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Jewcy Interviews: Neal Pollack on “Jewball”

It’s difficult to compare anybody to Neal Pollack.  After a solid beginning as a writer for The Chicago Reader, Pollack found the perfect vehicle for his work in the early incarnations of McSweeny’s; soon becoming among the most notable writers that frequented its pages.  In his debut, The Neal Pollack Anthology of Literature, Pollack showed his ability to think outside the box, taking on the voice of a haughty uber-literary narrator named Neal Pollack.  He continued to write books with a more approachable prose style than many of his contemporaries, and placed humor high on his list of priorities.  As a result, Pollack has tempered a unique career that straddles the line between sagacious literary scribe and an off-the-wall humorist.

What’s missing in the Pollack story is a make-or-break moment that catapulted him to fame.  Instead of a being at the right place at the right time, Pollack’s just continued on trucking.  He’s made a career by writing books on the subjects that interest him most–from Yoga to parenting–and by promoting relentlessly. Instead of touring fancy bookstores in the Hamptons and highbrow community centers, Pollack gets the word out via scrappy podcasts like The Sound of Young America and by holding readings at dive bars and punk clubs.  In his newest novel, Jewball, Pollack recounts the Jewish involvement in the inception of American basketball.  Unlike past ventures, however, he’s chosen to go it alone, without a major publishing house behind him. I caught up with Mr. Pollack to discuss Jews, Jewball and more Jews.

First off, have you stuck with the yoga?

Neal Pollack:  I have. It’s a lifelong commitment. My practice is a lot less aggressive than it once was, but I try to do some physical yoga, meditation, or both, six days a week. I also try to practice yoga with a capital Y, meaning I do my best to be nice to people, and to approach my life with an open mind and without attachment to the results of my actions and thoughts. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth the effort.

It’s said that you have a knack for self-promotion, but it seems to me that what you have is a strong DIY sensibility which has become more and more a catalyst for success in the internet age.  What would be your best advice for writers looking to promote a book without big publishing house money behind them?

Target your market specifically. For Jewball, my latest, I’m hitting up indie literary magazines, because they’ve supported me in the past, as well as Jewish press and sports blogs. I’m not after sports magazines, per se–Rick Reilly and Mitch Albom aren’t going to write about this book–but rather the bloggers, people who might actually read me and find me interesting. Maybe it can leak up to the mainstream if people start talking about it. I’ve contacted people I know at mainstream outlets, because you have to just on the off chance, but that’s not where to focus your efforts if you’re doing an indie project.  Just keep plugging away without shame, and (here’s the yoga coming up again), do it without attachment to results. All you can do is try. If your book doesn’t end up as a big hit, well, join the club.

Tell me what went into your decision to publish your new book on your own?  Did your agent have anything to say about it?  Do writers still need agents?

My agent actually encouraged me to self-publish Jewball.  Basically, he said, “I’m interested in seeing how self-publishing works,” and I said, “OK!” While we both liked and believed in the book, neither of us thought I was going to get a decent advance for it from a corporate house, and I didn’t have much faith that it was going to be properly pimped out even if I did get placed under contract.

As to whether or not writers still need agents, I don’t think the answer is 100 percent yes, but I’m not getting rid of mine. It’s very helpful to have someone on the ground in New York who understands trends in the publishing business and who is able to bat for you when needed. Also, agents have contacts in international publishing and in the audio-book world that are unavailable to most writers, who are too busy sitting around in their underwear waiting for the next check to arrive to go out and schmooze. That’s an agent’s job.

Have you now abandoned the old way of publishing?  Do you think you’ll continue to release books this way?

My plan is to keep doing it both ways. For non-fiction books, I think corporate houses are still the way to go because they know how to promote a nonfiction book with a good hook. For high-end literary novelists, which I am not, the system also still works very well. So I’ll stay with my publisher for now when it comes to nonfiction, and, depending on how this self-publishing jag goes, I may stick with it for my novels. If I could just get some momentum, I could make a high four, low five figures a novel. Combined with some freelance writing, that would make for a reasonably sustainable writing career.

Let’s say you were born a bit later and you were now where you were in 2003.  Do you think it’s more difficult for writer than it was a couple years ago?  What’s changed?

If I’d broken through in the age of social media, as opposed to the just-pre-social media era that I occupied at the beginning of my career, I think it would have been easier for me. A book like Never Mind The Pollacks CERTAINLY would have been easier to promote. Back then I was still forming “street teams,” trying to get them to poster my tour cities for me. Such nonsense isn’t as necessary now, thanks to Twitter and the like. That said, the lit game is still about many thousands of people scrambling for very modest reward. It’s as though someone sold a ton of lottery tickets, and the winner got a piece of pie. But it’s a pretty delicious pie, so it’s worth buying the ticket.

