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So What Do You Do, Neal Pollack?

The Greatest Living American Writer on his books, his magazine work, and writing as a "big old stupid party."

By Chris Gage - August 26, 2003

Neal Pollack was once a normal man, a workaday reporter for the Chicago Reader. But then he wrote The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, a work august enough to merit a New York Times review, and suddenly he was transformed. Bored by the idea of sitting on a series of stages through his extensive book tour, reading a passage or two, and lobbing back answers to Q&As, Pollack developed his alter ego, The Greatest Living American Writer. He brought a revival-meeting-like enthusiasm to his readings: playing music, dumping beer on people, taking off his shirt, and giving readings. Done this way, Pollack has said, publicity is fun, and book tours rule.

But he's more than just The Greatest Living American Writer. In addition to the Anthology, Pollack has written thoughtful and outspoken pieces about President Bush's election, straight reporting pieces for GQ, and taken umbrage with, well, everyone, in Seattle's alternative paper, The Stranger. "Shut up, antiwar people," he wrote. "Shut up, pro-war people. Shut down your computers and shut your goddamn pieholes. No one gives a shit what you write, so stop writing about the war. Shut up, all of you." Ironically grandiose self-coined nickname notwithstanding, he really is becoming a notable man of letters.

The author of not just the Anthology, a satirical aping of the Man-of-Letters style, but also Beneath the Axis of Evil: One Man's Journey into the Horrors of War and the forthcoming Never Mind the Pollacks: A Rock 'n' Roll Novel, Pollack is also the frontman for The Neal Pollack Invasion, the band with which he'll tour this fall. He spoke to recently about the freedom his success has brought him, his adroit juggling of multiple personalities, and writing as a "big old stupid party."

You've achieved a certain level of fame. A lot of people know who you are and love your writing. But you're not quite a household name, except in certain small circles. As a magazine writer, do you still have to pitch stories or do editors seek you out on their own?
It's been about a year since I went seriously fishing for work. Occasionally, I'll get a humor idea and send it over to an editor at The New York Times op-ed page, and they'll shoot it down because it's either not funny or too weird. But for the most part, I just wait for the assignments. They come in, not in the dozens or anything, but often enough so I don't have to panic. Sometimes, as with this Bob Hope hit job I did for Slate, they have a topic for which they think I'd be perfect. Most of the time, though, they just let me fire away. It's a very, very nice way to make a living.

How much of being a freelance writer is just working like a dog and pursuing projects?
I hate to say it, but hard work over a long period of time does bring about results.

So what's a typical workday like?
Very amorphous. Probably 10 hours a day all told. Some of my best work comes at night, once the house is settled. Sometimes the morning. Some days I don't work much at all. Some days I write for eight hours. There is no set schedule, and I don't see writing as some sort of holy act. When the phone rings, I answer it.

Your satirical writing is well-informed and the subjects quite varied—the pieces don't appear to be off-the-cuff imagination rants. How much research goes into making them more than just humor pieces?
Research? Well, sometimes. But often I just respond to what I read in the paper, on the net, or in magazines. I read all the time, and I try to remember what I read.

You expect a lot from your readers—on one hand you're the self-described Greatest Living American Writer, and under that persona you write smart, witty and boastfully; but, on the other hand, you write informed pieces on politics or touching ones on ordinary people. Do you ever find yourself in a schizophrenic limbo of identity confusion?
I haven't really done the profiles of "ordinary" people, whoever they are, since I left the Chicago Reader in the fall of 2000. I would do them again, gladly, but they're a lot of work and I would have to find a magazine that would, first, be interested and, second, pay me a substantial amount of money. That combination is hard to come by. When I did those pieces for the Reader, I was a staff writer under contract, so it was a different story. As for the so-called "informed" political pieces, well, I don't know more than any other person who reads the AP wire on the internet. But I enjoy the occasional foray into alterna-punditry. I just finished a piece for GQ, where they sent me "in search of" Dick Cheney, and that was a completely reported piece with no satire in it at all.

I have no problem shifting back and forth between the voices. This is my job, and if I get a good assignment, I'm going to take it, whether they want me to be my "funny" fake self or my "funny" real self. It's easy for me to separate my life from my work. I know who I am in real life, and don't find myself lapsing into character. That's for the keyboard.

If you "don't know more than any other person who reads the AP wire," what qualifies you as someone we should read and listen to?
When it comes to current events, I'm just a citizen with a voice. My reporting may have once upon a time qualified me to blather on about Chicago politics, but that's about it. However, I'm a writer and have a lot of experience with writers. My internet satire focuses on the nature of opinion-making itself and the ridiculous ego that a writer must have to think that anyone really cares and that their opinions really matters. So when it's good, I think my writing is valuable because it cuts through some of the blather that floods our computer screens and magazine racks, stuff that passes for profound but is really just pompous filler.

You sort of made your big splash with your unusual book tour. How necessary is the punishing ordeal of a book tour in the first place? Bands go on tours because they build the fan base and bring in the real money, as opposed to album sales. But it also seems to be something a certain type of person loves doing. How effective has it been in selling books?
My first tour was very necessary, because it established me as a real writer, and, more importantly, as a real person. Without that tour, there would have been no book sales. I think I got cocky and tried to translate that into my second tour, which was corporate-sponsored. There just wasn't the same anarchic energy around it, and the audience for the Anthology dried up at a certain point. The tour I'm doing this fall, with the band, should be very different. I want to put on excellent shows and build up enthusiasm for my book and my album. Being a writer, for me, is not just a private one-on-one exchange with a reader. Rather, it's a big old stupid party. This is not the attitude most writers strike, nor should it be. But it works for me. In my silly dreams, my way of selling books—relentless touring and self-driven hype—will become the model for young writers. The contemporary publishing system only works for a select and lucky few. I'm trying to create a book-tour circuit that is fun and brings in a new, enthusiastic audience. Is it a joy or a burden? How about both? Can it be both?

Your next book is a novel, Never Mind the Pollacks: A Rock 'n' Roll Novel. Where does it stand at the moment?
It comes out September 30. Writing a novel is no different than writing satire, for me, because I wrote a satirical novel. Doing Never Mind the Pollacks, I learned to have patience. There wasn't any immediate pay-off as with the shorter pieces. So I had to keep a long-term humor goal, an overarching satirical plot, in mind along with the short-form jokes. Naturally, writing a novel was a lot more work, but the result was much more satisfying.

Here's a question I'm stealing from another mediabistro interview—I like the way it sounds and the way it finishes an interview. What would you like to have happen next?
I would like to sell the rights for my next novel and start the process all over again. Once I'm locked into that "second novel," then I'll know I've arrived. Also, I would like President Bush out of the White House. Is that too much to ask?

Chris Gage, a production editor at John Wiley & Sons, used to stalk Neal Pollack until he found Chuck Klosterman.

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