-by Ken Plume
Once in a generation, a humorist will step forward whose thinking is so uniquely, sublimely outside of the box that a new box must be hastily constructed - usually out of found materials, since the process must be undertaken with incredible speed or risk losing so gossamer a genius. In this generation, that freak of nature is named John Hodgman, and he has written a book called The Areas Of My Expertise.
Mr. Hodgman is a man of letters (26, to be exact - and he used every last one of them to write this book) and a current guest correspondent on The Daily Show - his past is shrouded in mystery, though it may have involved editing, agenting, writing, and constructing the world’s largest popsicle castle.
Presented in the form of an ersatz almanac, his book is a hilarious journey into the secret Hobo culture (and the list of 700 Hobo names), the American presidents who had hooks for hands, plus little known facts about the 51 U.S. States, Lycanthropic Transformation Timetables (very important), and much, much more. Hodgman writes in an easily accessible, quite matter-of-fact style about matters most surreal - yet disturbingly plausible. Now that it’s available in a newly expanded paperback edition and audiobook form, you have absolutely no excuse not to pick it up. Mr. Hodgman’s family, and his myriad creditors, will thank you.
He is also currently on tour, accompanied by cyber-troubadour Jonathan Coulton. Like The Monkees before them, they could be coming to your town - check for dates at the official website, www.areasofmyexpertise.com.
JOHN HODGMAN: So how are you?
KEN PLUME: I’m doing quite well. I keep hearing all these wonderful things about you from all different contacts I have within the industry.
HODGMAN: Oh, that’s very nice to hear. Glad that’s happening.
KP: So, I can either start with a serious question or an even more serious question.
HODGMAN: I think you should pick the one that you most want the answer to.
KP: Should I be afraid of the hobos, and where are they now?
HODGMAN: Is that the serious question or the more serious question?
KP: I’m really not sure anymore. I think it’s the more serious question in this day and age.
HODGMAN: Well, as you may know, there are still people in the world who ride the rails, and ride box cars… Emulate the hobo lifestyle as it was sort of defined in the early 20th century. But these people are hobo emulators - what we call in the hobo observation business “fauxbos” - instead of the true hobos, who left after 1941. Some believe that, after Pearl Harbor, they gave up their wandering ways and joined the fight against our common enemy, Europe. Others believe that they went to another planet or another dimension. Others think they just simply went underground and are waiting to come back. But that’s not true. Most historians agree that they probably went to another planet.
KP: So they were like the Heaven’s Gate of happy wanderers.
HODGMAN: Yes, but with success.
KP: But will they return? Or have they abandoned us?
HODGMAN: Well, the point of the hobos in my book is that they are unknowable and simply… they represented a sort of subculture that is so far out of the mainstream that they are not understandable to civilized humans like you and me. And so what they might choose to do and what they might not choose to do, it’s really a question that’s impossible to answer. Should we fear them? Well, you know, I would exercise caution if you were to go back in time and see one. Or if they were to come back. You know, a hobo might just as soon sit and stare at you for several hours, or make you a hobo soup out of old soup that they collected for many months. Or they might try to stab you with a needle.
KP: So a hobo is just like my grandmother.
HODGMAN: (laughing) Well, I didn’t want to get into your grandmother, but you know, it’s the elephant in the room. We might as well talk about it.
KP: Yes, well, I’m glad that you’re bringing up all kinds of bad memories now.
KP: Along with the prospect of time travel, which I’m quite intrigued by.
HODGMAN: Yeah, exactly. Time travel’s gonna… I predict it’s gonna be reality.
KP: If we were to extrapolate off the time travel aspect, you certainly had an interesting career prior to launching into writing.
KP: It seems like it’s a certain kind of person that goes into agenting. How would you describe the John Hodgman of, let’s say, even 10 years ago?
HODGMAN: Well, let’s see. This is 2006. In the year 1996 I was working at a literary agency in New York City called Writer’s House, very happily sort of deciding that I would not have to ever bother with actually writing anything myself because that is very… it’s very hard work. Very time consuming, and I could live like a parasite off of other writers by representing their work and being their advocates to the publishing industry. And also, while drinking their blood, also helping them in their careers and editing their works - which is something that I actually get a lot of reward from. In 1996, we did not have the World Wide Web at the office yet, and I had AOL at home. So in many ways my career - as I suspect your career - was at that point impossible. No offense. I mean, maybe you were running Quick Stop in 1996. I don’t know.
KP: Yes, we ran it out of a small kiosk in Red Bank.
HODGMAN: Is that true?
