Friday, November 4th, 2011

How They Got There: A Conversation With Author Robert Sullivan

Robert Sullivan is almost certainly the only man in the country with a holiday greeting card from Anna Wintour on his fridge and a bestseller about rats on his resume. The former exists because of his 20-year gig as a contributing editor at Vogue; the latter comes as a result of the year he spent observing and chronicling the urban creatures as they lived their lives in an alley near Ground Zero.

In the Brooklyn apartment he shares with his preschool teacher wife and two teenage kids—one who recently took off for college with most of his father's drum set in tow—Sullivan explained how a life spent crisscrossing the country and writing led to cards from Ms. Wintour, discussions about rat sex with Terri Gross, and an "accidental bestseller."

In a couple paragraphs, how did you get here?

I was planning on being a musician, either a world-famous jazz drummer or a completely unknown session drummer. As a result, I ended up reviewing concerts in college, and then I ended up reviewing plays. I thought I should probably be a world-renowned playwright. I somehow got a job as a copyboy at The New York Times in college, thinking that would get me into more plays or something? It was amazing to be at the State Department taking down some comment for the bureau from the Secretary of State or else handing a letter to the Secretary of State for the bureau, and then seeing a version of that on the front page the next day. I had nothing to do with the writing, but I had taken the call from the dissident faction of some government, and the White House reporter used a line. I thought that was so cool.

I got a job in New Jersey out of college covering rural New Jersey and then urban New Jersey. I quit because I heard that freelance writers made a lot of money. That turned out to be bad information. So, I started painting houses, and I got a job fact-checking at Condé Nast Traveler. I would call Bulgaria at odd hours and ask them questions about hotels. It was really fun. Then, I got a job at a magazine called Seven Days. I went around the city writing fun stories. They closed, and I moved with my wife to Oregon where she's from. I pretended I was a foreign correspondent, and I wrote for people in New York. I thought, "Oh, I should write a book about that place I used to hang out in," which was the Meadowlands in New Jersey. I wrote another book about a whale hunt in the Pacific Northwest. Then, I wrote a couple more books. We moved back to New York City in 2000 or 2001. We moved up the river to Hastings-on-Hudson, where I think I wrote another book. We moved back to Brooklyn, and we're here now, right?

You still play the drums?

I still play the drums. I have the snare drum right over there, but my son has most of the set at college.

Is he going to be the famous drummer?

You know, as far as kids and vocation, I just wake up every day and hope they don't become a freelance writer. As I mentioned, I got bad information.

What would you tell your 20-year-old self? Don't be a freelance writer?

You know, William Carlos Williams was a doctor and he wrote. Even [work in] insurance, like [Wallace] Stevens. And then you can write in your spare time.

Was there a moment where you thought you had made it as a writer?

No, I don't think so. Usually I feel as if it's not working out. That's the drive for everything. I don't think I've ever had that moment. I would like to have that moment. That would be good.

You wrote a book called How Not to Get Rich: Or Why Being Bad Off Isn't So Bad. Personal philosophy?

There are roughly 600 copies right in the room next to us.

It was before the Great Recession, and clearly, everybody read it. They didn't buy it. It seems as though they took it out of the library. The whole country took it out of the library, read it, and we went into a Great Recession.

[Laughs] No, it's my favorite book as an object because I did it with a friend, Scott Menchin. He's an amazing artist. We both really like Ben Shahn, and we were both really into this idea in the '40s, '50s, '60s where artists would do a book together. There's a book by E.B. White and James Thurber called Is Sex Necessary? I wondered why people weren't doing more of those types of books. At the same time, I had done a number of books and everything kind of worked out, but there's never enough: college, rent, and all these things you have to pay for. And yet, to put it in a corny way, there's so much great stuff that has happened to you. It felt like a good time to write about how things are really good even though they never work out on a financial end. The best thing about that book is the cover and the pictures. The words are secondary, but I'm so proud to be the secondary part of a primarily good project.

How much do you write every day?

