There are times when freelance writing is an absolute pain in the ass. Saying no is hard. The paychecks are inconsistent. Gloom and doom is constantly mentioned in the forecast. People think all you do is watch TV and lounge around in a bathrobe, waiting for the muse to arrive.
But talking to Joe Queenan, one of my literary heroes, for 90 minutes is one of those memories that makes all the minor inconveniences fade away and summons the clarity of "Yeah, this is what I should be doing."
After years of writing shrewdly, eloquently, and viciously about popular culture in essays, articles, and books such as Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon, Joe Queenan is making it personal. The renowned humorist’s stunning 2009 memoir, Closing Time, detailed his tumultuous Philadelphia childhood with an unreliable, alcoholic father and an emotionally numb mother.
Books served as a way to elevate Queenan from a dead-end life. Those wonderful, mystical objects take center stage in One for the Books ($24.95, Viking), available for sale now. A voracious reader—by his estimate, he’s read between 6,000 and 8,000 books—Queenan, 62, shares his astute observations on the reading life: how bookstores and libraries beat Kindles, the value of awful books, how a bad cover can deter us from reading a book.
The overall theme of One for the Books makes it indispensible: Books—actual books with spines and actual pages and dust jackets—represent a life and feed it. We form friendships based on them. We remember where we were when we bought them. “The presence of books in my hands, my home, my pockets, my life will never cease to be essential to my happiness,” he writes.
Queenan, who has authored 10 previous books and has written for just about every major publication, was more than happy to talk about books. And writing. And Philadelphia, a city he loves even though it has low self-esteem. And Thomas McGuane. He spent nearly two hours enthusiastically answering my questions in early October. It was a blast.
The interview, which has been edited and condensed for clarity and space, begins after Queenan concludes a lengthy list of the books he’s reading or has read, including a recent, not-so-hot novel about the 1960s [Aria Beth Sloss’ Autobiography of Us] and a sub-par effort from Tom McCarthy.
Joe Queenan: [On why he’s sticking with the McCarthy book] There’s a certain curiosity about a new writer, that’s part of it. Also, there’s material. Like with this book, Autobiography of Us, I’ll probably write about it at some point because I’ll write about the fact that you really can’t write about another country, you’ll never understand another country. When Paul Johnson wrote A History of the American People I think he apologized eventually because he managed to write this 1,100-page book about America without once mentioning baseball. And people pointed that out. It’s a brilliant book and it’s a wonderful book and it’s a descriptive book but if you don’t include baseball in a book about the American people, you don’t really understand the country. It’s the same thing with any country. You can’t really write about a place you didn’t grow up in and you can’t write about an era in which you didn’t grow up in. You’d be better off writing about the 1830s, because there’s nobody alive today who would go, “No, nobody would have worn a boot like that in 1832.” But anybody writing about the 60s, there are 75 million people here who can tell you, “That wouldn’t have happened in ’67. She wouldn’t have said that in ’68; she would have said that in ’65.” So, there’s material there. There’s stuff that you can use so that’s part of it. I wish it was not possible to read books I knew I wouldn’t enjoy, including books that are good. The book I’ve been reading by this woman Isabel Colegate, called Winter Journey, it’s a really, really good book and she’s a really good writer. But the book isn’t for somebody like me. The book is for a woman. Not all books written by women are primarily for women, but this is a book that is specifically written for a woman.
Pete Croatto: If you didn’t have the curiosity to getget different mind-sets, to be exposed to different things, wouldn’t that be worse than having a never-ending list of books to read?
JQ: Yes, and you’d just be like everybody else.
JQ: This is a kind of managed insanity. That’s what the book is about. Because if I was compulsive about everything in my life, I wouldn’t be able to function. But I’m really only compulsive about books. I’m not as compulsive about music as I am about books. There’s only one mention of music in that book…I could get up tomorrow and write exactly the same book about music, because I think I’ve been to about 2,000 concerts, so I could write the same book about music. But the difference is I’m not constantly thinking about music. I’m not constantly, like, reconfiguring my collection of CDs or I’m not thinking about whether I still like Frederick Delius. Whereas with books, I’m always thinking and I’ve always got these projects going and I think it’s probably because books saved my life.
