Today, we trade tough talk on interviews, obscure Spanish vocabulary, fish, awesomeness, and buckets of guts with Andrew Leland at Â The Believer.
PANK: You’ve done a few of these editor interviews, and I’m sure, like me, you’ve read your share, too. Is there a question that you wish interviewers would ask you that they don’t? Or maybe there’s one truly absurd question that always gets asked that you would like to provide a pithier answer to and/or request a cease and desist order for?
LELAND: Many of the questions in these sorts of interviews are distressingly un-absurd. I prefer the absurd ones. I wish interviewers of editors would ask questions like “If your lymph and your intestines fell in love, where would they go on their honeymoon?”
PANK: Both lymph and intestine are individuals who were drawn to important jobs with big budgets, large staffs, and Byzantine bureaucracies, dirty jobs that require a squeaky clean public face, so neither are going to be flighty or capricious. I’m going with Niagara Falls, the Poconos, or Wisconsin Dells, but the sex is dirty.
LELAND: I think for their honeymoon my lymph and my intestines would enjoy relaxing together in a five-gallon plastic bucket in the backyard of a fun-loving family of four in Decatur, Georgia.
PANK: Decatur, huh? What’s the buzz in the Believer office today, like right at the exact moment you read this question?
LELAND: Decatur is a suburb of Atlanta. Where Emory University is. The Decatur Book Festival is the best new book festival in the country.
I just got back from lunch, so I feel left out of the buzz that developed while I was out.
One person is on the phone. Now he’s off the phone, and no one is speaking. The October Believer is at the printer, and the Nov/Dec Art Issue is coming together nicely. We’re also sending the next Believer Book, called A Very Bad Wizard, to press this week. It’s a collection of interviews conducted by Tamler Sommers, a philosopher at the University of Houston. He talks to primatologists, social psychologists, philosophers, et al about the relationship between ethics, emotions, psychology, and evolution. It’s fascinating, and surprisingly funny. Stephen Pinker wrote a blurb!
We’re also editing a book with the Oakland Museum of California Art and Chronicle Books, for the artist Mark Dion. That’s pretty much closing this week as well.
I am overweight.
PANK: The Decatur Book Festival does rock. Is that why Decatur was on your brain when looking for a home for the bucket, or is it special to you for other reasons? But even more importantly, what did you have for lunch?
LELAND: I didn’t get to go to Decatur this year, but we had a booth and a great time last year. Insanely friendly people, from the writers to the booksellers to the browsers. When I was there, since you asked, I did see a bucket in a yard that seemed like a nice place for my viscera to throw a romantic party.
As for lunch: I want it to be clear that it’s not usually like this. My coworker Chris and I were going to go to Rhea’s, the corner store, which I’ve gone to on average three or four times a week for the past seven years, and which began selling sandwiches this month. On our way there, we suddenly changed course for Old Jerusalem, which is more than seven blocks away and advertises “Foul” on its sign—a humorous misspelling of the word “Fowl.” On the way to Old Jerusalem—which is a Â pretty long walk for a mid-day lunch trip on a busy day—Chris and I ended up going to Esperpento, where I’d been once before. They have a good lunch special. You get soup, a free-refills breadbasket, a main thing, and two sides for $8. Esperpento, I learned today, has the following meanings in Spanish:
1. Fright, sight.
2. Absurdity, nonsense.
3. Macabre story, grotesque tale.
4. (Theat.) Play which focuses on the grotesque.
I had the fish.
PANK: My Spanish is pretty abysmal, but I’m definitely working esperpento into my limited lexicon.
Another thing I don’t know enough about is eating in San Francisco. Every time I’m in town, which is not enough and never for long at a stretch, it trends toward the Rosamunde Sausage Grill and the Toronado, which trend toward me not speaking any language whatsoever. I need to branch out.
Speaking of language, Vendela Vida once blogged (like a million years ago) that you were the only person she knew who could get away with using the “A” word, and that you signed emails “Awesome, Andrew.” What’s the secret to your super power, and how does this information help me understand things that need to be understood?
LELAND: I was twenty-two and totally overwhelmed and out of my league at the Believer. “Awesome” was just me using my youthful vernacular as a dank little security blanket.
Did you ever see Daphne Beal’s interview with Janet Malcolm in the Believer? It was conducted over email, and they talk a bit about what it does to writing. Malcolm wrote, “I think of email as messy, both in appearance and in the character of the writing. Email encourages a kind of laxness, a letting down of hair…[it] lies somewhere between speech and proper writing.” So it’s not a superpower that allowed me to successfully sign off my emails with “awesome” “â€œ it was, according to Malcolm, the medium itself.
My greatest innovation since the days of signing emails Awesome (and in truth I probably only did that a handful of times, and it makes me cringe now) is saying “Mary J. O’Bliged.” As in, “Can you FedEx me a CD of high-res images? I’m Mary J. O’Bliged,
PANK: The Beal/Malcolm interview was a great one and maybe the first issue of the Believer I read. The critique — great tool, but sloppy — fits neatly over the interwebs in general, not just email, and it certainly underpins a lot of the hand-wringing over online publishing, blogging, etc.
But language is sloppy. It has always bothered me when the people who should know better drop “proper” onto the table. Neither do I think it’s cringe-inducing to drop “awesome” or its ilk. You can still own that.
Part of the charm of the McSweeney’s family has been its willingness to confront proper and reclaim awesome, commit the sin of having fun, have the audacity to produce at the highest quality, and be taken seriously for it all.
I will not defend “Mary J. O’bliged,” though.
LELAND: You’re right about that language stuff—it’s totally sloppy. You can proofread a magazine a thousand times and each time find a new mistake. That’s why good writers are obsessed by precision, I think. You work as hard as you can to make a piece of writing as tight as possible. Then you publish it and exposure — to readers, to time, to the printing process—warps and distorts it. This sloppiness is also what makes puns like “Mary J. O’Bliged possible” (for better or for worse).
You’re kind to say what you do about McSweeney’s combination of Awesome and Quality. It’s a big part of what I love about working at the Believer: you can’t take literature or art seriously without acknowledging—and sometimes embodying—the irreverent or the absurd.
The thing I like about the word “sloppiness” in particular with regard to language is that it makes it sound wet. Language is sloppy—it’s also slippery. Language is like a bucket of lymph and intestines that’s spent all day sitting in the sun in the backyard of a house in suburban Atlanta.