I work on a lot of magazine pieces. I write a lot for Vogue. I'm probably doing something for some piece for them every day. Right now, I'm doing a story for New York that's taking me a long time. I think I wrote 1,000 bad words today for them that will probably have to be re-written. I have this other idea for this other thing that's probably not going to work out. This morning, early, I wrote 1,200 words for that. On Sunday, I was planning to write a lot, but I did not write anything. I think I made notes about what I was going to write, but today I can't find them. If I have a big story due and it's that week, then that might be a 5,000-word piece. But, simultaneously, in my "free-hyphen-lance" life, I have to be working on a book at the same time otherwise I die. There's the Woody Allen line about how a relationship is like a shark and it has to keep moving. Someone recently told me that when sharks mature, they don't have to keep moving. So, I don't know. Do I have to not move anymore? I don't know. Everything is a big question mark for me.

Do you have a formal strategy? Something like your wife go to work and the kid(s) go to school and you start working?

The idea is to get up as early as you can, because nobody calls early. Five and six in the morning, nobody calls.

My formal strategy is some days you just have to go running. You have to give yourself a day off. New York is so expensive and even when you have a cheap apartment, it's still expensive. It's expensive to have kids, but if you don't have kids, it's expensive because you're here or there. There's so much pressure to figure out a way that you forget how valuable days are where you just take the afternoon off and are in New York.

My wife and I went to the American Academy of Artists across from the Met. I'd never ever been there. There's a room in there that's from the early 1900s. It has wood panels and high ceilings. All the walls are covered with paintings. And they are American paintings. I should be in that room every day. I would be a much more productive person if I spent six out of eight hours every day in that room. I can't imagine if I hadn't gone in that room.

A reviewer called you "a mischievous reporter on the universe." Is that a fair description?

Yeah, that's a good one. I should probably stop after that and not write anything else. That's perfect.

You wrote a bestseller about rats. That's pretty awesome.

Yeah, it was an accidental bestseller. That's important to remember.

I think they all are, aren't they?

Rats spelled backwards is "star." So, that's underneath the reason why people bought it. I also used to joke that a lot of people would come to readings and all of a sudden they would leave because they thought it said "cats."

Why did you write Rats?

I had been on this whale hunt, and I had been living up in the Olympic Peninsula. I had been at a reservation with this Native American tribe. They were hunting a whale, and many people were upset with them. They said, "You don't want to hunt a whale. You're Native Americans, and you love nature." At some point during this time, there were a lot of animal-rights groups there. I was with them and they mentioned that they had rats at their office. They said they got an exterminator, and I asked if they exterminated the rats. They had, and I thought, "That's the creature that's the line in the sand as far as what's natural and what's not natural." I love opposites, and I love reverses. I wanted to write a book about these creatures that are not considered natural but write a nature book about them.

The great thing is that this creature is completely associated in its living habits with humans. You get into this excellent place where you can secretly be talking about something else when you're talking about rats. Of course, I was talking about humans and crowds and cities. That's all I want to do. I love when you're writing about something, but you're also writing about something else. That's so hard to get there, but it's always where I'm hoping to be. Maybe twice in my life I've been there.

Any good rat stories?

Actually, I just heard a rat story that falls into a category of rat stories that are new to me. A guy told me he saw a rat in an apartment, his mother's apartment. He set a trap, killed it, and put it into a garbage bag. He took the bag outside and dropped it into the garbage can. As he was walking back inside, he heard a sound, a scratching, and then saw the rat that was killed leaving the can. It's a rat resurrection story, a rat Lazarus! Amazing.

And then about a week or so ago I was running across the Brooklyn Bridge, at about five thirty in the morning, in the dark, and I saw something to my right on the ground in my peripheral vision and then felt a weight on my foot. It was as if I were suddenly carrying something on my foot, in the instep, and then just as suddenly the weight was gone and the gray blur I had seen to my right was out in front of me and then quickly dashing off to my left—a rat that I had accidentally footed. For me, the most amazing part was that I had not interrupted the rat in his straight line across the bridge's path. I did not cause him to deviate. I shouted an obscenity because it scared the crap out of me.

I assume you're excited about writing that book. And I assume your wife is at least pretending she's excited about it. And maybe some friends, but what are your expectations? "I'd like to sell 1,000 copies?" "I'd like to be done with it?" Does that even cross your mind?

Done is a big thing.

When you choose a topic, you think to yourself, "Am I going to be able to live with this idea for a long time?"

