Wednesday, October 28, 2009

John Hodgman: A conversation with a famous writer and minor television personality

Posted By on Wed, Oct 28, 2009 at 10:30 AM


Author and minor television personality John Hodgman might best be known to your mom and dad as the charming portrayer of PC in Apple's funny, iconic Mac/PC advertisements, but you probably know him as The Daily Show's "Resident Expert" and the author of two totally unresearched, totally untrue almanacs of fake trivia: The Areas of My Expertise and its direct continuation (as proven by the page numbering), More Information Than You Require.

Hodgman also contributes to McSweeney's and edits the humor section of the New York Times Magazine. He played minor parts in Tina Fey's Baby Mama, Ricky Gervais' The Invention of Lying and Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Battlestar Galactica. Hodgman will be in town for a reading at Unity Temple on the Plaza on November 6, and The Pitch spoke with him by phone this week. After the jump, MORE INFORMATION THAN YOU REQUIRE about John Hodgman:

Often in your writing, you find yourself opening by introducing yourself and sort of delivering a curriculum vitae that begins with "former professional literary agent" and now includes "Deranged Millionaire." Does your CV include anything else new that I might need to mention?

I'm no longer a former professional literary agent; I'm a former-former professional literary agent. What little knowledge I had about how the publishing industry works and the styles of tweed jackets that were fashionable then are now really out of date because of my years spent as a famous writer and minor television personality.

Your books are self-acknowledged fake trivia, but they have a core of real knowledge, and also a love of real knowledge, as well as obvious affection for the various media through which it's conveyed.

I certainly have a love of real trivia. If you examine my resume, I've been a publishing semi-professional and a professional freelance magazine writer -- and that's not even including my time spent as a cheese monger, a movie ticket ripper, a traffic counter, a book-tearer-aparter and re-taper -- I had to tear apart two copies of David Mamet's play Oleanna and tape the pages to fresh sheets of paper, presumably for photocopying ... that was in the old days. We were barely out of mimeographs.

I once saw a production of Oleanna.

Ah. Then you might appreciate why it had to be torn apart. But with the varied things that I've done, I became a professional half-assed polymath. I enjoy gaining a shallow pool of knowledge in as many fields as possible. I just love learning little-known facts about every possible field, (A) because it's interesting to me and (B) because I can use those little-known facts in order to trick the reader.

One of the ways in which your books are funny is in finding the tension between the truth and the things that you've made up, and I think that sensibility is distilled to its essence in your list of presidents who had hooks for hands. It creates a really complicated transaction with the reader -- an assertion of authority which is immediately undercut with a spectacular absurdist lie.

That's exactly so -- it's a transaction with the reader in which I am passing  counterfeit coins. Just like that fellow Boggs or whoever, who created fake bank notes and tried to pass them off at restaurants and so forth as pieces of art -- there is an art to counterfeiting. That particular list was one of the proofs-of-concepts that I used not only to sell the book to a skeptical publisher, but to myself as well. I'd actually been approached to write a book of real trivia, and I was tempted to do it. Having loved The Book of Lists and its sequel The Book of Lists 2 and things like that, I felt that I really didn't have a lot to add to the world of non-fiction. So I saw it as an opportunity to write fiction in a way that informed both my laziness and interests as a writer.

And originally, I thought I'd write a really big book -- a book so imposingly large that you'd think the author was insane -- a gigantic book of facts, but reflecting a world which was made up, and all of the facts would be made up by me. They were dubious about the idea, and I wasn't sure it was possible to do it in a compelling way.

So the list of presidents with hooks for hands made sense to me. I was very adept at that point at pretending to be an authority -- that was my job. First as a publishing professional who actually knew nothing, in my twenties. And especially as a freelance magazine writer for three or four years, having to learn all about a subject in a very short time-frame, write about it and then erase all that information to make room for the next story. And the reason I liked the list of the nine presidents who had hooks for hands was because, at a time when we know so much about our presidents' lives, it is interesting to conjure a time when we didn't know a lot about the president. For instance, FDR had a hook, but it was shaped like a wheelchair and somehow no one seemed to see it.

It goes along with the outsize personalities presidents have, and the quasi-aristocracy the president achieves, joining the most exclusive secret society in the world -- there have only been 44 presidents. We like to think we don't have aristocracy, but we do. The Europeans have hemophilia to signify their aristocrats, and like them, we have hooks for hands as a symbol of royalty.

