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vol 7 - issue 05 (jan 2005) :: interviews
NEAL POLLACK
Interview by Wayne Chinsang

NEAL POLLACK IS THE LEAD CHARACTER IN THE NEW NOVEL NEVER MIND THE POLLACKS. NEAL POLLACK IS ALSO THE AUSTIN, TEXAS-BASED AUTHOR THAT CREATED BOTH THE AFOREMENTIONED CHARACTER AND BOOK. BUT MAKE NO MISTAKE, NEAL POLLACK THE CHARACTER AND NEAL POLLACK THE AUTHOR ARE TWO DIFFERENT PEOPLE. CONFUSED? WE FIGURED YOU MIGHT BE, SO READ THIS INTERVIEW WAYNE CHINSANG DID WITH NEAL TO HAVE ALL YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED. WELL, MAYBE NOT ALL OF YOUR QUESTIONS. BUT DEFINITELY YOUR QUESTIONS ABOUT NEAL POLLACK.

Wayne Chinsang: So, letís start out by talking about your book [Never Mind The Pollacks]. In the book there is a character named Neal Pollack. How did the idea come about to place yourself as a character in the book?

Neal Pollack: Well, hereís the thing, Iím not a character in the book. The character just has my name. Thatís an important distinction to make. If I were actually a character in the book, the book would be a lot like the book Iím writing now, which is about a guy in his mid-thirties who is trying to remain hip while still being a dad.

Both: (laugh)

NP: And I couldnít write two books like that. So the important distinction to make is that the character merely has my name, and thatís really only because of the pun in the title.

WC: Right.

NP: Thereís really no reason why the guy had to have my name. In fact, things might have been a lot easier for me if he didnít. Because then I wouldnít have been accused of being a second-rate gonzo knockoff, which Iím really not. Iím really making fun of that whole aesthetic, not actually trying to live it.

WC: Obviously, I didnít think that your lifestyle--

NP: Mirrored that.

WC: Exactly. Mirrored his lifestyle. But are there elements of that character that are you? Iím sure there are elements of you in every character you create.

NP: Yeah. There are elements of me in both the main characters, because Iím also a writer, and writers are nothing more than a big stew of insecurity and misguided ambition.

WC: (laughs)

NP: Those are sort of the driving forces that sit outside of what they actually do. Also, Iím a rock fan, and these guys are sort of the ultimate rock fans in their full pathetic glory. So thereís definitely some of that hanging on the fringe, trying to touch the hem of someoneís garment in all of us.

WC: So, since you are a rock fan, how does music influence what you do in the literary sense?

NP: Well, I didnít have a whole sense of real rock history before I started working on the book. My sense of rock history was basically shaped by classic rock radio and the occasional indie show I would catch when I lived in Chicago. But I didnít have any interest in or knowledge of the scene. So, for the book, in addition to reading close to a hundred books and magazines on rock history, I also started buying and downloading albums. Because, if Iím gonna write about a certain obscure artist, Iíve got to know what they sound like. And that will feed the way I describe the world. So, Iím a rock fan. But whatís weird is that I didnít really become that big a fan until after I turned in the book, and then all of a sudden I knew all of this stuff. And with living in Austin, all these bands would come to town and Iíd be like, "Oh, wow! The Dickies! Theyíre from such-and-such...." Whereas five years ago I wouldnít have known that. So itís almost like I had this knowledge after I wrote the book, and thatís when I became a fan. Itís very strange.

WC: Now that youíve written this book-- and if people arenít familiar with anything else youíve done-- do you think it might put you in this weird rock writer niche?

NP: I donít think thatís gonna be too hard to break out of. (laughs) The weird thing is, I make fun of rock critics, and then a few months after the book came out I got asked to do a column of music criticism.

WC: (laughs) No way.

NP: Yeah. Iím a columnist for eMusic.com, which is a site for indie labels. Itís run by Michael Azerrad, who wrote that definitive Nirvana biography and a really good book about the indie rock scene in the Eighties. So he asked me to join this roster of columnists that included many of the kinds of critics I was making fun of. But Iím writing a column about novelty music, so itís not quite a self-fulfilling prophecy.