PC: I first got to know you through your movie writing. Movies don’t have the same passion over you?
JQ: No, not even close. I don’t understand how movies are made any more than anybody else does, because that’s a particular craft people have. I write about movies as stories. You very rarely see me writing about, “he used this camera angle or he used this particular kind of shot.” I don’t care about any of that. To me, movies are basically just filmed stories. But I do understand how books work. And whenever I’m reading a book, I’m always looking at the sentence and saying, “Did the person get that right? Could they have done a better job with that? Is that a sentence I wish that I had written?” And I think that one of the most interesting things is, I think the only writer that I have ever come across where you don’t even think about the work analytically, but just sort of sit there and marvel at it, is Shakespeare. Everybody else, no matter how great there are, whether it’s Moliere or Euripides or Balzac or anybody, you can kind of see how they did it. You can’t see how Shakespeare did it. Somebody said that he invented the English language, and I truly believe that. He doesn’t write like anybody else ever wrote. Nobody. It’s experimental writing. He is as revolutionary and daring a writer as James Joyce, the difference is his work is accessible. It just comes out of left field. I don’t think any writer could learn anything from Shakespeare because it’s just off the charts in every way. Every other writer you can sort of look at it and go, “Yeah, I can see how he did it.” That’s certainly true with painting. You look at a painter’s development and you sort of see, “Yeah, he stole that from Vogel. He stole that from Turner.” You just don’t get that from Shakespeare.
PC: Would the way you look at books be any different if you weren’t a writer?
JQ: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Ordinary people, people who aren’t writers, they don’t see how writing works. They read the story. They don’t see how words are put together. They don’t hear rhythms. It’s like no matter how much you know about music if you talk to a professional musician, they just ignore you. “You don’t know anything about music.”…I think one of the things about art is that you do not have to appreciate what an artist or a writer or a musician does to enjoy it, you just enjoy it at a different level. When I go to the National Gallery of Art in London with my friend Mike, who is a painter, he points things out that I would never, ever, ever notice about painting…He’ll point out that certain painters concentrate on a particular part of the canvas and that as you work your way out to the edges, they kind of slack off. If you take a look at El Greco, every single glob of paint that he put on the canvas is put on in exactly the same way. That never would have occurred to me. So I think that you look at things completely differently if you understand how they’re done, but that doesn’t mean that other people can’t enjoy them. You That’s the great thing about all these things. You don’t have to know how a helicopter is assembled in order to enjoy being in a helicopter.
PC: You’ve written here and in Closing Time about reading Fitzgerald while cleaning out the overhead funnel at a bubble gum factory and how the bookmobile provided an escape for you. Is that enjoyment or escapism diminished with your current approach to reading?
JQ: No, not at all. I think one of the great things about writing is you feel, even though there are so many writers who are so much better than you, you feel like you’re on the ship with them. Like you’re in steerage and they’re in first-class. But you’re on that ship.
One of the things I really like about the way my career played out is that I write op-ed pieces and I write movie reviews and I write book reviews. And part of the reason why I enjoy doing that is that what’s George Orwell and Graham Greene did. I always thought it was great that those guys didn’t go off to some writer’s colony in New Hampshire and disappear for 10 years and not write a book. They were constantly engaged in their society. They were constantly reading something and going, “Well, fuck that, I’m going to write an op-ed piece about that.” I just always admired that so much about them. I admired those writers who participated in discourse with their society, rather than going off into some ivory tower.
PC: There’s a participatory element to your work. One of my favorite pieces of yours is when you patrolled movie theaters as the Bad Movie Angel, giving refunds to poor saps watching Gone Fishin’.
JQ: That was one of my favorite stories of all time. In fact, if was going to pick out stories where people say, “What can you do that other people can’t do?” I’d say that story.