Grover Cleveland, "the Beast from Buffalo," had a life-threatening cancer of the palette that was never revealed. He secretly went to have the tumor removed. He went to Long Island Sound aboard his yacht, Oneida, where doctors removed the tumor. That's an actual fact. That explains why, when he took office again, half of his face was gone and replaced with a hard rubber prosthetic. It's not just history: All around us, we are surrounded by strangeness and a reality as surreal as any goofball painting. It requires some tricks to see it or remind ourselves of it.

It actually reflects the huge personality of someone who would decide to run for president.

Back when I was a freelance magazine writer, I wrote a profile of a sculptor. I think it got killed. The story, not the sculptor. His name was Robert Berks. Very, very famous portrait sculptor. He sculpted busts and statues of people, including the famous bust of JFK at the Kennedy Center -- he does these sort of stippled sculptures, assembling tiny pieces of clay -- I was in his studio, and he had a sculpture of, I think, Robert Kennedy. It may have been some other person. It was a full-body sculpture.

And we were across the studio, and he said, "How does that look? Life-size?" And I said yes, it seemed life-size. And he brought me closer, and I saw that it was actually one-and-a-half times life-size. And he said, "If you make it life-size, it looks too small. You have to make it one-and-a-half times life-size." But he was a sculptor and had spent his working life around various chemical toxins. He was clearly deranged.

As I mentioned in the introduction to the second book, you need to exaggerate life's strangeness only a small amount to remember how strange it actually is.

You've spoken before about the voice of the books, and how, even though you protect your private life via fiction, that voice had to change in the second book as a result of the big changes that occurred in your real life over the last few years.

I'm not sure I protect my private life all that much. All the embarrassing details are absolutely true -- any reference to my sedentary, asthmatic lifestyle, for instance...

... as well as your indifference to sports.

Baseball is the only sport I am capable of tolerating, because of its historicity and its fundamental weirdness and slowness. And its fondness for large, sedentary men. It is essentially a vehicle for nostalgia, which is the most toxic of impulses.

I think I share that sports antipathy. I was a terrible disappointment to my dad.

Oh. Well, he'll get over it. Is he a Mizzou fan? Or perhaps a Royals fan?

A Bears fan. He lives in Chicago, a city which, according to your books, does not actually exist.

Well, I don't hate sports -- I completely appreciate the passion people feel for sports, and indeed, as I say in the new book, there's a lot more in common with your average baseball stats nerd as there is with a guy swinging a foam sword around than there is not. There's a lot of geekery surrounding sports that I actually get and appreciate.

And I appreciate that it's market driven, but what I don't need is for sports to dominate every single part of the culture, including even high education. It has a disproportionate representation in the culture, but let the invisible hand of commerce guide us -- the invisible hand is apparently always adjusting its jock strap and not rolling a twelve-sided die. But that will change.

In what way?

I think that we are necessarily moving toward a geek culture. The health of our society is going to rely on information technology. It's going to rely on a familiarity with math and science and technology. Geekery in general is founded on questioning and proof via analysis of the actual world and not the world as we wish it to be. By contrast, jockdom -- not sports -- jock culture proceeds from a certainty you create in your mind: 'My town is the best because the incredibly wealthy owners decided to keep the team for now.' Or, 'My political team is the best because it was my dad's and they best stoke my primitive fears,' as opposed to 'They have the best policies for me and my family.'

Jockdom is very noble. It's not deliberative. It's certainly the best way to win wars. It's the best way to motivate teams of people to fulfill a goal -- not just war, but getting things done. The most important way to motivate a factory floor. But as you know, we're not as much of a manufacturing society as we were before. China and other big industrial nations are rewarding their nerds and technicians rather than creating a culture that makes fun of them -- it would be wise for us to embrace the book-smart as much as our culture has traditionally embraced the street-smart, the jock-smart. I'm not saying nerds must have their revenge; I'm just saying the time for wedgies is at an end.

You have a relationship with music and musicians that I don't think enough people are quite aware of -- you're good friends with musician Jonathan Coulton, a man against whom you've had to run negative campaign ads; you portray "The Deranged Millionaire" in They Might Be Giants' projects; you've appeared on Flight of the Concords. And I read recently that you actually play oboe and viola. Do you still practice?

Clarinet! I am a SINGLE reed person. Not a double-reed person. No, I no longer practice the clarinet or the viola. I'm practicing ukulele. The ukulele is enjoying its moment and deservedly so. It is portable, it does not require a double reed. And it only has four strings compared to six. If the guitar is the  novel, the ukulele is the book of fake trivia. Sublime in its own way, but much, much easier for me.

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