WC: Do you think the people youíre surrounded by are offended by that?

NP: Iíve been surprisingly accepted. I was invited to be on a panel at the EMP Pop Conference, and Iíve got the eMusic gig, so I just think they see me as a writer who gives a shit. And that is kind of surprising, but then again I have not run up against [rock critic] Greil Marcus, either.

WC: Did you have any expectations of the feedback or backlash from the book?

NP: Well, there was a backlash, but it sort of surprised me in terms of its content. It didnít come so much from the rock people; it came more from the literary people. But I think that had more to do with the fact that I was touring around with a band, appearing in public with my shirt off, and lipping off and saying all kinds of annoying things about other writers. I think thatís more of where the backlash came from.

WC: Did you expect that?

NP: Yeah, probably.

WC: (laughs) Is that why you did it?

NP: No. I didnít enjoy it, so Iím backing off a little bit.

WC: So, back to writing about the characters. You handle some characters that are pretty iconic already, like Elvis and Bob Dylan. These are people that are already characters, and then you add to them. Did you feel compelled when writing to have them live up to what they are expected to be?

NP: Not really. Really what I was trying to do was write about the way writers portray these characters. I mean, I didnít really care about getting Bob Dylan right. Other people who have a lot more knowledge and sympathy for him can do him better. I made the real life characters in the book deliberately cartoonish. Itís very hard to take Elvis or Iggy Pop or Kurt Cobain and write a poetic examination of their inner being. Itís not my style. Iím a parodist or satirist. So, for real life figures I think surface impressions are enough, you know?

WC: Yeah.

NP: So that wasnít really a big deal. And I have not heard from anybody at all that appeared in the book, and Iím not aware of anybody who appears in the book having read the book. I mean, I suppose itís possible. I met John Doe [frontman for the band X] a few months ago, and heíd never heard of the book.

Both: (laugh)

NP: So thatís a sign. And somebody emailed me the other day and said they had sent it to Mike Watt. But I donít really worry about the wrath of Mike Watt.

WC: (laughs)

NP: I think he pretty much would appreciate it. Or ignore it. Or both.

WC: Pretty much the only thing you might even have to worry about is the Elvis estate freaking out. I know theyíre very defensive about how he is used in anything.

NP: Yeah, but, I mean, Jesus--

WC: Heís the king of being parodied, though.

NP: Yeah. I mean, after Bubba Ho-Tep what I did is almost an elegy.

WC: (laughs) Yeah, really. So, since you do consider yourself to be primarily a satirist, I think satire can be used in two ways: either as a defensive and protective shield for the author, or as an offensive weapon. How do you use satire? Because I know youíre into politics, as well--

NP: Yeah. I see it more as an offensive weapon. Privacy has never been a main concern of mine, although I am starting to treasure it a little more. Iíve made myself harder to get in touch with on the Internet. But I donít consider it a shield against reality. Iíve been looking at satire a little more broadly. Iíve been forced by financial circumstances to write more personal essays about my real self, but I can be satirical while doing that. So I think any writing gets extra depth if there is something of the writer in it; if itís not just all surface.

WC: What got you interested in doing satire?

NP: Itís just always been the way I process the world. When I was in seventh grade I used to make these little comic books based on TV mini-series that I liked. It was really nerdy stuff, like Iíd take the cast of The Winds Of War and write about it as if it were ancient Rome.

Both: (laugh)

NP: Really dumb. But it was parodying the conventions of mini-series. I also used to do this Hill Street Blues comic with a friend.

Both: (laugh)

NP: I made fun of Hill Street Blues. That got me beat up because it was so nerdy.

WC: Oh, I thought you meant the cast of Hill Street Blues would beat you up.

Both: (laugh)

NP: No. I got beat up by people who got tired of hearing my friend and I read our Hill Street Blues comics out loud and laughing hysterically. I remember there was one plot line where-- there was that one character that was always chewing a toothpick--

WC: (laughs) Right.

NP: Well, he swallowed his toothpick. But we could only draw stick figures, so the toothpick stuck out of him.