HODGMAN: We had two Apple 2Es connected to each other in the garage.
KP: We would just share news between each other…
HODGMAN: In 1997, which was a more interesting year, we did get the internet at work, and we moved up from DOS - which is what we had been using - to Windows 95, and I found a website for the actor Bruce Campbell, and then my life really began to change. Because Bruce Campbell, who you may know is the star of Evil Dead 1 and 2 and Army of Darkness and several other… uh… B movies, which is a term that he uses proudly, answers all of his own email. And I said, “Would you want to write a book?” Because I was a big fan of Bruce Campbell. And like many things that I was a fan of, I thought I was the one of maybe five or ten or fifteen in the world. But I think what most people discovered when they found the internet was that they unknowingly were members of groups that were much, much larger who wanted to share information about things. Meanwhile, Bruce Campbell emailed me back and said, “I always wanted to write a book about being a B movie actor.”
KP: This would be If Chins Could Kill?
HODGMAN: Yep. And I said, “Great. If you want, I can try to represent it to you, or I could recommend an actual agent…” But Bruce is a very nice guy and let me do it, and I thought I had a big hit on my hands right away. Took a long time to actually sell that book. But when we did, it did turn out to be a great big hit - because that was the lesson of 1997, as far as I was concerned, that there were other people out there in the world who were just waiting to talk to one another about crazy things that they loved. And as a result, I ended up meeting up with a bunch of people who were working on a literary journal and website called McSweeney’s, and began developing a voice in various little writings that I would do for them as a sort of semi-deranged publishing professional. And eventually that became… Well, that was never successful and never made any money, but I began writing for magazines and began having to learn all of a sudden about… very quickly learn about hangover cures and chronic knee pain and the history of vodka and all other sorts of things you need to know. All the other things you need to know when you’re writing front-of-the-book pieces for magazines. Just trying to get a foothold. And pretty soon I decided that I wanted to leave book publishing as an industry and try to write, and that’s when I started writing a column for the McSweeney’s website called “Ask A Former Professional Literary Agent,” where I would dispense advice on publishing as well as on hangover cures and chronic knee pain. And more and more developed a voice that would become the voice of me and the book as you know - a world expert on every subject. Which is really just my voice, the kind of voice that I like to use when I’m talking to people or writing things for myself - but because I had met via technology and good fortune a lot of other people who liked this sort of voice, I could find an audience and develop it.
KP: Was there anything that surprised you in that transition?
HODGMAN: Is there anything that surprised me?
KP: In your transition, now being in the position of those who you had once represented…
HODGMAN: Oh, well, I mean, I was surprised at how quickly I transformed into a desperate, loathsome, needy person.
KP: You were expecting the process to be a lot slower, then…
HODGMAN: Well, yeah, perhaps I expected it to be slower. Perhaps I expected that because I had worked in publishing and I worked with authors, and while I loved them, of course I never wanted to speak to them or deal with them in any way, and their small problems and their desire for money and free lunches and everything else.
KP: So here’s where the hobo fascination comes in…
HODGMAN: Yeah, perhaps. But I ended up being represented by an old colleague of mine from the agency. So this is someone I knew when I was a publishing professional and a respectable person who wore clean clothes and was taken out to lunch. And then I became a client and a writer and the transformation was so complete and, like, awful… I could hear myself become this whining creature of pure need and desire, calling up, “Yeah, this royalty statement is five cents off! I can’t stand for this. And tomorrow I have to take a shower.” I was really aghast at myself, I have to say.
KP: So, when you’re so completely submerged in irony like that, is there any way to pull yourself back up and sort of dust yourself off and realize where you are at that point?
HODGMAN: Where I was at what point?
KP: At the point of which… was there a realization point that, “My god, I’ve become them…”?
HODGMAN: There was probably one particular conversation but I’m sorry that I can’t remember what it was.
KP: You could make it up.
HODGMAN: Yeah, I know I could. But it’s better when it’s true. The thing about my book is that there’s a lot of truth in it. And I would say most of the things… it’s primarily a book of fake trivia, but I never wanted it to be pure absurdist non sequitur. When I was answering questions as “Ask A Former Professional Literary Agent,” someone would ask me questions about chronic knee pain and I would want to know about chronic knee pain before I answered the question, so I could talk about the Patello-Femoral Syndrome. Do you know what I mean? Having a ring of plausibility or even actual plausibility, I think, was what was interesting to me, and then following that plausibility to absurd extents is sort of where I really gained pleasure from it. So I’m actually not very good at making things up. Just sort of coming up with things. Where I feel like I gain pleasure - and this is another area where I would not be able to live without the internet - is coming across some bit of folklore or some weird urban legend on an urban legends page, or some shared cultural memory that I’d forgotten about - about, you know, like Star Blazers from when I was a kid, or whatever - and realizing that people are thinking about this, and then suddenly seeing a joke that I had never thought of.
