An Interview with Neal Pollack
"Neal Pollack wipes his ass with your novel." That was the first line of Bookslut's last interview with Neal Pollack, almost a decade ago. He had just published The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, and Nevermind the Pollacks was on the way. The interview's accompanying photo shows a shirtless Pollack wailing into a microphone. Whether he understood it then or not, Pollack was a certified cool kid -- punk rock satirist, Daily Show guest, and, as he put it, "touched by an angel," via Dave Eggers and McSweeney's.
Of course, it couldn't last forever.
From reading Alternadad and Stretch, Pollack's more recent, unexpected memoirs about fatherhood and yoga, it was clear the author has been on a personal and professional rollercoaster. He rode it to Hollywood and back, and now the Medill School of Journalism grad and former Chicago Reader reporter suddenly finds himself with some thrilling and unlikely freelance assignments.
We ran into each other at the Texas Book Festival in October, just as Pollack had moved back to Austin, Texas, with his wife and nine-year-old son. He had also just self-published his new novel, Jewball, as an e-book. Pollack accurately describes it as "a strange noir-satire hybrid set in the 1930s." Jewball centers on a team of rough and tumble basketball players from the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association (SPHA) and their conflict with the Bund, the Nazis' pre-World War II counterpart in the United States.
Pollack and I met at Once Over coffee shop in South Austin to talk about drugs, ego, Hollywood, fast cars, bootstrapping books -- and the inevitable humility that comes over the course of a twenty-year writing career.
Your last Bookslut interview, in 2002, ended with a strong sentiment: "The literary culture that I read about, and that I felt I'd been promised, isn't playing out like I thought it was going to. I don't like it. It's boring, it's elitist, it's pretentious. And I wanna break shit. I always have." Do you still want to break shit?
I think we all always want to break shit. But I think if I could have stepped back from myself then and realized how good I had it, I wouldn't have been so rebellious. I published two books with HarperCollins in two years. I was performing on international stages. I'll take boring and pretentious.
How do you feel about literary culture almost a decade later?
I don't think it's changed that much, but it doesn't make me want to break things. I'm more concerned with what's going on in the world and in my family. There's never enough money, there's never enough time. The culture overall has completely flat-lined. You have such economic inequality, and someone who tries to make his living as a writer certainly feels that. Maybe I've grown into myself a little more. I'm not raging against literary culture now. I'm just trying to keep my family afloat.
Give us Jewball, your new self-published e-book, in a nutshell.
Jewball is a work of historical fiction, set in the 1930s. It centers on the exploits of a Jewish basketball team from Philadelphia. The plot involves the coach accidentally incurring a gambling debt, and they go on the road and fight Nazis. I wrote the book as an homage to the 1930s fiction that I loved. It's my take on noir. I published it myself, not because I couldn't find a corporate publisher, because I think I might have been able to, but because it's something I'd always wanted to try. It was pretty liberating.
Why make up stories about real people? Why not create a main character from scratch? How did you go about making those decisions?
I don't make a lot of conscious decisions. Inky Lautman -- I just thought was the coolest name ever. There wasn't a lot in the historical record about him. I essentially created him from whole cloth. I wouldn't say nothing in the book is true, because there are some major set pieces that are true. But the SPHAs never brawled with Nazis, and Eddie Gottlieb never incurred a gambling debt to the Bund. The book was a way for me to work out my neurosis about Jewish culture and Jewish identity. I like the food. I like the language. It's in my bones. But I tried to make this a nonreligious book. These are secular guys living in a secular world.
How was it for you writing the anti-Semitic characters?
That was fun. I found that history to be so weird and full of intrigue. Those guys, it was not too challenging to write them because they were such bumbling fools in the States. These American fascists, they seemed threatening at the time, but at the end of the day, America's ability to bring everything toward the middle kind of canceled those guys out, like it does now.
Is this your first stab at historical fiction?
Nevermind the Pollacks had some historical fiction in it. If you read the two books side by side -- I wouldn't wish that on anyone -- but you could see some similarities. My books have a sort of Saturday morning cartoon feel.
How did you research Jewball?
I read some history books, read some articles, did some searches on the Internet. That's all you need.
And you wrote the book at breakneck speed. What was the timeline for creating it?
