I think trivia is a kind of folklore, little bits of received wisdom about things like George Washington chopping down a cherry tree and not lying about it, for example. That’s not told in schoolbooks because it’s not true; we all know that it’s not true anymore. It was written once -- by Parson Weems in his biography of George Washington, which was largely false and mythological. But now it’s passed down, orally, as a lot of trivia is. And it gets to our brains, and apparently as a species we have a hunger for useless knowledge because we store up a lot of it – so we would have something to talk about at a cocktail party or with a stranger on an airplane.
But generally speaking, I first try to mine all the stuff I’ve packed my brain with over the years, and when that isn’t sufficient, there is the Internet, as that is a great source of dubious scholarship.
Ok, but let’s say that someone at a cocktail party or next to you on a plane says something crazy like, Theodore Roosevelt had a hook for a hand. (p. 299 of ‘More Information Than You Require’) Where would you go to verify that fact?
That is a fact that I obviously made up, so there isn’t a place to verify it other than my book, which should be proof enough.
But, the “Presidents Who have Hooks for Hands” was one of the very first ideas that came to me as a proof of concept list of fake trivia, that encouraged me to write the first book [Areas of My Expertise]. Of course in the new book, I have quite a bit on the United States Presidents because they are all ridiculously eccentric men, and now women as well, deformed by their ambition. And, perhaps, not so deformed that they have a hook for a hand, but there is that sense that once someone starts running for President, you see their physical transformation.
Obama has gone horribly gray compared to where he was just 18 months ago and John McCain – the toll of the campaign trail is clearly visible on his face and constitution. And I think that they enter another place as humans where they become something other than the rest of us. People who run for president seriously and people who become President enter a bizarre secret society in which they have had an experience that none of us will ever have. What better way to show your allegiance to a secret society than to cut off your right hand and replace it with a hook.
We are now in a “truthiness” era of a post-modern version of what are actually facts and you’ve seen it in the political race and all over the Internet. Do you think your book could have succeeded, or even have been written, prior to this informational revolution?
It certainly would not have been written without the Internet for a very practical reason, which is that were it not for the Internet, I most likely would still be a professional literary agent in New York City. The walls are breaking such that we are living in a revolutionary time in all sorts of media, thinking just particularly of writing, if people do not care about money they can write whatever they want and find a worldwide audience for very little investment, without going through the process of finding an agent and finding a publisher. As a result you see much more diversity of voices and forms and kinds of storytelling than you ever did before the Internet.
That’s sort of a philosophical point of view of why I would still be a literary agent, but practically, were it not for the Internet, I never would have discovered Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s, especially McSweeneys.net, which is where I developed this voice of fake authority, in the Ask a Former Professional Literary Agent column that I wrote.
Don’t get me wrong, there has been fake authority for as long as there has been authority. Even just within the realm of comedy, you have Peter Cook’s great character “E.L. Wisty” and you have Professor Irwin Corey.