Both: (laugh)

NP: And we had a whole plot line where one of the characters had a heart attack and had to go to the hospital, so we brought Dick Butkus in to replace him.

Both: (laugh)

NP: It was really nerdy. But you write satire, as well, so you know it's not something that you wake up with at 25 and go, "Iím gonna be a satirist now."

WC: Right.

NP: Itís kind of like a disease you have. You understand Mel Brooks the very first time you see one of his movies. You know what I mean?

WC: Yeah, I was raised in a family like that. A house where nobody really says anything entirely serious, and there is always this underlying hint of the totally ridiculous.

NP: Right. And Airplane! is sort of the guiding document of my life.

WC: (laughs) Right.

NP: Much more so than literature.

WC: Yeah. So, how does living in Austin, Texas affect what you do? Because Iím sure youíre at a point where youíre hearing the "You should be in L.A." pitch.

NP: Yeah, well, Iíve certainly thought about moving to L.A. from time to time. But I have a kid, and financial reality dictates my every move, you know? I keep hoping that maybe a little bit of L.A. money will drop into my lap and then I can move there. But I also like it here [Austin]. Itís very relaxing, and you seem to get stuff done if youíre determined to get stuff done. Itís also very easy not to do anything. But there is definitely a pressure or a draw to moving to L.A. But then I look at my house with my front and back porches and my porch swing and my yard, and the fact that I can drink beer and do other things on my porch with my friends on any given night, and nobody has anything else to do... itís kind of nice, you know?

WC: Right. Unlike L.A., where youíd be crammed into a two bedroom apartment.

NP: Exactly. That Iíd have to share with my wife, a two-year-old child, a dog, and two cats.

WC: Exactly.

NP: Iíd fucking kill myself. So what I may do is go out there for a month, and then maybe go out there with the family for the summer... but I donít know. At the moment Iím not really into giving up my little estate here.

WC: So do your surroundings affect what you create?

NP: Well, yeah, I guess to some extent. Like I said, Iím writing this book about trying to be a "cool dad", and Austin is a good test market for that kind of fatherhood. There are a lot of punk rock dads here. I donít know if you have this where you are, but itís that obnoxious "My baby wears a Ramones shirt" sort of snobbery.

WC: Yeah.

NP: "My baby is so cool because of all the music I listen to."

WC: Right.

NP: But thatís even more prevalent in L.A. with the added layer of money. But Austin is weird and funny in its own right. Itís worth writing about.

WC: So letís switch gears here for a second and talk about underground publications. I know you wrote for the Chicago Reader, but--

NP: Which is about as underground as writing for The Christian Science Monitor.

Both: (laugh)

WC: I mean, I know you started off doing more indie stuff, but then you got bigger--

NP: I got bigger.

Both: (laugh)

WC: Yeah, for lack of a better term. And your bio in the new book jokingly says you also write for "...numerous underground publications such as Vanity Fair and the New York Times." Behind the joking, is there any level of big publisher guilt?

NP: No, none whatsoever.

WC: Because I was talking to [Brian] Gage about this when I was in L.A. We were talking about how itís a necessary evil. I mean, Gage wanted to be able to say fuck you to everyone and just publish his shit through smaller publishers like Soft Skull, but you just canít do it that way.

NP: Iíve got to make a living. You know, if I can get Random House Corporation or Fox News Corporation which owns Harper Collins to give me money, then Iíll take it. Theyíve got money. And, really, the book divisions are not monitored very carefully. So I donít have any shame about that. And I just try to keep some level of indie... I donít know if "cred" is the right word, because I donít care about cred. But Iím trying to keep some level of indie involvement, because I like to be involved with what is going on at the ground level. Like, Iím editing a collection of crime fiction set in Chicago, and thatís coming out through Akashic Books, which is an indie label press. So I do a lot of the mainstream work, but when a small magazine asks me to write something-- if I have the time-- I generally do it, because I donít see why I should be a snob about it. There are lots of smart people who just havenít had the right breaks or the right connections or whatever. And thereís interesting stuff going on on all levels. I think indie culture is important, but I also think it can be a ghetto in its own right.

WC: Absolutely.