In a way, I have all the stories. I'm trying to finish the three or four ideas I've had for a long time. This book about the Revolutionary War, I've been nuts about Colonial encampments. Not in a big way, but I remember covering the reenactment of the Battle of Brooklyn in 2001.

When I went to write Rats, it's something I've been thinking about. I love these places where rats are. And I wonder to myself if I could write a whole book about rats. It would be kind of cool because you'd get to go to some amazing places. There are some pretty interesting landlord tenant disputes about rats. As far as editors go, I'm just trying to keep it interesting. I'm thinking of a couple of friends and my wife. Would she want to read this sentence? Would Dave down the street be at all interested in this? And if I think they would, then it's good.

Still, I imagine talking to Terry Gross about rat sex on NPR was not somewhere that you ever imagined being.

You don't meet her when you're talking to her. And I think that's probably better because I carried a stuffed rat around with me. But yeah, I think that when you have the most fun, when you're the most psyched, then it's not completely surprising that someone else would pick it up as well.

How do you keep that excitement?

Drinking. Mostly I'm drunk. [Laughs] No, I have sort of a problem where I'm over-caffeinated, even without caffeine. Many people ask my family how they can stand it. If you look around, my wife is a teacher and an artist. The Revolutionary War is all over the house. All these quilts [that she made] are all based on ideas in the book. We live with ideas, so I get to see what I'm thinking in a way that I could never imagine because she'll make a quilt.

It sounds incredibly stupid, but it seems as though it's so easy to dig around and find cool stuff about so many topics. There's no shortage. The sky has been amazing for the past two weeks with the fall, the season changing, and the mist coming from Jersey City. I walked down to the water. It's all about finding this year or this two-year's saddle that we're going to put on it. It's all about gearing up to march into the world with a slightly different outfit, but the same direction.

Do you have a skill set that suits that type of job?

I think a better question is, "Do I have a skill set?" [Laughs] I don't think I have a skill set. I think that's why I do this.

The Thoreau You Don't Know. Who came up with that title?

I'm sure it was me under duress. I think it was my editor, too. Titles are really hard. I like really short titles. I like Brown, Black, Rats. Dead is really the title I'm working for. [Laughs] As much as that's a joke, I think that really might be. Rats is pretty close to Dead. Swamp is pretty close to Dead.

Do you have a hard time explaining your job?

My son jokes that everybody goes away, and I'm home with the silk robe, cigar, champagne, big slippers. And that's what I do all day.

It's not fair for me to complain. The really, really, really, really great thing about my job is that I can go out and walk my wife to work. But a goal of mine when I became freelance, which was when Seven Days closed, was that I would go to movies during the day because they are cheaper. I'm not sure I've gone once.

Recently, someone asked me if I wanted to go and I thought, "This is it. Today is going." I was getting kind of desperate. Are we still going? And then all of a sudden, he says, "I don't think I'm going to make it." "What do you mean?" And we didn't go.

In Brendan Gill's book, Here At The New Yorker, there was a page that I used to have when I had a drawer in my desk. It was the definition of 'freelance.' It was: "Free to starve."

But I don't know if I've made that goal.

Who should I talk to next?

Marty Skoble. He is a poet and a dancer (or was a dancer), and is mostly someone I think of as a poetry teacher, an amazing poetry teacher. I think the guy is amazing. An amazing teacher, an amazing teacher of poetry. Teaches little kids, big kids, teaches poets you have heard of. Once a bunch of high school boys walked into a poetry reading he put on, having won their game, and proceeded to read their poems—a poem in itself.

Previously: Artist Duke Riley

Noah Davis is frequently lost.

5 Comments / Post A Comment

Vicky (#7,168)

I'm so glad I get to type this out and capitalize the R because saying it out loud would garner some real looks: I love Rats.

Great interview!

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Inspiring, or at least jealous-making … Rats is an awesome book! — I would like to request a sequel covering the niche in the varmint market that is closest to my heart, Skunks of Upper Manhattan. I am thinking coffee-table format, does that still exist? (Unfortunately 'Skunks' backwards is not very subliminal.)