KP: I think the book wouldn’t work if it didn’t have that solid foundation… That plausibility for absurdity to build upon.
KP: You unfortunately see people who go off on flights of fancy without any ground beneath them, and you really can’t buy into that absurd world they’re trying to build - whereas with your book, instantly when you get into it you realize that there is a solid ground to stand on before you take off.
HODGMAN: Well, I’m glad you feel that way. I’m not surprised to some degree that people have gotten so much pleasure out of the hobo section of the book, because it is crazy. The hobos did not take over the United States government, but I think that there is a…
KP: I could have sworn I saw bindle during the State of the Union.
HODGMAN: Yeah. I saw that too. Turns out it wasn’t a bindle.
KP: It was just a sack
HODGMAN: I think people are fascinated with hobos. I think I’m one of a generation of people who sort of 15… or… yeah, 15 or closer to 20 years ago were in elementary school sort of learning about hobo symbols and just being fascinated by this subculture that seemed to have existed, and does it exist now still…
KP: The section of the book I enjoyed most is the section on the 51 states. Which really is exemplary of that idea you were describing, of the fact that it has to have some grounding in the reality of each of those states for the humor and the absurdity to play off of, or else the joke is lost.
HODGMAN: Yeah, I was just thinking about that, because I spent a lot of time during writing that with an old book called The National Geographic Picture Atlas of our 50 States, which is from the 70s. An old sort of kid’s textbook from the 70s with… let’s see a fact… I have it here. For example, in Ohio, they mine coal, petroleum, stone lime, natural gas, sand and gravel. Sort of general little bits of propaganda for each state. So I spent a lot of time with that and I really found it really funny and fascinating and weird, what states are known for. I think I make a reference to the famous glittering marble mines of West Virginia, and I think not many people are gonna know, except maybe a few people, that West Virginia is the center of the marble industry. I don’t mean marble, but marbles. They make glass marbles for playing with.
KP: It would have been great if that were the case.
HODGMAN: Well it was the case around the time in the late 70s when this book was published. So who knows if that’s gonna ping against someone’s actual experience out there, but…
KP: I’m envisioning this great marble empire of the west.
HODGMAN: Yeah, exactly. And of course, West Virginia with its mines is one of the gateways to the world beneath the earth’s crust and the empire of the mole men, who are going to play a very big role in the second book.
KP: What is the current status of the second book?
HODGMAN: I am beginning to write it. Ideally in about a year it will be written.
KP: Is writing a difficult process for you?
HODGMAN: No, in this case… I find writing to be very anxiety producing for me, which is part of the reason why I tried to avoid it for so long.
KP: Where does that anxiety stem from?
HODGMAN: When I write something, I don’t really know what’s happening. And I never… when I have an idea it suddenly happens, I write it, and if I like it then that’s good. But the moment that it’s over, I can’t remember how I… it seems impossible that I could have had that idea. And not even necessarily a good idea, you know, it just seems… there’s a chemistry in my brain that is a little misaligned, I guess, because it just… the idea of sitting down now just talking about it, sitting down like writing a sentence - like, I don’t know how to do that, and then something just sort of happens and I do it, and then after it’s done like I don’t know who wrote that.
KP: So, creativity for you is a spontaneous process…
HODGMAN: I think it involves a certain amount of auto-hypnosis and a measure of, I think, possession by an ancient prehistoric star-traveling spirit that I call Gobus.
KP: So, in other words, you’re the one who’s been hogging Gobus.
HODGMAN: Yeah, I’ve been hogging Gobus for a long time, and I know…
KP: You bastard.
HODGMAN: Well, he’s no picnic, let me tell you. A lot of people want Gobus, but when he comes in, he eats up all the crackers in the house. And then doesn’t do the dishes. He’s kind of a pain in the ass.
KP: So he’s like John Belushi as “The guest who wouldn’t leave”…
HODGMAN: That would be very nice, but no. More like Jim Belushi.
KP: How did The Daily Show thing come about? Because obviously you were originally a guest in November of last year.
KP: But now you’re a regular contributor…
HODGMAN: Well, I’ve been on a few times and I hope to be on again, though nothing is certain. We seem to all like each other pretty well and I’m a huge fan of the show. So, knock wood, I’ll be back again.