NP: You know, like, just because something is indie doesnít mean itís good. And I think thatís a trap people fall into in local scenes. Itís just not something I want to be a part of. But at the same time, if Iím living in a place I donít want to be a snot just because I have a book out and other writers donít.

WC: Right. And I think there is always some level of indie even in larger stuff. Like, I was always a fan of Rage, even when they--

NP: You mean Rage Against The Machine?

WC: Yeah. And I think they always maintained an indie level within a major market.

NP: Yeah, I mean, come on. There is no real cultural rebellion possible in this country.

WC: (laughs)

NP: I mean, you can get away with anything. There is still a lot of Christian fundamentalist bullshit, but there still arenít that many taboos. You know, like Howard Stern gets censored by Clear Channel--

WC: So he just signs up with Sirius.

NP: Yeah. So there are options. When heís getting deals like that... I mean, I canít imagine what the term "subversive" even means. Itís not subversive to be against the president. (laughs) Thatís a very popular belief, you know? Michael Moore made a lot of money off that opinion. So what does it even mean to be indie?

WC: I think the term "indie" is something that possibly held a lot of weight in the Nineties, but it honestly never truly meant anything.

NP: It never really meant anything. And there are always these waves of young people coming up, especially in music. They form their own labels and their own scenes; itís going on right now as a reaction to the O.C. emo-rock nexus. Thereís all kinds of weird punk rock stuff going on. And thatís great, and itís important that this stuff happened, but donít think itís anything new, especially when it comes to literature. It has its place, but itís not the be all and end all. And people shouldnít consider it as such.

WC: Yeah, indie is in a weird place. Like, I think people have a voice and an opinion, like being against the Bush administration or whatever--

NP: Yeah, and thatís such a rare thing to have.

Both: (laugh)

WC: Right. And it doesnít seem that the opinion is embraced as much anymore; it seems like it's written off. You know, before the elections I felt that we were all living in a post-9/11 world. But now I feel like weíre living in a post-11/2 world.

NP: I like this a lot better, actually.

WC: You like the world better now?

NP: Yeah. I mean, call me crazy, but it almost was liberating in a way that finally the truth about this country came out after November 2nd. There were a few weeks of shock, but suddenly everyone seemed to know their place. I almost feel that itís kind of chill. Donít you get that a little bit?

WC: Yeah, I actually do.

NP: And I like that. I mean, itís not like the problems have gone away; itís not like soldiers arenít still dying in Iraq. But the election season was so didactic and so heated on both sides, and itís such a relief for me not to be getting emails three times a day from Eli at MoveOn.org.

WC: (laughs) Oh, you got those, too?

NP: Yeah. Everyone did. And itís just such a relief. I donít feel like Iím being screamed at all the time. And I donít feel like Iím screaming all the time, either. So maybe this will be a good time for art, music, and literature. I mean, I had a lot of shit to say about writers stating their political opinions for the first time ever, starting around... about August. You know? I just thought it was absurd. It was like, "Ah, okay. [Author] Jonathan Safran Foer is against President Bush. Stop the presses!" (laughs) You know?

WC: Yeah. I think everybody definitely wanted to be heard during that period, but now no one cares to listen, so I think thatís why it has died down. Because, like you said, it was just crammed down everybodyís throats--

NP: Well, everyone was saying the exact same thing, and thatís never interesting.

WC: Right. How do you argue with someone you--

NP: --agree with? Yeah. And you canít argue with the people who disagree with you, because the gap is too wide. So, Iíve relaxed and, not that this means anything to anyone but me, but the writing has come a lot easier. Iíve been able to relax into it and realize thereís very little that I as an individual can do. And thatís kind of liberating in a way. You know, I vomited in a parking lot the day after Election Day-- out of misery, and also because I was a little hung over-- and that was kind of a purge.

WC: (laughs)

NP: Donít you feel kind of the same way? That itís kind of relaxing?

WC: Yeah, actually. Itís good that itís over, but the one thing that kind of freaked me out, and you kind of said this already, is that the election absolutely reflected what we are as a country and a society.

NP: Yeah.

WC: And that really freaks me out.