I like the "How Not To Get Rich" idea. I'll have to buy the book.

pachomiranda (#240,002)

The father of the country finally revealed.
(1750–1816), New Granadan Great Colombian and later Venezuelan generalissimo revolutionist, born in Caracas. Miranda served in the Spanish army as a young man. Charged with defeating the largest British Army yet known in history in the Battle of Mobile, AL in 1781, and financed the Navy commanded by Francisco DeGrass to block the British Navy in the Battle of Yorktown in 1981. Generalissimo Miranda who wanted American help as a form of compensation for his giving of liberty to Americans from the British, to help him liberate the Spanish colonies, was betrayed by the leaders of the American Revolution. Later he went to London, where he tried unsuccessfully to interest the British government in the creation of an independent empire in Spanish colonies, but the British were resentful of Miranda’s actions during the American Revolution and did not want to support any liberation of Spanish colonies. From 1792 to 1798 he served in the army of revolutionary France. After participating in several battles, and saving France from her enemies, Miranda was enshrined in the Arch of Triumph in Paris, but the French would not go to war with Spain to liberate the Spanish Colonies. Neither did Catherine the Great of Russia after Generalissimo Miranda conquered the Crimean from the Turkish Empire and gave her as gift to Catherine who always wanted that Turkish Province and access of her empire to a warm port in the Black Sea. In 1806 he alone, without the support of any European or American led an expedition that attempted successfully to overthrow the Spanish regime in Venezuela. In 1810, on the outbreak of a revolution in that country, Miranda became the commander of the patriotic forces. He defeated the Spanish armies, and in April 1812 became dictator of Venezuela. He was compelled by the continuing betrayal of the leaders of the American Revolution who did not want him recognized as the father of the new country USA, thus wanted him dead, to surrender him to the Spanish royalists after which lived only three months (there is a statue of Miranda in Puerto Rico a the site where the Americans gave him to the Spanish); the Spanish took him from Puerto Rico to Spain where he was imprisoned until his death. Because of his independence for America, he is known globally as El Precursor (“The Forerunner”) or the obstetrician who delivered the new baby empire of America from the bloody British brutish mother country.
De Grass was hired with Francisco's gold to do what he did. No gold, no French pirate would have move a finger to fight for the inglo English speaking yankee pirates. They often fought each other for the Spanish gold.

The brilliant idea of the Yorktown was Francisco’s.

Ever since the discovery or rediscovery? of the Western Hemisphere by the Spaniard in 1492, under the orders of what some consider the person of the second millennium?, Queen Isabel, the lands had been of the then major European Crown, (Spain and Portugal.)

Then, the Spanish and the Portuguese divided the continent. A few centuries later, the Dutch, the French and last but not least, the English participated in the conquest, elimination and or exploitation of the Native Americans. The last two empires that came to the picture, decided to fight for the control of the northern part of the Western Hemisphere.

The cost of the French and English War forced these two rivals to piracy against each other and everybody near them. As a consequence, the colonies were taxed to pay for the war.

The thirteen British colonies used to constant fighting expanded the war from the Indians to the British. Boston, New York, the rebel capital Philadelphia and even the southern colonies of the Carolinas and Georgia fell to the most powerful army of the time, the British.
After the successful campaigns against the Colonial Army and with the support of the southern royalists, African slaves and Indian auxiliaries, the British fell strong enough to attack the Spanish and finish the Spanish presence from the northern continent once and for all. As soon as New Orleans would fall into British hands, the rebels could be surrounded, encircled by way of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The entire northern continent could be ridden from enemy Spanish, French and rebels.

For this purpose, the most formidable British military forces in the Western Hemisphere of the times were assembled. The navy was under the command of Vice-Admiral Parker, and the army under Major General Campbell.

Spain had sent an expendable force to confront her most powerful rival in what appeared to be a hopeless fight. Spain knew that for six years the northern rebels had lost every major battle and city including the southern lands of the thirteen colonies.
Spain’s actions were designed as a delaying tactic while reconstituting its main, elite forces in the colonies of the south.

A non-Spaniard, who commanded a mostly non-Spaniard army, confronted the British. His name was Francisco Miranda. He had been born in the most important Spanish colony, the New Kingdom of Granada. Francisco did not consider himself a Spaniard and like the northern rebels, he considered himself a citizen of a future new, independent country of the entire Western Hemisphere, Colombia.

