Life After McSweeneys: An Interview with Neal Pollack

Neal Pollack

Calling himself “The Greatest Living American Writer” may make his shoes hard ones to fill, but it hasn’t prevented author Neal Pollack from seducing an alternative crowd of readers from the McSweeney’s set, as well as much praise for his sarcastically edgy books, including the latest Nevermind the Pollacks: A Rock ‘n Roll Novel, as well as his previous The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature.

Since concluding his music/book tour, Pollack sat down with PopMatters to discuss his new book, the art of parody, favorite music and what exactly the author’s role is in a media-rich society. Pollack, a former reporter for The Chicago Reader, may have made his way around the country as an author and rock ‘n’ roll star, but he currently resides in Austin, Texas (and on Friendster).

PopMatters: You’ve written short fiction, a story billed as a literary anthology, and now a rock ‘n’ roll novel. From someone who professed on CSPAN not to be much of a rock ‘n’ roll enthusiast, from where does your inspiration spring for the latest Nevermind the Pollacks?

Neal Pollack: I didn’t say I wasn’t an enthusiast, exactly. I said I didn’t know much about rock ‘n’ roll when I started writing the book. This novel was my attempt to emerge from a cultural cave that I’d been living in for more than 30 years. Really, it’s amazing how little I knew, particularly about the music of my generation. I guess in my teens and 20s, I was too busy reading political magazines and 19th century British novels. In some ways, those times were more intellectually rich than now, but in other ways, I feel like I missed out on my youth.

Never Mind the Pollacks: A Rock and Roll Novel
By Neal Pollack

September 2003, 272 pages, $23.95

PM: What were some of your goals with this new book?

NP: I wanted to stretch the fictional voice that I’d developed in The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, and to try some new voices on for size. I also wanted to write something with a plot, and some scope. And, most importantly, I wanted to take the piss out of rock journalism and rock criticism.

PM: Name one good reason why someone should read it who may or may not be a rock ‘n roll enthusiast?

NP: If nothing else, there’s some good slapstick humor.

PM: What should a reader expect from Nevermind the Pollacks, compared to your previous writing?

NP: Well, there are at least three characters in this book, as opposed to my previous fiction writing, which only featured one. And there’s a plot of sorts, not to mention lots of vomit, which one reviewer noted quite scornfully. So what to expect? A rollicking thrill ride through the history of rock ‘n’ roll. Or, more accurately, critically acclaimed rock snob rock ‘n’ roll. AC/DC, despite being the greatest band of all time, isn’t in the book because rock critics at the time of their height, for the most part, felt the band was beneath them. They were too busy looking for the lost Pere Ubu tapes.

PM: The editors of PopMatters are fond of torturing its writers into listing top favorite picks at the end of each year. Since this interview is bound for 2004, what would Neal Pollack say are his top 10 cultural phenomenons to look out for in 2004?

NP: Good lord. Do I have to do this? OK. I’m just going to type them as they come to me and will not go back to edit, except for grammar. Don’t sue me if these are lame.

Some reality program or other is going to show, with the naughty bits barely blocked out, two people having full-on sexual intercourse.

Reader’s Digest, the only publication that hasn’t yet done so, will put Jon Stewart on the cover.

Reese Witherspoon will have a baby. Doesn’t she usually?

Many great rock albums will be released and critically praised but, for the most part, sell horribly as the music industry continues to collapse inward.

The New York Times Magazine will run at least one profile of an artist a month.

People dressed as orcs will storm the theater when The Return Of The King fails to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

Lyle Lovett will sell out two nights in the Boston area.

Kids will continue to grow up too fast.

A new brand of gum will be so strong that one cube eliminates all feeling in your mouth for a week.

More bad Ben Affleck movies.

PM: You’ve been busy writing for a number of publications. What have been some of your favorite assignments?

NP: GQ sent me “in search of” Dick Cheney. That was fun because I got to go to Wyoming. The rest of my assignments tend to involve me sitting at home watching TV or listening to Internet radio and making snide comments about the content. And then sometimes, like with my Vanity Fair pieces, I just make stuff up. I recently wrote something in which I imagined Howard Dean as a Paris Hilton-like socialite, and wrote a fake celebrity profile of him. I found that piece very enjoyable to write.

PM: Once upon a time ago, you wrote a short story having to do with J.D. Salinger hiding in the woods. In considering this image, what do you think the contemporary writer’s place is in mainstream culture?

NP: Oh, pretty marginal. It’s always amazing to me how many people want to write, considering that the average writer makes like $4,000 a year from his or her writing, and that’s after you factor in the big guns like Stephen King, Nora Roberts, et al. There are at least as many aspiring writers in this country as there are aspiring singers, but an American Author show would be very dull because all writers do all day is check their e-mail, pace around the room, or masturbate. Trust me.

PM: Do you think that print is in danger of being dead? Will blogs take over?

NP: Blogs will take over nothing except for maybe gossip and, to some extent, political-opinion writing. Glossy magazines or television snap up most of the clever Web writers. There is almost nothing on the Internet that threatens the novel or short story.

PM: In your opinion, what were some of the notable literary happenings of 2003?

NP: Well, Stephen King got a lifetime achievement honor from the National Book Award people. That really brought out the snobs. Millions of zombie-kids and their helpless parents dressed like wizards to buy a doorstop that will be made into a movie before most of the kids hit puberty. Jessica Lynch refused to play the fool for Rick Bragg, who’d earlier left The New York Times in disgrace. There was some brouhaha over a book called The Bookseller of Kabul, but I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Heidi Julavits, in The Believer magazine, wrote an influential essay in which she decried the use of “snark” in book reviewing, and then a bunch of people who have never written a book and never will fell all over themselves trying to parse what she meant. Crap. I get tired thinking about this stuff.