PC: So you can pretend that you’re from the Joe Pesci Cultural Institution?
JQ: Exactly. Because the thing about that is there are three elements, working backward: First, you have to be able to write and be funny. The second is you have to have balls to be able to do that, to just walk up to strangers. But the first thing, and the most important thing, is you have to be able to get that idea. The thing I most enjoy to this day about being a writer is that when I get the ideas, the ideas are just as funny to me as they are to people when they’re reading them. I don’t manufacture the ideas. The ideas come to me from somewhere.
I loved last week when Romney said to Obama, “You can have your own airplane and you can have your own house but you’re not entitled to your own facts.” And I just thought, “So now we’ve reached the point where Mitt Romney is quoting from something he read in Maureen Dowd’s column that she remembered Daniel Patrick Moynihan saying.” And the way Romney said it was [like], “Yeah right, Mitt, you thought that up. That wasn’t one of your 25-year-old speechwriters who thought that up.” But it was also like, “What a clever boy am I. I said, ‘You’re not entitled to your own facts.’” So I thought about it and go, “Why not? Why can’t we have our own facts?” So I wrote this story for The Wall Street Journal: I’m just going to have my own facts from now on and I don’t care. As far as I’m concerned, tea is coffee, the square root of sixteen is my turtle, and Denmark is in Portugal. And if you don’t like those facts then get your own facts, because these are my facts. When that idea came to me, it was like, “My God, this is so great.” It’s not like you pat yourself on the back and go, “Wow, that’s so fucking ingenious. I thought of this great idea. ” It’s like, “Thank you, whoever it is out there, the god of ideas, for throwing that one my way.”
PC: And you don’t get that by going to a writer’s colony or locking yourself in a room for six months.
JQ: You don’t get it by reading The New Yorker, because that’s just an echo chamber. You don’t get it by being responsive to the world that is around you. That’s the exhilarating thing about being a writer: Either you believe that the world is an exciting place or you don’t. And if you believe that the world is an exciting place then you’re just responsive to the things that go on around you, and then you can transmute them.
It’s like having those invisible glasses that they used to advertise in comic books, because it’s basically like you just see the world in a different way than other people. You just do. I mean that’s the thing, particularly if you’re a satirist. Your entire life is based on saying, “Nope, you got that wrong. Completely disagree with you on that one.” It’s fun.
The only problem with being a satirist in the United States is that it’s the Cassandra effect: You’ve been given the ability to make people laugh, but in a society where people don’t have a very highly developed sense of humor. Americans are great people but that particular thing is not their strong suit. This is basically a kind of Billy Madison society. Most people in America have a kind of Adam Sandler sense of humor, like somebody get hits in the face with a fish, somebody slips on a banana, somebody’s pants falls down. That’s what most Americans are, but because the country is so large, there is plenty of room for people like me, and like P.J. O’Rourke, and obviously Tom Wolfe, who has just made a career out of writing brilliant satire.
PC: Speaking of responding to the world, related to books, has anyone given you a Kindle?
JQ: I think somewhere along the line somebody offered me one, but I just said no. I have no interest in that. I don’t care if people use them. It doesn’t bother me. A friend of mine in England, who is very, very smart and very well-educated, she has a Kindle because she loads it up with 12 crummy books and she goes to Italy. That makes perfect sense if you’re reading crummy books, but if you’re reading books that you love and that you want to go back and read over and over again, it doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t read 12 books on vacation. I might read two books on vacation. I don’t read a lot when I’m traveling. I don’t read on planes very much. I usually talk to the person sitting next to me.
PC: Why is that? When someone talks to me on a plane, I’m usually looking for an excuse to get out of the conversation.
JQ: Because I think within about 45 minutes of talking to strangers, they will tell you the central drama of their life. I think that people go into some sort of confessional mode. I’m never going to see you again, and I’m going to talk to you. People just tell you the most amazing things about their marriages, about their careers, about their kids. I do find it interesting that almost immediately when you talk to people you can figure out what’s wrong with them. A psychologist will milk it for 10 years and keep having them come back, but almost immediately you can find out exactly what’s wrong with them, exactly what they would need to do to fix their life. And I’m sure they would say the same thing about me. I’m interested in people, too.
