Lit agent-turned-author shares world knowledge

James Temple [Contra Costa Times]

Like so many high school quarterbacks and homecoming queens, John Hodgman peaked early in life.

During the 1990s, he achieved the dream career of countless American children: professional literary agent. But for reasons still unclear, he stepped down in 2000 and has since been forced to relive his glory days one step removed from the action. He has become what the self-respecting literary agent despises most: an author.

His best-selling book, "The Areas of My Expertise," recently came out in paperback and Hodgman is currently suffering the indignity of cross-country book readings and interviews with self-important journalists.

He has sunk to new depths to raise his profile, even regularly appearing as a "resident expert" on a basic cable television program, "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." He was apparently forced to supplement his income by appearing in commercials for a little-known computer company known as Apple.

"I'm a PC," he says in the ad. But there is melancholy in this tagline; it's clear what he longs to say again is, "I'm a literary agent! I'm a literary agent!"

But whatever else Hodgman is, one can't help but be impressed by the scope of his book and the depth of his research. He has created what he calls an "almanac of complete world knowledge," and in 256 pages to boot.

This may seem impossible, since libraries are much larger than a book and presumably contain more knowledge. But as Hodgman insightfully notes, most libraries carry more than one copy of the same book.

Besides, few of these even touch on the subjects that Hodgman tackles: the nine U.S. presidents who had hooks for hands, the little-known existence of furry lobsters, basics of snow and ice warfare, and a list of hobo names that can only be described as encyclopedic.

Hodgman shared a bit more of his complete world knowledge with the Contra Costa Times while setting certain rumors to rest.

Q: I'm afraid I have to start with a hardball question. In a recent interview with the Boston Globe, you told a reporter that you were "not jaunty." But two independent sources have since reported seeing you exhibit what was, in their words, "a self-confident air." Care to comment?

A: Well, who are your sources?

Q: I'm afraid I can't reveal my sources.

A: I appreciate your journalistic integrity, but the fact is that's an unsubstantiated rumor. I was self-confident for about 15 minutes in 1993, but most physicians agree it was an aberration.

Q: Your book highlights the little-discussed practice of hook-wearing among nine American presidents, if you count George W. Bush, who swapped his hook for a chain saw during his first presidential campaign. In your view, was this a sincere effort to represent the values of working-class Americans -- or a calculated ploy to score political points among chain-saw moms?

A: Well, since the hook represents elite membership among the world's illuminati, it was important that he replace that to seem like just folk. But as we all know, he comes from a very wealthy Northeastern family, genetically engineered by Yale scientists and the cloning vats of New Haven to be rulers of the world.

Q: Your book includes a three-step system for winning arguments: Always make eye contact, use henchmen and run attack ads.

A: I know the steps, I wrote the book.

Q: Fair enough. But what happens if, hypothetically, my girlfriend and I both read these instructions and then got into an argument because one of us wasn't putting the toilet seat up after she finishes. We both maintain eye contact, purchase an equivalent amount of airtime and hire henchmen with degrees from similarly prestigious Ivy League schools. Who wins?

A: Well, why would you buy an equivalent amount of airtime?

Q: I'm just saying, for example, what if we did?

A: It comes down basically to who has more donors and is better-funded. This is why you build an attack ad war chest to begin with. I don't like to say that money wins fights, but it's very, very important. In a situation where all other elements are equal, it becomes a war of attrition and you have to outspend your opponent. If one of you is holding back in order to provide equal time on the air, then that person does not deserve to win.

Q: You write on the cover of the book that you released a paperback version in part because carnival strongmen complained that they couldn't tear apart the previous version -- a "hardcover edition" encased in slate and diamonds. So I'm curious, have carnival strongmen become like total wusses or what?

A: The answer is yes. Carnival strongmen are not what they used to be and I think, to their great disgrace, very few of them wear handlebar mustaches anymore.

Q: You note in the book that hobos attempted a little-known military coup against the U.S. government during the Great Depression. It was foiled in part by President Roosevelt taking the country off the gold standard, thus deflating the value of the hobo army's teeth. With gold prices on the rise, do you think the hobos will resurrect their campaign?

A: Most experts believe that the hobos, who thrived during the Great Depression and then disappeared largely after Pearl Harbor, went to the planet Uranus, because it sounds dirty, where presumably they have finally established their great Hobo Valhalla. They are unlikely to return simply because they can get a little more coin for their teeth, but as they're inherently irrational and unpredictable, who knows?

Q: In the event that they do attempt a coup again, how can we best prepare?

A: Stockpile bindle sticks and prepare your five o'clock shadow, because if the hobos come back there will be no escape this time.

Q: In today's competitive environment, many states struggle to lure businesses with tax breaks and tourists with legalized gambling and/or prostitution. You note the motto of the 51st state, Ar, otherwise known as the vanishing state, is "Please do not seek us." How has Ar retained a business base and flow of tourists with such an unwelcoming marketing slogan?

A: Tourists aren't welcome there. I'm sorry if that wasn't clear in the book. Being a plateau, shrouded by clouds, that moves from place to place ... it has been difficult for most airlines to establish a regular route. Thus it remains largely unopened to the tourist dollar. It is a self-sufficient planet inhabited by the mythical Native American creature known as the Thunderbird and a smaller population of German-Americans descended from the first German settlers who were kidnapped by the Thunderbirds during the 1850s. They also have no theme parks or reasonable hotels, so it's just not a place you should go visit.

Q: In Table 5 on Page 58, you list markets for certain types of short stories, those about life and death at high altitudes, life and death on the sea or those that sound exactly like raunchy photo captions. Where might someone market a Q&A with a book author and "Daily Show" commentator that has maybe already run in a Bay Area newspaper?

A: The second serial rights of these kinds of stories are notoriously difficult to place. That said, you might try the Internet, a blog or The New York Times.


© 2006, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.). Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.






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