KP: I think it was fascinating comparing your first and second appearance, and seeing the audience’s learning curve in understanding exactly what you were doing with the delivery of the humor. Did it seem that way in the studio, that the audience wasn’t quite sure how to take it?
HODGMAN: Well, no. From my point of view, in all three cases that I’ve been on the show as a guest and the two times sort of contributing, it was all just a complete blur to me, those moments that I was actually on stage. It goes so quickly and it’s so sort of very difficult for the brain to process that you’re actually doing it. Particularly if you’re a fan of the show.
KP: Did they approach you?
HODGMAN: Yeah. I had met the executive producer socially one time, a couple times before I was on the show as a guest. So we had been in touch. We knew each other. He made some very flattering noises about having me back some time to do something on the show. And then all of a sudden he called me on Friday and said, “Can you work up something for Monday on the Iran nuclear capability issue?” And I said, “Okay.” And the next thing I knew, there I was.
KP: That was also on the heels of the thing you did with They Might Be Giants.
HODGMAN: Yeah. ‘Cause They Might Be Giants was also a similarly surreal experience for me because I’ve been a fan since I was a kid of They Might Be Giants, and I had met them through McSweeney’s. McSweeney’s had done an issue with the original CD from They Might Be Giants, and so they had done some joint readings together. At some point in the history of McSweeney’s I got tapped as the occasional emcee of various literary events, so I had this completely surreal experience, for example, of emceeing these They Might Be Giants/McSweeney’s readings in Chicago and London. Just very, very weird. And I remember when we went to London in 2003 to do it at the Barbican, which was this huge house, 1000 seat house that was full, and I could believe it. And my wife came with me, and the morning after the show we’re sitting in this cheesy Euro hotel eating bad three-day-old croissants. My wife, with whom I went to high school, also liked They Might Be Giants. She’s like… just having difficulty understanding that I’m sitting here eating breakfast with They Might Be Giants. It’s very weird. And the whole experience has been like that. Just a very unbelievable adventure.
KP: if you were to pick one thing that’s been the most surreal that you’ve been able to do, what would you point to?
HODGMAN: In life or with regard to the book?
HODGMAN: I think it would had to have been… I think that moment in London, playing at the London Barbican, which is a huge performing arts center in London, and introducing Zadie Smith and Nick Hornby and They Might Be Giants and Arthur Bradford and Dave Eggers. It’s like, “What’s going on? How did this happen?” That was a moment where you felt a learning curve. Then, of course, all those people knowing who I was, and I went out and just started talking about radio attack ads - which is a piece that ended up being in my book - and doing that piece, and I could feel this audience of 1,000 people suddenly get it all at once, and then they really got it and they really liked it. You know, it was very much like writing, actually, because I could not for the life of me write out what it was that I wanted to say on that event. Then two seconds before I went on stage I knew exactly how I wanted to set up the radio attack ads piece. It was like channeling Gobus, you know?
KP: Creatively, where are you most comfortable?
HODGMAN: Creatively? You mean physically in the world?
KP: Or in a creative fashion. Is it writing? Is it being in front of an audience? Where do you feel most at ease and most creative and fulfilled?
HODGMAN: There’s a difference between where I feel most at ease and creatively most fulfilled. I feel most at ease sitting on a couch watching TV or watching a movie or hanging around with some friends. I don’t… the writing is pure dis-ease from then, and the performing as well. But, of course, it is the most creatively fulfilling thing that I could do, because without it, where would I be? I don’t know. I wouldn’t have that memory of going to London, or whatever. Being on The Daily Show…
KP: Is the hurdle higher to sit down and write, or to walk out in front of an audience?
HODGMAN: Um… I’d say they’re about the same. Usually when I’ve gone out to an audience, I’ve already written what it is that I’m gonna say, so, you know, basically what I’m doing is reading dictation from the time traveling spirit known as Gobus, you know? I guess it’s probably… sitting down to write is a little more anxiety producing, but of course there is less concern about your pants falling down, ’cause who cares if that happens when you’re writing.
KP: Well, then it’d just be vaudeville for no one but yourself.
HODGMAN: Right, exactly.
KP: What would you say has been your worst experience writing, and your worst experience performing in front of an audience?
HODGMAN: Well, every experience of writing is my worst.
KP: Is there any writing experience that has actually gone surprisingly easy?