I wrote the opening scene in 2008 and showed it to my editor at HarperCollins. They liked it, but my last novel didn't sell very well, so they weren't ready to jump into the Neal Pollack fiction pool. My agent approached me about it again in January 2011. Amazon was looking for established but maybe not mainstream, successful writers. I wrote Jewball in four months -- a friend agreed to edit it, my agent gave feedback, we hired a copy editor and jacket designer -- and basically the book was out by October.
Making the book available on Amazon and other e-book platforms -- that's all easy. Publicity? There are some things that corporate publishers can do that independent authors can't. But I've done some interviews. I was on Canada's number one sports talk radio show. (Laughs.)
But there are things that corporate publishers can do but don't always do, right?
Hundreds of thousands of books a year just disappear making no more of a ripple than Jewball has, and maybe even less of one, just because the writers are at the mercy of their publishers. When the publishers give up, the writers are like, "Now what the hell do I do?" At least when I self-publish, when I have an easy week I can spend that time sending out emails to journalists and bloggers. I have a long tail on this. If it takes a year to sell a couple thousand copies, so be it. Whereas with a corporate-published book, if you don't hit it right away in the first couple months, you're gone. The difference is they have distribution channels that I don't.
I loved lines in Jewball like, "The fat face was connected to a fat man, dressed in a tuxedo like a toad butler." How did you get yourself in a noir groove?
I like comic metaphor. To me it doesn't matter how absurd the description is, I can imagine a toad butler even though no such thing actually exists. I was writing a car review this week and I said the car catered to your every need "like a robot butler." Butlers are funny. But I don't know how I get myself in the mood. It's just kind of the way I think. I like silly metaphors. Also marijuana.
Indeed. I've noticed that in your books. On the flip side, how does your journalism background inform your writing style?
It makes it less flowery. It keeps my writing terse. I write short. Jewball is not a long novel, 53,000 words. Longer than The Great Gatsby. When I had to write my own novel, I was like, how long does it need to be to be a novel? And I Googled "How long is The Great Gatsby?" I saw it was 47,000 words. I knew that if I could get it to be as long or longer than The Great Gatsby -- a novel by anyone's standards -- I'd be alright. I wouldn't say it's quite as good as The Great Gatsby but it's good.
By now you've worked with a range of publishers, from big houses to McSweeney's to So New Media and now self-publishing, sometimes working with a big house and a small press at the same time. How do the experiences compare?
Big houses are good in that they take care of a lot of your needs. You go on book tours, your books are in stores -- some stores. You get on the radio. But the problem is the economics don't really work for a writer. You have to sell a lot of books to make a living off of it.
There are some things the big publishers could have done better for me, but I have no substantial criticisms. I like my editor at HarperCollins a lot. I like most of the people I've worked with. I wouldn't say I've been screwed over. But at the same time, there are enough flaws in the system that made me think I could try to do it myself. My ideal route would be publishing nonfiction books with a corporate publisher and bootstrapping my novels. Because novels are hard to sell, especially novels written in a weird indie style like mine. They don't really know how to promote a strange noir satire hybrid set in the 1930s.
What has surprised you about publishing?
I suppose I'm surprised that I'm still doing it. I've been at this for twelve years. Even though I've been knocked down a few times, I haven't yet been thrown in the ditch for dead. I'm proud of that.
If it requires me to continue having an incomprehensible mix -- it's like, right now I'm writing about cars and yoga. You know what I mean? If my life continues to be incomprehensible, well, if you look carefully at any life, I think it would be hard to comprehend.
I have not quit, and I will not and cannot. It's not really in my makeup to stop.
You've lived and worked in some cities with very distinct cultures: Chicago, Austin, L.A. How important is place to your writing, both in terms of where you're living at the time and how you ground your writing in a certain location?
I think a sense of place is very important, for both fiction and nonfiction. When you're actually writing about a place -- what Tom Wolfe said, you have to get the status details right -- you don't want to make someplace seem generic. I do believe that individual places have character.
In terms of where I'm living, my work travels with me. I wrote Jewball when I was living in Los Angeles and the book didn't go anywhere near there.
There was a nice part in Jewball where the characters are comparing living in New York and living in Philadelphia.
I lived in Philly for a couple years, and there's definitely a sense of insecurity and inferiority compared with New York. That informs the personalities of the people who live in the city and of the city itself. It's all subjective, but you're creating character. The details matter.
