Sacks will be reading at Powell's tonight at 7:30. Before you go, hit the jump to read my interview with him. We talk about why he hates giving public readings. Also, why the publishing industry is stupid, why he considers himself a horror writer of a sort and his driving fear of ending up alone in a one-bedroom condo with nothing but a handful of delusions and unfulfilled dreams. It's funny!
MERCURY: As an author who wants publicity do you feel forced into the reading circuit?
MIKE SACKS: Yeah. This is my third book and I've never done a reading before this one. But [the publisher] Tin House is really nice and really good to me so I wanted to go out and support the book. Also it's very personal, I've been working on these pieces for years. That said, I don't know how many sales readings bring in. I'm kind of leery about the financial realities of them; I don't think they're worthwhile. But they did ask me and I'll be going out to LA and Portland and that's it. I won't be doing any more.
So I take it doing readings and maybe even interviews like this are not things you enjoy.
No, I love talking to people over the phone, it's really just readings, which I never liked going to before I started writing. I just don't enjoy them. I'd rather just read by myself. And I don't understand it as a marketing strategy.
You never went to a reading with a bunch of questions you wanted to ask the author?
No. And I think now it's so much easier to get in touch with authors through email, rather than standing up and asking a question in an atmosphere that they don't want to deal with. And usually those questions have more to do with the questioner; they have to do with their experience and their lives than the author's life. The whole scene kind of annoys me. I don't have many writer friends and I don't hang around talking about writing, it's not my interest. But I love to talk to readers by phone or by email, it's more that book setting. I'd rather not be there.
[We talk for a while about Sacks' other interests: movies, music, his two-year-old daughter and exercise]
Doing exercise is a great way to get ideas.
I'd much rather be out thinking of ideas. I can't write while I'm out but I can think of ideas. And it alleviates depression, which I suffer from. It clears my head. I can see why authors get into drink and drugs because the process is so brutal. But I've sort of geared myself into this kind of addiction. I've seen a lot of writers do that to their bodies. The highs from writing and the lows from writing are really separate and when you hit the lows it's brutal.
Is it the highs and lows of trying to express what you want?
I think it's a combination of things. I think it's business, which sometimes is good and sometimes not, but also writing is a mysterious process. If you're a plumber and you've done it for thirty years it gets easier and easier, but that's no the case if you're a writer. Sometimes it gets harder and harder. Combine that with the jealousies of others succeeding where you're not and also with the singular nature of being alone so often in your own head. You can go kind of crazy.
I always figure the writing and rewriting process has to be really grinding.
That's what I like, actually, because, compared with school (which I didn't do very well in), I have all the time in the world. That's why I write these “evergreen” pieces. I'm not going to write something where Jay Leno's going to beat me to the punch. But I think one the important things as a writer is to be able to say, 'You know, it's not working,' rather than really wanting it to work and hoping and hoping. The reader doesn't know how difficult it was for you and they're not going to care if you spent twenty hours on it. They're just going to read it and see that it doesn't work. You just have to move on and it takes a lot to do that. If you spend two weeks on anything else then you want to show it to others and want something to show for it but it's not always a good idea to show something you've written that doesn't work.
So many of your pieces are in the voice of an unreliable narrator. It's usually in this sort of delusional, excited and happy voice... is that something you just fall into?
Well, I like crazy people but not dangerously crazy. I was alone for a long time — career-wise and just socially — and a lot of these characters are just people I feared becoming; living off the highway in a one-bedroom condo with a very rich imagination but no friends. These people are delusional because they're spending their life convincing themselves it's not as bad as they think it is.
There's a pretty sad undercurrent to your work.
I love writers like Richard Yates, Patricia Highsmith and Nabokov because it's not comedy but it's really, really dark and I wanted to do a funnier version of that. It doesn't have to be all bleak, these people do have some friends, but their dreams and their aspirations don't come through. That to me is more horrifying than any horror story. If you grew up with a dream and you know it's not going to come through and you're alone in a one-bedroom condominium with no life, no real good job and you're in your forties or fifties it's pretty scary. It gives you the willy-chillies.
You also have a tendency to riff on one joke rather than progressing from A to B to C to D. It's like you have an idea and you bring out every variation or sub-idea from that and then the piece is over. Is that intentional?
