Thursday, February 28, 2008

Dan Kennedy: The Interview

Dan Kennedy is the author of Loser Goes First: My Thirty-Something Years of Dumb Luck and Minor Humiliation and is a frequent contributor to McSweeney's. Dan will be reading from and signing his new book, Rock On: An Office Power Ballad at Vroman's on Saturday, March 1 (that's this Saturday, folks) at 3 pm. Dan was good enough to answer for me some questions I'm sure he's answered many times before.

Who, in their infinite wisdom, scheduled you to fly to and from Australia in a span of, like, 5 days? Have you even begun to recover?

Once again, I believe the genius was me. The good folks promoting the festival tried their best to talk some sense into me and were gracious to invite me to stay longer, but I wanted to get back to finish the book tour here in the states. If you want to know the sick truth, Australia wasn't the only place I ducked out to between ROCK ON reading dates. Between New York and Boston readings I jumped on a plane and went to Honduras. I think I've started to recover from all of it, but I had a meeting with my agent today in L.A. and I think I might have been acting like a stupid zombie about some pretty great things coming our way with the book. Which I hope she forgives, since I see her maybe once a year and she's always incredibly sweet to me.
Anyway, 15 cities in 4 countries on 3 continents in 30 days makes for a funny reading but a brain dead meeting.

In Australia, you were hosting an event for “The Moth.” How did you first get involved with “The Moth?”

Eight years ago I was oddly and randomly lucky enough to have called then Executive Director Joey Xanders and she called me back. I later learned that the reason she called me back was because she had a stack of 200 phone messages she never had the time to return and her therapist told her to take the step of returning just one to see how that felt. Lucky. Period.

Wasn’t anybody else in on the joke at Atlantic? Did nobody else find this stuff as ridiculous as you? Didn’t anybody ever say, “I know this is lame, but there’s this Phil Collins album coming out?” Did any of the people in the office seem hip or were they really just blatant trend-chasers?

Almost all of the assistants were hip. But, no, you know...nobody ever really says that they think something feels weird or ridiculous. Which is good, really -- I mean, you're there, you're professional, you do the gig. I mean, what would it be like if your dentist picked up the drill, asked you to open wide, and on his way in said, "Jesus. Another filling. I'm so sick of drilling these things -- I could do this with my eyes closed. When do I get to start doing the cool stuff like reconstructive dentistry, man?" Also, there's been a lot of talk about Phil Collins in this book. In the name of full disclosure, let me say that ABACAB and TURN IT ON are both great songs and both on my iPhone. Not too mention the entire Genesis album "and then there were three".

A lot of your work, both in the book and on McSweeney’s, is about workplace manners, jobs, careers, corporate culture. What is it that interests you about that subject?

The versions of ourselves that we become when we're in the middle of it. I mean, as a writer I've sat in front of pages for years trying to be as open and honest to my work as possible: "Am I really being myself here? Is this line really an authentic line? Is this joke trying to hard because I'm afraid to write it the real way? Am I afraid to sacrifice my vanity here and is that a rip-off for the reader?" But put me in a job interview or in a corporate work environment and I'm like, "Screw the truth, who do I have to convince these guys I am to fit in here and how can I do it? Take up golf? Cut my hair? Bring donuts in on Friday?" I don't think that's unique. I think we all try be someone or something entirely other than ourselves in these jobs -- how can one NOT find that fascinating and strange.

What’s the best job you’ve ever had, and what’s the worst? Would the Atlantic gig be the worst or did the pay bump it up the scale a little bit?

Worst job I ever had was carpeting The Tacoma Dome for a home and garden trade show. It was maybe three days after U2 played there with The Pixies opening, and it was like such a lame time, hoisting these huge rolls of carpet with guys and taping it all down and the whole time you're like, "Wow. The people who were here three days ago are living the dream. Me? Not so much, really." The best job was probably Atlantic -- I hope I don't give the impression otherwise simply because I happened to write a two hundred page comedy of lunacy, greed, heartbreak, soul pimp meltdowns, morally bankrupt go-getters, and delusional basket cases wearing sunglasses indoors and calling co- workers "Baby".

Why do you think it was so hard for the music business to grasp the importance or the potential of online distribution?

I guess they like the idea of people having to pay 18.99 for the CD in order to get the single. A buck a song is fair and brilliant but it ain't gonna float the 2,200 square foot loft in Manhattan, the house in the Hamptons, the place in Los Angeles, and the one in London. That's what they're wrestling with, I think.

Something that’s particularly brilliant about the book is that, although it’s this rock and roll company you were working for, it seems like every office I’ve ever worked in. The scene in which you listen to the newly-signed act perform next to the fax machine struck me as particularly accurate. We were just listening to the Once soundtrack in the office, and that’s some pretty heavy stuff. It was nice, but I think I would’ve felt differently if they were sitting in the office, playing these songs for me for the first time. Work is such sterile, sanitized environment that any kind of genuine emotion seems thoroughly out of place. Did you find this to be more the case at Atlantic, or was it no different than anywhere else you’ve worked?

I guess that the thing making it more surreal than other jobs to me was that, you know, it was as you say, it was just like any office you've ever worked in. But then, out of nowhere, there are these weird little Spinal Tap moments. I mean, it's just like every other office you've worked in and then: hey, who's the guy in the bright pink jumpsuit with the flames tattooed all over his crotch? And why is he talking to Connie from Accounts Payable?

How is being a writer better than working in an office? And how is it worse?

Some days it isn't. I mean, some days you're thinking, "This is the only thing I love doing, the only thing that matters to me, and the only thing I'm good at. I can't believe I get paid." And other days, you're thinking, "Christ, what was I thinking?"

Let’s talk about the book trailer. It was really good, sort of like the book version of I’m Trying to Break Your Heart, the Wilco documentary. Have you checked out any other book trailers?

Thanks. I've not checked out any others, mostly because I just kind of find myself thinking, "The ROCK ON one has deer, a gong, sparkle effects shooting into my eyes, and if you listen closely you can hear some TV newscaster on a monitor in Seatac Airport saying the phrase:
"Take all the Miss America contestants, put them in the room with a live rattlesnake, and what do you get?" I think that's about as much bang for my buck as I'm going to find, personally."

I heard a rumor that there was a period in your life in which you wore bicycle shorts even when not riding a bicycle. Care to comment on that?

All I will tell you is this: if you ever find yourself traveling with another man in the Midwest, and you find yourself at a Bennigan's next to the interstate someplace outside of Grand Rapids at 3AM, and you engage in some kind of game that involves admitting your most embarrassing secret, you need to do one thing: say goodnight and go back across the parking lot to the Hampton Inn you're staying in.

Especially if the man you're playing the Embarrassing Secret Game with knows every bookseller across the nation, and every journalist from here to Asia. Having said that, ask Craig about his teenage years spent collecting porcelain figurines. That's right Popelars, I might've worn spandex hoping to look like Stipe on the Green tour, but you've got your past as well, my friend. A cute, miniature, porcelain village of a past, sir.


Thanks, Dan. Dan Kennedy will be presenting the hilarious Rock On at Vroman's at 3pm this Saturday. Be there.

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