Because he's reading at Wordstock tomorrow, I recently interviewed John Hodgman--the author of The Areas of My Expertise and More Information Than You Require, the "resident expert" of The Daily Show, and the guy who plays the PC in those Apple ads. Due to space constraints, the piece that ran in the Mercury contained mere snippets of our fascinating, exhilarating conversation.
The abridged version is here, but if you have entirely too much time on your hands, and/or enjoy hearing many details about such things as Battlestar Galactica, more or less the whole thing follows, though it's been edited for clarity and an email address has been ominously REDACTED.
MERCURY: I don't have too many questions for you.
HODGMAN: Ask them all.
You're in Chicago now, on the publicity tour.
I consider it a book tour. The publicity is secondary. It is a reading and performance tour of fake fact.
Do you enjoy the reading and the performance part of it?
Oh quite a bit, yeah, of course.
And how long are you out on the road?
Usually two or three weeks. For example, on this tour it's on and off-it started on October 21st, and will go on until November 21st, but there will be pockets of interruption for the election and for The Daily Show and stuff.
What are your favorite places to visit when you do these things?
Really just Portland. Only Portland. The rest of the United States' cities are dead to me. I don't wish to be mean to other cities, but I will be perfectly clear: The crowds in Portland and Seattle and Los Angeles and San Francisco have always been amazing, and I think that the other greatest city that I've ever done a reading in is Oxford, Mississippi.
I don't like to rank cities in this way. Let me find another way to answer this question. I'll tell you about Oxford in a moment. Without question, Oxford was the strangest city, in so far as it is a very small town, it is a very literary town, [and] everyone knows each other and has known each other for a long time, and has probably known each others' parents for a long time. It is like entering an alternate universe, where people are nice, and will invite you to their homes, and then will invite you to sleep over and live with them for a month. [They will say] "Will you come out and see my bonfire?" And there is a bonfire the size of a Mack Truck that they then burn, and give you whiskey, and send you home.
Only about 20 people showed up for the reading itself, but I do not blame Oxford. It was a football game weekend that weekend, and that takes precedence over everything else. But it is one of those weird places where jock and nerd meet, and are happy. It is a highly literary community, and it is overwhelmingly footballish in its inclinations, and they have amazing food and liquor and decent people. But I will say--as I started out by saying--the people of the Pacific Northwest have always been good to me and my books, even before there was television in my life, and I'm grateful to them. And I also know that I'll be appearing with [musician] Jonathan Coulton, and that will energize the hordes of zombies that he commands in ways that will be exciting for all.
That brings me to my next question. How did that relationship with Jonathan Coulton start?
I'm thrilled by Jonthan Coulton's career, and the way that by creating and giving away songs on the internet he has managed to create an extremely creatively vibrant and profitable career for himself as a touring feral singer/songwriter. And I'm especially thrilled that the question now is, "How did you manage to get Jonathan Coulton to go on tour with you? How did you meet Jonathan Coulton?"
We went to college together, we've been very good friends since our days at Yale together, and we were very good friends when we were both working desk jobs unrelated to our passions in Manhattan a few blocks away from each other, and challenging each other to get off our respective feral asses to do what fate had decided for us--he to write amazing songs about zombies and robots, and me to write fake trivia. So when my book of fake trivia came out, it seemed entirely natural to have Jonathan come along and play some songs.
A lot of what performance chops I have were developed doing a series of literary variety shows in Brooklyn over the course of a number of years, with Jonathan as the musical director, so it was only natural. At that time, Jonathan hadn't even quit his job--he was still working as a computer programmer with the [release of my] first book. Very soon after that, he quit his job, and by the time the paperback rolled out in 2006, he had only been doing [his weekly recording sessions] "Thing a Week" for a very brief period of time. By this tour, of course, he is much more famous than I am to a certain group of people. He is a true new media celebrity, which is to say he's very 2.0, right? He engages with his fanbase very closely, and as a result, they reward him with a lot of enthusiasm and devotion and, often, strange stuffed animals that they make themselves and often throw up on stage.
Whereas I am purely an "old media" celebrity, such as I am--a famous minor television celebrity. And because television is very powerful, people know my face on the street. But it is a passive medium, whereas I feel Coulton is better at mustering up a crowd than I am. In a way, we both need each other to live--but yet, we both want each other to die.
If I remember correctly, he played the background music on the MP3 for the first book, when you read the 700 hobo names.
Yeah--how many guitar-playing dudes do you think I have access to? How many guitar-playing playing dudes do you think I can talk into playing the same song over and over again for 50 minutes?