NP: Yeah, itís frightening. But itís also kind of amusing at the same time. (laughs) Like the fact that half or a very, very large percentage of this country believes that our president was sent by God--

Both: (laugh)

NP: --to fulfill our destiny. Itís unbelievable to me that considering all the advances of science and scholarship and our technological sophistication, that people are still living in this bubble of ignorance while still enjoying the same consumer bliss that the rest of us do. So, itís just amusing. And it scares me sometimes, too, but you just have to sit back and be amused by it or else youíll just go nuts. And Iím tired of going nuts.

WC: (laughs) Yeah.

NP: I just want to get a little less nuts for awhile.

WC: Yeah, things have definitely calmed down. I think something that helps it along is that Bush seems to have all but disappeared from the face of the planet.

NP: Well, I feel that theyíre operating it-- I mean, yes, theyíre trying to destroy Social Security, and thatís not good. And Donald Rumsfeld still seems to continue to place his jack-boot on the face of the world. But a lot of what theyíre doing now seems like Republican business as usual.

WC: Right.

NP: And it seems almost like more of a normal presidency. Like their big scandal with Bernard Kerik; thatís something that would happen under any president. And all this stuff about the economy and whatnot, while I do think theyíre collapsing it, itís something that could have happened under any president. Whereas in post-9/11 it was like we were living in Stalinís Russia. You know what I mean?

WC: Yeah.

NP: It felt like that. In terms of what the administration itself is doing, it doesnít seem to be the gravitas. You know, everyone is laughing at Rumsfeld; everyone thinks heís an asshole, a fool. They donít buy into his crap anymore.

WC: So if youíve personally chilled since the election, has your writing gotten more... not accepting, but--

NP: Itís gotten more accessible. This book Iím working on right now is a parenting memoir, and Iím trying to write a book that provides a different spin on family values to show that people that smoke pot and have hangovers and are into punk rock can be good parents, too. And I definitely think there is a political goal in that. But Iím not trying to pound it over anyoneís head. And Iíve even done a few pieces of satire since the election, but theyíve been a little more balanced.

WC: Since you are changing as a person and getting more chill, are you starting to get the inevitable sellout shit from people?

NP: That stuff has always been happening, ever since I started to become even moderately successful.

WC: And by moderately successful you mean being able to eat.

NP: Yeah. I mean, there are people who considered me too mainstream even when I was writing for the Chicago Reader. There is always someone who is more indie than you. And it doesnít mean anything. It just doesnít mean anything. So I think at a certain point Iím just going to be too far removed from it to be accused of being a sellout. Itís hard for me to even imagine what that means, because I feel that Iíve stayed reasonably true to who I am. You know, Iím not writing a book about my feelings about September 11th, like some writers who I donít like very much are.

Both: (laugh)

NP: I donít feel like selling out is really a problem that I have.

WC: Do you think who you are is misinterpreted by both sides? By both the haters and the fans?

NP: I donít know. Thereís a very small percentage of people out there who care at all. And some of them get the joke, some of them donít. I donít exactly know. But Iím trying to make my writing a little more straightforward, at least right now, sort of to lift the confusion for a bit. And then Iím sure Iíll get bored with that and start confounding and muddying the waters again. I do think that occasionally people will confuse me with the persona. They will think that since I have somewhat of a lippy persona, that they can then come up and say whatever they want to me, which isnít really true. But compared to what actual famous people have to deal with, itís not that big a problem.

WC: When people do come up to you and act that way, how do you deal with it? Do you just ignore it?

NP: Yeah, I usually shrug it off. A couple of times in the last three months Iíve had guys come up to me at parties and tell me that I sucked or that they hated me or whatnot. And one time I just shrugged it off, and the other time I kind of threw it back in the guyís face.

WC: And broke a bottle on the table and told him to bring it.

NP: I would have liked to. In retrospect, when I was driving home, I was like, "Man, I should have smashed a bottle over that fuckerís head!"

WC: (laughs)

NP: But I didnít. And Iím not adverse to getting into fights in bars. I have a temper. (laughs) Sometimes Iíll get flamed on the Internet, as well. And generally what Iíll do is write the flamer a letter, and thatíll take care of everything. Then theyíll write back and apologize. Theyíll say they were having a bad day at work, or that they just disagreed with something I said and they took it personally. But I operate on the philosophy that most people arenít psychotic.