And one of the reasons that I don’t read things like The New Yorker is because sometimes I go to parties up here and all they talk about is stuff they’ve read in The New Yorker or The New York Times. You know there’s a whole world out there that is not just that, and all you’re doing is exchanging opinions of people who are just like you. So, it’s like, let me guess: You hate Romney. Let me guess: You hate the Tea Party. Let me guess: You’re disappointed that Obama didn’t accomplish more in his first [term]. Let me guess: You wish we would get out of Afghanistan. Let me guess: You don’t understand why children don’t read more. Yeah. OK. We’re on board with that one. I like more to engage with people who I don’t know where they got their opinions from. One of the problems with the chattering class is that everything they say you go, “Yup, New York Times page A16, October 12. I read that story too.”
PC: It’s almost like the scene in Good Will Hunting, where Matt Damon calls out the Harvard douchebag for regurgitating the facts he’s read in history books.
JQ: Yeah, and that’s the thing: You’ll be with people and they’ll start talking to you about something as if you didn’t know where that idea came from. People will do that, both on the left and on the right. Someone the other day was talking to me and going, “I don’t think most people realize this, but this election is basically going to come down to three states.” And it’s, like, yeah. In fact, about once a month The Wall Street Journal publishes an opinion piece by Larry Sabato from the University of Virginia who says, “Forget the polls. It’s about Florida, Virginia, and Ohio.” Gee, I just thought about that. No, you didn’t. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, people start telling you that Richard Strauss is the greatest composer of the 20th century and it’s like, “Yeah, you read Alex Ross’s essay in The New Yorker. Before that, everybody would have said Stravinsky.” Opinions can so easily be traced to a handful of publications and a handful of dittoheads. Where’d you get that idea from? You got it from Rush. That’s where you got it from.
PC: You see that on Facebook. Every post seems to stem from the same two or three source materials.
JQ: One of the things I think that really tells a lot about people is if you go on Netflix…[and] read what people write about movies. First of all, they’re all morons. Almost without exception they’re morons. But also they say the same thing over and over and over again. I’d just like to get this across to people: It’s not enough to say that something sucks. You have to say that it sucks in a clever and original way. You have to find a way of making fun of something either because you hate it and you want to ridicule it or because it’s like Mad Magazine: Just because you make fun of things doesn’t mean you don’t like them.
PC: Going back to books. I agree with you about digital readers. I prefer the randomness of bookstores and libraries, like you do. But I think Kindles and digital readers can provide a gateway for reading to kids weaned on screens. Can they serve the same function as the bookmobile did for you?
JQ: I think that’s entirely possible. I certainly think you can have peaceful co-existence between e-readers and books. What I don’t like is the speed with which people embrace a new technology and then disrespect old technology…You can have paintings on Kindles, and that’s great, because maybe you’re in a wheelchair and you will never get to see the Mona Lisa. That’s great, but I’d rather see the Mona Lisa. And that’s basically what the book is about: My entire life has been a love affair with books, with these physical objects. You show any disrespect to books, fuck off. You know, just fuck off. But I think you’re absolutely right, they [electronic readers] could provide a gateway. Anything where people read is better than not reading.
PC: Right now I’m sitting at my desk. Behind me are three bookcases full of books. Like you, I have memories attached to my books, about where I was, who I was with. And you mention in One for the Books that a Kindle can’t do that. I think the Kindle is more for people who are interested in the technology. If you’re reader, you’re a reader. The technology isn’t going to help you get in that direction.