Maybe you need a 12-piece orchestra for this next one.
I don't know about that.
Is there going to be an MP3 of you reading the 700 mole-man names that are in this book?
I suppose there should be.
Oh, there should be. That's one of my favorite parts of the first book. I'm selfish, and I'd like another one.
People are selfish. Everyone wants a list of mole-man names. Everyone wants an audiobook. A lot of college students want a paperback as soon as possible, because college students don't like to spend money--and they want something like a paperback that is flexible, so they can make it into a beer bong or what have you.
They're just impatient.
They are impatient. And I appreciate that I'm challenging peoples' patience.
For me to do a recording of the 700 mole-man names... it is a tortuous prospect. But should I hit upon a 20-piece orchestra, should I hit upon the right song that needs to go behind it, should I hit upon whatever the iteration or idea of doing it that does not make it simply a rehash of the hobo names... then no matter how torturous it is, I will happily force myself to do it. Because a good idea is a compulsion in our lives.
Well, I hope you come across a good idea for it.
Me too. Maybe we should just do that in Portland. Maybe that should be the whole show. A live version of it. That certainly would punish you.
That would be a great reading. I don't know how many people would be left by the end, but it would be an amazing thing.
I shall think about it and look into it--if you promise to be there.
Oh, I'll be there. I am there. I'll be there... at least through 400.
No. You have to be there for the whole time.
Okay. If you do it, I'll be there for the whole time.
I shall think about it.
The next thing I want to ask is, now that you're established as a minor television personality--
--did you approach writing this book any differently than your first one?
Not at first. The proposal to the publisher for the second book was "More of the same, but twice as long." And really, I did start out by doing just more of the same. You'll see the table of contents is on page 237-because this book picks up where the last book left off. The very earliest [things] I wrote were "How to Deal with Some Common Infestations," "How to Cook Owls," "How to Remember Any Name, Especially the Name 'John Hodgman'," "How to Gamble and Win," "Shitty Aphorisms," "Brooklyn Inventions," and then "The Seven Portals to the Hollow Earth," leading into the [section on] mole-men.
That [section] is a response to a promise I had made in the first book--where I mentioned the mole-men in passing, [promising] to tell you more about them--and here I tell you much, much, much more than you wanted to know. But after writing perhaps the first third of the book, I was trying to figure out why it was hard to tell the same kind of jokes that I told in the first book. And it's because I am telling them from a different place. I tell a lot of lies about myself in the book, but I tell more truths than lies. And the reality of my life when I was writing the first book is that I was a professional writer and former literary agent. So I could tell jokes about how glamorous it is to be a freelance magazine writer, and the joke would be implicit--because there is no glamor in that life. It is a life of drudgery. It is a hopeless life that you lead now.
Thanks for that.
You're welcome. And it made no sense to tell jokes from that point of view, because my life had changed--maybe not forever, but for now. I could not tell jokes about having to rent my own pants out of poverty when the reality is that now, I not only own my own pants, but I buy new pants everyday.
Now you can probably rent them out to other people.
And I do! I have a thriving rent-to-own pantaloon business. It's fortune upon fortune in my life these days. And that is something that is so strange and unexpected and anxiety producing that you don't want to even talk about it, lest it disappear, because it feels very much like a dream or a spell that you're going to wake up from [at] any moment. Yet I couldn't not acknowledge it in the book, because that is the reality of my life right now: That anxiety, having a kind of weird fame thrust upon me, and wondering how long it will last and what will happen when it goes.
Is the anxiety that it will go away, or is the anxiety just how to deal with it?
I'm sorry. Are you the psychoanalysis expert of the Mercury?
I just need you to relax. I just need you to be open. Because otherwise, this isn't going to work.
I think if you're in the job of writing fake trivia and creating a sort of surreal world in the pages of your books, when your life becomes more surreal than what you are able to create, it makes one nervous. It feels as though it is a dream, and you wonder if you're going to be out of a job. When you write a list in one book of the cameos and appearances you have made on film and television as a joke because you would never do such a thing, and then it is happening in your life, you feel the ground disappearing beneath you, and you feel like the coyote, moving your feet in the air, trying to stay aloft.
Coyotes can fly. That was the big mistake that Chuck Jones made in those Road Runner cartoons: He didn't realize that coyotes have the power of flight.
Well, nowadays we know that. But back then, it was the dark ages. Speaking of appearing in things you'd never thought you'd appear in, I'm a big fan of Battlestar Galactica, so I have to ask you about that.