WC: (laughs)

NP: Which may be my downfall, but....

WC: (laughs) Well, Iíve only got two other things and then Iíll let you go. First, whatís next? I know you have the new story you were talking about--

NP: Yeah. Iíve got this dad memoir, Iím editing that book of crime fiction set in Chicago, and then Iím writing short stories. I just had one picked up by the Mississippi Review. You know, Iíve written three books and Iíve written for Vanity Fair, but when I got that short story picked up by the Mississippi Review, I was like, "Now Iím a writer. Yeah!"

WC: (laughs)

NP: "Thatís the kind of thing that wouldíve happened to Walker Percy. Now Iím in!"

WC: (laughs)

NP: So that was kind of cool. And then Iím still doing freelance stuff for Vanity Fair, and Iíve got the eMusic column, and Iím writing another column called Bad Sex for Nerve. Itís non-fiction accounts of exactly what it says. Itís the sexual history of one bumbling man, which most of us are. So that all seems to fill my plate fairly well. Iím also really, really enjoying watching all the Phoenix Suns games. I grew up in Phoenix, and, man, that team is good. They are so good this year. I donít know if you follow the hoop.

WC: Well, Iím up here in Milwaukee so Iím surrounded by the Bucks.

NP: Yeah, thatís boring.

WC: Yeah, they suck.

NP: They really do suck. So thatís what Iím up to. And also Iím trying to learn how to write screenplays.

WC: Right. Is the book being optioned?

NP: Itís been optioned. As for whether or not it gets made into a movie, thatís not really for me to decide. (laughs) You know? Itís out of my hands. I mean, the odds are probably against it, but... I mean, I think it could be a good movie. But Iím not going to anticipate anything. Iím also trying to figure out how to write screenplays on my own, and maybe even how to pitch TV show ideas. Because thatís selling out. They say itís buying in, but L.A. is where the real money is for a writer. Thereís just no two ways around it. I want to keep writing books, but I donít particularly have a lot of tolerance for the literary attitude of the book ghetto. I mean, not in terms of the writing and reading of books, but more in terms of the culture of literature. It pretends to be something other than it's not. Itís an art form that needs to be advanced and practiced and supported, but it has an audience probably roughly that of opera or ballet, at this point. But it pretends like it doesnít. It pretends like itís much more important culturally than that. And thatís alright, but itís just not true. Most people get their stories through TV or movies, and that doesnít mean that books shouldnít continue or that I wonít continue writing them, but itís a cultural fact that a lot of writers are surprisingly unwilling to face.

WC: Why do you think that is?

NP: Snobbery. Itís gotta be snobbery. Thereís no other answer. Self-importance. Itís hard to say, but itís an amazingly prevalent attitude.

WC: Okay, well the last question I have for you is one we ask everyone, and it has nothing to do with anything weíve just talked about.

NP: Okay.

WC: Do dogs have lips?

NP: (pauses) Let me look at my dog. Hang on. (to his dog, Hercules) Come here, Hercules. Come here. Do you have lips? Do you have lips? (to Wayne) Ummm... yeah, I think so. Thereís this little fleshy underthing under his whiskers, right? I mean, of course. He has a mouth.

WC: Thatís what I think. But a lot of people think differently.

NP: No, Iím a dogs have lips guy. They definitely have tongues. He gives good kisses.

WC: (laughs)

NP: You can write that down as my answer. I donít care.

WC: (laughs) Alright.

NP: Sorry if I didnít provide the hilarity you expected.

WC: Oh, no, no. Sometimes we get short, one-word answers and other times people get really detailed and into it.

NP: Yeah. I would put myself somewhere in the middle.

Both: (laugh)

NP: Alright, man, well, I appreciate you taking the time to talk.

WC: Hey, no problem.

NP: Wait. Thatís what youíre supposed to say! Jesus Christ.

WC: Thanks a lot for taking the time to talk.

NP: Oh, youíre welcome. Anything to advance the cause.

Both: (laugh)

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