JQ: That’s exactly right. When I was a little kid I read The Iliad and things like that. I read Treasure Island and Kidnapped. I think the first time that I was aware of a book striving for some kind of artistic merit was when I read A Farewell to Arms, which interestingly enough is a book I no longer like. I read A Farewell to Arms first, then years later I read The Sun Also Rises, which blows all the other Hemingway novels out of the water. But when I read A Farewell to Arms I was very conscious of the fact that this isn’t like stuff that I’ve been reading. And I don’t know if everyone has that experience.
I think that’s one of the functions of books like Girl with the Pearl Earring. If you’re not going to read great books, you can read them. They’re books that occupy that middle ground between art and trash. Those books are really good. I make fun of them: the books that if women haven’t read by December 31, they have to throw away, like Life of Pi or Bell Canto or The Shipping News or any of those books. What I don’t like is when people talk about those books as if they were great.
…One of things I constantly have happen to me is I will read about 10 books that I borrow from the library or that I pick up somewhere, and they’re good books… They’re very readable books. They’re frequently written by people who went to writers’ schools. They’re professionally crafted books. They’re excellent books, but then after I read them it’s like, “I’ve got to read some Balzac. I’ve got to read somebody who can really throw that fucking knockout punch. I’ve got to read Jane Eyre. I’ve got to read Cervantes.”
I used to work at an art gallery in SoHo. These artists would fly in from Minneapolis or Decatur, Illinois or Provo, Utah, and they’d have their portfolios with them. And I’d say, “I’m just a clerk. I’m not the manager.” They’d say, “Will you please, please look at my portfolio,” and I would. And they were all good, every single one of them. You look at them and go, “This is professionally made art. This really looks like something that you can hang on the walls of a gallery. This is well-crafted.” And there are so many writers who write like that. There are so many writers who write well-crafted books, and they learn to write them in writers’ schools. They don’t go off for 50 pages on some crazy tangent like Balzac or Dostoyevsky or Henry Miller. There’s a kind of lifeless quality to the writing. It’s professionally done. It’s very, very well done. But I’m not feeling somebody like Jack Dempsey coming in and knocking you right through the ropes.
PC: You deal with this in the book, but Jane Austen wasn’t dealing with Random House or marketing experts. Book publishing is a business and it’s about what sells. If that kind of glossy, refined writing sells, that’s what we have.
JQ: Yeah, but you should only write what you want to write. If that’s what you want to write, that’s great. Writers should only write books that they would want to read, and you should only write because you feel the book that you’re writing doesn’t exist…That’s not always the case. A couple of the books that I wrote, it was suggested that I should write them. I wrote them and they’re fine, but I didn’t care about them. That book about Baby Boomers [Balsamic Dreams] is a perfect example. I don’t care about that book.
PC: Really? I thought that book was terrific.
JQ: A lot of people like that book, and it just goes to show that if you’re a professional writer you can put your head down and do a really good job. But that’s one book that I absolutely do not care about. Strangely enough, I don’t care about my sports book [True Believers].
PC: That’s another book I liked.
JQ: I just don’t care about those books. I just don’t. Somebody said, “Hey, it’d be great if you wrote a sports book.” My memoir I didn’t have a contract to write that book. I wrote that book and then I sold that book. I spent five years working on that. That was a book where every single day that I was working on it, I’d just say, “This is what I want to be doing. This is the book that I want to write.”
With [One for the Books], I just got into it. It wasn’t my idea because when you’re a fish, you don’t notice the water. So my editor and my editor’s assistant, they said, “We’ve never met anybody [where] so regularly the conversation returns to books.” I’d said, “I think there are lots and lots of people like that.” They said, “In fact, there’s not.”
PC: You’re a voracious reader of fiction, but why the emphasis on writing non-fiction? And do you have an idea for a novel that you’d like to try at some point?