Generalissimo Miranda’s fight was not the delaying maneuver planned by the Spanish Empire. He thought of liberating the northern portion of the Western Hemisphere from the British and then the southern part of the Western Hemisphere from the Spanish. This fight was, his life’s purpose.He landed with his fellow Creole army on the Island of Santa Rosa near Pensacola on March 3, 1781. The most ferocious fight that the British had seen yet seen since 1770, followed, for two months.

Unexpectedly, the Creoles emerged victorious. The British raised a white flag to ask for a negotiated surrender. Under the terms of capitulation, Pensacola, Mobile, Alabama, and Florida were secured for the Spanish Empire.

Miranda and his army’s intent of liberation made, unknowingly, the most important and decisive contribution to the successful outcome of the revolution. He collected among rebels in the Caribbean 30.000 gold coins and hired the fleet of the French pirate, Francois de Grasse to block the British Fleet in the Chesapeake Bay. The British Navy
was on its way to rescue the British Army that had retreated to Yorktown in the colony of Virginia.

Francisco Miranda and his “tocallo” Francois de Grasse created a window of opportunity offered to Washington for what became, at last, after more than half a dozen years of struggle, the final battle of the revolution.

The British government investigated what had happened. Lord Thomas Pownall, Governor of Trinidad and head of the British secret services for the Western Hemisphere, informed Prime Minister William Pitt, that Francisco Miranda had been the culprit of the decisive victory of the Continental Army and the liberty of the colonies. Overnight Francisco Miranda had become the Founding Father of the Founder Fathers of the new country, a sort of Fabius, the Roman General whose strategy defeated in the Second Punic War the Carthaginian Empire’s armies under the command of Hannibal.

When Francisco Miranda met George Washington in Philadelphia on the 8th and the 9th of December 1783 to discuss the liberation of the Spanish colonies, Washington snubbed and humiliated the Creole Miranda. Washington did not think that the former British colonies had any cultural affinity with the Spanish Kingdoms to become brothers and to form a new country, Colombia, from the entire Western Hemisphere. Miranda did not know that in 1741 when Washington’s elder brother, Lawrence, was playing pirate with the then chief pirate Vernon, Lawrence suffered a humiliating defeat to a Spanish called Blas. Blas blasted Vernon’s flotilla of pirates to oblivion in Cartagena. Lawrence counseled his younger brother George, prior to his death, “do not ever go out to see against the Spaniards. You’ll do better getting rich fighting Indians and owning their lands”. George followed Lawrence advice and became the richest private land owner in the Northern Hemisphere.

Washington’s selfish personal reasons motivated disagreement with Miranda’s dream.
Washington was the wealthiest landowner in Virginia and planned to expand his conquest west to the Ohio territories, without risking what had been gained in another new war with the Spanish Empire, an empire so vast and so powerful at that time, that its global possessions spanned all twenty four of the world’s time-zones. Washigton’s narrow mindedness, ingratitude, jealousy and rigid pragmatism wounded Miranda’s pride and plan of liberating the entire hemisphere. Washington was also getting back to somebody from “Colombia” the same area where decades before his older brother Lawrence had been humiliated in a battle in Cartagena, now a city of Colombia. Washington had nourished a life time hatred to the Spanish and could not distinguish between a former enemy of his brother Lawrence, and a present Colombian friend and allied, Francisco Miranda. Miranda had been the obstetrician who delivered the baby new nation conceived by the Founding Fathers in their mother Congress. Washington could not give back the credit he stole from Francisco of being the Father of the Country. George was following Lawrence’s legacy of piracy but at a higher and more sophisticated level.

Thus, Miranda spent the coldest winter of his life. He left Philadelphia disappointed on January 16, 1784 for New York. There, Miranda met and befriended Alexander Hamilton and discussed with him his plans of liberation for the Spanish colonies and how a type of federalism and financial and economic unity could result in this new country of Colombia. Even though Hamilton sympathized with Miranda, Hamilton joined his commander in chief and agreed with the pragmatism of his decision. Hamilton used Miranda’s idea of federalism and financial structure for the new republic and national bank, with Madison in the new constitution.