I like to make it really dense but I don't like to write really long pieces. I like working on something and just buffing it to a shine and making it perfect, like these little, miniature unicorn pieces that are kind of bizarre. You're digging straight to the juice rather than just going on for fifteen minutes. I don't think a lot of people now have much patience to stick around for a premise that goes on long. Either it works or it doesn't. And, quite frankly, they don't need to be book-length; they are what they are then you move on.
Would you say comedy writing or even all writing now is being tailored for short attention spans?
No, if anything it's my attention span, not the readers. And I was talking to an Onion editor about this: their pieces are short but they get a lot of complaints from readers that they're too long. I think there's so much stimulus out there that you're competing with it's easy to lose people. And these ideas aren't that great. I don't have to write a book-length or movie-length piece on these ideas; it's two to three pages, in-out, goodbye. Plus it takes me a long time to write short pieces. I can't imagine how long it would take me to write a long piece because the longer it is the less chance there is for it to be as perfect as I want it to be.
It's funny, I'm reading The Stand right now and it's sort of the opposite. A lot of it feels like Stephen King spinning his wheels and you have to like his voice and go with all the details and whatever he sticks in there. It's so dense I can't imagine how he did edit it.
I don't think he did. He writes once, goes back and rewrites and edits before handing it off to someone else. But I think it's like a prog-rock song rather than a song by Wire that goes on for a minute and thirty seconds, which I kind of prefer. I'd rather lean towards the no-fat. But it certainly works for him, that was a great book.
[We talk about how we both love Stephen King and how he often makes books out of ideas that totally don't work]
But, you know, horror was my first favorite. Peter Straub and Richard Matheson and all those Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents -type writers. I loved all those.
Short fiction in horror is some of the strongest short fiction there is.
It's the best! That's what I wanted to do first is write horror. And I see some of these pieces as being funnier versions of those horror pieces. No one dies but dreams are constantly stepped upon. That was my first love; I've read everything by Stephen King.
The stuff I found the sharpest in Your Wildest Dreams were the pieces that criticized the publishing industry. I know you've talked some about this in other interviews, how it's hard to publish something that's not part of a series...
I've been hearing that for years. I grew up reading and my favorite books were these collections, either the horror collections or humor collections but you can't get that done anymore because there has to be a common theme or a common character, which I find ridiculous. This collection I tried for years to get published but no one was interested because [it didn't have those things]. And they may have a point as far as sales but it's not the type of thing I want to read, especially when it comes to humor. I like variety and I don't think every story should be connected. But it's really hard to get this kind of thing published unless you're, like, a Jon Stewart.
Unless your name is a brand.
Yeah. And this book isn't going to be a huge seller but that's fine with me. It is what I wanted it to be.
I loved the Anne Frank piece.
A lot of those lines came from rejections I heard over the years. It's a bizarre industry. Hollywood's bizarre but at least it has money. Publishing has ego but it doesn't have money.
My favorite piece of them all was the college story written by a thirty-year-old.
That was written, like, eight years ago. The great thing about a piece like that is it will always be dated so it will always work. I was always fascinated by these older people trying to appeal so desperately to youth. I viewed it as an updated 1950's very wholesome story. For some reason, when that came out, a lot of people didn't get it and they actually did think I was trying to appeal to youth. I was getting these emails from college students saying, 'Who the fuck do you think you are being in your thirties and trying to write stories that appeal to us? You're pathetic!' How much more obvious could it be? I put the word 'vagina' in quotes. How much more up front could I be that it's a joke? But, frankly, that's a common problem with agents and publishers is that they'll misinterpret the pieces you're writing. You're trying to satirize stupidity but they'll just see the stupidity.
What's the deal with the cryptic last word in the book? ["Remember that guy I was telling you about earlier in the book? (...) The one who can make lightning flash out of his fingers? He died today."]
I just found it so bizarre! It made no sense. The book also begins with a cryptic thing about a murderer. ["'This begets that, and it is time to die. Please tell my wife to water the flowers' - Last words of Jaele Wheeler, accused murderer of the "Seneca Seven"] That was made up. It was all made up.
It almost seemed like a kind of anarchic, why-not decision to put those pages in there.
Exactly! You're giving me the green sign. OK, that's fine, that's great, but I'm going to put in some things that make no sense. I just wanted to create a fake backstory but it's based on nothing. I've had a lot of people give me the history of that: why he was being killed, who his wife was, what the garden was about. I just like those things that make no sense and people are just puzzled by it. That means nothing.
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