JQ: I wrote four novels and I wrote about 100 short stories, and I got about 60 of the stories published in literary magazines, not the big ones. I also had them published in some skin magazines and things like that. I had this epiphany. I was at this small book fair at New York University in 1981. There were all these people there that I sort of knew by correspondence. There was this one guy there who was going to publish my novel. He invited me to a party in Chelsea. So we went to these people’s loft, and all of the people were gathered around in this circle and they were mourning this woman whose husband put out a self-published magazine that had bankrupted them and then she had committed suicide, I think. They were all sort of telling anecdotes about her, holding hands. And I thought, Wow, this totally sucks. I went into the bathroom to get something to drink, because they said there was beer in the bathroom—and the entire tub was filled with Old Milwaukee. And I just said to my wife, “I want champagne. That’s my idea of being a writer. I’m going to be like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda. This is not for me.” I just stopped.
It was very important for me to be successful as a writer. And it was very important for me to be successful as a satirist. But it didn’t particularly matter to me in what form that happened. So I literally, literally, stopped writing fiction for 30 years and then last year I wrote a novel that nobody liked, except my agent. Everybody else hated it, including several of my close friends.…And then I just started writing another one and I’m about halfway through that. Now I’m just writing them recreationally. I think I’m in the middle of two new novels, and they’re short, funny, but I’m just doing it purely recreationally. Because writing is so easy for me, so I can come in and write tons and tons of stuff every day if I have any trouble. I wrote four stories in the past two days.
The ideal thing is when your work is something that you actually love, and not something that you enjoy the results of. I like the physical act of writing. I like coming to my office and putting words on the page and then sending it to somebody. The rest of it—I like the money, obviously—I don’t particularly care about anything other about writing. As a rule, I don’t talk very much about my writing. I don’t go to parties or anything like that, and I don’t really use my writing to advance my social standing. I think I’m like a painter. They’re only happy when they’re painting. I think a lot of writers are very happy when they’re at parties and conferences and don’t really enjoy the writing that much. For a lot of writers, I think it’s drudgery. But for me, writing—the jokes are new to me when I write them. The line I had earlier about “my own facts,” there was something about “Denmark is in Portugal” that was so stupid that it made me laugh all day long. I just couldn’t stop laughing. That just came out of somewhere. That’s what’s fun, so I really do enjoy that.
I used to have a thing where once a year I would get an assignment that would basically ruin the next six months. And I think about 15 years ago I learned to never accept any assignment that you’re not going to enjoy. The New York Times wanted me to write a story about Bob Dylan turning 50, and I worked on it for like 18 months. [The piece later appeared in Spy.] It basically wrecked my life—and it also made me not want to listen to Dylan anymore. It was a mistake and I would never do something like that again. So now I’m very careful to only do things that I like, which is why I don’t write that many book reviews anymore.
PC: With Closing Time and One for the Books, the books are more personal. What made you go that route at this point in your career?
JQ: I don’t know. There are some questions that people ask you that you could give them an answer, but you are really just making it up. I just don’t have any idea. I know that with Closing Time, a friend of mine who had played the nun in my movie [chronicled in Queenan’s book, The Unkindest Cut], Hella Winston, she just said, “Will you please write down these stories that you’ve told me about where you grew up.” So I did, and that’s how that book came about. What’s interesting about this book is, if you actually look at it, the last chapter has nothing to do with the rest of the book. The first chapter is sort of analytical and cold and sardonic. Then there are chapters after that that are kind of funny. And then there’s a chapter that is pieces that have already run [in The New York Times]. The last chapter is tremendously sentimental and emotional. The story I tell about my friend on the subway and the stories I tell about my father. They’re definitely sentimental stories. They’re stories that a lot of people would not expect [me] to write based on the kind of work that I’ve done. That’s just the way it is.
That story about Prison Letters by Antonio Gramsci: I’ve had that book now for 32 years, I guess. I’m never going to read it. There’s no chance. I’m going to try. I’ve gotten two pages into it and said, “Why the fuck would I want to read that?” But every time I see that book it’s like, “Clive, man, he was my friend.” He’s still my friend. Every time I look at the book it’s like, “Yep, there it is.”
It’s exactly like that thing with Proust and the madeleines: He said that particular piece of food evokes a time and a place and it takes you back to that very, very, very second. And that’s the way it is with some of these books.