In the acknowledgements for Jewball you thank someone for supporting you during hard times in Hollywood. It's such a polarizing place, Los Angeles -- I've seen plenty of Austinites and Chicagoans shake their heads over even the idea of moving out there. Then again, I once had a clerk at an indie video store tell me that L.A. is the most authentic city there is, which took me by surprise. What led you out to there and how was your experience there as a writer?
I moved to L.A. in 2006 because Alternadad was coming out and it was going to get optioned by Warner Brothers Pictures. They were hiring me to write a screenplay. I was never going to get my name on the final screenplay but they were hiring me, so I could get my health insurance from the Writers Guild and I was getting paid pretty well. Then I got a sitcom deal. For a couple years, it was looking pretty good. But the projects kind of fell apart. The Writers Guild strike really fucked things up for me. Things never quite recovered. I never saw a camera, never saw a set, and other than at a party, I never met an actor or anyone other than other struggling sitcom writers. In that sense it was kind of a disaster.
I did write a couple of books while I was there, made a lot of friends, spent time with my family and went to the beach, went hiking, smoked a lot of weed, went to a bunch of Dodger games. I had a good time. I liked it and I miss it. Moving back to Austin was not an easy decision. We were really happy in L.A. My kid was in a school that we loved. We had family and friends around.
What brought you back to Austin?
We ran out of money. The choices we were presented with were move to Phoenix, where I grew up and where my parents are, or come back to Austin where we have friends and knew where the grocery stores were. I do love it here, but it has not been an easy transition. We were in Los Angeles for six years and put down some roots there, but I just don't see a formula where we can return. It's been a tough few months, I will admit that.
Speaking of place, you've just returned from Spain. What were you up to?
Second time this year. I've been test-driving luxury cars. (Laughs.) I got a Facebook message from the editor of Yahoo Autos who'd read my yoga book and though it was funny. This email said, "How would you like to go to Croatia and drive a Bentley for me?" I called my wife and said, "Regina, can you believe this shit?" It's such a lucky break. So I went to England and Croatia. Then two weeks later I went to Munich, Pamplona, and then last week I spent the whole week in Catalonia. And I have a contract for more.
Is this kind of thing paying the bills for self-publishing?
Yeah. It's paying the bills and I'm also writing for the British and American editions of Wired. I've started doing a men's yoga blog for Yoga Journal. Freelance-wise, things are pretty good right now. But if my yoga training and my career have taught me anything, it's don't get attached to any one assignment. I was a columnist for Vanity Fair in the oughts. If I'd paid any attention, I would have clung to that like a drowning man on a log in the middle of the ocean. But I gave that up to pursue a career in indie rock. (Laughs.) I didn't know at the time that I was never going to get another chance at being a columnist for Vanity Fair.
Well, you never know.
You never know. Maybe I'll become their car writer. I've just learned that as great as these things are, they're all temporary.
You see a lot of books these days about "the year I spent doing blah blah blah." Sounds like yoga wasn't just a flash in the literary pan for you, though. What role does it play in your life these days?
Yoga is kind of an organizing principal for me. I practice not every day, but almost. It has done more for my mental and physical wellbeing than anything I ever tried. When I started I was in my early thirties and now I'm in my early forties and I need it for different things now. There are an infinite number of things you learn. It's a lifelong commitment for me that goes beyond writing.
How did you get started?
Nevermind the Pollacks had kind of flat-lined, and the New York Times called me "doughy" in a review of the book. I don't know why but that really knocked my brain loose. I didn't have a nervous breakdown but I had a personality crisis. My ego was out of control and needed lassoing. My wife didn't know that specifically but she thought yoga was something that might benefit me. They were offering classes at the gym and she said, "Why don't you come take a yoga class with me?" And so I did. I enjoyed it. It was very mild, very relaxing. I did it once a week, then twice a week, and when I moved to Los Angeles I started falling down the rabbit hole.
In Stretch, you describe a coming down of sorts, where Dave Eggers basically told you it was time to grow up and get sincere. Was that hard to hear? How difficult was the transition away from the McSweeney's scene?