HODGMAN: Yes. This book was a surprisingly easy thing for me to write. It was a surprisingly enjoyable thing for me to write. Even though it was nerve wracking in the same way, and even though each time I would sit down to do it I’m like, “What am I doing? How do I write sentences?” You know, that whole experience. But for the most part it was very enjoyable and I’m very excited to be back involved in writing the next one. So that went well. But otherwise, generally speaking, each time I sit down to write it’s the exact same complete anxiety. Total pancellular anxiety. It makes writing sound very glamorous, I’m sure. My worst experience performing… gosh… I don’t know. There are plenty of things where I feel like I didn’t really get where I wanted to be.
KP: Have you ever walked out and - comparing it to the London experience - where an audience just didn’t click at all?
HODGMAN: Yeah, but I’m not gonna tell you about it! Because I think I feel things much more differently. I’m glad to say that there have been no unparalleled, unquestionable disasters.
KP: So no one’s run you out of town at this point.
HODGMAN: No one’s run me out of town. No one’s, like… my pants have not fallen down, I haven’t completely blown my lines. For the most part I’ve been very lucky in that even if it’s only a few people and that’s happened, you know…
KP: It’s a hell of a night where they all happen at once - you forget your lines, your pants fall down, and then they run you out… which would be very difficult with your pants down.
HODGMAN: Yeah, exactly. I wouldn’t be running, exactly. Well I guess for me it’s probably about as fast as I move anyway. No, I’ve been very lucky that even when the crowds are very small - and that happens fairly frequently on book tours and that sort of thing - people are extremely gracious and nice and responsive. And if they don’t get it, I don’t really blame them. It’s usually because… it has something to do with talking about hobos. Maybe I’m talking about weird esoteric Muppet trivia, for example. I’m sure you’ve experienced, in your life, that not everyone gets it the same way that you do for me.
KP: Are you surprised at all by the attention and the accolades you’ve gotten?
HODGMAN: It is very gratifying and I think that probably, you know, things… books or comedic sensibilities, they have their own audience, and I think for me this book was really gonna… I was gonna work very hard to promote the book and just test to see just how large the audience is out there for deranged fake trivia. And I had sort of steeled myself for the possibility that the audience, while very gracious and people that I like, might not be more than a couple thousand people, you know? And then I was gonna have to sort of, you know, focus on other kinds of writing professionally and keep doing this on the side. So I was very happily surprised in many ways that it seems to touch a diseased part of many more brains than that.
KP: Is there anything about the attention that you regret?
HODGMAN: No. Oh, I’m sorry that the book isn’t longer. One of the jokes of the book was that it was… like the 700 hobo names, it was going to be so massive and comprehensive-seeming as to be almost incomprehensible.
KP: You should have just printed the book twice over and bound it together.
HODGMAN: Yeah, that would have been a way. But you know, instead I decided to write two more and make them all part of the same book.
KP: So when should the next book be out?
HODGMAN: Hopefully it’ll be written by the beginning of next year and then it would come out a year from this fall. More Information Than You Require will come out in 2007. Fall of 2007. One of the things that is important to understand about the three books that will ultimately complete The Complete World Knowledge is that they are not a trilogy in the same way The Lord of the Rings is not a trilogy, but one long novel that is sometimes published in three parts. And similarly, the second book, More Information Than You Require, and the third book, That Is All, will be all part of one complete, deranged whole. And if I have my way, the page numbers of the second book will pick up exactly where the page numbers of this book left off, and so on.
KP: So eventually we’ll see a compendium of all three.
HODGMAN: Yes, and then a “Page a Day” calendar and maybe some themed cruises and lots and lots of matchbooks.
KP: And when will the animated series be premiering?
HODGMAN: I don’t know, you should talk to your friend Jackson Publick about that.
KP: So, now, what can we do with the uranium we were talking about?
HODGMAN: What can we do with it? ‘Cause I’ve got a lot of it here. A lot of enriched uranium.
KP: No one has had, like, a Tupperware party for uranium.
HODGMAN: I know.
KP: Have you thought about that?
HODGMAN: I was thinking about it. You can put me in touch with the world leaders who need it. I’d like to get some of this stuff out of my house, because I need to get my office back, you know what I mean?
KP: I can get you Muppeteers but not world leaders. Although you never know what you can do with a uranium powered Muppet.
HODGMAN: Well, you can entertain some children and then blow them up, I guess. And adults alike. I didn’t mean to limit it.
KP: I know. But back to the book - you know, as soon as I got my hands on it, I called up people and read them portions. It seems like a book that people want to share with other people.
HODGMAN: It’s a book of many, many small portions. It is not designed necessarily to be read from start to finish, but more to be dipped into and appreciated over time, lest you see the underlying con of the whole thing.
Leave a Reply