PM: What other authors, artists, glee club singers or former Yugoslav leaders do you consider inspirational to your own writing and newly established rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle?

NP: Let me disabuse you of the notion that I have a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. I occasionally go see rock ‘n’ roll, and even less occasionally indulge in rock ‘n’ roll excesses. But for the most part, I’m a middle-class deskbound husband and father of one who drives a Volkswagen brand station wagon. Once in a while I take a trip and put on some shows, publicly drink some whiskey and whoop it up. So I think it would be disingenuous for me to cite Iggy Pop as an influence. Let me just name Michael O’Donoghue and the Zucker brothers, and leave it at that.

PM: How was touring with a band similar and/or different from touring as an author? And have you processed the fact that your work can now be purchased in both the book and music sections of Barnes and Noble?

NP: Touring with a band is an expensive drudge with occasional moments of joyous epiphany. The food is lousy, the hangovers intense, the neck always stiff. Honestly, I don’t know how musicians do it. They’re like gypsies. I saw a quote from Henry Rollins where he said, upon being asked if he was going to sleep in a tent at Woodstock II, “I’m 33. I’m staying at the Marriott.” That’s how I feel, too. By the time I went on a rock tour, I was too old.

Book touring, on the other hand, is an inexpensive drudge with occasional moments of joyous epiphany. I don’t dislike book touring as much as most authors, because I actually enjoy meeting people and because I put thought and effort into making my events fun. But I learned my lesson on this last rock tour: A writer performing with a rock band does not sell books. Bookstores sell books. The turnouts at my bookstore events on this last tour were larger than the turnouts at my rock events in every city but Washington, D.C., and that’s only because the Post printed the wrong address for my event. I still want to give people an entertaining evening, but I’m through with dancing around like a monkey. Of course, I say that now, but watch me go back on my word…

PM: How did this musical segue come to be exactly?

NP: It’s a long story that has become dull from the overtelling. Short version: I had a rock book coming out and thought a rock album would be the perfect way to promote it. I knew some musicians and met some others, they agreed to help me on my project, I hired them to go on tour with me, we toured, the record-label went bankrupt, and the band disintegrated, never to be heard from again.

PM: Do you ever download free music from the Internet?

NP: I’m just lazy. And old-fashioned. I still like to thing of music as something that exists in album form. A vast universe of amorphous musical influence helps people like, say, Beck and Outkast, who can turn our new random way of listening into art. But for an ordinary 30-something listener like me, it’s a muddle. One of my musicians on the tour, a young guy with very good taste in music, spent the whole month playing us songs off his IPod. I liked much of the music, but found the randomness disconcerting.

PM: What music do you listen to these days, besides The Neal Pollack Invasion?

NP: The usual trendy indie-rock bullshit. And some jazz and 60s soul.

PM: What’s the one thing that you couldn’t possibly live without as a writer?

NP: A computer. Original!

PM: Do you have any prerequisites about what makes a good book?

NP: I like clear, concise writing, well-drawn, uncliched characters, a dash of cultural relevance, and a slightly off-kilter sensibility. And plot. I know that doesn’t describe my own writing, but I’m talking as a reader here. I think that much of what passes for “literary” fiction these days is too self-conscious and badly edited.

PM: Who are you reading?

NP: I just read A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley, because it’s one of those books that you’re supposed to read. It was impressive, but also agonizing. In recent weeks I’ve also read two mysteries by the British writer Ruth Rendell, who I love. How To Lose Friends And Alienate People by Toby Young, and two historical novels of New York by Kevin Baker, Paradise Alley and Dreamland.

PM: You recently wrote about The New York Times book reviewer David Kamp on your Web site,, suggesting that his criticism of your book may have been tainted after a mutual orgy that you and he once shared. What sort of feedback have you received? Has Kamp responded?

NP: Most people said, keep your head up, pal, that review was unfair. And I sincerely doubt I’ll ever hear from him.

PM: What’s your next step as far as writing is concerned, or do you plan on abandoning your writing career to tour with Sammy Hagar?

NP: I’m working on a book about New York, because every writer has to have a New York book, and I’m doing magazine work. Also, I have a pretty nifty screenplay that I’m shopping around.

PM: Since The Believer launched last year, what do you think its claim has been on readership in a society otherwise saturated with People magazine and reality TV?

NP: I think The Believer reaches exactly its audience, and not a whit more. Which is fine. Literary criticism and essays and really long interviews don’t have much of a following in a country where TV Guide has been the top subscription magazine for the last 30 years. But they have a loyal audience, and they’re finally giving them something fresh. Harper’s hasn’t been good since, oh, 1990.

PM: The Believer features shorts about motels around the country. Having been initiated as a touring musician, if you had to write about a motel, which would it be?

NP: There’s this place in Atlanta called The Highland Inn that I just love. Each room is different and quirky and just comfortable enough on this side of seedy. It’s more of a European-style budget hotel, with personality and a faint whiff of detergent in the corridors.

PM: What’s your favorite fact you learned about music while researching Nevermind the Pollacks?

NP: I really liked learning about Richard and Mimi Farina, about whom I’d known nothing before. What pretentious bohemians they were! How many thousands of coffeehouse wretches have wasted their 20s in feeble imitation!

PM: Next to being a rock star and writer (in no particular order) what else would Neal Pollack like to do with his life?

NP: I’m interested in joining some kind of artisanal cheese society, because I love cheese. Also, I’ve always wanted to visit South America.

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