At the time he said that, I was on massive amounts of drugs. It was after a reading we'd done together in Dallas. He was in the process of moving away from his impetuous youth phase, into mature adulthood, operating literary tutoring centers around the world and traveling around doing good works. I was starting a punk rock band at age thirty-two. There wasn't a lot of cultural commonality there anymore. I think it was, from his perspective, the right decision. From my perspective, it was really hard on my career because it removed me from the literary elite. I didn't even know I was a member of it, but I really was. I was part of this thing and then all of a sudden I wasn't. It hurt my career. It took some legitimacy away from me. But then again, I don't know if I ever had it. Maybe it forced me to carve my own path. Maybe I was just a dancing monkey there to entertain people while the real writers went about their real business. It's hard to say.
Are you still in touch with anyone from that scene?
I'm still friends with John Hodgman, who was definitely part of that scene. He was still on his way up when I was excised from the family. Occasionally, I'm in touch with some of the other people, but that's not a scene anymore in the same way.
When Bookslut last talked with you, you were also working to bring some youth and nightlife to the Texas Book Festival. We met there this year. Do you think they've made any progress in the last nine years?
Yeah. Look at it this year. They had the whole lit crawl at night. Those lit crawl people from San Francisco are fantastic. I've done lit crawls in four different cities, San Francisco, L.A., New York, and here. And it's nice to see -- I mean, it's the same stodgy literary people but they like to go out and drink beer too. I think Clay Smith has done a terrific job with the book festival.
What's your routine like these days as a writer?
It's hard to have a routine when at any moment you could get an email saying "You wanna go to Switzerland and drive a Cadillac on ice?" I've pitched a book about cars to my publisher. A guy who doesn't really know how to drive and doesn't like cars suddenly finds himself in on the luxury junket and has to learn about cars and perhaps learn a little bit about himself in the process. I moved to Austin with my tail between my legs. We were broke, living off our security deposit from our last house in L.A., up against a wall and not really sure where things are going, and all of a sudden I get a car gig and I'm driving on a racetrack in Spain with the Prince of Bavaria. It seems like a book to me. [Perhaps not coincidentally, Pollack's next stop after the interview will be to pay a traffic ticket for driving twenty-six in a twenty-mile-per-hour school zone.]
But in terms of a routine, I don't have one. Sometimes I write about yoga. Sometimes I write about cars. I'm trying to sell this novel, trying to keep my blood pressure down. I just keep pushing the boulder up the hill, like everyone else.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. My life is usually interesting and my career is always surprising. I've been a professional writer for twenty years and it's all I've ever wanted to do. I'm satisfied enough.
What do you see as the next wave in writing and publishing? Where would you like to see the industry head?
Jeez, it would be nice if self-published novelists could make forty thousand dollars a year as a baseline. But that's not going to happen. I have no idea where the industry is going. It's like everything got put in a cocktail shaker and someone's shaking it up and no one knows how it's going to shake out. I don't think the publishing industry is going anywhere. The record industry still exists despite the rise of iTunes and Spotify. And I think it'll be the same for publishing. High-end literary writers. big time genre writers, nonfiction books -- all that is still going to be put out by the publishing business. But I do think self-publishing and independent publishing is an increasingly viable route.
What advice would you give to other writers who might be considering the self-publishing route?
Make your books as professional as possible. Hire an editor or get friends who know what they're doing to edit it for free. Hire a copy editor. Have the books designed to the hilt. Because for this to work, the books have to seem like they're professionally done. I hate the idea that self-publishing is the digital slush pile. I think it's okay for that to exist and I think it's nice that it's open to anybody, but for it to become legitimate, it's got to be professional. Use whatever resources you have. It's not going to be easy. All you can really control is the product itself. You're a writer. Take pride in that. Be professional.
I think Jewball feels like a book that could have been put out by HarperCollins. I took great pride in showing that it can be done.
Do you see any more satire in your future?
Some New York wag from the golden age of wit said, "Satire is what closes on Saturday night." Steven Colbert aside, it doesn't lead to long-term success. I will always use humor in what I write. In terms of bald-faced satire? I hate to say never. Anytime I say that I end up doing the exact opposite...
...so you don't have any plans for the "Neal Pollack" character?
No, that character is dead. I want it to be an arrow in my quiver, but I don't want it to be the whole arsenal. Real satire is driven by youthful energy. I don't have quite as much juice as I once did.