August 8, 2008

Stray Questions for: Paul Slansky

By Dwight Garner

Paul Slansky’s most recent book is “Idiots, Hypocrites, Demagogues, and More Idiots: Not-So-Great Moments in Modern American Politics.”

What are you working on?

At the moment I’m on a tight deadline to finish a quiz book about political sex scandals, inspired by a quiz I did in The New Yorker. I’ve been researching about a hundred of them and it’s an enormous amount of work, because for each one I’ll start with Wikipedia and within minutes I’ll be on Nexis scrolling a list of three hundred contemporaneous stories, which is where all the really sweet details can be found.

It’s an interesting challenge because they have to be very carefully constructed. I approach all but the most infamous of them with the notion that most readers are going to be unfamiliar with the details, if not with the scandal itself. For every Gary Hart or Larry Craig or Bob Packwood there are a dozen Ken Calverts and Don Sherwoods and Vito Fossellas. So I have to make each one a story in quiz form, unfolding question by question.

As you would expect, the most satisfying ones are those that bring down our most self-righteous moral scolds, who suddenly find themselves in the very gutter they’ve been so smugly looking down on. For schadenfreude aficionados, there was no better time than the autumn of 1998, when no less than six of the most rabid proponents of Clinton’s impeachment had their own affairs and illegitimate kids and lickings of whipped cream off the chests of large-breasted women exposed. If I could see any headline I wanted in the paper tomorrow morning, it would obviously be “Bush and Cheney to Stand Trial for War Crimes at the Hague,” but close behind it would be one reporting a sex scandal involving Joe Lieberman.

How much time – if any – do you spend on the Web? Is it a blessing or a distraction?

I’m on a lot. Not that it’s time wasted, because for most of the things I write, all the material I need is on the Internet. But often I find that I have to stay up until 3 a.m. to get my actual writing done because I’ve spent the whole day on the Web.

I met my wife Liz Dubelman (the founder of VidLit, which produced most of the earliest book trailers for the Web) in January 1994. She was already paying the rent from Web work, while I was in my Hollywood apartment with an old Compaq 286 DOS computer and no Internet connection. I couldn’t imagine how she could prefer to read her news on a screen rather than in a newspaper. I knew I’d never be like that.

And now, of course, I get the whole world on that screen and am thrilled to be able to do so. Everything is there. I can remember a time when I’d have tormented myself if I’d failed to capture on videotape an exquisite moment like McCain’s eight seconds of silence as he scrambled around in his head searching for an answer to a question containing the words birth control and Viagra. Now I just go right to YouTube and watch it. The Web is the ultimate in instant gratification, and now with the iPhone you never have to be without it, you can carry the world in your pocket. And how do these “chips” that are too small to even see do all these incomprehensible things at warp speed? I have no concept whatsoever of how it works or even exists.

I used to have Google News as my home page but switched to the Huffington Post (for which I write occasionally, as I do twice a week for its humor site 23/6) because I trust its editors to keep me updated about everything I’m interested in. I’ve got Amazon, Drudge, eBay, the Onion, Salon, Slate and YouTube on my Google toolbar, and among my thousands of bookmarked favorites are dozens of other sites that I check in with at least once a day. I always have AOL open, because checking to see whose e-mail has just thunked into my box is always a welcome distraction, and I get a running feed from Facebook with all of my friends’ status updates, because they are often among the funniest things I read on any given day. (“Danny in no way meant to imply that he wanted a large piece of space junk to land on Hillary when he said, ‘I hope a large piece of space junk lands on Hillary.’” “Liz is wondering if the enemy of her enemy’s enemy is her friend or has it all just gone too far?” “Nell believes that the growth removed from John McCain’s face is actually a polyp from Karl Rove’s colon.”) As for blogs, there are so many that it would be silly for me to try to list them here. If anyone is interested email me at: paulslansky@gmail.com

The Web is the ultimate blessing – a unified brain, with billions of people’s collective information (and, less happily, disinformation) available to anyone who knows how to look for it. And so, it’s also the ultimate distraction.

Whose books are generally shelved around yours in bookstores? How does it feel to be sitting between them?

Depending on the depth of stock, I might find David Sedaris, Harry Shearer or The Simpsons to my left and Jon Stewart, James Thurber or Calvin Trillin to my right, all of whom I’m happy to be nestled between. At the same time, there’s something frustrating about always being relegated to the humor section. My books are always about politics or current events, but they’re never shelved in those sections. It seems that no matter how serious the subject actually is, if you emphasize the absurd aspects of it, it’s called “humor.” My first book, “The Clothes Have No Emperor,” was a daily chronology of the Reagan era that I described as “history with a bad attitude.” Surely there were thousands of political junkies who would have bought it if they’d known it existed, but unless they were looking for Calvin and Hobbes or Garfield, there’s no way they would have ever stumbled upon it.

But then, how much longer are we even going to have bookstores?