Tell me a bit about Jewball, I’ve heard that it’s “the book you’ve wanted to write for years now” why is that?

Jewball is a short, sharp moody genre comedy full of entertaining characters, none of who are named after me. It’s got lots of action, and a great sense of place. I love historical fiction, and love crime fiction, and at last I can say I’ve done it myself.

What kind of research went into writing this book?

I read a lot of books about Jewish cultural history in the 20’s and 30’s, and fewer books, because fewer are available, about Jewish sports in those times. I also did a surprising amount of research into the culture of American homegrown fascist movements, because that history was so bizarre. I watched a great documentary about Jewish hoops called The First Basket, and I read a ton of old-school noir to set the tone of my writing. Also, I relied on a couple of websites about 30s slang and furniture design and pop-culture and the like, because I wanted to get the details right.

There seems to a trend of “Jewish Revenge” stories coming out these days (Munich, Inglorious Basterds, The Debt) does Jewball contain any Jewish Revenge against the Nazis?

It does fit into that genre somewhat, but I wouldn’t say there’s “revenge” involved. Just a lot of fighting. The book takes place in 1937 and 1938, and though I fictionalize some events, and though the Jews often triumph, I’d have to be a foolish person indeed to say that ’38 was a good year for Jewish revenge. Also, the book is 90 percent comedy, so revenge doesn’t come up as much as trying to make good on gambling debts and getting home in time for dinner.

I find it interesting that Jews had anything to do with American Basketball. Where I come from there’s a general prejudice that Jews can’t play sports, did you encounter this type of prejudice growing up?

Everyone knows that “Famous Jewish Sports Legends” pamphlet joke from Airplane. But there’s a tradition of “tough Jew” Americans that often gets swept under the rug, because Jewish sports came from the ghetto, and like so many things from the ghetto, it gradually got surburbanized and intellectualized and forgotten. But Jews created the modern game, just as they played a big role in American baseball, boxing, and wrestling.

By the time I was growing up, in suburban Phoenix in the 70’s and 80’s, there was no concept of the Jew as jock. The Suns did have a center named Joel Kramer, but he was pretty bad. That said, anyone who thinks that Jews aren’t tough or can’t play sports should spend some time in the Israeli Army or doing krav maga. That’ll change their mind fast.

Speaking of prejudices: you’ve lived in a few, very different locales.  In your experience, do Jews differ regionally?  Are LA Jews different from Chicago Jews?  What’s it like being a Jew in Texas?

It’s a matter of whether or not they’re the dominant culture, or at least part of the dominant culture. In L.A., Jews are definitely the elite class, both culturally and economically. In Chicago, they comprise a good part of the intelligentsia, and they have a rich history that people appreciate. Texas, not so much. There are a lot of intermarried couples, and the community is spread out. That’s why we joined a temple. I wanted my son to see that he’s not the only kid in Texas who isn’t named “Major” and who won’t eat barbecue because, as he says, it doesn’t “agree” with him. That said, I don’t think there’s any prejudice against Jews where I live. It’s just not part of daily life like it is elsewhere.

What’s your relationship to your Judaism, have you always strongly identified as Jewish?  Did that change at all after having your first child?

Like Jon Stewart once said, I enjoy Judaism for the “delicious snacks.” I don’t believe in God—there, I said it—but I do love the culture and the intellectual tradition. So I’m a cultural and ethnic Jew, and I think that’s a valid thing to be, and a valid way to approach the tradition. You can lead a seder without actually believing that Moses parted the Red Sea. It’s a major part of my identity, and I’m very proud to be a Jew. I want my son to feel the same way, which is why he’s enrolled in a Hebrew school even though his dad is a yoga-practicing atheist and his mom grew up Presbyterian. Being a Jew gives you a strong sense of identity and cultural grounding, and I’d love for my son to self-identify in that way.

You’ve now been a writer in 3 different disciplines: books, TV, newspapers.   Does strength as a novelist translate to strength as a TV or newspaper writer?  What would you do if you could only do one?

If I had to pick one way to make a living, it would be as a book writer. I’ve written six now, and each one has been immensely fulfilling and satisfying. My dream career would be to write a book a year, supplemented by interesting magazine assignments and the occasional speaking and/or yoga teaching gig. Actually, that’s what I do now, so dream accomplished.

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