Unless I'm totally oblivious and missed it, you haven't appeared on the show yet.
No, no. If I survive the edits and don't appear on the cutting room floor, as the cliche goes, I should appear on one of the final 10 episodes after the new year. I don't know which one.
What was that like?
Similarly queasy and weird. I mean, wonderful. But I had visited the set to write about it as a journalist in 2005 for The New York Times Magazine, and I had only conned my way into that assignment because I was just a fan, and I wanted to visit the set and see the things and talk to people and do what I could to get the show some attention. So to return three years later as talent seemed like some funny, compelling joke.
When that opportunity came up-largely because I demanded it-it was just one of those ideas that are so bright and perfect and wonderful that you are compelled to do it against all reason. But it was not until I arrived on set and, in particular, walked onto the set as talent, that I appreciated what a weird, dimension-hopping journey that single step was: To go from behind the camera to in front of the camera.
Did they approach you about it, or did you force your way onto the set?
Well, I had remained friendly with Ron Moore and David Eick, the [show's] co-creators, and had remained a fan of the show, so I sort of knew them and they knew that I was a fan, and I began to nurse a fantasy that I might be able to make a cameo, but I never mentioned it to them. It was when I finally hired an agent, and the agent happened to have known David Eick in college, that I wondered if they would ever have me on, to just press a button in the CIC [Combat Information Center], or just say, "Yes sir" or something and walk away. Which would have been perfectly fine. And it wasn't until I learned that the fourth season was going to be the final season that the imperative came. I probably would have waited until something came up naturally, but in this case, I had to force myself upon them. I just called my agent and said, "Please let them know I'd love to do something. No big deal if they're not interested." And they ended up being interested, and it was really remarkable.
Of all the things to force one's hand in, that seems a very worthy one. Can you tell me anything about your appearance?
Not really, no. It has already been revealed that I am [playing] a doctor, so that is all I can say. I can tell you it's not pivotal. It is not me pressing a button and saying "Aye aye," but it is not a pivotal role. I believe my role is comprised of lines another character would have said if they did not have an obligation to put me in there.
I hope you sleep well at night.
I can tell you I have never felt more ashamed of myself working with incredibly talented actors-I can't even say that. Being around incredibly talented actors, like Katie Sackoff [Starbuck] and the guy who plays Tigh [Michael Hogan], and Aaron Douglas [Chief Tyrol], and Michael Trucco [Samuel Anders], whose company I really ended up enjoying. Everyone couldn't have been nicer! They were so nice, but I knew I was a total fraud. One of the feelings you have in a situation like that is, "How did I get here?" And one of the feelings you have is, "Wow, I am a creepy stalker, aren't I?"
It is weird once you get what you want. It changes things a little bit.
And Trucco, he is so nice. He invited me to play poker with him and Aaron Douglas and Jaime Bamber's wife, who is on the show--I can't remember her name, I'll look it up right now. [Keyboard clicking noises.] Karen Norton! She is so nice. So we went back to the hotel, and played poker, and Aaron brought out a bottle of nice scotch, and I drank quite a bit of it, and then I just destroyed them all.
So why don't we just say I was a doctor.
Fair enough. You mentioned in this book's "outroduction" that there's more to come-specifically, a third volume of complete world knowledge.
At last! Finally complete.
What else could there possibly be to tell?
Well, the beauty of these books is that while they fall under the [category of] "almanac of complete world knowledge," the format-the lists, the short articles, the single sentences, the long essays-is so forgiving that I can basically do whatever I want. So I will probably include a section on character actors that you have now probably forgotten about. And I will probably be on the list by that time. But having finished this book now, I'm reserving the right to wait for that great idea, or ideas, and I don't know what that one thing is-but I do know I will not be able to not do them once I have them.
It's a compulsion.
When you do the next one, will you sequester yourself and write it, or do you keep ideas for all of these different lists going constantly, and collate the book as you go?
If you have an idea, it's a good idea to write stuff down. I've learned that as a writer. But for the most part, I think a lot of it is just, you know, recharging the batteries of true and false experience. Just passively absorbing new and old information that you can then remix into stories you can tell. But certainly there is a period of time about a year before the book is due when you have to sit down and actually start writing it out, unfortunately. Also unfortunately, Erik, our time is up. Normally, I would continue this lovely conversation, but I have to do a live chat. But email me. It's [EMAIL REDACTED]. Because you've now inspired me. If we end up doing the mole-men in Portland, I'll insist that you be there.