunned; it was what I kind of expected, in a way, but I was very pleased at the breadth and variety of the work.
AVC: It wasn’t a hindrance for people to come into this fresh?
NP: No, not at all. I think it gave them added incentive, and also if you read the stories, they’re not that different from the kind of fiction writing these people normally do—there’s a little noir twist. Adam Langer’s short story is very similar to his books, it’s got that wistful neighborhood feel to it, that sort of sadness, but there just happens to be some crime in the plot.
AVC: And Joe Meno’s story isn’t vastly different from the kinds of stuff that he does.
NP: No, I mean that’s the thing. Any writer can adapt their style to suit a genre. In a way, genre fiction is unfairly ghetto-ized. Why shouldn’t fiction have plots and urban realism embedded? I think American literature would be better if there was more of that in fiction. I’m not saying I’m trying to change anything with this book—because God knows I’m not—and even if I were, I’m not going to. But it’s the kind of stuff I like to read, so I might as well write and edit the stuff I like to read.