Rockin' with The Greatest Living Writer
Neal Pollack on humor, politics, fame, and flaming out
By Todd Leopold
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- It isn't enough for Neal Pollack to be The Greatest Living American Writer. Pollack wants more. He wants to enter a profession where men salute, critics swoon, and nubile nymphets kiss his toes.
Neal Pollack wants to become a rock star.
Fortunately for Pollack, becoming a rock star is as easy as picking up a pen -- or sitting at a word processor. After all, he already gives live readings of his work; moving into music is a natural extension, he says.
"I'm trying to take literary standup and turn it into a rock show," he says in an interview during a stop in Atlanta to promote two books, "The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature" (Perennial) and the new "Beneath the Axis of Evil" (So New Media). The interview was done in advance of a reading and musical performance in the city's offbeat Little Five Points district.
"And I want to be a writer in a rock band that actually rocks. If I'm going to [stink], I want to [stink] in a Sex Pistols kind of way."
He's got big plans for the musical angle. Pollack has a new book due in the fall -- "Never Mind the Pollacks" (the title a parody of the Pistols' album "Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols"), which he describes as a "fictional history of rock" -- and he'll be touring with his band, The Neal Pollack Invasion.
"It'll be like a big rock 'n' roll party," he says, his enthusiasm rising. "I plan to go to as many cities as [publisher] HarperCollins lets me go to." He pauses. "I plan to make it a flame-out of epic proportions."
Big words. But then, Pollack has the dictionaries to back them up.
It wasn't too long ago -- 1997, to be exact -- when Pollack was merely a mild-mannered reporter for the Chicago Reader, the city's primary alternative newspaper. He wanted to move up to the more lucrative field of magazine free-lancing, but despite his Northwestern degree and a facility with the English language, he was having a hard time breaking in.
So "I started writing parodies [of magazine journalism] -- out of loathing and jealousy," he says, and recited them at poetry nights.
It was here that fate stepped in.
One of Pollack's friends knew Dave Eggers, a then-unknown writer who was planning to start a new magazine named McSweeney's. Eggers, who became an "It" writer with his memoir "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," liked Pollack's parodies and asked to run them in McSweeney's. "From there, it just took off," Pollack says.
The parodies nail the high-minded, look-at-me tone of magazine articles and memoirs from the titles alone: "The Albania of My Existence," "I Am Friends with a Working-Class Black Woman," "Portrait of an Andalusian Horse Trainer," "A Country House in the Country."
Another thing that took off was the "Greatest Living American Writer" persona, the lionized, much-honored literary elder statesman who has held the title "across six decades, seven continents, and 10 wives," according to the "Anthology's" back-cover blurb. It continues, "In 1985, Pollack's writing was declared 'beyond our meager standards' by the Swedish Academy."
The real-life Pollack, who's in his early 30s, acknowledges comedic debts to everyone from Woody Allen to "Airplane!" to old National Lampoon books. But it's also just a matter of reading, he says.
"I've been reading my whole life, and not exactly cool things," he says. "The key to parody is knowing the subject. It's the only way it works."
'Things have changed'
Pollack has expanded his empire to include a Web site, www.nealpollack.com ("Tomorrow's Opinions Today," it promises), on which he regularly posts his thoughts. He's used the page to make fun of other bloggers, but noting the wealth of political pundits, he's begun using his site for more politically opinionated fare as well.
He takes issue with the knee-jerk reactions of both left- and right-wing writers, particularly involving the Iraq war. The right wing, he contends, defends Bush administration positions even if they disagree with them, and the left "is cheering for the revolution."
"So many of them seem to sit around and wait for news to break," he says of the political bloggers. "I think a lot of writing has become really vile, on both the left and the right."
Pollack's own site received its highest traffic when he decided to create a Make Fun of the Cheneys Day in response to the second lady's cease-and-desist letter to a satirical page. He included a fictional, deliberately offensive episode involving sex with Lynne Cheney as part of the occasion.
He makes no apologies for pushing the envelope. "If the site is a success," he says, "it's because others have similar feelings [about politics]."
Becoming a successful writer -- if not, necessarily, The Greatest Living American Writer -- has done wonders for Pollack's magazine career. He now has a regular column in Vanity Fair, and he says he'll be moving away from the easy jokes involving the literary persona.
"McSweeney's seems like a long time ago," he says. "Things have changed. I don't have time to do the literary hipster stuff. And the character is very malleable. I'm trying to move it in a different direction."
Perhaps The Greatest Living American Rock Star? Chuck Berry, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan -- watch your back.