The further north Miranda went, the more illustrative the cultural differences became obvious to him. Miranda visited the president of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut on July 25, 1784. He studied and discussed with him the Blue Laws of New Haven dating from 1639 which ordered the observance of the Sabbath under penalty of fines and lashes for any violator who did not attend church on Sunday or who would kiss his wife in public. For an atheist and agnostic, as Miranda was, the Blue Laws were as barbaric as he had ever known. Miranda thought that the revolution would not be complete until such laws were eliminated. The Yale president disagreed.

Miranda continued his journey north in what he described as the dullest period in his life.
He met with Samuel Adams on September 16, 1784 and the President of Harvard University, Dr. James Lloyd on October 18, 1784. Miranda found the usual New England disagreements about hemispheric solidarity with these gentlemen on cultural and political grounds.

Miranda visited Salem, the site of the infamous witch hunts and the lashing of inhabitants for failure to attend church. He found the preacher Murray barbarous, ignorant, racist, when the preacher called for the extermination of Mohammedans, Catholics and the Pope or “antichrist”.

Miranda’s dreams of emancipation for Colombia died among the people of New England with their crass fanaticism, puritanical laws and lack of appreciation for his contribution to their liberties. He had gained a faked acceptance and friendship of the Founding Fathers, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, etc, but not their support, recognition nor appreciation.

Otherwise, the capital of America may well have been named Francisco Miranda. Instead, his name is not found in any street or plaza in the United States. It is necessary to travel to Paris to see his name engraved in the Arc of Triumph among the others who rendered glorious service to Liberty. Interestingly, the neither the name of George Washington nor of any of the “Founding Fathers” above is mentioned in the Arc. After 911, the government of Cesar Chavez gave the city of Philadelphia, a statue of Francisco Miranda, which can be seen today in the Benjamin Franklin Parkway near the Franklin Institute. None of the other forty nine states has any memorial in his name. Puerto Rico has a statute in the same spot where Francisco Miranda was handed to the Spaniards. He never saw liberty again.

The present American Empire borders limit in the Rio Grande, reinforced with a steel wall taller, longer and more powerful than the Berlin Wall, reinforced with police, army, helicopters, coast guard, vigilantes, surveillance cameras etc, and it is not one state to the Patagonia as Francisco dreamed. And a jet trip from coast to coast does not take place from San Francisco to Francisco Miranda, as it could have been. But the “plus ultra”, onwards and upwards and “non-sufficit orbis”, the world is not enough, do apply, economically, politically and militarily in the American Empire of the third millennium.
This information, has been suppressed over two centuries, to the point that even the specialized history professors of the period and the subject have never heard of "Generalissimo Miranda" but the Europeans of the time did know and recognize him as the father of the new country in the far West, Miranda's name still continues engraved in the Arch of Triumph of Paris after all this time..and the name of Colombia he wanted for the new country was only accepted for the district of the capital and maybe other state of South Carolina, a river in the west, and that is about it, of Miranda, the now unknown hero and leader of the new world since his existence.
Chavez wants the Nica sandinistas, all the way south to Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia people to re-integrate the Great Colombia. He gave to the American people a colossal statue of Miranda which is located in the Benjamin Franklin Parkway of Philadelphia PA.

By chance the name FRANCISCO DE MIRANDA, and if the US would have been fair and acted with justice, it would have named its capital Francisco Miranda so the people from Cali, like Arnold, would be flying from San Francisco to Francisco de Miranda DC.
and the 'white house' (named black of non-hispanic origen) in the racist census of 2010 would have been located in Francisco de Miranda, DC. the capital.

Toni (#250,462)

I would love to read more about your experience with TM. Maybe a book that takes us through your journey. I have just been diagnosed with GBS which is very close to TM. I too am very athletic and never got to the respiratory distress stage but my symptoms were exactly like yours, except my diagnosis came 4 days after my hospitalization because I had a young inexperienced neurologist and I didn't present with textbook symptoms i.e. I had use of hands and feet, (could dorsi and plantar flex). I think people would like to read more about neurological disorders such as ours and there aren't many first hand accounts and what to expect when you have a neurological syndrome such as TM or Guillian Barre'.

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